Eliade (1959) notes that “communication [between heaven, earth, and the underworld in world religions] is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth” (p. 36).
Why is this important? Because the novel describes how Monkey was born from a stone that “had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of heaven and earth and by the essences of the sun and moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). As a pillar of heaven, the height of Flower Fruit Mountain positions the boulder where heaven meets earth, allowing there to be a passage of energies between the two plains of existence through the stone, like electricity through a fuse. This might explain why Sun is so powerful.
Fig. 1- A complex diagram of Mount Sumeru and the associated heavens above and hells below it. If this portrayed Flower Fruit Mountain, Sun Wukong’s boulder would have been located where the summit meets the first heaven (larger version).
As I explain here, the author of Journey to the West supplanted traditional Buddhist geography by placing China in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent and moving India to Western Godinyia. So by making Flower Fruit Mountain the axis mundi, it supplants Mount Sumeru as the center of the cosmos (fig. 1). Admittedly, there is a discrepancy between the literary narrative and the religious cosmology since the book states Flower Fruit Mountain is located “at the border of the small Aolai Country [傲來國], which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent [東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). By definition, the mountain can’t be in the center of the world if it’s located to the east of the easternmost continent.
Note: This page used to have historical information about the origin of Monkey’s first master, but I have moved it to a new article.
Last updated: 03-07-2023
The Monkey King’s home, the “Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” or “Flower-Fruit Mountain” (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is commonly assumed to be located in China. In fact, a mountain with the same name in Jiangsu province is even touted as the home of Sun Wukong. However, this is not the case within the novel’s narrative. It’s important to remember that Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) is set in a world that is nothing like our Earth.
In this article, I will explain the location of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, showing that Sun Wukong’s home is in fact an island east of what would be considered China. This opens the door to interesting interpretations by those wanting to place the story within a real world context. Second, I will explain the ancient Buddhist disc world system as presented in the book. My hope is that this will give readers a better understanding of the cosmic geography in which the story happens.
1. Religious background
Note: I will alternate between Wu & Jenner (2020) and Wu & Yu (2012), using one or the other depending on who I think has done a better job of translating certain passages.
Chapter one opens by describing the world in which the story is set:
The world was then divided into four great continents: The Eastern Continent of Superior Body, the Western Continent of Cattle-Gift, the Southern Continent of Jambu and the Northern Continent of Kuru (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 1, p. 3).
Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation provides romanization of the Sanskrit names (vol. 1, p. 100). I’ve listed them below, along with the original Sanskrit, an alternative English translation, and the Chinese for the reader’s reference:
East Pūrvavideha (Sk: पूर्वविदेह, “Surpassing the Body”; Ch: Dong shengshen zhou, 東勝神洲)
West Aparagodānīya (Sk: अपरगोदानीय, “Enjoyer of Cattle”; Ch: Xi niuhe zhou, 西牛賀洲)
North Uttarakuru (Sk: उत्तरकुरु, “Unpleasant Sound”; Ch: Bei julu zhou, 北俱盧洲)
South Jambudvīpa (Sk: जम्बुद्वीप, “Rose-Apple”; Ch: Nan shanbu zhou, 南贍部洲)
The Abhidharmakośa (Sk: अभिधर्मकोशभास्य; Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century), a text describing the Buddhist universe, states that the four continents each have two intermediate continents, and that all twelve are set afloat in a great ocean surrounding the four respective sides of Mt. Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山). This is a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos, as well as the abode of assorted gods and sages. It is surrounded by seven golden mountains of lesser height, as well as a final iron mountain around the outside rim of the ocean, which keeps the water from draining over the edge (fig. 1 & 2) (Vasubandhu, La Vallée-Poussin, & Pruden, 1991, pp. 452-456).
This system is supported by a series of elemental discs, each one becoming larger as one descends. The highest is kāñcanamaṇḍala, a disc of gold. The middle is jalamaṇḍala, a disc of water. And the lowest is vāyumaṇḍala, a disc of wind (fig. 3). This grand creation is thought to float in “space” (Vasubandhu, La Vallée-Poussin, & Pruden, 1991, pp. 451-452).
Fig. 1 (top) – A top view of the Buddhist disc world system (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – A side view of the system (larger version). Images from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxii-xxxi. Fig. 3 (bottom) – A diagram showing the elemental discs supporting the world (larger version). Take note of the “wind circle” (light blue), the “water circle” (dark blue), and the “Golden earth layer” (gold). Adapted from Sadakata, 1997, p. 27.
2. Location of the Mountain
Chapter one continues:
Beyond the seas there is a country called Aolai [Aolai guo, 傲來國]. This country is next to an ocean, and in the middle of the ocean is a famous island called the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. This mountain is the ancestral artery of the Ten Continents, the origin of the Three Islands;  it was formed when the clear and impure were separated and the Enormous Vagueness was divided (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 1, p. 3; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 100).
Two deities shortly thereafter give a more precise location for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit:
“We found that at the edge of the country of Aolai, which is east of the ocean belonging to the Eastern Continent of Superior Body, there is an island called the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit …” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 1, p. 3; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 102).
All of this information tells us that the mountain is an island located 200 li (62 miles / 100 km) east of Eastern Superior Body (East Pūrvavideha).
3. The Novel’s Version of the Buddhist Disc World System
Buddhism traditionally associates Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa) with India (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 377), but the novel shifts this structure a quarter turn clockwise (fig. 4). For example, in chapter eight, the Buddha associates his home (India) with the western continent and the southern continent with the “eastern lands” (dongtu, 東土), the Chinese Buddhist term for China (Tan, 1998, p. 137):
“… Our Western Continent of Cattle-Gift has people who neither covet nor kill. They nourish the vital essence and submerge the spirit; and although they produce no saints of the highest order, they all live to a ripe old age. But in the Southern Jambu Continent they are greedy and lecherous and delight in the sufferings of others; they go in for a great deal of killing and quarrelling. That continent can with truth be called a vicious field of tongues and mouths, an evil sea of disputation. [But I have] Three Stores of True Scriptures with which they can be persuaded to be good” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol.1, p. 165; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 205).
“I want to send them to the eastern lands because it is intolerable that the beings of that quarter should all be such stupid wretches who slander and defame the true word, do not understand the gist of my Law, and have lapsed from the orthodox Yogacara Sect…” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol.1, p. 165; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 205).
Additional evidence comes from chapter 29 when the chosen scripture pilgrim‘s travel rescript is reproduced. The opening line expressly connects China with the southern continent by way of the Chinese Tang dynasty:
The travel rescript of the Tang Son of Heaven, who succeeds under the guidance of Heaven to the throne of the Great Tang Empire in the South Jambudvīpa Continent. … (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 48; cf. Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 2, p. 661).
This means that when Sun first sails to Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa) to find a means of escaping death (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol.1, p. 16; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 108), he travels to the novel’s version of China. This further solidifies the fact that the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is not located in China.
Fig. 4 – A top view of the Buddhist disc world system according to Journey to the West (larger version). The Mountain of Flowers and Fruit would be to the east of Eastern Superior Body (East Pūrvavideha). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. xxxii.
4. Reason for the Change
I suggest that the author-compiler of Journey to the West replaced the traditional cosmic geography for two reasons. First, both China and (part of) ancient India were referred to as the “Middle Kingdom” (Ch: Zhongguo, 中國; Sk: Madhyadeśa, मध्यदेश) (Wilkinson, 2000, p. 132; Lamotte, 1988, pp. 8-9). For example, the travelogue of the noted 4th to 5th-century Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (法顯) reads:
Central India is known as the “Middle Kingdom” [Zhongguo, 中國]. The food and clothing of the common people are the same as the “Middle Kingdom” [i.e. China].
I have drastically rewritten the article to include more detailed information about the Buddhist disc world system. I would also like to add material here from a previous article since it is related to the novel’s changes to the pre-existing structure.
Originally, the top of Mt. Sumeru supported the Buddhist heaven of the “Thirty-Three (Gods)” (Sk: Trāyastriṃśa, त्रायस्त्रिंश; Ch: Sanshisan tian, 三十三天; Daoli tian, 忉利天) (fig. 5), which is ruled by Śakra (Sk: शक्र; Ch: Dishi, 帝釋), king of the gods (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 921-922). However, the novel replaces this realm with the Daoist heaven, which is ruled by the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang shang/dadi, 玉皇上/大帝) (Clart, 2008, pp. 1197-1198). This is hinted at in chapter four when Monkey is invited to serve as the keeper of the heavenly horses. Part of a poem describing what he sees reads:
[…] In this heaven are thirty-three heavenly palaces (emphasis added): The Palace of Clouds Dispersed, the Vaisravana Palace, the [P]alace of Five Lores, the Sun Palace, the Palace of Flowery Bliss […] (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, p. 73; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 146).
The “thirty-three” palaces are references to the homes of the thirty three gods. This change is therefore a prime example of the kind of Buddho-Daoist religious syncretism featured in Journey to the West.
Fig. 5 – The Heaven of the Thirty-Three atop Mt. Sumeru is indicated in red (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. xxxii.
Despite the four Buddhist disc world continents appearing in the story, Journey to the West hints that its world is a globe. For instance, when the Monkey King first sets out from his home in chapter one, he sails SE to reach the NW side of Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa):
He had chosen just the right time for his journey. After he boarded his raft the southeasterly wind blew hard for days on end and bore him to the northwestern shore of the southern continent (Wu & Jenner, 2020, vol.1, p. 16; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 108).
I thought maybe SE and NW were typos since heading SW would have taken him to the NE shore of the southern continent (refer back to fig. 4). However, in chapter two, Sun tells his children:
“The year I left you all,” Wukong said, “I drifted with the waves across the Great Eastern Ocean and reached the West Aparagodānīya Continent. I then arrived at the South Jambudvīpa Continent, where I learned human ways, wearing this garment and these shoes. I swaggered along with the clouds for eight or nine years, but I had yet to learn the Great Art. I then crossed the Great Western Ocean and reached the West Aparagodānīya Continent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129; cf. Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, p. 47).
So it appears that he sailed from the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to Western Cattle-Gift (West Aparagodānīya), similar to traveling from Japan in the East to the United States in the West. Then, he sailed from there to Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa), similar to traveling from the US to Africa. Lastly, he sailed back to Western Cattle-Gift (West Aparagodānīya). This might mean that the world of Journey to the West is a combination of a spherical planet and the Buddhist disc world system.
If true, I suggest that the nonsensical, roundabout way that Monkey comes to study with Subodhi in the western continent could be a physical representation of his unsettled “monkey mind” (xinyuan, 心猿).
However, it’s important to point out that even Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) considers the aforementioned route to be “[a]n inconsistency in the text” (vol. 1, p. 509, n. 17). So, I’ll leave it up to the reader as to which version of the world they ultimately want to accept.
I found a lovely overhead Chinese map of the Buddhist disc world system (fig. 6). The teeth-like structures around the perimeter are actually the iron mountain that contains the ocean. Also Mt. Sumeru in the center is topped by a building representing the Buddhist heaven of the “Thirty-Three (Gods)” (Ch: Daoli tian, 忉利天) (refer back to fig. 5).
In my 02-06-23 update, I noted how the “thirty-three mansions” alluded to the Buddhist heaven of the thirty-three gods (sanshisan tian, 三十三天), thereby showing that the Daoist heaven was inserted into the Buddhist cosmological structure. Well, I had completely forgotten that the novel overtly mentions this heaven numerous times. This is important in regards to the location of Laozi‘s (老子) residence.
Journey to the West states that the deva and his alchemical furnace are located in the “Tushita Palace” (Doushuai gong, 兜率宮), which is said to be either in the “Separation’s Regret Heaven” (Lihen tian, 離恨天) or the “Great Canopy Heaven” (Daluo tian, 大羅天). Both are treated as the highest of the thirty-three heavens. For more information, see my article:
1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) explains, “These islets and islands were famous abodes of gods or immortals” (vol. 1, p. 506, n. 6).
Buswell, R. E. , & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Clart, P. (2008). Yuhuang. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1 & 2) (pp. 1197-1198). Longdon: Routledge.
Lamotte, E. (1988). History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era (S. Webb-Boin, Trans.). Louvain-la-Neuve: Université Catholique de Louvain Institut Orientaliste.
Tan, C. (1998). A Sino-Indian Perspective for India-China Understanding. In C. Tan (Ed.), Across the Himalayan Gap: An Indian Quest for Understanding China (pp. 133-147). New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
Vasubandhu, La Vallée-Poussin, L., & Pruden, L. M. (1991). Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam of Vasubandhu (Vol. 2). Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press.
Wilkinson, E. P. (2000). Chinese History: A Manual (Rev. and Enl). Published by the Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute : Distributed by Harvard University Press.
Wu, C. & Jenner, W. J. F. (2020). Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.