Yuebei xing, Daughter of the Monkey King

Last updated: 07-23-2023

Ever since I published my article “The Monkey King’s Children” (2021), I’ve noticed that people have fallen in love with Sun Wukong’s monstrous, magic skull-wielding daughter Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, c. 1570s-1580s). For instance, search Tumblr and you will find plenty of art and short stories featuring her. The character does not appear in the original Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) novel, so I’m honestly surprised that she has captured the imagination of so many.

Here, I would like to collect all that I’ve written about her, along with new information, into a single article. This piece discusses her brief character arc, her astrological origins, her appearance in other literature, and her religious iconography.

I. Character arc

In chapter 17 of Journey to the South, Sun Wukong is framed for once again stealing immortal peaches. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give him a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit. Monkey returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, and it is here, among his people, that the story briefly mentions three children, including sons Jidu (奇都, “Ketu”) and Luohou (羅猴, “Rahu”) and daughter Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”).

Sun eventually seeks out Guanyin, who reveals that the troublemaker is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光). Returning home once more, Monkey’s news prompts his daughter to volunteer to battle the impostor. But her tribe simply pokes fun at her monstrous appearance. Yuebei Xing is said to have a crooked head with huge eyes and a broad mouth, coarse hands, a wide waist, and long legs with thunderous steps.

Sun travels with his daughter to Huaguang’s home of Mt. Lilou (Lilou shan, 離婁山) to provoke battle by chastising him for stealing the immortal peaches. Monkey strikes at him with his magic staff, causing Huaguang to deploy his heavenly treasure, a golden, triangular brick (sanjiao jinzhuan, 三角金磚). But Sun responds by creating untold monkey clones that not only confiscate the weapon but also overwhelm the immortal. Huaguang is seemingly defeated at this point; however, he manages to deploy one last treasure, the Fire Elixir (Huodan, 火丹). This weapon engulfs the Great Sage in heavenly flame (akin to the Red Boy episode), causing him to flee to the Eastern Sea. Yuebei xing then calls Huaguang’s name while holding her own magic treasure, a skull (kulou tou, 骷髏頭). The immortal is immediately stricken with a headache and stumbles back to his cave in a daze. Her weapon is said to be quite dangerous; anyone whose name is called will die within three days.

Huanguang’s religious teacher, the Flame King Buddha of Light (Huoyan wang guangfo, 火炎王光佛), then intervenes in order to sooth the situation between his disciple and the Great Sage. He promises to bring the rogue immortal to justice on the condition that Yuebei Xing withdraws her deadly magic. In the end, all parties are pardoned by the Jade Emperor, and Huaguang and Monkey become bond brothers (Yu, n.d.).

II. Astrological origins

The Monkey King’s daughter is based on Yuebei xing, a shadowy planetary deity representing the lunar apogee, or the furthest point in the moon’s orbit. They are counted among the “Eleven Luminaries” (Shiyi yao, 十一曜) of East Asian astrology (fig. 1). These include the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”) of Hindu astrology, namely the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and Rahu and Ketu (Gansten, 2009), as well as Yuebei and another shadowy planet called Ziqi (紫氣/紫炁; “Purple Mist”) (Kotyk, 2017, p. 60). The latter two are mentioned in Daoist writings as early as the late-9th-century (Kotyk, 2017, pp. 61-62).

Fig. 1 – A Chinese depiction of the Eleven Luminaries from the Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶, c. 13th-century) (larger version). Yuebei xing is located first from the left on the top row. Image found here.

The late-Yuan to early-Ming scripture Secret Practice of the Primordial Lord Yuebei (Yuanhuang Yuebei mifa, 元皇月孛祕法; Secret Practice hereafter) describes them having two forms, one human and the other monstrous:

姓朱, 諱光, 天人相, 披髮裸體, 黑雲掩臍, 紅履鞋, 左手提旱魃頭, 右手杖劍, 騎玉龍, 變相青面獠牙, 緋衣, 杖劍, 駕熊。

Surnamed Zhu [Vermillion] with the honorific title of Guang [Luminous]. In the form of a celestial human, their hair is let down over their naked body. Their mass of black hair covers the navel. Red sandals. Their left hand holds the head of a drought demon. Their right hand holds a blade. They ride a jade dragon. In their modified form, [they display] a blue face with long fangs, a crimson garment and blade, while driving a bear (Kotyk, 2017, p. 62).

Both versions are known from late-Xixia dynasty (1038-1227) art. The first figure takes the form of a lightly clad or even topless woman with long, sometimes unkempt hair and red garments. One painting shows her with a bloody head in her right hand and a sword hanging from her hip (fig. 2). (Though, I should point out that she isn’t always depicted with the head in Xixia or Chinese art (fig. 3 & 4).) The second figure is much rarer and takes the form of a yaksha-like guardian with green skin, a fiery red beard and hair, and red garments. He wields a flaming sword in his right hand and a bloody head in the other (fig. 5). Thank you to Dr. Jeffrey Kotyk for bringing these to my attention.

Fig. 2 – Yuebei as a woman (larger version). Take note of the severed head in her right hand and the sword at her waist. Detail from a 13th to 14th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum. Fig. 3 – A topless Yuebei wielding only a sword (larger version). Detail from a 13th to 14th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum. Fig. 4 – Detail of Yuebei from the Chinese Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (c. 13th-century) (larger version). She too is holding only a sword. Take note of her lunar halo. Fig. 5 – Yuebei as a man (larger version). He clutches a small head in his left hand. Detail from a 13th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum.

What’s interesting about the yaksha-male Yuebei is that his iconography is strikingly similar to Arabo-Persian depictions of al-Mirrīkh (Mars), who is also known for wielding a sword and head. Dr. Kotyk has directed me to several examples (fig. 6-8). Carboni (Carboni & MET, 1997) suggests that the war god’s imagery is connected to another deity:

The bold iconography of the severed head underscores the warlike character of the planet but it probably is also related to the astronomical image of the constellation of Perseus, called in Arabic ḥāmil ra’s al-ghūl (“the Bearer of the Demon’s Head”), which represents a transformation of the Greek iconography of the severed head of Medusa [fig. 9] (p. 17).

The literary Yuebei’s use of a deadly skull is fitting considering its possible link to the beheaded Gorgon. [1] Remember that the Secret Practice describes Yuebei’s symbol as that of a “drought demon’s head” (batou, 魃頭), and Arabic sources call Perseus’ symbol the “demon’s head” (ra’s al-ghūl). This shows that both cultures considered the head some kind of supernatural monster.

Fig. 6 – Detail of al-Mirrīkh (Mars) on a late-12th to early-13th century bowl from Central or Northern Iran (larger version). From the Met Museum website. Fig. 7 – Detail from The Wonders of Creation (‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat, 13th-century) (larger version). Found on the Library of Congress website. Fig. 8 – Detail from the Degrees of Truths (Daqa’iq al-haqa’iq, 1272) (larger version). Found on the Bibliothèque nationale de France website. Fig. 9 – The Perseus constellation from the early-11th-century Book of Pictures of the (fixed) Stars (Kitāb Ṣuwar al-kawākib (al-thābitah) (larger version). Found on the Bodleian Library website.

Dr. Kotyk tells me that East Asian depictions of Mars do not show him holding a head. But given the similar iconography of the Arabo-Persian deity and the yaksha-male Yuebei xing, there could be a South Asian intermediary. Bhattacharyya (1958) describes the Indian Buddhist iconography of Maṅgala (Mars) in similar terms: “[He] rides on a Goat. He is red in colour. In the right hand he holds the Kaṭṭāra (cutter) and in the left a severed human head in the act of devouring” (p. 368). But I don’t know how established this description is considering that a cursory search doesn’t turn up any ancient depictions of the Hindo-Buddhist deity holding a head (I’ll update the article if new evidence arises). Another possibility is that the similarities are evidence of cultural exchange between Muslim and Xixia (Tangut) astrologers. Either way, I should point out that the paintings of the yaksha-male Yuebei xing and al-Mirrīkh come from the same time period, the 13th-century. 

Recall that Xixia dynasty art (refer back to fig. 2) and the Secret Practice associate the human-female Yuebei xing with the head and sword, showing that it’s not the purview of the yaksha-male figure. It’s interesting to note that both the female figure and Mars are associated with the color red. Kotyk (2017) explains that there is a likely connection between Yuebei xing and the Irano-Semitic ĀlLīlīṯ (a.k.a. Lilith), who is also described as a demoness with a red, naked body and long, unkempt hair (pp. 63-64).

While I’m unsure if there is a connection, Yuebei’s imagery brings to mind the Hindo-Buddhist goddess ChinnamastāChinnamunda (Vajrayoginī). She is commonly shown as a naked, red-bodied figure holding a bloody head in one hand and a sword in the other (Kinsley, 1997, p. 144). In this case, the severed head is her own. Her sister attendants are also sometimes shown holding a head and sword (fig. 10).

Fig. 10 – A 19th-century lithograph of Chinnamastā (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Beyond art, I learned that the respective astrological paths of Yuebei xing and Mars can cross in East Asian astrology. According to Wan Minying (萬民英), author of the Great Compendium of Astral Studies (Xingxue dacheng, 星學大成, 1563): “If Yuebei and Mars are conjunct in the same sign, [the native’s] heart will enjoy virtue, but they will be unable to actually act. They will also have many noxious sores, and pus and blood 孛火同宮心好善而實不能行亦多癰疽膿血.” [2] 

III. Appearance in other literature

Apart from Journey to the South, Yuebei briefly appears in an earlier Ming-era fiction titled Drama of Yang Jiajiang (Yang Jiajiang yanyi, 楊家將演義, 16th-century). Kotyk (2017) explains that she is depicted as a red-skinned figure “holding in her hand a skeleton (手執骷髏骨)” (p. 63). I should note that the kulou (骷髏) in kulou gu (骷髏骨) can also mean “skull”, which aligns with her iconography. 

Recall that the Irano-Semitic demoness Lilith and the Hindo-Buddhist goddess Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda are described or depicted as having red skin. This might explain Yuebei xing’s vermillion body in the novel.

IV. Religious iconography

I know nothing of the actual worship of Yuebei xing, but Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project was kind enough to show me a pattern sheet of her from an idol-maker’s shop in 1970s Singapore (fig. 11). She wears flowing robes just like her ancient Chinese depictions (refer back to fig. 4), but the signature sword and head are not included. They are instead replaced by a fly-whisk and a placard marked “moon” (yue, 月), which compliments the lunar halo behind her head. Additionally, she is labeled Zhuli fu niang Yuebei tianjun (朱李孚娘 月孛天君). This is similar to the way it’s listed among the 36 celestial generals of the Journey to the North (Beiyou ji, 北遊記, 1602), Zhubei wei Yuebei tianjun (朱孛娘為月孛天君). I also found a more recent religious drawing that appears to mix the feminine and masculine iconography to depict her as an armored general named Taiyi Yuebei xingjun (太一月孛星君) (fig. 12). Both the head and sword are present.

Fig. 11 – The vintage Yuebei pattern sheet from a Singaporean idol shop (larger version). Original photograph by Keith Stevens. Fig. 12 – The Yuebei general image (larger version). It was posted by an Indonesian Daoist priest of the Quanzhen school on Facebook.

IV. Conclusion

Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) briefly appears in chapter 17 of Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, c. 1570s-1580s) as the Monkey King’s monstrous daughter who uses a magic skull weapon to curse a rogue immortal. The demoness is based on a shadowy planetary deity from East Asian astrology that represents the lunar apogee. Xixia dynasty art and the Yuan-Ming Secret Practice scripture depict this deity having two forms, a lightly clad or even topless human-female with red clothing and long, disheveled hair, or a green-skinned, red-bearded yaksha-male. Both of these forms are sometimes depicted wielding a sword and a disembodied head.

The yaksha-male Yuebei xing surprisingly shares iconography with Arabo-Persian depictions of al-Mirrīkh (Mars), who is also represented as a bearded figure wielding a sword and head. Carboni (Carboni & MET, 1997) suggests that the Middle Eastern iconography is related to the constellation of Perseus (a.k.a. “Bearer of the Demon’s Head”) in which he holds the head of Medusa. This is interesting as the head held by the human-female figure is called a “drought demon” in the Secret Practice. This suggests a possible connection between the literary Yuebei xing’s skull and the deadly Gorgon.

Kotyk (2017) notes a possible connection between the human-female Yuebei xing and the Irano-Semitic Lilith. The latter too is described as having a red, naked body and unkempt hair. This same iconography is shared by the Hindo-Buddhist goddess Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda, who is also depicted bearing a sword and (her own) head. This may then explain why Yuebei xing is described as having red skin in the Drama of Yang Jiajiang (16th-century), which predates Journey to the South.

Yuebei xing is worshiped in modern Chinese folk religion. Religious art depicts them as either a robed figure or an armored general. In both cases, the deity is a woman, but only the martial aspect is shown with the head and sword.


Update: 01-11-2023

Bunce (1994) describes Maṅgala (Mars) just like Bhattacharyya (1958) (refer back to the material below figure 9):

Face: one, angry; arms/hands: two, right hand holds ritual chopper (karttrika, grig-gug), left hand holds severed human head (emphasis added); legs: two; color: red; vahana: goat (p. 328).

But I still haven’t been able to find any ancient drawings of the planetary deity like this.

The iconography of the Hindu goddess Kālī also includes a sword and severed head (fig. 13). I didn’t mention her in the original article because she is traditionally depicted with dark skin, but she likely influenced the red-skinned Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda. It’s important to note that her mythos also associates the head with demons (asuras). For example, the Devī-Māhātmyam (c. 400-600 CE) reads:

Mounting her great lion, the Goddess ran at Caṇḍa, / And having seized him by the hair, she cut off his head with her sword. / On seeing Caṇḍa slain, Muṇḍa rushed at her. / She caused him to fall to the ground, wrathfully smitten with her sword. / On seeing Caṇḍa slain, and also the valorous Muṇḍa, / What was left of the assaulted army was overcome with fear and fled in all directions. / Picking up the heads of Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, Kali / Approached C’aṇḍikā [Durgā] and spoke words mixed with loud and cruel laughter: / “Here, as a present from me to you, are Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, two beasts / slain in the sacrifice of battle…” (Coburn, 1991, p. 62).

This adds to our list of sword-wielding, demon head-holding deities: 1) Perseus-Medusa; 2) Yuebei xing-Drought Demon; and 3) Kali-Asura.

Fig. 13 – An early-20th-century painting of Kali by Raja Ravi Varma (larger version). Image found here.


Update: 01-16-23

I thought of a way for artists and fan fiction writers to mix Yuebei xing’s skull with Medusa’s head. But first recall that section 1 reads:

Yuebei xing then calls Huaguang’s name while holding her own magic treasure, a skull. The immortal is immediately stricken with a headache and stumbles back to his cave in a daze. Her weapon is said to be quite dangerous; anyone whose name is called will die within three days.

Perhaps the skull’s gaze can turn any living thing into stone, but this lithic death happens over the aforementioned three days. After the target’s name is called, the skull’s glowing eyes open wider and wider upon the dawn of each successive day, causing compounding confusion and pain. The final dawn sees the eyes open wide (fig. 14), making the unfortunate soul (no matter their location) turn to stone.

Refer back to note #1 for a possible defense.

Fig. 14 – The skull would look something like this on the third and final dawn (minus the bullet hole) (larger version). Image found here.


Update: 01-17-23

“Who is the mother of Sun Wukong’s children in Journey to the South?” This is a question I’ve been asked a few times on Tumblr. The novel never answers this, but one can make an educated guess for the purposes of fan fiction.

Each child is based on one of three lunar deities appearing among the “Eleven Luminaries” (Shiyi yao, 十一曜) (mentioned above). The specific gods are:

  1. Jidu (奇都, “Ketu”) = Represents the southern (descending) lunar node, or the point where the moon crosses the earth’s orbit around the sun. Associated with eclipses.
  2. Luohou (羅睺, “Rahu”) = Represents the northern (ascending) lunar node. Also associated with eclipses.
  3. Yuebei Xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) = Represents the lunar apogee, or the furthest point in the moon’s orbit.

Given their close connection to the night time celestial body, it would make sense for the mother to be Taiyin xing (太陰星, “Star of Supreme Yin”), goddess of the moon from the Eleven Luminaries.

Taiyin xing is commonly equated with Chang’e, goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology. The latter briefly appears in Journey to the West as a victim of Zhu Bajie. The former celestial general was exiled from heaven for drunkenly forcing himself on her (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 379).

The goddess’ past connection to Zhu wasn’t lost on me, but I like the way @sketching-shark articulates the potential for comedy (lightly edited):

There’s something hilarious about the idea that Zhu considers his yaoguai-ness a punishment. He was kicked out of heaven for harassing a moon goddess, and then Sun ‘always was & always will be a proud yaoguai.’ Wukong ends up forming a romance with a moon goddess that at least lasted long enough for them to have 3 kids together. Just imagine Sun Wukong: ‘Haha yeah idk she’s a cool lady & we just clicked. I guess Zhu Bajie with teeth clenched & trying hard not to cry: ‘Huh…imagine…that…’ […] Cue Zhu Bajie eating his heart out (see the tags here).

Fig. 15 – A detail of Taiyin xing from the Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶, c. 13th-century) (larger version). See figure 1 for the complete image. She is the fourth person from the left on the top row.

Update: 01-18-23

I’ve decided to make this the only article on my blog where Yuebei xing information can be found. Therefore, I have removed all of it from “The Monkey King’s Children.” This means I have to also transfer some previous updates.

Posted: 02-13-22

I’ve recently started watching the Lego Monkie Kid series, which follows the adventures of Sun Wukong’s human disciple, MK, in a very toyetic, Lego-inspired world. This is why @TustiLoliPop‘s lovely drawing of Yuebei xing (fig. 16) really stood out to me. They were kind enough to give me permission to post it here. It’s based on the Xixia dynasty painting from figure 2.

Fig. 16 – The Lego Monkie Kid-style Yuebei xing by @TustiLoliPop (larger version). Used with permission.

Posted: 07-13-22

Tumblr user @sketching-shark has drawn some great pictures of Monkey and his children. Here is one of them (fig. 17). I love the alternating black and white color scheme of Rahu and Ketu, as well as Yuebei xing’s size.

Fig. 17 – Monkey’s family by @sketching-shark (larger version). Used with permission.


Update: 07-23-23

Tumblr user @MarxieReplies has drawn two Lego Monkie Kid-inspired pictures of Yuebei xing (fig. 18 & 19). Her clothing is based on the Xixia dynasty paintings of the lunar goddess (refer back to figure 2). I love the glowing skull and the flow of her ponytail and divine sashes.

Fig. 18 – A full body drawing of Yuebei (larger version). Fig. 19 – A head and torso drawing (larger version). Used with permission.

Note:

1) I’ve already suggested that an acquaintance draw Yuebei wielding Medusa’s head in place of her signature skull. The real question is: Could Medusa’s glare actually kill an immortal? This insightful reddit post provides evidence from the Dionysiaca showing that even the god Dionysus considered it deadly enough to bring a magic diamond to protect himself from the Gorgon’s death stare:

The thyrsus was held up in his hand, and to defend his face he carried a diamond, the gem made stone in the showers of Zeus which protects against the stony glare of Medusa, that the baleful light of that destroying face may do him no harm (Rouse, 1940, vol. 3, p. 413). 

2) Translation by Dr. Kotyk.

Sources:

Bhattacharyya, B. (1958). The Indian Buddhist Iconography: Mainly Based on the Sādhanamālā and Cognate Tāntric Texts of Rituals (2nd ed.). Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay.

Bunce, F. W. (1994). An Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Saints and Demons: With Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes (Vols.1-2). New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Carboni S. & Metropolitan Museum of Art. (1997). Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Coburn, T. B. (1991). Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmya and a Study of its Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.

Kinsley, D. R. (1997). Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kotyk, J. (2017). Astrological Iconography of Planetary Deities in Tang China. Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 30, 33-88, Retrieved from http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-BJ001/bj001575268.pdf

Rouse, W. H. D. (Ed.) (1940), Nonnos. Dionysiaca, with an English Translation by W. H. D. Rouse, Mythological Introduction and Notes by H. J. Rose and Notes on Text Criticism by L. R. Lind (Vols. 1-3). Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/dionysiaca03nonnuoft/page/412/mode/2up.

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

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=506975&remap=gb#%E5%8D%8E%E5%85%89%E4%B8%89%E4%B8%8B%E9%85%86%E9%83%BD

 

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double

Last updated: 03-20-2022

Readers may wonder where I get my inspiration to write articles. Most of the time I seek to answer a question that pops up while reading a book or researching a subject, leading to a subsequent paper on what I learned. Other times, I simply stumble across something online. A prime example of this is the “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人), a rare folk Taoist deity that I recently learned about from Facebook. He is depicted with long hair (sometimes with ear-pressing tufts) and a golden fillet, linking him to Chinese opera depictions of military monks (wuseng, 武僧) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178), thus signaling his position as a martial deity. A headdress with lingzi (翎子) feathers sometimes adorns his crown. His visage ranges from welcoming to fierce and from human to more primate-like. He wears a golden suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with the right knee resting on the seat, exposing the bottom of his foot to the viewer. This armor is sometimes draped in a colorful ritual cape. His left arm is usually bent at the elbow and the hand is clenched in a fist (or two-finger shooting mudra) or holds an immortal peach at the chest, while the other is held high and contains a fly whisk or staff. This iconography is shockingly similar to religious depictions of Sun Wukong as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖). In fact, the two deities are nearly indistinguishable apart from the ape sometimes having white hair and a white face. But this isn’t always a good indicator, though, as one Fujian tradition features a brother of the Monkey King with a white face. And other times, statues of the white ape might be plain wood or even bronze, thereby erasing any signifying color. But the best clue to his identity appears to be the combination of the fist at the chest and a raised foot while in a seated position, what I call the “fist over foot motif” (fig. 1 to 4).

I’ve previously written about magical white apes (gibbons) in relation to Tang-era Chinese literature, primate-based martial arts, and the fictional origin of Sun Wukong. I’ve even archived an entire book on the subject which surveys historical references, poems, folktales, and art spanning over 3,000 years from the Zhou to Qing dynasties. I would like to supplement this material by writing an article about the White Ape Perfected Man and his appearance in vernacular fiction and Taoist scripture. I suggest his iconography was directly influenced by Sun Wukong based on a centuries-long association between the two magic primates in popular literature.

Fig. 1 – One of the first pictures I ever saw of the White Ape Perfected Man (larger version). Photo from Facebook. Fig. 2 – A statue from an unknown temple (larger version). Photo found here. Fig. 3 – One of several statues from the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮濟宮) (larger version). Screenshot from this Facebook video. Fig. 4 – A statue belonging to Jishen Temple of Tainan, Taiwan (Tainan Jishen gong, 台南濟申宮) (larger version). Photo from Facebook.

I. Religious Story

I traveled to the Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple in Yingge District, New Taipei, Taiwan (Yingge Hongde Gong Sun Bin Miao, 鶯歌宏德宮孫臏廟) (fig. 5) to gather material for this article. Unfortunately, the temple’s statue of the White Ape Perfected Man (fig. 6) was out for repairs on the day of my visit. But I collected information about the deity from the temple’s history book (fig. 7). The ape god is associated with Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE) (fig. 8), a deified military strategist of the Warring States period, and is revered as a transmitter of divine knowledge. [1] A rough translation of his religious story follows:

“The White Ape Steals a Peach and Offers a Heavenly Book” (Baiyuan toutao xian tianshu, 白猿偷桃獻天書)

According to legend, when Sun Bin was studying military arts under Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xiansheng, 鬼谷先生), he opened a plot of uncultivated land on the side of Yunmeng Mountain (Yunmeng shan, 雲夢山) and grew a peach orchard with big, fleshy, and delicious fruits using his teacher’s method. At the foot of the mountain lived a mother and son who depended on each other. The son looked like a monkey because his body was covered with white hair, and so he was known as the “Little White Ape” (Xiao baiyuan, 小白猿). His mother was constantly sick and occasionally dreamed of a transcendent pointing and saying, “Eat the immortal peaches on Yunmeng Mountain and your illness will be cured”.

The white ape was a filial son, and so he went to steal a peach for his mother but lost his way. Sun caught the boy and asked him why he would steal from the orchard. Once he heard of the ape’s sick mother, he gave him the peach. The mother ate the fruit and recovered. In return, the white ape gave Sun a heavenly book of military strategy (bingshu, 兵書) passed down from his ancestors, saying, “Thank you for your life-saving grace”.

Another version of the story states the Yunmeng peach was so famous for its large size, fleshy fruit, and delicious taste that, upon hearing of it, the Queen Mother of the West sent the white ape to steal it for her Peach Banquet.

This last part is a reversal of Sun Wukong stealing the Queen Mother’s peaches in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). [2]

Fig. 5 – The Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 6 – A detail of the temple’s White Ape Perfected Man’s statue (larger version). See fig. 8 for a full version. Fig. 7 – A page from the temple’s history book (larger version). Note the bronze statue of the White Ape, including the lingzi headdress. Photo by the author. Fig. 8 – The central statue of Sun Bin (larger version). Note the position of the white ape in front of Sun. Photo from Facebook.

Astute readers will notice that the tale does not touch on the white ape’s religious title, the “Perfected Man” (Zhenren, 真人). Perfected individuals rank among the highest transcendents of the celestial hierarchy and even rule over lower immortals residing in various earthly paradises (Miura, 2008). This contrasts with the meager, filial son presented in the story. It also contrasts with the white ape’s iconography as an armor-clad martial deity. Perfected individuals are usually portrayed as lofty immortals wearing robes decorated with Daoist symbols (Stevens & Welch, 1998, for example). 

I reached out to the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮齊宮), where the White Ape Perfected Man is worshiped as the main deity (zhu shen, 主神) (fig. 9), to make sense of these disparate strands. However, they did not get back to me by the time this article was ready for publication. I’ll make an update when new information becomes available. But until then, I suggest his martial iconography was directly influenced by depictions of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, whose cult is far more prevalent in Taiwan. This proposed connection to Sun Wukong becomes even more evident when the information below is taken into account.

Fig. 9 – Zhenji Temple’s main White Ape Perfected Man statue (center background) surrounded by various smaller figures (larger version). The statue in the left foreground looks very similar to the Great Sage apart from the fist over foot motif. Image from Facebook.  

II. Vernacular Fiction

The White Ape Perfected Man’s religious story can be traced directly to The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (Sun Pang douzhi yanyi, 孫龐鬥智演義, 1636; a.k.a. The Former and Latter Annals of the Seven Kingdoms, Qianhou qiguo zhi, 前後七國志), which tells of the great struggle between Sun Bin and his former friend and classmate Pang Juan (龐涓). The two study supernatural military arts under the Immortal Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xianshi, 鬼谷仙師) in his “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) before their fates take separate paths and they become bitter enemies. Chapter four sees the teacher appoint Sun as guardian of an immortal peach tree on the backside of Yunmeng Mountain. But the young disciple is surprised to discover a talking white ape stealing peaches night after night. When asked how it can speak, the primate reveals his aristocratic family has been soaking up immortal qi energy for three generations northwest of the Master’s cave. His ancestor is the Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯), [3] his father the Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公), [4] and his mother the Princess Mountain Blossom (Shanhua gongzhu, 山花公主). [5] When asked why he’s stealing peaches (fig. 10), the white ape reveals he’s trying to cure his mother of an illness and that she will die unless the treatment is completed. Taking pity on the filial primate, Sun picks the last peach needed and gives it to the white ape, telling him never to return to the orchard. The grateful son repays the favor by stealing three scrolls of heavenly books (tianshu, 天書) from Master Ghost Valley’s secret hiding place to give to his mother’s savior.

But Sun Bin mistakenly incurs the wrath of heaven not only because he acquires the books before he’s fated to but also because he fails to ritually cleanse himself before reading them. Master Ghost Valley is forced to intervene on his student’s behalf by teaching Sun how to hide from heavenly punishment (da zainan, 大災難, lit: “great tribulation”) by meditating in a cave for 49 days (Wumen xiaoke & Yanshui sanren, 1636).

This novel shares many elements with Journey to the West. Both include:

  1. Characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a “Water Curtain Cave”. [6]
  2. Sun characters studying under an immortal master (Master Ghost Valley VS Master Subodhi). [7]
  3. Sun characters being directed to guard trees laden with immortal peaches (one tree on earth VS an entire grove in heaven). 
  4. Supernatural primates stealing the magic peaches for consumption (the white ape VS the Monkey King). [8]
  5. Sun characters defying their fate and incurring the wrath of heaven, thereby learning from their masters how to hide from punishment (Sun Bin Vs. Sun Wukong). [9]

Fig. 10 – A lovely New Years print depicting scenes from the story, including the “White Ape steals peaches” (right) and the “White Ape is filial to mother” (left) (larger version). The right print includes Master Ghost Valley and a young Sun Bin. Print found here.

It’s important to note that there is also some overlap between The Battle of Wits and Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 1570s-1580s). I quote from my previous article:

[The rogue immortal Huaguang (華光)] works to end his mother’s demonic lust for flesh by procuring an immortal peach in chapter 17. He does this by transforming into Sun Wukong and stealing the magic fruit from heaven. The real Monkey King is subsequently accused of his double’s misdeeds, much like the Six-Eared Macaque episode of the original novel. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give Sun a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit.

So we have two magical primate characters (the white ape VS Huaguang-as-Sun Wukong) that steal immortal peaches to help cure their mothers. This association with the rogue immortal might then explain why the statue of the White Ape Perfected Man from figure one has a third eye. Huaguang’s various incarnations are described as having three eyes in Journey to the South (for example) (Yu, n.d.).

Therefore, it seems that these later novels borrowed from Journey to the West, as well as each other. But I will show the theme of a primate stealing fruit actually predates the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West by hundreds of years, suggesting it too borrowed from an earlier source.

III. Taoist Literature

The story of Sun Bin and the white ape actually prefaces the first scroll of the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin (Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing, 太上六壬明鑑符陰經) (a.k.a., the Ape Book, Yuanshu, 猿書), [10] a Northern Song-era work related to the Taoist doctrine of the Three Sovereigns (Steavu, 2019, p. 195). Instead of peaches, the tale just says “fruit” (guo, 菓). But I imagine the produce is something special like immortal peaches as Sun guards them with a weapon. A rough translation follows (I have skipped over some of the more esoteric parts that escape me):

[Master Ghost Valley] saw the fruit had ripened, so he commanded Sun to watch over it. One night a person jumped the wall into the nine gardens and took some of the fruit. But Sun was hiding with a sword and caught the culprit, a white ape. The primate said: “Don’t hurt my body. I share the same age as heaven and earth and have lived as long as the sun and moon. I have mysterious texts (xuanwen, 玄文). Wait for me the next day and I will give them to you”. The white ape then transformed into white light and left. Sun waited the following day. Suddenly, he saw the white ape fly from the northwest. He was given one scroll of mysterious texts. The primate again transformed into white light and headed towards the southeast. Sun then returned to his room to inspect the text. He didn’t know the name but saw that it was divided into three volumes: initial (shang, 上), middle (zhong, 中) and final (xia, 下). He named it after the white ape (Taishang liuren, n.d.).

The story of a magic monkey stealing peaches was already present in the Journey to the West story cycle by the 13th-century, for the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), Sun Wukong’s predecessor, admits to raiding the Queen Mother’s orchard when he was still a young immortal (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). But the preceding Daoist scripture indicates the motif is even older. [11] In addition, the scripture shows the idea of a character surnamed Sun (Sun Bin) guarding special fruit predates the motif in the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West. It’s not a stretch then to suggest the Most High Luminous Mirror (or related media) influenced the 13th and later 16th-century versions of the story. Therefore, it’s possible the tales of Sun Bin, the white ape, and Sun Wukong have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years.

This centuries-long association between the magical primates in literature then strengthens my suggestion that the White Ape Perfected Man’s iconography was directly influenced by that of Sun Wukong. Drawing upon a well of preexisting cultural beliefs and imagery likely helped the cult of this relatively recent deity establish itself faster, allowing him to take his place in a rapidly evolving religious landscape where ever newer gods are constantly added to the ranks of their older brethren.

IV. Conclusion

The White Ape Perfected Man is a rare folk Taoist deity associated with revealing heavenly scriptures to the Warring States military strategist Sun Bin (4th-cent.). His statues depict him as a seated, armor-clad primate with a “fist over foot” motif and the long hair and golden fillet of military monks from Chinese opera. This martial iconography conflicts with the deity’s title, “Perfected Man”, a high-ranking immortal usually depicted wearing robes. It also conflicts with his own religious story, which presents him as a meager, filial son who steals immortal peaches to cure his sick mother. I suggested above that his religious imagery was directly influenced by depictions of Sun Wukong as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. Beyond shockingly similar iconography, both primate deities have a long association in Chinese popular literature. The white ape appears in The Battle of Wits Between Sun and Pang (1636), which shares many similarities with Journey to the West (1592). These include characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a Water Curtain Cave, studying under immortal masters (Ghost Valley VS Subodhi), guarding immortal peaches, and hiding from heavenly punishment. It also includes supernatural primates (the white ape VS the Monkey King) stealing the life-prolonging fruit for consumption. The number of similarities suggests The Battle of Wits borrowed from Journey to the West. The theft of immortal peaches is already present in a 13th-century version of Journey to the West, but this is preceded by a tale appearing in a work from Taoist canon, the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin. It describes the white ape stealing fruit from a garden protected by Sun Bin. It’s possible the Monkey King’s early story cycle was influenced by this scripture (or related media), suggesting the stories of Sun Wukong, Sun Bin, and the white ape have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years. This centuries-long connection lends support to the martial iconography of Sun Wukong influencing the religious imagery of the White Ape Perfected Man.


Update: 12-11-21

Palmer and Siegler (2017) quote a certain Master Hu, a monk of Mt. Hua in Shaanxi province, China, who claims that the White Ape taught him a system of primate-based martial arts:

I learned [White Ape Through the Back Boxing] spontaneously; it was transmitted to me by the White [Ape] Immortal (Baiyuan zhenren). When I start, he comes down into me, and I do the forms spontaneously. In the future, perhaps I will arrange it into a method in stages that can be taught to others. The White [Ape] Immortal first transmitted the method to humans in the spring and autumn period (770–476 BC), but owing to the poor moral quality of the inheritors of the method, it was lost. Now, it has been transmitted directly to me by the Immortal (pp. 120-121).

Also, Master Ghost Valley’s association with the Water Curtain Cave goes back to at least the Northern Song as his Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) lists him as the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主) (Andersen, 2019). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with the caves of the Master (and Sun Bin) in The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (1636) and Sun Wukong in Journey to the West (1592). But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth. This might suggest, apart from the guarding and theft of immortal peaches, other elements from Sun Bin’s story cycle were borrowed by that of the Monkey King.


Update: 12-12-21

I mentioned in the introduction white face and hair are not always the best indicators that a figure is the White Ape Perfected Man. Take, for example, some depictions of Sun Wukong in glove puppetry (fig. 11).

Fig. 11 – A Taiwanese glove puppet of the Monkey King (larger version). Photo found here.


Update: 03-20-22

Yesterday I visited the aforementioned Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮齊宮), where the White Ape Perfected Man is venerated. I learned a few things. One, his religious birthday is celebrated on the 27th day of the 5th lunar month (June 25th, 2022), often written as 五月廿七日. Two, his mother, the “Holy Mother of Nine Rivers” (Jiujiang shengmu, 九江聖母), is also worshiped at the temple (her birthday is the 15th day of the 1st lunar month). A temple booklet provided to me tells her story (fig. 12 & 13). I paraphrase the tale below:

Five hundred years before the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, there were three godly brothers named Sun Wuzi (孫武子), Sun Yuanzi (孫圓子), and Sun Huanzi (孫環子). The eldest brother Wuzi and the youngest Huanzi fought for status. But because the latter killed the former with evil magic, Sun Huanzi was sentenced by the Jade Emperor to die on the “Immortal-Beheading Platform” (Zhanxian tai, 斬仙台). The brothers were reborn in the mortal realm five hundred years later during the Warring States period. Sun Wuzi was reborn as Sun Bin in the Yan state, Sun Yuanzi was reborn as (the white ape) Xiaobai (小白) in the Qin state, and Sun Huanzi was reborn as Pang Juan in the Wei State.

The mother of the white ape was the third princess of the Qin state. One day, she became thirsty while touring the imperial garden. But in the absence of tea, she sated her thirst with sweet dew from tree leaves. Three months later, the princess discovered to her surprise that she, an unwed woman, was pregnant. When her father the king learned of this news, he expelled her from the palace. Sometime later, she came by accident to Swallow Lake (Yanzi hu, 燕子湖), a pure, mirror-like body of water surrounded by exotic, fragrant flowers and singing birds and insects. After wandering around this indescribable paradise for sometime, the princess became tired and went to sleep. She dreamed of a golden swallow that told her the child she was carrying was a god reincarnated on earth. It also asked the princess to practice spiritual cultivation beside the lake, promising her that she would one day became an immortal. She realized it was just a dream when she woke up, but she followed through with her training.

Ten days later she gave birth to her son, who was not quite human or demon. His entire body was covered with white hair just like a white ape. The local people claimed that he was a monster, but despite her anger, she raised him patiently. When he was three years old, heaven bestowed on him three divine treasures: an As-You-Will Vajra Staff (Ruyi jingang bang, 如意金剛棒), a golden headband spell (jinquan zhou, 金圈咒), and the steed Red Hare (Chitu ma, 赤兔馬). When the white ape was eight years old, a demon came to threaten the villagers around Swallow Lake. The white ape fought the monster and won, leading the people to believe he was a great celestial immortal (Dalou tianxian, 大羅天仙) come to save the world.

When the white ape was sixteen, his mother’s holy spirit left her body, and the evil Sage Sea Tide (Haichao shengren, 海潮聖人) cast his heavenly treasure around it, thus making her body sick. The Patriarch Reaching Heaven (Tongtian jiaozhu, 通天教主) then appeared to tell the white ape that the only way to cure his mother was to feed her one of the Queen Mother‘s (Wangmu niangniang, 王母娘娘) immortal peaches. After many hardships, he succeeded in his quest and cured her. Upon her recovery, she practiced diligently and eventually achieved immortality.

One day, the immortal princess did divination on her fingers and found that, despite their practice, four other woman around Swallow Lake had yet to achieve the elixir. So, she took them as her servants and continued to guide their practice. After this, she subdued seventeen phoenixes that were the same class of evil spirits as the phoenixes and serpents below the Queen Mother’s gate. Following this, she subdued thirty-six demon dragons as her subordinate generals.

At this time, the god of fire (huoshen, 火神) spread flames everywhere, plunging the world into chaos. The fires killed the surrounding vegetation and created a drought. The immortal princess felt sorry for the people, so she used her powers to defeat the fire god in a great battle. She then transformed nine dragons into nine rivers for the people to drink and to revive the plants and trees. The people were finally able to live in peace. From this point on, they worshiped her as the Holy Mother of Nine Rivers. A temple dedicated to her was built around Swallow Lake in Guangling County, Shanxi Province, China, which is now a first-class protected historic site by the CCP.

Fig. 12 – The first page of the Holy Mother of Nine River’s story (larger version). Fig. 13 – The second page (larger version).

It appears that portions of this story were taken from the Qing-era novel Spring and Autumn of Stabbing Swords (Fengjian chunqiu, 鋒劍春秋). The godly Sun brothers, the evil Sage Sea Tide, and even the white ape appear therein.

I’d also like to highlight that the white ape’s staff and headband are modeled on that of Sun Wukong, strengthening my suggestion that the former’s iconography was based on the latter.

Notes:

1) The idea of a white ape sharing heavenly knowledge goes back centuries. For example, one 4th-century source reveals Zhou Qun (周羣/群, 3rd-cent.) learned the art of divination from a book of bamboo slips given to him by a gibbon-turned-old man in the Min Mountains (Gulik, 1967, p. 50).

2) Sun is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves in chapter four. He starts eating the life-prolonging fruit early in his tenure, and his theft is eventually discovered by attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 160 and 162-163).

3) The Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯) is an ape spirit appearing in a story from the Song-era Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). A retired official from Sichuan is invited to an eerie, drunken party by the Marquis, only to wake up the next morning to find his host was a gibbon and all of the other guests were also animal spirits (Gulik, 1967, pp. 67 and 68-69).

4) The only Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公) that I’m aware of is a human keeper of monkeys from a parable on freedom appearing in The Collected Works of Bowen (Chengyi Bowen ji, 诚意伯文集, 14th-cent.). I’m not sure if the novel is claiming the ape has a human father, or if it’s just a vague reference to a character from Chinese literature with a connection to primates.

5) I can’t find any information on this character. But given the ancestor and father, I’m sure the mother is associated with apes or monkeys in some way.

6) Wukong becomes king of the monkeys in chapter one by discovering a cave, the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong水簾洞), behind a waterfall. His people soon after take residence inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 104-106).

7) See my article on Master Subodhi’s curriculum.

8) See note #2.

9) Monkey learns the 72 transformations in order to escape heavenly punishments of lightning, fire, and wind sent to kill him for defying his fate by attaining immortality.

10) Steavu (2019) calls it the “Monkey book” (p. 195), but a gibbon is an ape, so I have adjusted the translation accordingly.

11) I suggest in this article that the supernatural ape stealing peaches motif could be a mixture of a Sinicized version of the Great Monkey jataka tale, in which the Buddha’s reincarnation as a monkey king leads his people to raid an imperial fruit garden, and the theft of immortal peaches by the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), who is subsequently exiled to reincarnate as the Han-era jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔).

Sources:

Andersen, P. (2019). Guigu zi tiansui lingwen 鬼谷子天隨靈文. In K. Schipper and F. Verellen (Eds.), The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang (p. 1239). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Miura, K. (2008). Zhenren. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol. 1 & 2 (pp. 1265-1266). Longdon: Routledge.

Palmer, D. A., & Siegler, E. (2017). Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Steavu, D. (2019). The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Stevens, K., & Welch, J. (1998). XU, The Daoist Perfected Lord Xu Zhenjun 許真君 The Protective Deity of Jiangxi Province. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3, 137-146. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23889813

Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing juan yi (n.d.). [Book of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin: First Scroll]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=465883#p3

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.

Wumen xiaoke, & Yanshui sanren (1636). Qianhou qiguo zhi [Annals of the Seven Kingdoms]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=736295#p89

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

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=506975&remap=gb#%E5%8D%8E%E5%85%89%E4%B8%89%E4%B8%8B%E9%85%86%E9%83%BD