Is Sun Wukong FTM Trans?

Note #1: Unless cited here, all information is cited in the respective linked articles below.

Note #2: Please see the 05-19-23 update for an important message.

Last updated: 05-27-2023

Warning: This article contains adult language and content.

The notion that Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is transgender (fig. 1) became popular on English-speaking social media sometime around 2022. The central idea appears to be that the Monkey King, or I should say “Monkey Queen,” was originally born a cis-woman but magically changes to a trans-man sometime after learning the art of transformation. Whether this is true or not has two possible answers:

1) If you or a loved one are trans, identify with Monkey’s ability to transform his body, and choose to personally interpret the character or portions of his story as an allegory for transness, then yes Sun Wukong is trans. 

2) Historically and canonically speaking? No.

In this article, I will present common arguments (A) in favor of a trans Monkey King that I’ve seen on social media. I will also introduce counterarguments (CA) supported by historical oral, published, and pictorial evidence that calls any claims of canonical proof into question. If I don’t have a particular counterargument in mind, I will simply post a comment (C).

Before continuing, I want to expressly state that this piece was written for two kinds of people: 1) Those who might openly claim that Sun Wukong is canonically trans; and 2) Those who don’t know enough about the character’s history or JTTW in general and might be swayed by seemingly knowledgeable online comments. It does not pertain to those who already personally interpret Monkey as trans and/or don’t care about canon because they were first exposed to him via movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, etc.

General readers will certainly find this article interesting as it features a lot of lesser-known historical information about the simian immortal.

Fig. 1 – An accurate Sun Wukong standing in front of the trans flag (larger version). The base drawing is by my friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart). It was originally posted on this article.

1. An Important Statement

If someone claims that the Monkey King appearing in the 1592 edition of JTTW is canonically FTM trans, or they state the novel hints that he is without openly admitting that this is their own personal interpretation, that person, whether they realize it or not, is not telling you the whole truth. I don’t think they are doing this maliciously, though. It’s perfectly natural for people to want to see some of themselves in their favorite heroes. After all, who wouldn’t want to be an immortal rage wizard who can fly around the cosmos, transform into anything, lift mountains, and beat up gods and devils. I can see how it might be attractive to a trans youth to have the power to push back against authorities that wrongly vilify and strip them of their human rights. So, in that sense, I think I understand why the idea of a trans Sun Wukong is so popular. But having said that, I should highlight that anyone who goes beyond an allegorical reading of the novel by touting the reality of Monkey’s transness is either unaware of the character’s historical development or is willfully ignoring it.

2. Arguments and Counterarguments

2.1. Gender Neutral Terms 

A: ta (他; commonly “him”) and wang (王, commonly “king”) [1] are “gender neutral terms” and therefore can be used to refer to Sun Wukong as a cis-woman.

C: These are indeed gender neutral terms in dynastic material. Here are two examples from the 1592 JTTW: 1) Wang (王) appears in the royal title of the “Queen Mother” (Wangmu niangniang, 王母娘娘), the high-ranking Daoist goddess who owns the immortal peach groves; and 2) Ta (他) is used to refer to the female Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音). Part of a descriptive poem in chapter eight reads: “She is the merciful lord of the Potalaka Mountain” (Ta shi Luojiashan shang Cibei zhu, 他是落伽山上慈悲主) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 206).

However, the gender neutral status of these terms do not by themselves constitute evidence that the Monkey King is a cis-woman.

2.2. Matriarchal Primate Society

A: Real world monkey troupes are matriarchal, so it would make more sense for Sun Wukong to be a cis-woman.

CA: Real world biological concepts don’t mesh well with religious mythology. For example, Monkey is born from stone, and he later attains his authority through a test of bravery by jumping through a waterfall. So where does the primate matriarchy fit into this? Also, in chapter 11 of the 13th-century oral version of JTTW (see here and here), Sun’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), explains that, prior to becoming the primate monarch, he had been exiled to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit in the distant past for stealing immortal peaches from the Queen Mother’s heavenly garden (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). It’s important to note that the tale presents him as a supremely ancient immortal, one who has seen the Yellow River dry up nine times (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1182-1183). So, it’s not a stretch to suggest that his position as the Monkey King is related to his divinity. So I ask again: Where does the primate matriarchy fit into this?

Most importantly, mythic stories about male monkey monarchs do exist. Two such characters are Vali/Bali (Sk: वाली) and Sugrīva (Sk: सुग्रीव) from the Hindu epic Rāmāyaṇa (Sk: रामायणम्, c. 5th-century BCE). Another is the Mahākapi (Sk: महाकपि; lit: “Great Monkey,” c. 2nd-century BCE), an Indian Buddhist jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys. One 2,000-year-old carving even depicts him with testicles (fig. 2). These few examples alone challenge the idea that monkey troupes have to be matriarchal in a mythic setting.

In fact, I suggest in this article that the Mahākapi tale influenced the 13th-century oral JTTW in several ways: 1) The Great Monkey is described as the chief of his tribe, and one 3rd-century Chinese version of the story even refers to him as the “Monkey King” (Mihou wang, 獼猴王). This is a likely source for the Monkey Pilgrim’s position as the primate monarch; 2) The Great Monkey leads 80,000 monkeys. The 3rd-century Chinese version changes this number to 500 (wubai, 五百), while the later Monkey Pilgrim leads 84,000 (bawan siqian, 八萬四千). But all three numbers are used in Buddhism to refer to large numbers of things. In the case of the respective Indian and Chinese versions, the 80,000/500 monkeys are said to be the past lives of Buddhist monks. But most importantly, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) is considered shorthand for 84,000 (bawan siqian, 八萬四千), showing a possible connection between the numbers of monkeys in the Indian original and the 13th-century oral JTTW; 3) The Great Monkey and his tribe live in or around a mountainous, fruit-bearing tree. This could be one of several sources for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (see note #4 below for another); and 4) The 3rd-century Chinese version sees the Great Monkey steal from the imperial fruit garden of a human monarch. This could be one of several sources for the Monkey Pilgrim stealing immortal peaches from the Queen Mother’s heavenly garden.

See this article for the many parallels shared between the 1592 Sun Wukong and the historical Buddha.

Fig. 2 – The “Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). He is the uppermost yellow figure reaching for the green tree. Take note of his testicles. The colored and labeled elements are used in my article to describe this “continuous narrative” scene.

2.3. Feminine Title

A: Sun Wukong calls himself the “Handsome Monkey King” (Meihou wang, 美猴王), but the character for handsome, “mei (美),” traditionally means “beautiful.” So, it would make more sense for Monkey to call themself beautiful if they were a cis-woman.

CA: I think that there is a much better explanation. Recall that the 1592 JTTW depicts our hero as an ugly creature. For instance, part of a descriptive poem in chapter 44 reads:

A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing;
A round head and a hairy face jowl-less;
Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly;
He looks more strange than thunder god
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).


In fact, Sun’s association with being ugly goes back centuries. For example, writing in the 1250s, the Song-era poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) used Monkey as a metaphor to describe his own failing appearance:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream,
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou xingzhe [“Monkey Pilgrim”] (emphasis added),
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).


Therefore, the primate monarch definitely is not “handsome” or “beautiful.”

I suggest instead that Sun refers to himself as mei (美) because of his egotistical personality. He is after all an allegory for the Monkey Mind (see the material below figure three here). This same overinflated sense of self leads him to later challenge the primacy of the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝). Monkey’s self-conceit is best illustrated by the rebellious poem that he recites to the Buddha in chapter seven. The latter part reads:

In Divine Mists Hall none should long reside,
For king may follow king in the reign of man.
If might is honor, let them yield to me.
He only is hero who dares to fight and win!”(Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 193).


2.4. Etymology of Surname

A: In chapter one, the Patriarch Subodhi (Puti zushi, 菩提祖師) relies on Monkey’s appearance to derive a surname for them. Some of the etymology mentions feminine concepts, adding support to the idea that Sun Wukong was originally a cis-woman:

The Patriarch laughed and said, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun [猢猻]). This gives me the idea of taking a surname for you from your appearance. I intended to call you by the name Hu [猢]. If I drop the animal radical [犭] from this word, what’s left is a compound made up of the two characters, gu [古] and yue [月]. Gu means aged and yue [“moon”] denotes feminine yin energy [陰], but aged yin cannot reproduce (emphasis added). Therefore, it is better to give you the surname of Sun [猻]. If I drop the animal radical from this word, what we have left is the compound of zi [子] and xi [系]. Zi means a boy and xi means a baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy. So your surname will be ‘Sun’” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115).


CA: Our hero’s association with the surname Sun predates the 1592 JTTW by centuries, appearing as early as an early-Ming JTTW zaju play. Therefore, Subodhi’s etymological breakdown is just an excuse to change husun (猢猻), one of the historical terms for the macaque, into Sun. It’s also an excuse to tie the surname to historical Daoist longevity practices.

Also, Sun has been used since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as a surname for monkeys associated with Buddhist monks. According to the Tang poet Li Shen (李紳, d. 846):

There are many monkeys in the [Lingyin and Tianzhu] monasteries. They are called the Sun group (or the group of Sun, “Sun tuan” [孫團]). They have been reared there for a long time (Shahar, 1992, pp. 202-203).

2.5. Stable Monkeys

A: It was a common historical practice to place female monkeys in horse stables because their menstruation was believed to ward off equine sickness (see my past article for a source). Hence, Sun’s time as the heavenly stable master supports the idea that he was originally a cis-woman.

CA: Just because something influenced a character in a story doesn’t mean that thing and all of its traits become the character. That’s like saying Son Goku is Superman just because Dragon Ball Z-era Akira Toriyama borrowed the “alien sent to earth” element from the Man of Steel’s mythos. But that isn’t the case since each character and their respective stories have definable differences. And it’s the same for the female stable monkeys and Sun Wukong.

After becoming the Bimawen (弼馬溫) (fig. 3), Sun dotingly cares for nearly 1,000 horses day and night, making sure that they are all well-fed, exercised, and rested. At no point does the 1592 JTTW even hint that their health is in any way tied to menstruation. But having said that, I suggest the reason that Monkey gets so upset when people call him Bimawen, what Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates as “BanHorsePlague” (vol. 1, p. 354), is because it references the homophonous term for the historical practice, Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”). Surprisingly, the latter phrase does not appear in the novel.

Fig. 3 – A 2014 stamp featuring a scene from the classic 1960s animation Havoc in Heaven in which Sun Wukong serves as the Bimawen (larger version). Image found here.

3. Final Counterarguments

3.1. Historical Male Depictions

I don’t know of any historical oral, published, or pictorial sources that portray or describe Sun as a cis-woman in their regular form. To my knowledge, he has always been depicted as a cis-man.

I won’t pretend to know the full extent of our hero’s history. But I always strive to learn more about the subject. Just look at the following as a brief survey.

3.1A. Art

The earliest art depicting the aforementioned Monkey Pilgrim shows him as either a simian cleric or soldier accompanying the monk Tripitaka. But I think the best example to present for this discussion is the 13th-century Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving (fig. 4), which portrays him as a muscular, sword-wielding protector deity.

Fig. 4 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version).

3.1B. Oral literature

The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), the aforementioned 13th-century oral version of JTTW, first introduces the Monkey Pilgrim as a “scholar dressed in a white robe” (Baiyi xiucai, 白衣秀才) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). The word translated here as scholar, “xiucai (秀才; lit: “cultivated talent”), was “[f]rom antiquity a categorical rubric under which talented men were nominated to be considered for official appointments” (Hucker, 1985, p. 284). During the Song dynasty (960-1279), when this tale was first recorded, the xiucai was an informal term for candidates of the metropolitan-level exams (Hucker, 1985, p. 284). That is to say they were educated commoners who had yet to receive an official office. Dudbridge (1970) suggests that disguising oneself as a traveling, white-robed scholar would have then “conferr[ed] anonymity on the wearer” (p. 32). [2] This means that Monkey is likely using the disguise to walk among mortals without them realizing his divine nature.

Dudbridge (1970) also notes that this disguise was used by male characters in later published media (p. 32 n. 1). These examples instead use “xiushi” (秀士; lit: “cultivated scholar”). For instance, in chapter 81 of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400), a literary version of Song Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) dresses this way in order to meet in secret with his favorite sex worker: 

Accompanied by a young eunuch, the sovereign arrived through the secret tunnel at the rear door of the courtesan’s house. He was dressed in the white garb of a scholar (emphasis added) (Shi & Luo, 1993/2021b, p.1715).

只見道君皇帝引着一個小黃門,扮做白衣秀士,從地道中逕到李師師家後門來。(Shi & Luo, 1975/2021b, p. 1104)

The male disguise even carried over into the 1592 JTTW. For example, in chapter ten, the Dragon King of the Jing River (Jinghe Longwang, 涇河龍王) takes on such a form to investigate a fortune teller with dangerously accurate predictions that threaten the fish of his kingdom: 

[H]e abandoned his sword and dismissed the clouds and the rains. Reaching the river bank, he shook his body and changed into a white-robed scholar (emphasis added) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 239).

龍王 … 遂棄寶劍,也不興雲雨,出岸上,搖身一變,變作一個白衣秀士)

3.1C. Zaju play

The early-Ming Journey to the West zaju play (Xiyou ji zaju, 西遊記雜劇) contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the 1592 JTTW. [3] But despite these parallels, there are many interesting differences. For example, in act nine (of 24), Sun Wukong is said to be the brother of several divine siblings:

We are five brothers and sisters: my older sister is the Venerable Mother of Mount Li, my younger sister is the Holy Mother Wuzhiqi, my older brother is the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, I myself am the Great Sage Reaching Heaven (emphasis added), and my younger brother is the Third Son Shuashua (based on Dudbridge, 1970, p. 110).


(That’s right! The play refers to Monkey as the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” instead of “… Equaling Heaven.”)

He also has a wife, a princess whom he had kidnapped from the “Country of the Golden Cauldron” (Jinding guo, 金鼎國) (Ning, 1986, pp. 63-66). This portion of the play draws directly from a genre of Han to Song-era tales in which magic apes kidnap young maidens in order to rape and impregnate them. [4]

The most apparent differences are the addition of bawdy elements like sex, cursing, and dirty jokes by the author, the 15th-century Mongol playwright Yang Jingxian (杨景賢). For instance, act 18 sees the pilgrims travel through the famous Woman Kingdom, where Sun, Zhu, and Sha all fall prey to temptations of the flesh. But whereas the latter two are successful in their sexual ventures, poor Monkey is struck by a bout of erectile dysfunction caused by the painful constricting of his headband:

Master, listen and I’ll tell you. There I was pinned down by a woman. My lustful nature was about to come forth, when suddenly the iron hoop on my head tightened, and the joints and bones up and down my whole body began to ache. The throbbing conjured up a bunch of vegetable names in my brain.

My head hurt so my hair stood up like radish-tops, my face turned as green as smartweed sprouts, my sweat beaded up like the moisture on an eggplant soaked in sauce, and my cock fell as limp as a salted cucumber (emphasis added). When she saw me looking for all the world like chives sizzling in hot oil, she came around, suppressed her itch and set me free (Ning, 1986, pp. 138-139).


(Notice that ta (他) is used in the quote above to refer to the girl. Refer back to section 2.1 for a reminder of the significance.)

Later in act 19, Monkey attempts to seduce Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 鐵扇公主) in order to gain access to her magic Banana leaf fan. Sun does this by reciting a poem in which he makes a veiled allusion to his penis being the right size for her vagina:

The disciple’s not too shallow,
the woman’s not too deep (emphasis added).
You and I, let’s each put forth an item,
and make a little demon
(Ning, 1986, p. 141).


When this plan fails and the Princess threatens him with her sword, Sun angrily explains that the supernatural durability of his body and penis renders him impervious to physical harm:

Why this lowdown wench has no manners at all! I am the Lord of the Crimson Cloud Cavern, the Great Sage [Reaching Heaven]! I plundered Laozi’s gold Pill of Immortality, and have endured so many alchemical transformations that my muscles are brass, my bones iron, my eyes fire, my pupils gold, my asshole lead and my prick is pewter. Why should I fear a steel [sword] slicing off my pizzle? (emphasis added) (Ning, 1986, p. 142).


I want to highlight that this play did not influence the story cycle; it only reflects characters and episodes that were common to the cycle at that time. The bawdy elements were solely added to spice up the tale, making it more entertaining for zaju audiences. Therefore, this sex-crazed, dirty-mouthed version of the Monkey King should be considered a separate entity from his counterpart in the 1592 JTTW. However, I have included him here because the play clearly establishes that the character is a cis-man.

3.1D. Other Published Literature

A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640) is an unofficial sequel to the 1592 JTTW with a trippy, time-jumping story that mentions Sun Wukong fathering children with a woman. The first reference to his offspring appears in chapter 13 when actors in a royal play describe an alternate timeline where our hero had settled down:

His wife is so beautiful, his five sons so dashing. He started out as a monk, but came to such a good end! Such a very good end! (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 114).


Later, in chapter 15, Monkey meets one of these sons, King Pāramitā (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王), on the battlefield. This general recounts his family history to the stranger, revealing that, although he’s never met his father (jiafu, 家父), he’s the son of the Great Sage and the Rakshasi (Luocha nu, 羅剎女), Princess Iron Fan (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, pp. 123-124). In addition, he suggests that he was conceived during an event from chapter 59 of the original novel: 

[Sun Wukong] changed into a tiny insect and entered my mother’s belly. He stayed there a while and caused her no end of agony. When my mother could no longer bear the pain, she had no choice but to give the Banana-leaf Fan to my father, Monkey. [5] When my father, Monkey, got the Banana-leaf Fan, he cooled the inferno at Flaming Mountain and left. In the fifth month of the next year, my mother suddenly gave birth to me, King Pāramitā. Day by day I grew older and more intelligent. If you think about it, since my uncle [the Bull Demon King] and mother had never been together, and I was born after my father, Monkey, had been inside my mother’s belly, the fact that I am his direct descendant is beyond dispute (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 124).


It should be evident from the examples presented above that the Monkey King was portrayed or described in his regular form as a cis-man throughout the long course of his character development.

This by itself should put the idea of a canonically trans Sun Wukong to rest, but there is one more counterargument that I think is even stronger.

3.2. Spiritual Gender Transitions in Buddhism

Buddhist literature actually includes instances of girls or women transforming into men upon enlightenment or rebirth. [6] The former is best exemplified by the “Dragon Girl” (Longnu, 龍女) from chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra (Miaofa lianhua jing, 妙法蓮華經; a.k.a. Fahua jing, 法華經, c. 3rd-century) (fig. 5), a work mentioned in the 1592 JTTW six times. She is first introduced to an assembly of Buddhist deities as the eight-year old daughter of the Dragon King Sāgara (Suojieluo longwang, 娑竭羅龍王) and one of an unfathomable number of dragonfolk enlightened by the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī’s (Wenshu shili, 文殊師利) lessons on the Lotus Sutra. Her teacher describes her as a great student prodigy with a deep knowledge of Buddhist Law, as well as having many advanced spiritual achievements. But this upsets some among the assembly because the notion of a young girl approaching Buddhahood so quickly flies in the face of convention, which normally calls for untold aeons of severe austerities before one can achieve awakening. Her accomplishments are called into question at first, but everyone is appeased when she offers a priceless jewel to the Buddha, and he quickly accepts it as a symbolic gesture. Then:

The girl said [to the assembly], “Employ your supernatural powers and watch me attain Buddhahood. It will be even quicker than that!” 

At that time the members of the assembly all saw the dragon girl in the space of an instant change into a man (emphasis added) and carry out all the practices of a bodhisattva, immediately proceeding to the spotless World of the south, taking a seat on a jeweled lotus, and attaining impartial and correct enlightenment. With the thirty-two features and the eighty characteristics [of a Buddha], he expounded the wonderful Law for all living beings everywhere in the ten directions (Watson, 1993, p. 188). [7]



This kind of spiritual gender transition was certainly known to the host of historical oral storytellers [8] and author-compilers who contributed to the formation of the novel due to their vast shared knowledge of Buddhist and Daoist religion and lore.

Therefore, if the Sun Wukong from the 1592 JTTW was originally intended to be trans, he would have been OPENLY portrayed as such, without the need for subtle hints, due to scriptural precedent. And the fact that he wasn’t makes this what I consider to be the most damning argument against a canonically trans Sun Wukong.

Fig. 5 – A frontispiece to a Song-era edition of the Lotus Sutra (larger version). Image found here.

4. Final Thoughts

I hope that anyone unfamiliar with the Monkey King’s history can now make an informed judgement about online comments making claims about his gender.

And for those who still might want to go beyond an allegorical reading of the novel, you need to answer two questions:

  1. Why did the 1592 JTTW hint that Sun Wukong is FTM trans despite him being depicted as a cis-man for centuries?
  2. Why were said hints used in place of scriptural examples of spiritual gender transition?

Answering these questions will require evidence, not an interpretation. I’m honestly not sure what that evidence would be since the evidence against it is so overwhelming. 

I would be willing to accept the “possibility” of a trans Sun Wukong, though, if anyone can find an analysis of the character by a pre-20th-century Chinese literary critic expounding the same view. Please do not misinterpret this as me saying that there were no trans people prior to the 20th-century. I’m sure there have been many throughout history, and I’m sure the terms applied to or used by them in the past were wildly different from the ones used today. But without some kind of historical support, the reality of a canonically trans Monkey King, beyond a personal interpretation, is nothing more than a wish. 

Update: 05-19-2023

It’s recently come to my attention that this article has upset some people, namely those who are aware of the Monkey King’s worship and those who disagree with the concept of transgender people. The first group needs to understand that, while a religious figure, Sun Wukong is far more widely known around the world as a literary figure. And since people primarily view him as a fictional character—one who is in the public domain, in fact—they are free to interpret the simian immortal however they see fit. This means that both the Monkey God and the literary Monkey King should be viewed as two separate entities.

For the second group, the trans identity is outside my area of research and personal experience. Therefore, I can’t really say anything about the subject that would affect your point of view. My advice would be to ignore political pundits and instead start a dialogue with someone in the trans community to understand their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

I’ve also learned that my article has apparently been weaponized by some on discord in an attempt to invalidate the views of trans individuals who identify with Sun Wukong. I don’t like that my work is being used to harass people. I want to make it clear that this article was not written to attack the trans community. It was solely made to place Monkey in his correct historical context. My first concern as a student of JTTW is that the history of the novel and its characters are presented accurately. But I am fully aware that perceptions of popular characters can and do evolve over time. That’s why I mentioned in the opening that viewing Sun as trans is perfectly fine as long as it’s clear that this is a personal interpretation. So, if you are a trans person and some troll presents my article as proof that your personal allegory is wrong, please have the confidence to tell them, “off you fuck.”

Update: 05-27-23

I found this lovely drawing of the Dragon Girl online (fig. 6). The image depicts her at the moment when she hands the Buddha the priceless jewel, just prior to transforming into a man.

Fig. 6 – A drawing of the Dragon Girl and the priceless jewel (larger version). Image found here.


1) One of the suggested earliest meanings for wang (王) is “big man,” and it was used as a title by the tribal chieftains that would evolve into Chinese emperors (Qi, 1991).  

2) Yes, I am aware that Dudbridge (1970) also associates white robes with female demons (p. 32 n. 3). However, the Monkey Pilgrim is expressly associated with the white clothing of the historically male xiucai scholar candidates.

3) These similar episodes include the reincarnation of a heavenly being as Tripitaka, the murder of his father, Sun Wukong stealing immortal peaches from heaven and eventually being imprisoned under a mountain, his punishment with the restricting headband, the subjugation of Zhu Bajie (here and here) and Sha Wujing, the addition of a royal dragon-turned-white horse, the ordeal at Fire Mountain, the Country of Women, etc. This shows that the centuries-old story cycle was starting to become standardized by the 14th or 15th-century.

4) One example is “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong Baiyuan Zhuan, 補江總白猿傳, c. late-7th-century). In the story, a general’s young wife is kidnapped by a mysterious force, but he and his soldiers later find her living among a large harem of women in a mountain paradise. They tell the commander that their captor is a magic white ape who uses them night after night to fuel his Daoist sexual alchemy. The women also warn him and his men that they are no match for the beast’s great power, so the captives devise a plan that eventually leads to the primate’s death. In the end, the general learns that his wife is pregnant with the spirit’s child. 

What’s interesting for the purposes of this blog is that the titular white ape shares many surprising parallels with the Sun Wukong from the 1592 JTTW. Both: 

  • Are supernatural primates possessed of human speech. 
  • Are one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts. 
  • Are masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance. 
  • Are warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army. 
  • Have a fondness for armed martial arts. 
  • Have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them. 
  • Have eyes that flash like lightning. 
  • Live in verdant mountain paradises (like the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit). 
  • Reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave). 

5) See Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129.

6) An example of the latter appears in Chapter 23 of the Lotus Sutra. Women are promised a male rebirth in paradise for having heard and practiced the scripture (Watson, 1993, pp. 287-288).

7) For the Dragon Girl’s story, see Watson, 1993, pp. 187-189.

8) The Lotus Sutra, which contains the story of the Dragon Girl, is given prominence in the 13th-century oral JTTW. It is painted as an important scripture, one even hailed in heaven. Chapter three sees the monk Tripitaka (referred to here by his historical name Xuanzang) give a detailed lecture on the sacred text:

The arhats said: “We thank the Master for coming to the [heavenly] palace today. Does the master excel in explaining sutras?” Xuanzang replied: “If it is a sutra, I can explain it. If it is not, I do not.” “Can you explain the Lotus Sutra?” the arhat asked. Xuanzang replied: “That’s easy.” (emphasis added)

Thereupon the five hundred arhats, the [king of heaven] Mahabrahma Devaraja, and in all a company of over a thousand gathered to listen to the sutra. Xuanzang recited flawlessly without pausing for breath. Like pouring water from a vase, he clarified the obscurities of the text (emphasis added). Everyone praised his marvelous delivery (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).



Dong, Y., Lin, S. F., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hucker, C. O. (1985). A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. Taipei: SMC Publishing Inc.

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju (UMI No. 8612591) [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.

Qi, W. (1991). An Inquiry into the Original Meaning of the Chinese Character for King (wang). Chinese Studies in History, 25(2), 3-16, DOI: 10.2753/CSH0009-463325023

Shahar, M. (1992). The Lingyin Si Monkey Disciples and The Origins of Sun Wukong. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 52(1), 193-224.

Shi, N., & Luo, G. (2021a). Shuihu zhuan (shang, zhong, xia) [Tale of the Water Margin (Vols. 1-3)]. Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe. (Original work published 1975)

Shi, N., & Luo, G. (2021b). Outlaws of the Marsh (Vols. 1-4) (S. Shapiro, Trans.). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)

Watson, B. (Trans.) (1993). The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Buddha’s Vulture Peak and Journey to the West

Last updated: 02-28-2023

According to Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), the Buddha’s realm (fig. 1) is located in the Western Cattle-Gift Continent (i.e. India) atop “Vulture Peak.” For example, in chapter 98, an immortal tells Tripitaka:

Anthony C. Yu Translation

“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).


Fig. 1 – The Buddha’s realm (larger version). Found randomly on the internet. Artist unknown.

1. Various Names

The novel provides several Chinese names for this hallowed place:

  • Jiufeng (鷲峰) – “Vulture Peak”
  • Jiuling (鷲嶺) – “Vulture Ridge”
  • Lingjiu xianshan (靈鷲仙山) – “Immortal Mountain of the Spirit Vulture” (the fanciest in my opinion)
  • Lingjiu feng (靈鷲峰) – “Peak of the Spirit Vulture”
  • Lingjiu gaofeng (靈鷲高峰) – “Tall Peak of the Spirit Vulture”

2. Real World Location

Vulture Peak (Sk: Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata, गृद्धकूट; Ch: Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山; Qidujue shan, 耆闍崛山) is a Buddhist holy site located around the ancient city of Rājagṛaha (modern day Nalanda District, Bihar, India) (fig. 2). It was often visited by the historical Buddha and his disciples. Various traditions believe it to be the site from which the Enlightened One delivered some of his most important teachings, including those from the Nikāyas and Āgamas (Theravāda), as well as the Heart Sūtra and the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras (Mahāyāna). The Japanese Nichiren-shū sect even considers it a Buddhist paradise (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 327).

Fig. 2 – A modern day picture of Vulture Peak (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

3. Religious Etymology

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.” [1] 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, [2] 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 WikipediaFig. 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.

4. Conclusion

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.

Update: 02-12-23

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. [3] I’d like to know if “spirit vulture” is a reference to Māra’s transformation from the story cycle mentioned by Faxian.

Update: 02-28-23

I’ve written an article about the location of Laozi’s realm.

Laozi’s Realm in Journey to the West


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.

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (Vol. 5). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

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.

A Survey of Sun Wukong’s Magic “Immortal Breath” and Its Abilities

I’ve previously written an article in which I detail the origins of the Monkey King’s magic hair. He first exhibits the ability to transform his hair in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592):

Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces and then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129).

拔一把毫毛,丟在口中嚼碎,望空噴去,叫一聲:「變!」即變做三、二百個小猴,週圍攢簇。 原來人得仙體,出神變化無方。不知這猴王自從了道之後,身上有八萬四千毛羽,根根能變,應物隨心。

This tactic of transforming chewed up hairs into dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of monkey clones also appears in chapters 3, 5, 21, 35, 44, 86, and 90 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 132, 165, 172, & 409; vol. 2, pp. 138 & 277; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, pp. 164-165, 168, 219, & 221). But these chewed up hairs can also be transformed into other objects, such as sleep-inducing bugs in chapters 5 and 86, as well as seven kinds of hawks in chapter 72 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 165; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, p. 168).

But the novel states that Sun sometimes changes his hair by first blowing on it with his magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣). This article will provide a brief survey of this skill and its abilities.

I. Hair

Explicit mentions of the immortal breath show that it can transform hair into:

  • Ink-soaked brush to write on the Buddha’s hand (ch. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 195).
  • Dagger to skin a tiger (ch. 14) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
  • Three-ply hemp rope to tie up Zhu Bajie (ch. 19) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 385).
  • Duplicates of the Monkey King (fig. 1) (ch. 25, 27, 45, 73, 77, 84, 85, & 94) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465; vol. 2, p. 27, 129, & 292; vol. 3, p. 340; vol. 4, pp. 20, 139, 151, & 293).
  • Copper coin to pay for paper (ch. 33) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 117-118).
  • Fake lesser demons (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 122).
  • Yellow-gold rope to replace a magical weapon of the same name (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 130).
  • Gold-plated, red lacquered box to hold a white jade token (ch. 37) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 169).
  • Wrapper to infiltrate a demon’s lair (ch. 41) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 235-236).
  • Yellow hound to carry away a bogus immortal’s decapitated head (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 308).
  • Hungry hawk to eat a bogus immortal’s entrails (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 310).
  • Group of 30 tigers to scare away monks (ch. 64) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 194).
  • Sleep-inducing insects and lice, fleas, and bedbugs (ch. 71 (A & B) & 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 303 & 304; vol. 4, p. 139).
  • Gold-headed fly to scare a demon king (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 366).
  • Bow drill (comprised of a diamond bit, a bamboo strip, and a cotton string) to drill out of a dangerous magic treasure (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369).
  • Very thin but long rope to climb out of a monster’s stomach (ch. 76) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 3).
  • Thirty ropes for tying up bandits (ch. 97) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 328).

It should be noted, however, that the novel is very inconsistent regarding this ability. The immortal breath is not always used; Sun often just commands the hair to transform or changes it without saying anything, such as in chapters 4, 33, 34 (A, B, & C), 42, 46, 49, 51, 59, 65, 68, 71, and 74 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156; vol. 2, p. 115, 124-125, 237, 301, 305, & 345-346; vol. 3, p. 13, 120, 216, 269, 305, & 358). The “chewing” and “spitting out” of the hair is another example (see above). But one might argue that spitting requires a build of air in the lungs, so by extension, the immortal breath is being used.

This inconsistency is probably due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, some story tellers likely employed the immortal breath, while others did not.

sc137582 - small

Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).

II. Staff

This immortal breath is also shown capable of transforming the magic iron staff (fig. 2).

  • Steel file to file through a magic golden ring pinning Monkey’s neck to a column (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 129).
  • Razor to mutilate two lesser demons (ch. 63) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 180).
  • Flag pole to make a pair of magic cymbals stand upright (ch. 65) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 216).
  • Seventy forked weapons to cut the threads of supernatural spider webs (ch. 73) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 340).
  • Nail to prop open a demon’s mouth while Monkey climbs out of their stomach (ch. 83) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 113).
  • Three-pointed drill to make a covert hole in a wardrobe (ch. 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 139).

As noted above, the novel is inconsistent in this regard. For instance, Monkey changes the staff into a steel drill without blowing on it in chapter 65 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218). Likewise, no breath is used in chapters 46 and 84 when Sun transforms the weapon into razors for shaving heads (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305; vol. 4, p. 139).

Fig. 2 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar that will become his iron staff (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).

III. Miscellaneous 

Monkey can also transform items not in contact with his body. For instance, in chapter 46, he changes a Daoist lad’s clothing from a spring onion white robe into a brown monk’s robe (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In chapter 78, Sun transforms Tripitaka into his likeness using a mask made from mud:

Pilgrim, too, had little alternative but to flatten the mud and press it on his own face and, after a little while, succeeded in making an apelike mask. Asking the Tang Monk to stand up but without uttering another word, Pilgrim pasted the mask on his master’s face and recited a magic spell. He then blew his immortal breath onto the mask, crying, “Change!” At once the elder took on the appearance of Pilgrim. He was told to take off his own garments and switch clothes with Pilgrim, who made the magic sign and then recited another spell to change into the form of the Tang Monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 47).


Again, the novel is inconsistent regarding external objects. Sometimes Monkey bights his tongue and spits blood out to change said item, such as in chapter 25 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 474-475 & 477; vol. 2, p. 303). [1-2] But, again, one could argue that the immortal breath is used as spitting requires a build-up of air in the lungs.

IV. Special abilities 

The immortal breath (fig. 3) is also shown to have other special abilities. For instance, in chapter 46, Monkey uses it to heal a gaping wound in his stomach:

With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).


The novel implies that Sun’s immortal breath also has the ability to manipulate souls. For example, in chapter 88, Sun uses it in an arcane ritual designed to bestow three human disciples with super human strength. The pertinent section reads:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits [yuanshen, 元神] were thus restored to their original abodes …

行者才教三個王子都在暴紗亭後,靜室之間,畫了罡斗。教三人都俯伏在內,一個個瞑目寧神。這裡卻暗暗念動真言,誦動咒語,將仙氣吹入他三人心腹之中,把元神收歸本舍 。。。

The term “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神) is commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, it is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008). This suggests that Monkey’s immortal breath also grants the disciples some form of immortality. You can read about the entire ritual here.

Fig. 3 – A vapor blowing smoke (larger version). Image found here. Photographer unknown. I imagine this is what the immortal breath would look like.

And in chapter 97, Sun uses the immortal breath to transform an old man’s soul into “ether” for easy transport back to the world of the living:

Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether [qi, 氣] by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave [Hell] and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house. Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] was told to pry open the lid of the coffin, and the soul of the squire was pushed into his body. In a moment, he began to breathe once more and revived (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 339).


The phrase “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) is missing in the original Chinese, but the ability’s use is understood as the passage mentions Monkey “blowing” (chui, 吹) on the soul.

V. Conclusion

Various chapters of Journey to the West show that Sun Wukong can use his immortal breath to transform his hair, his magic staff, and items not directly in contact with his body into anything he desires. These range from utilitarian items like files, blades, drills, and ropes to living creatures like insects, birds of prey, dogs, tigers, lesser demons, and even independent copies of himself. It can also change the color and appearance of clothing, as well as magically disguise someone when used in tandem with a mask. The skill’s special abilities include healing and soul manipulation. Evidence suggests that it can restore the “primordial spirit”, granting some form of immortality, as well as transform souls into “ether” for better ease of transport.

The immortal breath, however, is not used consistently throughout the novel. Monkey sometimes chews up and spits out the hair, commands it to change, or simply transforms it without saying anything at all. This inconsistency is likely due to the novel coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries.


1) Thank you to Irwen Wong for reminding me of this.

2) The second instance of tongue-biting doesn’t mention the word for blood (xie, 血), but it can be understood to be present.


Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (pp. 883-884). London: Routledge].

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Sun Wukong Stone Relief of Kaiyuan Temple

Last updated: 05-22-2023

The southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian province is home to Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺), also known as the Purple Cloud Temple (Ziyun si, 紫雲寺), an ancient Buddhist complex originally built in 686. The temple is famous for its two stone pagodas, each of which is covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures rendered in a rustic style influenced by the Northern Song Dynasty school of art (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, pp. 11-18). One figure of interest is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (fig. 1) located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. Many scholars consider this to be an early depiction of Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The pagoda was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), so this depiction predates the Ming novel by 355 years, making it an important source for analyzing the early influences on the much beloved literary character. In this paper, I present past research on the relief, as well my own in which I suggest the iconography is based on ritual adornments mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, an Esoteric Buddhist text of the 8th-century.

Fig. 1 – The  Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .

I. Previous research

The first detailed description of the relief appears in Ecke and Demiéville (1935):

A guardian with a monkey-head, holding with one hand a rosary which is hanging around his neck, and with the other a sword emitting a cloud from its tip. He wears a short tunic, travel-sandals, and a rope-belt from which are hanging a calabash and a scroll with the Chinese title of the Mahamayarividyārajñi [Fomu da kongque mingwang jing佛母大孔雀明王經] (T982-985, a text which was used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases). [According to local tradition, it is] Sun Wu-k’ung the name of the monkey assistant (alias the Monkey attendant 猴行者, or the fair Monkey-king 美猴王, or the Great Saint Equal to Heaven 齊天大聖) of Hsüan-tsang [Xuanzang] in the JW-novel. In the upper right corner of the carving there is a small monk-figure with a halo, evidently Hsüan-tsang himself, appearing on a cloud, seemingly the same cloud as that which emanates from the monkey’s sword. In the version of the JW now extant, the monkey assistant’s weapon is not a sword, but an iron rod with two golden rings, which he can reduce, whenever he finds it convenient, into a needle and so keep inside his ear. Also, he wears a tiger-skin over the lower part of his body, a detail which does not agree with our carving (p. 35)

Glen Dudbridge (1970) compares Ecke and Demiéville’s analysis with the description of the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xinzhe, 猴行者) from the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the late 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Based on the differences, he suggests Northern and Southern China may have had separate Monkey story cycles:

[T]here is no sign there of the traveller’s garb in which the Zayton [2] figure is so meticulously clothed; the sword is also not mentioned, although the ‘iron rod with gold rings’ … has not yet assumed its full distinctive role; similarly, the tiger-skin robe, while not described in so many words, seems faintly anticipated in the episode [chapter six] in which Hou Hsing-che slays a tiger-demon, and certainly this standard attribute of demonic figures in Tantric iconography accords well with the description of the yakṣa in that same episode. [3] All this tends to suggest that the Zayton monkey-figure remains strangely distinct from that known to us in the literary sources … Certainly at this stage of their development, there seems to have been no obligation to uniformity in the enactment or representation of popular story cycles: the monkey seen, heard or read about by the northern public could well have differed from his southern counterpart (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 49).

Journey to the West translator and scholar Anthony C. Yu (1977) highlighted a difference in opinion regarding the pious figure on the upper right of the piece:

Ōta Tatsuo 太田辰夫 and Torii Hisayasu 鳥居久靖, in “Kaisetsu 解説,” in Saiyuki, Chūgoku koten bungaku taikei, 31-32 (Tokyo 1971), 432, have challenged Ecke and Demiéville’s interpretation of the carving by pointing out that the figure at the upper righthand corner should be thought of simply as a figure of Buddha (not Hsüan-tsang), which Monkey will become by virtue of bringing back the scriptures. It may be added that Sun Wu-k’ung of the hundred chapter narrative did use a sword or scimitar 刀 (JW, chaps. 2 and 3) before he acquired his famous rod. [1] None of the scholars consulted here sees fit to discuss the significance of what seems to be a headband worn by the carved figure (p. 497 n. 23). 

Victor Mair (1989) focuses on the relief’s iconography and suggests that the various elements might have ties to depictions of both the Buddhist protector deity Aṇḍīra and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the Ramayana (c. 4th-cent BCE):

The band on the Zayton monkey’s head is indeed very important. Surely it must represent what becomes the Tight-Fillet 緊箍 of the Ming JW, ch. 14. Regardless of the author’s (or his predecessors’) elaborate creative inventions surrounding this fillet in the tradition of the novel, we may ask whether it has any identifiable iconographical origins in art.

The Tight-Fillet recalls the band around the head of representations of Aṇḍīra, the simian guardian of Avalokiteśvara and Bhaișajyaguruvaidūryaprabhāṣa … As a typical specimen, we may take a statue [fig. 2] from the Kōfukuji in Nara. The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra has curious wing-like projections extending from the sides of the band around his head that remind us of Mercury in Western classical art. On the Zayton SWK [Sun Wukong], these symbols of swiftness have been displaced to the sides of the eyes. In either case, the wings remind us of H’s [Hanuman’s] descent from the god of the wind. Other similarities between the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra and the Zayton SWK include: identical earrings (these are key iconographical features of H in many Southeast Asian Rs [Ramayanas]), comparable tilt of the head (exaggerated with the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra) which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on forearms and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all of these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H. For its photographic clarity, we may choose a scene from the Rāma reliefs in Panataran, Indonesia [fig. 3]. H’s forearms are bare in this particular representation, but in some Thai reliefs (at Wat Phra Jetubon in Bangkok), they resemble those of the Zayton SWK and the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra. The discrepancies in the dress and ornamentation of the lower parts of the body may be attributed to culture and climate (pp. 699-700).

Fig. 2 – The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra wooden relief carving (c. 11th to 12th-cent.) (larger version), Nara, Japan. Fig. 3 – Hanuman (left) besting a demonic foe (right), from the Ramayana reliefs of the Panataran temple complex (c. 12th-cent.) (larger version), East Java, Indonesia. 

II. My findings

My opinion on the origins of the Kaiyuan relief’s iconography parts ways with Mair in some respects. For instance, upon close inspection of the Japanese Aṇḍīra carving, the band that he refers to appears to be the brim of a helmet. I do agree the Kaiyuan relief shares affinities with the cited image of Hanuman (e.g., the earrings and armbands). But again, here I part ways with Mair because I suggest the relief’s accoutrements were instead influenced by Esoteric Buddhism and not Hinduism. The similar imagery is no doubt due to a common cultural source.

Nearly every aspect of Sun Wukong’s attire can be found in a passage from the 8th-century esoteric text the Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經). It instructs yogins on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka (Xilujia, 呬嚕迦), a wrathful protector deity of Buddhism.

Sanskrit: bhavakena vidhartavyam karnayor divyakupdalam/ sirasi cakri dhartavya hastayo rucakadvayamkatyarp va mekhalam caiva padayor nupuran tatha/ bahumule ca keyuram gnvayam asthimalika/ paridhanam vyaghracarma bhaksanam dasardhamrtam

Translation: The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62).

Earrings? Check! Circlet? Check! Bracelets, girdle, anklets, and arm ornaments? Check, check, check, and check! The only two aspects that are questionable are the bone necklace and the tigerskin. Rosaries are sometimes made from bone, which satisfies that requirement. As for the skin, while Ecke and Demiéville were quick to note its omission in their study, I think the appearance of so many elements from the passage suggests the tigerskin is present but the features may have just been eroded by time. The chevron shape visible below the girdle could be a skin apron. I’ve created a color version of the relief based on this information (fig. 4).

Fig. 4 – My interpretation of the relief (larger version). A comparison of the original and new versions can be seen here.

As I explained in a previous article, the Hevajra Tantra was officially translated into Chinese in 1055 (no doubt arriving earlier than this), so the text was present in the middle kingdom for nearly 200 years prior to the creation of the relief.

What can these ritual elements tell us about Monkey’s depiction? Firstly, it should be noted that the esoteric deity Heruka and other such wrathful guardians, known as “Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles” (Sk: krodha-vighnantaka), are commonly portrayed wearing such items, leading to the scholar Van Kooij (as cited in Linrothe, 1999) to comment, “Heruka is more or less a deified hypostasis of the … yogin himself” (p. 251). Second, these deities are often portrayed wielding weapons. For example, one source describes Vajrapani‘s wrathful form Trailokyavijaya “hold[ing] the vajra, ankusa-hook, sharp sword, pâsa-noose and other âyudha [weapons]” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 188). Sun Wukong too is depicted with a weapon, a sword with a lick of heavenly flame. Third, the flaming sutra tied to Monkey’s girdle was, as explained above, historically “used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases” (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 35). Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles are charged “with the destruction of barriers which prevent the experience of enlightenment” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 25). These include external threats like manifested demons and internal threats like demon-caused mental and bodily illness, the “three poisons”, and karmic debt (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 24-25). Therefore, the iconography presents Sun Wukong as a wrathful protector deity.

This then may lend support to Ecke and Demiéville’s original assertion that the pious figure floating in the clouds to the right of Monkey’s head is in fact Xuanzang. The Great Sage clears the path of manifested demons that obstruct the monk’s path to enlightenment, leading to his ascension into paradise (this happens in both the 13th-century version of the story and the final Ming novel).

III. Ritual Adorments and Other Literary Figures

While Monkey’s association with the fillet and the tiger skin carried over into the novel, other characters came to be associated with ritual adornments from the Hevajra Tantra. A prime example is Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), son of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan. The Bodhisattva Guanyin forces the demon child to submit in chapter 42, after which she uses a magic treasure given to her by the Buddha to ensnare his extremities.

Dear Bodhisattva! She took the fillet and waved it at the wind once, crying, “Change!” It changed into five fillets, which she threw at the body of the boy, crying, “Hit!” One fillet enveloped the boy’s head, while the rest caught his two hands and two feet (Wu & Yu, 1977, vol. 2, p. 280).

Red Boy is the literary counterpart of the religious figure Sudhana (Sancai, 善財), whose spiritual journey is told in the Gandavyuha Sutra (Dafang guang fohuayan jing, 大方廣佛華嚴經, c. 3rd-cent.). The youth sets out on a quest towards enlightenment and trains under 52 different teachers, including Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara (the South Asian variant of Guanyin), Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 864). It’s no wonder then that the ascetic came to be associated with such ritual adornments. South and East Asian depictions of Sudhana/Sancai often portray him wearing bangles and anklets (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – A modern day altar statue of Sudhana/Sancai (larger version). Notice the bracelets and anklets.

IV. Conclusion

The 13th-century Sun Wukong pagoda relief of the Kaiyuan Temple shares many similarities to ritual adornments mentioned in the esoteric Hevajra Tantra (8th-cent.), including earrings, the circlet, arm cuffs, a necklace, a girdle, wrist bangles, anklets, and possibly even a tiger skin. Esoteric protector deities are often portrayed with similar attire since they represent the very yogin ascetics who worship them. Monkey’s depiction with said attire suggests the artist who created the piece intended to present him as a powerful Buddhist guardian on par with Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles like Heruka. The depicted sword and sutra, each shown with a lick of heavenly flame, no doubt represent the means by which the Great Sage protects his master Xuanzang (possibly the pious figure on the upper right corner of the relief).

The onetime enemy Redboy comes to wear the ritual circlet, bracelets, and anklets in Journey to the West after being subjugated by Guanyin. While he is depicted as a defeated foe who submits to Buddhism, these adornments recall his historical and religious origins as Sudhana, a great ascetic from Buddhist literature.

Update: 05-22-23

Twitter user Lava (@Lavaflowe) has allowed me to post their lovely drawing of the stone pagoda carving.

Fig. 6 – Lavaflowe’s version of the stone pagoda carving (larger version). Image from twitter.

Upon reviewing my previous colored version of the carving (see fig. 4), I don’t like the way the proposed tiger skin cuts off at the rope belt. It would make more sense for the skin to act as a girdle, meaning that it would obviously be visible above the belt. I’ll probably update it in the future.


1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 1977) is referring to the fight between Sun wukong and a demon, during which time the monkey disarms him and uses the latter’s own sword against him.

2) The city of Quanzhou was known to both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta by the Arabic name Zayton or Zaiton (زيتون , the “City of Olives”).

3) Monkey transforms a ringed monk’s staff into a titanic yakṣa that crushes the aforementioned tiger demon with a club.


Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The Concealed Essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the Commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (1977). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1). Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

The Origins and Evolution of Sha Wujing

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 Tang Daciensi 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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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).

Sha Wujing Origins - 1

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.


Fig. 8 – A modern depiction of Sha Wujing by Tianwaitang on deviantart (larger version).

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 the bone-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.

Statue with necklace detail

Fig. 8 – The Buddhist Deity Hevajra, late 11th to early 12th-century, copper alloy (larger version). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 9 – Detail of the necklace (larger version).

IV. Conclusion

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.