The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Monkey Ruler (Twitter and Tumblr). They have graciously written an essay on the global nature of Journey to the West adaptations, as well as provided a link to their ongoing project recording JTTW media (fig. 1). As of the publishing of this article, it includes a long list of almost 570 movies, 90 TV shows, and 160 video games! – Jim
Fig. 1 – Depictions of Sun Wukong from adaptations produced over 50 years apart: (left) Havoc in Heaven (Danao tiangong, 大鬧天宮, 1961) and (right) Monkey King: Hero is Back (Xiyouji zhi Dasheng guilai, 西遊記之大聖歸來, lit: “Journey to the West: Return of the Great Sage,” 2015) (larger version). Courtesy of Monkey Ruler.
I. Media adaptations
This started out as a collection of Xiyouji (西遊記; lit: “Journey to the West,” 1592) movies and TV shows for the sake of a Master’s class project; it was simple enough to look for Xiyouji media and start adding them to a collection datasheet. But even when the project was over, I kept finding more and more adaptations, even stumbling across others trying to show the magnitude of how much this novel has encompassed popular culture throughout the centuries. It has been told and re-told again and again in oral and published literature, plays, art, songs, poems, etc., and now on the big and small screens. Audiences are re-introduced to the image of Sun Wukong and his fellow pilgrims with every new media addition.
What really inspired me was the book Transforming Monkey: Adaptations and Representation of a Chinese Epic(2018) by Hongmei Sun, where she explained in depth the cultural impact that Sun Wukong (fig. 2) and Xiyouji has had on Chinese media, as well as how this loose set of franchises have come to represent Chinese culture as these shows and movies have become more globally accessible. Xiyouji is such an iconic cultural universe that it can be both heavily entertaining while still being so personal to audiences of any generation depending on how the artist/writer portrays their interpretation of these characters and their stories.
There hasn’t been a lot written about how these interpretations influence modern Xiyouji adaptations despite how the story has greatly influenced popular culture.
Fig. 2 – The front cover of Transforming Monkey (2018) (larger version).
Xiyouji is such an influential story, one that will continue to grow more and more globally known throughout time because it is such an all-encompassing piece that can cover politics, identities, and allegories, while still being a very personal and interpersonal work that artists or writers can relate to.
However, even with these layers of meaning and symbolism to be found, the story never loses the charming and entertaining aspects that can and have captured audiences. Despite being published over 430 years ago (with a history stretching back even further), Xiyouji is still able to relate to modern audiences through its allegories of oppression, rebellion, and self-identity. It has the capability to resonate with any generation depending on what artists or writers at the time wish to highlight or personally connect with themselves or their current world around them, using Xiyouji as a medium for their own struggles.
As Xiyouji starts to become more and more globally known, it is important to understand and resonate that this is still a Chinese story and how to address further adaptations with cross-nation gaps in both translation and cultural differences. There are media forms that are far more exploitative of the mythical journey, creating impractical scenarios of the narrative and thus changing the message of the story and characters completely. However, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what doesn’t work as Xiyouji adaptations due to the ever-changing zeitgeist in not only its home of origin but introducing it to a global sphere as it adds influence.
In order to see what works for adaptations, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what is the core of the story and just why it remains popular, story-beat or character-wise. For example, Sun Wukong can be used as a great model for positive ambivalence in media, moving away from set limits of a single stereotype and rather being a constant motion of new ideas and new identities. Monkey has been changed from a mischievous monkey to a revolutionary hero to a post-modern rebel against authority throughout the years. But even throughout the constant changes and interpretations, people never lose sight of what the nature of Sun Wukong is: rebelliousness, variability, optimism, and persistence.
Monkey is a transcending character as he is able to mediate contradictions within his own design, one being his gold-banded staff, a symbol of breaking barriers, and his golden filet (fig. 3), a symbol of limits. These two simple but prominent pieces of iconography immediately tell audiences who the character is supposed to be and what they are about.
Fig. 3 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden filet or headband (larger version).
While it is entertaining and able to be enjoyed by younger audiences, Xiyouji still has a deeper meaning that can be interpreted and recognized into adulthood. This is one of the few stories that I imagine can be adapted again and again without the issue of overlap as there are so many ways people can personally connect with these characters.
Having that any generation, anyone really can find enjoyment in this media, and perhaps even be inspired to read the novel itself.
II. Archive link
Please consult the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet linked below. They are listed as “Movie Information,” “Movie Links,” “Honorary Shows,” “Game Information,” “Game Pictures,” “Honorary Games,” and “Sources.” – Jim
“Sage Monk, look at the spot halfway up the sky, shrouded by auspicious luminosity of five colors and a thousand folds of hallowed mists. That’s the tall Spirit Vulture Peak, the holy region of the Buddhist Patriarch” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 343).
W. J. F. Jenner Translation
“Holy monk, do you see the auspicious light of many colors and the richly textured aura in the sky? That is the summit of Vulture Peak, the holy territory of the Lord Buddha” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 4, p. 2250).
So where does the strange name come from? Lopez (1988) explains that the original Sanskrit, Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata, means “mass of vultures peak” (p. 36). The commentary to the Section of the Suttas says that the place was so named “because vultures lived on its peaks [fig. 3], or because the peaks looked like vultures.”  The commentary also alludes to story no. 536 from a famous 5th-century Indian collection of birth stories in which Ānanda is presented as the “king of the vultures, with a following of ten thousand vultures [that] dwelt upon Vulture Peak” (Cowell, 1895, p. 224; Bodhi & Buddhaghosa, 2017, p. 839).
The association of Ānanda with vultures is interesting as the Biography of the Eminent Monk Faxian (Gaoseng Faxian zhuan, 高僧法顯傳, c. 5th-century) gives a related supernatural reason:
Three [li] before you reach the top, there is a cavern in the rocks, facing the south, in which Buddha sat in meditation. Thirty paces to the north-west there is another, where Ânanda was sitting in meditation, when the deva Mâra Piśuna,  having assumed the form of a large vulture, took his place in front of the cavern, and frightened the disciple. Then Buddha, by his mysterious, supernatural power, made a cleft in the rock, introduced his hand, and stroked Ânanda’s shoulder, so that his fear immediately passed away [fig. 4]. The footprints of the bird and the cleft for (Buddha’s) hand are still there, and hence comes the name of ‘The Hill of the Vulture Cavern’ (Faxian & Legge, 1886/1965, p. 83).
Barring the location’s supposed bird-like appearance, the original Sanskrit name and surveyed Buddhist sources give the impression that the peak was home to large numbers of vultures. This association appears to have been embellished in Buddhist stories to include a connection to Ānanda.
Fig. 3 – (Right) An Indian Vulture (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia. Fig. 4 – (Center) Detail of a relief sculpture depicting the Buddha reaching his hand through the rock to calm Ānanda. Take note of the vulture on the top left. (Right) A line drawing of the scene (larger version). From Yungang Cave no. 38, 6th-century. Adapted from Wang, 2005, p. 197.
Journey to the West depicts the Buddha’s realm atop “Vulture Peak” in the western continent. The novel provides several Chinese names, the fanciest of which is “Immortal Mountain of the Spirit Vulture.” This place is in fact a real world holy site in Bihar, India considered a place from which the Enlightened One taught important Buddhist doctrine. The original Sanskrit name and Buddhist sources suggest that the mountain is named for the large number of vultures who supposedly resided there. Buddhist stories would come to associate these birds with Ānanda. For example, one 5th-century Indian source depicts him, in a past life, as the king of 10,000 vultures living on Vulture Peak. A 5th-century Chinese source states that he was terrified by a deva-turned-vulture in order to interrupt his meditation. But he was saved by the reassuring hand of the Buddha.
I was curious as to when the Chinese translation of Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata first appeared. Wang (2005) notes it was used as far back as Dharmarakṣa‘s 286 CE translation of the Lotus Sūtra (p. 194). The holy site is referred to as “Mountain of the Spirit Vulture” (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) at least five times.  I’d like to know if “spirit vulture” is a reference to Māra’s transformation from the story cycle mentioned by Faxian.
I’ve written an article about the location of Laozi’s realm.
1) Bodhi & Buddhaghosa, 2017, p. 903. Lopez (1988) also cites two commentators with the same respective views (p. 36).
2) Legge (Faxian & Legge, 1886/1965) explains: “Piśuna is a name given to Mâra, and signifies ‘sinful just'” (p. 83, n. 2).
3) However, Wang (2005) says that the term appears six times (p. 194).
Bodhi, B., & Buddhaghosa, B. (2017). The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries Paramatthajotikā II and Excerpts from the Niddessa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Buswell, R. E. , & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Faxian, & Legge, J. (1965). A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fâ-Hien of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. New York: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1886)
Lopez, D. S. (1988). The Heart Sūtra explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press.
Wang, E. Y. (2005). Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Wu, C. & Jenner, W. J. F. (2020). Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.
In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.
This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.
The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).
The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.
So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).
The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).
Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).
His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branchshen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).
His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’sNuminous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).
The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬三千五百斤.
He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!
His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.
Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishingkyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwarkyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).
He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).
He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.
Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.
Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.
Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Campany, R. F. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming in Early Medieval China. In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150), University of Hawaii Press.
Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Did you know Sha Wujing can be traced to an obscure Chinese desert spirit who was venerated as a minor Buddhist protector deity in Japan? This god is first mentioned in a 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang, a.k.a. Tripitaka, titled Da TangDaciensi Sanzang Fashi Zhuan (大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳, A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty). According to the text, Xuanzang spilled his surplus of water while in the deserts near Dunhuang, and after several days without drink, he had a fevered dream in which a tall, halberd-wielding spirit chastised him for sleeping instead of continuing his journey to retrieve scriptures from India. The monk immediately awoke and mounted his horse, which took him to an oasis with green grass and fresh water (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 18-19).
I. Close ties with Japan
The Tang Sanzang ji (唐三藏記, Record of the Tang Monk Tripitaka), a book of seemingly unknown date appearing in an 11th-century Japanese collection of tales known as Jōbodai shū (成菩堤集), states Xuanzang was magically provided food and drink by a deva while in the “Flowing Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) desert, a term commonly used for the harsh environment of China’s northwestern region.  The compiler of the Jōbodai shū explains: “This is the reason for the name Spirit of the Deep Sands (Shensha shen, 深沙神)” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). After returning from a pilgrimage to China (838-839), the Japanese Buddhist monk Jōgyō (常曉, d. 865) wrote a report which describes Tripitaka’s fabled exchange with the deity, as well as equates Shensha shen with King Vaiśravaṇa, one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism.  Therefore, the Tang Sanzang ji most likely hails from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Jōbodai shū also states the god manifested itself before the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (法顯, 337-c. 422) during his pilgrimage to India. Shensha shen describes himself thus:
I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).
Monk Jōgyō’s aforementioned 9th-century report on Shensha shen appears to have initiated veneration of the spirit as a Buddhist guardian (no doubt thanks to his association with King Vaiśravaṇa). This deity was at some point given the title Jinja Taishō (深沙大將, “General of the Deep Sands”) and appeared in late Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) period art (Wong, 2002, pp. 61 and 63). One 12th-century ink on paper painting follows the iconography from the Jōbodai shū and depicts his legs with demonic elephant knees and bird-like talons (fig. 1). This same depiction most likely served as the basis for an exquisite wooden statue from the Kamakura period (fig. 2). The god never lost his association with Xuanzang, for one well-known 14th-century painting of the monk depicts him wearing Jinja Taisho’s necklace of skulls (fig. 3 and 4). Another painting of the same period depicts the pair standing on either side of a celestial crowd paying reverence to the Buddha.  It appears to be based on an earlier Chinese Song Dynasty painting (Fig. 5, 6, and 7). Regarding the Japanese image, Wong (2002) notes:
Even though Xuanzang, of human origin, and Shensha shen, a demonic figure, were of low status in the Buddhist hierarchy, they are represented because of their role in the transmission of the Heart Sutra, and become elevated in rank by being shown with the deities and bodhisattvas that protect the sacred text (p. 63).
Fig. 1 – 12th-century Japanese ink on paper painting (larger version); Fig. 2 – 13th to 14th-century Japanese Kamakura wooden statue (larger version); Fig. 3 – Famous 14th-century Kamakura painting of Xuanzang (larger version); Fig. 4 – Detail of the skull necklace (larger version); Fig. 5 – Chinese Song Dynasty painting of the Buddha’s heavenly retinue, including Shensha shen (bottom center left) and Xuanzang (bottom center right) (larger version); Fig 6 – Detail of Shensha shen (larger version); Fig. 7 – Detail of Xuanzang (larger version).
II. Mention in Chinese literature
The concept of Shensha shen was well enough established in China by the 13th-century to be included in the eighth chapter of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the earliest version of Journey to the West. But instead of being a benevolent deity, he is portrayed as a bloodthirsty monster who had several times eaten Xuanzang’s past reincarnations. The demon tells him, “I am the one who devoured you twice before, monk. Slung from my neck are all your dry bones!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). The monster only helps the monk and his retinue cross the “Deep Sands” via a magical golden bridge once he is threatened with heavily retribution. Memorial poems therefore note that Tripitaka releases the spirit from a five hundred-year-long curse, and Pilgrim (Sun Wukong) promises to speak highly of him when they finally meet the Buddha.
Sha Wujing first appears in the 22nd chapter of the final 1592 edition as an ogre-like beast living in the “Flowing Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河), a callback to the similarly named desert from earlier sources .
A head full of tousled and flame-like hair;
A pair of bright, round eyes which shone like lamps;
An indigo face, neither black nor green;
An old dragon’s voice like thunderclap or drum.
He wore a cape of light yellow goose down.
Two strands of white reeds tied around his waist [fig. 8].
Beneath his chin nine skulls were strung and hung;
His hands held an awesome priestly staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 422).
Like The Story, Sha Wujing is persuaded to help the group cross the river, but this time it is after Xuanzang takes him as his third and final disciple (he had previously been pacified and converted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin). The water spirit takes off his skull necklace and, with the aid of a heaven-sent magic gourd, transforms the accoutrements into a boat on which Tripitaka rides to the other side.
III. Origin of Shensha Shen and Sha Wujing’s skull necklace
The skull necklace (Sanskrit: muṇḍamālā) can be tied to Esoteric Buddhism. For instance, the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries, describes the wrathful protector deity Hevajra (fig. 9) wearing such a necklace:
He wields the vajra in the right hand and from his left shoulder hangs the Khatvanga [staff] with a flowing banner, like a sacred thread. He carries in his left hand the kapala [skull cap] full of blood. His necklace is beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads [Fig. 10]. His face is slightly distorted with bare fangs and blood-shot eyes. His brown hair rises upwards and forms into a crown which bears the effigy of Aksobhya [Buddha]. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).
This attire is traceable to that worn by adherents of Heruka, another wrathful deity, as prescribed in the Indian Buddhist Hevajra Tantra (Ch: 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 8th-century): “The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears thebone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin…” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Compare this description with, for example, the Song Dynasty painting of Shensha shen (fig. 6). Many of the elements are present.
Sha Wujing is traceable to an obscure Chinese desert spirit first mentioned in an embellished 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang’s travels. This and later accounts portray him as a benevolent guardian watching over the monk and providing Tripitaka with subsistence on his journey through the harsh “Flowing Sands” desert of northwestern China. The Japanese Monk Jōgyō wrote a 9th-century report in which he mentioned the deity and associated him with King Vaiśravaṇa. This appears to have led to his veneration in Japan, for sources from the 11th-century onward not only provide him with the titles Shensha shen (“Spirit of the Deep Sands”) and Jinja Taisho (“General of the Deep Sands”), but also lay out a prescribed iconography for him. He is generally portrayed in late 12th to 14th-century Japanese art as a fierce warrior with flame-like hair, a necklace of skulls, serpent arm adornments, demonic knees, and (sometimes) bird-like talons.
This spirit appears in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (13th-century), the earliest version of Journey to the West, but is instead portrayed as a bloodthirsty desert demon who revels in having eaten Xuanzang’s last two incarnations. A necklace of dry bones serves as proof of his murderous hobby. He only decides to help the monk pass the Deep Sands when threatened with heavenly retribution. This episode served as the basis for Sha Wujing’s origin in the final 1592 version of the novel. He is similarly portrayed as a flesh-craving, skull necklace-wearing demon. Even his home, the aquatic realm of the “Deep Sands River”, is based on the former’s desert home. But after helping Tripitaka cross the river, Sha Wujing differentiates himself from his literary precursor by serving as the monk’s disciple and stalwart protector.
The skull necklace can be traced to wrathful Esoteric Buddhist deities and their accoutrements. For example, an 11th-century esoteric text describes the deity Hevajra wearing a “necklace…beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads”. This is ultimately based on one of the five kinds of ritual adornments worn by Indian Buddhist yogin adherents of the wrathful deity Heruka during the 8th-century.
1) The original source says “Moving sands” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19 n. 3), but I have changed the wording to conform with that commonly used in various English translations of the tale.
2) Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 19-20. It’s interesting to note that King Vaiśravaṇa influenced another character from Journey to the West, Heavenly King Li Jing. Li Jing (李靖, 571-649) was a historical Tang dynasty general who won many battles in China and Central Asia. Shahar (2013) notes Li was deified after his death, and that the cult centered around him existed into the Song Dynasty. Most importantly, “The general [was] celebrated in a large body of oral and written fiction, which gradually associated him with the Indian god [Vaiśravana].” He continues, “Storytellers and playwrights [eventually] merged the Tang general with the martial Heavenly King” (28). This merging may have happened as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (Shahar & Kieschnick, 2013, p. 224 n. 18).
3) I unfortunately couldn’t find a high res version of this painting. All those I could find were either too blurry or to small for focusing on specific areas for details. The above linked webpage with the Song Dynasty variant includes a low res version of the Japanese painting.
Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.
Shahar, M., & Kieschnick, J. (2013). India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Shahar, M. (2013). Indian mythology and the Chinese imagination: Nezha, Nalakubara, and Krshna. In Meir Shahar and John Kieschnick. India in the Chinese imagination: Myth, religion, and thought (pp 21-45). University of Pennsylvania Press.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wong, D. C. (2002). The making of a saint: Images of Xuanzang in East Asia. Early Medieval China 8, pp. 43-95.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.