From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of researching the history and influences of Journey to the West. But as an artist, I am also a fan of JTTW-related artwork. There are so many talented people in the world who post their traditional and original designs and comics online, so I’ve decided to feature some of them on my blog. My hope is that such posts will expose this art to a wider audience interested in JTTW, while also documenting modern day perceptions and depictions of the novel and its characters.
Our first artist is Dario Virga, who goes by Onibotokemaru on Instagram. They were kind enough to answer some interview questions, as well as allow permission to display a few of their pieces.
I. Q & A
1) Can you tell me a little about yourself?
Real name Dario Virga, from Italy (Piedmont). Interest in eastern culture and literature, mostly from Japan and China.
2) Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?
Self-taught, though I had some help from someone who went to art school.
3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?
Usually animals and characters/elements taken from mythology and literature.
4) How did you learn about Journey to the West?
My very first contact with Journey to the West was back when I was younger, in a book about Chinese myths. Later I found an integral translation done by Serafino Balduzzi (translated from a French one).
5) Who is your favorite character?
Tough question, but I like most of the characters. If forced to choose, I’d say Pigsy for the good guys and the Bull Demon King for the villains.
Not a special meaning per se, but it was a novel I really enjoyed, both for the setting, the narration, the characters within and watching them grow.
8) Can you tell me about your ongoing JTTW-related projects?
Plan to make a gallery of, if not all, at least a huge amount of the novel’s characters.
II. Art and Thought Process
1. As the opening drawing of the Xiyouji-themed Inktober set, I’ve decided to focus not on Sun Wukong himself but rather on Tripitaka, the monk, as Guanyin Pusa appears before him to assign him the quest for the sutras. Guanyin’s reference are commonly-found icons and statues. Between the two of them float the items Tripitaka receives (the cossack, nine-ringed staff and hat).
2. This is the first time I depict Sun Wukong in the series, and I did it based his design on an article written on this very blog, trying to stick as much as possible to his literary description, especially regarding the clothing (monk’s shirt and tiger pelt kilt held by a rope), short stature, simian face and bald spot on the top of the head (converted to Buddhism). I gave him long spike-like hair in the back because otherwise his head felt too small. The Ruyijingubang has a rather simple design, as I never liked its depictions with pommels on both ends. I also tried to make the inscriptions on the shaft, but ultimately gave up, admittedly.
3. This picture has Sun Wukong fighting against the Iron Fan Princess, who sends him flying away with her Banana Leaf Fan. Once again, I wanted to show how small Monkey is (in comparison to nearly everyone else, though I’m not always 100% consistent) and remind that the Ruyijingubang can increase in both length and width, as seen here where he tries to use it as a shield to block the wind, unsuccessfully. Also of note, the massive stone pillar on which the “address” of the Iron Fan Princess is written.
4. This one isn’t based on any specific event, but it’s here to bring out two topics: the first is the size of the party members, which I always tried to keep consistent (and tried is the keyword). The idea is that Sun Wukong is the smallest of the group (4 feet), then we have Tripitaka, the “normal” one, and the Dragon (horse-sized): Pigsy (here depicted with a hint of boar) is the second tallest but also the fattest, while Sandy is the tallest of the party (and definitively not a Kappa). The second one is Sha Wujing’s weapon: while it’s usually depicted as a Monk Spade, the actual name is the “Demon-Subduing Treasure Cane” (降魔宝杖, Xiangmobaozhang), making it a stick/staff. However, it’s also worth a mention that the Monk Spade is sometimes called “Zen Cane” (禪杖, Chanzhang), a term which also refers to the ringed staff used by monks. Admittedly, I liked the spade version the most, though I plan to depict this weapon as a staff when Sandy is in his celestial marshal/arhat forms, implying that the staff changed into a spade when he fell from Heaven.
5. The big battle between Sun Wukong and the Lion Demons working for the Great Sage Nine Spirits (seen in the background, in his giant nine-headed form): this was mostly done because it was one of the rare parts of the book where Sandy actually fights the monsters alongside Sun Wukong (as Pigsy was captured), as well as an attempt to make a big battle scene.
6. The only god who actually beat Monkey, Erlang Shen. Since the Inktober was focused on the journey itself, I’ve decided to depict their battle as a bad dream. This time, Monkey wears his old, stylish outfit he got from the Dragon Kings, while Erlang is in full battle regalia, including his “Sanjiang Lianrendao” (三尖两刃刀 Three-pointed, Double Edged Glaive) and his Heavenly Roar Dog.
7. The clash between the three pilgrims and the three Demon Kings of Lion Camel Mountain, from top to bottom: the Blue-Haired Lion vs Sha Wujing, the Yellow-Tusked White Elephant vs Zhu Bajie and the Golden-Wings Peng King vs Sun Wukong. The design of the three kings was based on a series of pictures I loved very much. Once again, a reminder that Wukong’s staff can widen as well.
8. Sun Wukong fights the three Rhino Kings, who’re kidnapping Tripitaka. This time I wanted to depict Monkey twirling his staff as he fights. Like with the Demon Kings above, the design of the three Rhinos was based on the same set of pictures, even though I remember that in the novel they’re described as “bull-like” in appearence. Particularly like the dust cloud to the right.
9. Sun Wukong is poisoned by the Scorpion Spirit. Aside from the scenery, I like the scorpioness. I’ve noticed in several arts (even old ones) that she sports a relatively skimpy outfit. As of her weapon, mentioned to be a “fork/trident” in the book, I’ve seen plenty of depictions with both the single trident version and the smaller, dual trident version.
10. As a bookend, I’ve depicted a scene from the end of the book, the moment where Tripitaka drowns and ascends to buddhahood, so that he can obtain the sutras properly. This is also to represent one of the things I liked the most from the novel, the gradual growth of the pilgrims and the attachment to Tripitaka as a father figure. [Note: Tripitaka sheds his mortal form as he and his disciples are ferried across a body of water to the Buddha’s paradise. See the paragraph above image one and the material between images two and three in this article.]
Type “Zhu Bajie” (豬八戒) into Google images and you will generally see a cute or friendly-looking pig-man with pink skin, big ears, a short snout, and a large stomach, and he will inevitably be holding some form of metal rake. Most iterations will likely be based on the character’s iconic look from the classic 1986 TV show, which portrays him wearing a Ji Gong-style Buddhist hat (Ji Gong mao, 濟公帽) with a golden fillet (à la Sun Wukong), a handkerchief tied around his neck and a sash at his waist, and black monk’s robes open at the chest (fig. 1). You might even see a few images depicting Zhu as a hulking warrior, but rarely will you see him portrayed with dark skin. So how do these representations compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present Zhu’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.
I should note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive survey, just a general overview.
Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie from the 1986 TV show (larger version).
1. Ancient Depictions
Zhu’s earliest depictions hail from the 14th-century as he is a latecomer to the story cycle, postdating the appearance of Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing by centuries. He is featured on a ceramic pillow and an incense burner from late Yuan China, as well as a series of carvings on a stone pagoda from late Goryeo Korea. Each piece draws on the same motif, depicting Zhu as a pig-headed monk taking large strides as he shoulders his rake and/or leads the horse. Even in instances where the weapon and equine are not present, he’s depicted in the same general posture (fig. 2-4).
Fig. 2 – Detail of Zhu from a Cizhou ware ceramic pillow. See here for the full image. Fig. 3 – Detail from the incense burner. See here for the full image. Fig. 4 – Detail from panel two of the Korean pagoda. Note the figure’s matching posture. See here for the full line drawing.
2. What the novel says
2.1. Physical appearance
A poem in chapter 8 contains the earliest reference to Zhu’s appearance:
Lips curled and twisted like dried lotus leaves; Ears like rush-leaf fans [pushan, 蒲扇] and hard, gleaming eyes; Gaping teeth as sharp as a fine steel file’s; A long mouth wide open like a fire pot [huopen, 火盆]. […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211).
Chapter 18 provides more detail about his bristly neck and dark skin:
“Well,” said old Mr. Gao, “when he first came, he was a stout, swarthy [hei, 黑; lit: “black”] fellow, but afterwards he turned into an idiot with huge ears and a long snout, with a great tuft of bristles [zongmao, 鬃毛; lit: “mane”] behind his head. His body became horribly coarse and hulking. In short, his whole appearance was that of a hog!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 372).
When the violent gust of wind had gone by, there appeared in midair a monster who was ugly indeed. With his black face [hei lian, 黑臉] covered with short, stubby hair, his long snout and huge ears, he wore a cotton shirt that was neither quite green nor quite blue. A sort of spotted cotton handkerchief was tied round his head (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).
The mane on the back of Zhu’s head is such a prominent feature that he took it as his personal name: “[M]y surname is based on my appearance. Hence I am called Zhu ([豬] Hog), and my official name is Ganglie ([剛鬣] Stiff Bristles)” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 376).
Chapter 19 shows he has hands and feet like a man:
The monster did indeed raise his rake high and bring it down with all his might; with a loud bang, the rake made sparks as it bounced back up. But the blow did not make so much as a scratch on Pilgrim’s head. The monster was so astounded that his hands [shou, 手] turned numb and his feet [jiao, 腳] grew weak (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 383-384).
Compare this to the mention of hooves (ti, 蹄) when he transforms into a giant boar in chapter 67 (see section 2.2 below).
Chapter 29 gives the fullest description:
My elder disciple has the surname of Zhu, and his given names are Wuneng [悟能] and Eight Rules [Bajie, 八戒]. He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge, fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).
Chapter 85 reveals the shocking size of his snout:
A snout, pestlelike, over three Chinese feet long [san chi, 三尺, 3.15 feet/96 cm]  And teeth protruding like silver prongs. Bright like lightning a pair of eyeballs round, Two ears that whip the wind in hu-hu [唿唿] sound. Arrowlike hairs behind his head are seen; His whole body’s skin is both coarse and black [qing, 青].  […] (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149).
Chapter 90 notes Zhu has a tail: “Seizing him by the bristles and the tail [wei, 尾], the two spirits hauled Eight Rules away to show him to the nine-headed lion, saying, “Grandmaster, we’ve caught one” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 219).
We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, an overly long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin. He is also said to have human hands and feet and a pig tail. This grotesque description greatly differs from his cutesy appearance in modern media. It’s important to note that, just like Sun Wukong, Zhu was modeled on a real life animal. In this case, he shares many of his monstrous qualities with the wild boar (yezhu, 野豬) (fig. 5 & 6).
While the novel doesn’t give an exact height for our hero, the cited attributes do provide clues as to his general size. First and foremost is Tripitaka‘s statement: “[H]e causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Obviously something capable of stirring the wind just from moving is going to be really big. Then there is Zhu’s 3.15 foot (96 cm) snout, which is over half the height of an average person. This suggests he’s several feet taller than a human. Furthermore, the novel states Sha Wujing is a whopping twelve Chinese feet (zhang er, 丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) tall (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).  Zhu is likely shorter than Sha as the latter’s height is specifically mentioned. So I would guess that he is at least 10 feet (roughly 3 m) tall. Zhu’s size is highlighted in some lovely online art (fig. 7 & 8).
Zhu provides two contradictory origins for himself, which have implications for what his true form may be and why he looks the way he does in the novel.  A biographical poem in chapter 19 explains he was once a wayward, lazy youth who took up Daoist cultivation and later rose on clouds to receive celestial rank in heaven. But his immortal spirit was eventually exiled for drunkenly forcing himself on the moon goddess and mistakenly regained corporeal form in the womb of a sow, becoming the pig spirit that we know today (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 378-379).  However, a poem in chapter 85 implies he was already a powerful pig monster who was given celestial rank but later exiled for drunkenly mocking the moon goddess, destroying Laozi‘s palace, and eating the Queen Mother‘s magic herbs (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). The latter origin might be represented in chapter 67 when Zhu transforms into a gigantic boar (fig. 9):
A long snout and short hair—all rather plump. He fed on herbs of the mountain since his youth. A black face with round eyes like the sun and moon; A round head with huge ears like plantain leaves. His bones were made lasting as Heaven’s age; Tougher than iron was his thick skin refined. In deep nasal tones he made his oink-oink cry. What gutteral grunts when he puffed and huffed! Four white hoofs [ti, 蹄] standing a thousand feet tall; Swordlike bristles topped a thousand-foot frame.  Mankind had long seen fatted pigs and swine, But never till today this old hog elf [lao zhu xiao, 老豬魈]. The Tang Monk and the people all gave praise; At such high magic pow’r they were amazed (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253).
Zhu is not associated in popular culture with any specialized clothing or adornments like Sun Wukong, who’s very name brings to mind the golden fillet, a tiger skin kilt, and golden armor with a feather cap. But several later chapters do mention our pig hero wearing a “black brocade zhiduo robe” (zao jin zhiduo, 皂錦直裰) (ch. 55, 61, 72, & 86) or just a “black zhiduo robe” (zao zhiduo, 皂直裰) (ch. 63, 67, & 84).  The zhiduo robe is known colloquially in English as “Buddhist monk” or “Taoist monk” robes. Also called haiqing (海青), such garments reach almost to the ground and have long, broad sleeves. The robe is closed by a tie on the right side of the torso (fig. 10; also refer back to fig. 7).
Zhu’s signature weapon is first mentioned in chapter 8. A line from his introductory poem reads: “He holds a rake—a dragon’s outstretched claws” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211). The most detailed description appears in chapter 19:
This is divine bin steel greatly refined,  Polished so highly that it glows and shines. Laozi wielded the large hammer and tong; Mars himself added charcoals piece by piece. Five Kings of Five Quarters applied their schemes; The Six Ding and Six Jia Spirits expended all their skills.  They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade, And double rings were cast with dropping gold leaves. Decked with Five Stars and Six Celestial Bodies,  Its frame conformed to eight spans and four climes. Its whole length set to match the cosmic scheme Accorded with yin yang, with the sun and moon: Hexagram Spirit Generals etched as Heaven ruled; Eight-Trigram Stars stood in ranks and files. They named this the High Treasure Golden Rake, [Shang bao qin jin pa, 上寶沁金鈀] […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382).
So we see the rake has nine jade-like teeth and a bin steel body decorated with two golden rings and inscriptions of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. The exact position of the rings is not specified, but one online drawing shows them at each end of the rake head (refer back to fig. 8). This might be a reference to the rings capping the ends of Sun’s weapon. While the weight is not listed on the rake like the Monkey King’s staff, chapter 88 states it is 5,048 catties (wuqian ling sishiba jin, 五千零四十八斤; 6,566 lbs. / 2,978.28 kg),  or the weight of the Buddhist canon (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). 
Since the rake’s literary description is more vague than that of Wukong’s staff, my normally strict views on the accuracy of the disciples’ weapons in various media don’t really apply in this case. This is especially true as even historical depictions are all over the place (fig. 11-13). I think the monstrous pig face on the rake from the 1986 TV show-inspired action figure is really neat (refer back to fig. 1). Another favorite of mine is the spiky rake from the ongoing manhuaThe Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) (fig. 13).
1) The Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) – This is perhaps the closest to his literary description (but his body and hair should be darker) (fig. 17). Admittedly, this is not the character’s original form. The manhua portrays Zhu as a small, pink pig-man who needs to absorb energy from the surrounding environment in order to achieve this monstrous transformation.
2) Journey to the West (2011) – This is how Zhu is portrayed when he’s still a monster (fig. 18). He has the dark skin, fangs, and mane. But he later changes to a friendly, pink pig-man once subjugated.
3) The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) – While missing his bristly mane, Zhu is portrayed with a long snout, big ears, and, most importantly, black skin (fig. 19). He is also wearing a black zhiduo robe. Thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting this entry.
Fig. 19 – Zhou Hongquan (周鴻泉) as Zhu in The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) (larger version).
While modern media often depicts Zhu as a friendly-looking, pink pig-man, the novel describes him as a giant pig monster with a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, a three-foot-long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin, human hands and feet, and a pig tail. He wears a black zhiduo robe. His 3.28 ton bin steel rake has nine jade-like teeth, two golden rings (possibly adorning the ends of the head), and a body inscribed with the sun, moon, and planets and hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. Needless to say, the literary Zhu is far more imposing than his modern, family friendly persona.
1) The Chinese foot (chi, 尺) was slightly longer than the modern western foot (12 in/30.48 cm). The Board of Works (Yingzao, 營造) of the Ming and Qing standardized the measurement at 32 cm (12.59 in), though it varied at the local level and at different times (Ruitenbeek, 1996, Chinese Dynasties and Chinese Measurements section). I’m basing the length given in the novel on that from the Board of Works as the novel was published during the Ming dynasty.
2) The original English translation says “green” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). However, there are times when it refers to black. For example, the phrase “The black ox goes west” (qing niu xi qu, 青牛西去) references Laozi and the Daodejing (Ma & van Brakel, 2016, p. 328 n. 71). In addition, the novel previously refers to Zhu having a “black face” (hei lian, 黑臉) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).
3) This recalls the origin of the immortal Iron Crutch Li (Li tieguai, 李鐵拐), whose body was prematurely burnt by a disciple while his celestial spirit traveled to heaven. Upon his return, Li was forced to take corporeal form in the body of a recently deceased cripple.
4) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the garment as “black cloth shirt” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253, for example).
5) Thank you to Irwen Wong and Anthony “Antz” Chong for bringing this to my attention.
6) See note #1 for how this measurement is calculated.
7) The original English translation says “hundred-yard” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253). However, the Chinese states 百丈 (bai zhang), or 100 x 10 Chinese feet, which of course equals 1,000 feet.
8) The original English translation/Chinese text states “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382). However, this is likely an error for “divine bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) was a high quality metal originally imported from Persia before the secret of its manufacture reached China in the 12th-century. It is mentioned a few times in the novel, including being associated with Monkey’s staff in one instance (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).
I’ve made several changes to the translation from this point forward to better accord with the original Chinese.
9) The “Six Ding and Six Jia” (六丁六甲, Liuding liujia) are protector spirits of Daoism (Mugitani, 2008).
10) The “Five Stars” (wuxing, 五星) refer to Mercury (shuixing, 水星), Venus (jinxing, 金星), Jupiter (muxing, 木星), Mars (huoxing, 火星), and Saturn (tuxing, 土星). The Six Celestial Bodies (liuyao, 六曜) refer to the sun (taiyang/ri, 太陽/日) and moon (taiyin/yue, 太陰/月) and the four hidden pseudo-planets Yuebei (月孛), Ziqi (紫氣), Luohou (羅睺), and Jidu (計都). Combined, they are called the “Eleven Luminaries” (shiyi yao, 十一 曜), and these are sometimes broken into the “Seven Governors and Four Hidden Luminaries” (qizheng siyu, 七政四余) (Wang, 2020, pp. 169-170; Hart, 2010, p. 145 n. 43).
11) The original English translation says “five thousand and forty-eight pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 5,048 catties would equal 6,566 lbs. or 2,978.28 kg.
12) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) notes popular belief held that the Buddhist canon was comprised of 5,048 scrolls (vol. 4, p. 396 n. 7). I’m not sure if the rake’s weight was purely based on the number of scrolls, or if each scroll was believed to weigh one catty.
Hart, R. (2010). The Chinese Roots of Linear Algebra. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ma, L., & van Brakel, J. (2016). Fundamentals of Comparative and Intercultural Philosophy. United States: State University of New York Press.
Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (vol. 1-2) (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.
Ruitenbeek, K. (1996). Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-century Carpenter’s Manual, Lu Ban Jing. Germany: E.J. Brill.
Wang, X. (2020). Physiognomy in Ming China: Fortune and the Body. Netherlands: Brill.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.
1. Ancient Depictions
Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century.  But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling,  records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.
Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains an 11th-century (Xixia dynasty) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.
Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.
Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains an 11th to 12th-century wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).
Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the 11th to 12th-century Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).
Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 11th-century. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.
A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.
Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).
Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:
A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”, A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim], Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)
Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.
I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is theThe Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures(c. late 13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).
The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted this size could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.
2. What the novel says
2.1. Physical appearance
The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subodhi, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].”  After he returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).
In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [the Rhesus macaque]” (fig. 6) (p. 148).
Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.
In chapter 20, the reader learns that Monkey’s head is bald (fig. 7). An old man asks him: “…why did you shave your hair to become a monk?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).
In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:
The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)
His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)
Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).
Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).
In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:
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 [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).
In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).
In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:
A hairy face, a thunder god beak, An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s; Two forked ears on a big, broad head, And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:
“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).
In chapter 77, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:
You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).
We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).
Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.
2.2 Clothing and accessories
The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.
The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:
“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).
Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with “mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).
Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers in chapter six: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:
Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)
Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace in chapter seven, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One late-Ming woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).
The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 17). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:
[Slit] the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece … He cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
Fig. 17 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.
Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 11th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 18). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 19). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.
Fig. 18 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 19 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237) (larger version).
As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:
His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.
There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.
2.3. The staff
Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:
Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [wutie, 烏鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,560 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). 
A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:
The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.  King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍] To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth. In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars, Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold. Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts; On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn. Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒], Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)
So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.
Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 20 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.
Fig. 20 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).
As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.
3. Popular depictions
The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.
3.1. The least accurate
1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 21). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.
1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 20).
3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 26).
Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).
The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.
I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.
My friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information (fig. 27). As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.
As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact”. I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.
I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes Sun Wukong’s golden headband to tighten. Similar to the above article, I had artists and fanfiction authors in mind when I wrote it.
1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.
2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.
3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).
4) Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,560 lbs.
5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).
Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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.
Elvin, M. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.
Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.
Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.
Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
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.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.