Sun Wukong’s Names and Titles

I was recently contacted by a reader who said they were researching the Monkey King’s various nicknames. I had never thought about this before, so I thought I’d write an article to help them out. I am indebted to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for helping me with some of the more obscure terms. If you know of others that I missed, please let me know in the comments below or by email (see the “contact” button).

The vast majority of the terms listed here come from the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji西遊記; hereafter JTTW). I have also added a few terms from a precursor, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century) (Wivell, 1994). I did this to show that certain variations of names or titles have existed for centuries.

I. Mentioned in the narrative

These are names or titles mentioned by the narrative.

  1. Shihou (石猴, “Stone Monkey”) – Monkey’s first name according to chapter one (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 104). This is related to his birth from stone (fig. 1).
  2. Tianchan Shihou (天產石猴, “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey”) – His REAL name as listed in the ledgers of hell in chapter three (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).
  3. Xinyuan (心猿, “Mind Monkey/Ape”) – A Buddho-Daoist allegorical term for the disquieted thoughts and emotions that keep man trapped in Saṃsāra. It is used numerous times in chapter titles (e.g. ch. 7) and poems to refer to Monkey (see the material below figure three here).
  4. Jingong (金公, “Lord or Squire of Gold/Metal”) – A term used mainly in poems to refer to Monkey. It is an alternative reading of the component characters making up lead (qian, 鉛), namely jin (金) and gong (公). Lead was an important ingredient in immortal elixirs of external alchemy, and metal/gold (jin, 金) is connected to the earthly branch shen (申), which is associated with monkeys (see no. 9 here) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 83 and p. 532 n. 3).
  5. Taiyi Sanxian (太乙散仙, “Leisurely or Minor Immortal of the Great Monad”) – Monkey’s rank within the hierarchy of cosmic immortals (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 471, for example). It essentially means that he is a divine being without a heavenly post.
  6. Taiyi Jinxian (太乙金仙, “Golden Immortal of the Great Monad”) – A seemingly embellished version of the previous term (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 264, for example). It speaks of a higher rank. [1]
  7. Lingming Shihou (靈明石猴, “Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom”) – The name of his magic species according to the Buddha in chapter 58 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115). [2] He is the first of four spiritual primates.
  8. Nanbian Mihou (難辨獼猴, “Indistinguishable Macaques”) – A term referring to both Sun Wukong and the Six-Eared Macaque. [3]

Fig. 1 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article.

II. Given

These are names, titles, or insults that are given to or directed at our hero by other characters.

  1. Hou Xingzhe (猴行者, “Monkey Pilgrim”) – Monkey’s original religious name in the 13th-century JTTW. It is given by Tripitaka at the beginning of the journey (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). The Xingzhe (行者) portion of this name carried over to the 1592 edition. See nos. 11 and 12 below.
  2. Gangjin Tiegu Dasheng (鋼筋鐵骨大聖, “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones”) – His divine title in the 13th-century JTTW. It is bestowed by Tang Emperor Taizong at the end of the journey (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207). [4] The Dasheng (大聖) portion of this name carried over to the 1592 edition. See sec. III, nos. 8 and 9 below.
  3. Sun Wukong (孫悟空, “Monkey Awakened to Emptiness”) – The religious name given to him in chapter one by his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115). It predates the 1592 JTTW, first appearing as early as the early-Ming zaju play (see here, for example). It’s important to note that the name “Wukong” (悟空) might have been influenced by a Tang-era monk who traveled throughout India just like Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based).
  4. Liu Xiao Ling Tong (六小龄童) – Monkey’s name in the human world.
  5. Pohou (潑猴, “Reckless or Brazen Monkey”) – An insult used throughout JTTW (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 118, for example).
  6. Shangxian (上仙, “High or Exalted Immortal”) – A respectful title used by the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean in chapter three (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 134).
  7. Huaguo Shan Shuilian Dong Tianchan Yaohou (花果山水簾洞天產妖猴, “Heaven-Born Demon Monkey from the Water-Curtain Cave of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit”) – An insult used by King Qinguang, a Judge of Hell, in a memorial to the Jade Emperor in chapter three (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 142).
  8. Xiandi (賢弟, “Worthy Little Brother”) – A nicknamed used by the Bull Demon King (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156, for example). Monkey is the smallest and therefore the last of seven sworn brothers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 223-224).
  9. Yaoxian (妖仙, “Bogus Immortal”) – A category of nigh-immortal beings. He is called this by the Jade Emperor in chapter four and the Buddha in chapter seven, respectively (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 147-148 and p. 193).
  10. Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To Assist Horse Temperament”) – A minor post overseeing the celestial horse stables. Monkey is given this position in chapter four by the Jade Emperor. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as “BanHorsePlague” (vol. 1, p. 148, for example). [5] This is sometimes used as an insult (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 354, for example).
  11. Yaohou (妖猴, “Monster or Demon Monkey”) – An insult used numerous times throughout the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 154, for example).
  12. Sun Xingzhe (孫行者, “Pilgrim Sun”) – Monkey’s second religious name. It is given to him in chapter 14 by Tripitaka (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309). Xingzhe Sun (行者孫) is a less common variation. Refer back to no. 1. See also sec. III, no. 10 below.
  13. Xingzhe (行者, “Pilgrim”) – He is more commonly referred to by this name than Sun Xingzhe or Sun Wukong combined. [6] See section III here to learn about the significance of this title. Refer back to no. 1.
  14. Sun Zhanglao (孫長老, “Elder Sun”) – A respectful title used by people he has helped (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 85, for example).
  15. Dashixiong (大師兄, “Elder Religious Brother”) – A term used by Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 74, for example).
  16. Houtou (猴頭, “Monkey/Ape Head”) – An insult used by various characters, especially Tripitaka (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 26, for example).
  17. Maolian Heshang (毛臉和尚, “Hairy-Faced Monk”) – A term that describes his features (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 407, for example).
  18. Maolian Lei Gong Zui de Heshang (毛臉雷公嘴的和尚, “Hairy-Faced, Thunder God-Beaked Monk) – A term that compares his elongated simian face to the beak of the bird-like thunder god Lei Gong (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 351, for example). Variations include Lei Gong Zui Heshang (雷公嘴和尚, “Thunder God-Beaked Monk”) and Lei Gong de Nanzi/Hanzi (雷公嘴的男子/漢子, “Thunder God-Beaked Man”).
  19. Dou Zhansheng Fo (鬥戰勝佛, “Buddha Victorious in Strife or Victorious Fighting Buddha”) – His Buddha title bestowed by the Tathagata at the end of the journey in chapter 100 (fig. 2) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 381).

Fig. 2 – A religiously accurate drawing of Monkey as Dou zhansheng fo by NinjaHaku21 (larger version).

III. Self-Named

These are names, titles, or pseudonyms taken by Monkey himself. These do not include the names of the innumerable gods, monsters, or humans that he disguises himself as. They only refer to him personally.

  1. Huaguo Shan Ziyun Dong Bawan Siqian Tongtou Tie’e Mihou Wang (花果山紫雲洞八萬四千銅頭鐵額獼猴王, “Bronze-Headed, Iron-Browed King of the Eighty-Four Thousand Monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit”) – How he introduces himself to Tripitaka in the 13th-century JTTW (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). The “Monkey King” (Mihou Wang, 獼猴王) portion of this name carried over to the 1592 edition but was represented with different Chinese characters. See nos. 2 and 3 below. This article discusses the term mihou (獼猴).
  2. Meihou Wang (美猴王, “Handsome Monkey King”) – The title that he takes upon ascending the throne in chapter one (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 106).
  3. Hou Wang (猴王, “Monkey King”) – He is more commonly referred to by this name than Meihou wang. [7]
  4. Huaguo Shan Shuilian Dong Dongzhu (花果山水簾洞洞主, “Lord of the Water-Curtain Cave in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit”) – How he introduces himself in chapter two to a demon king plaguing his people (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 127).
  5. Huaguo Shan Shuilian Dong Tiansheng Shenren (花果山水簾洞天生聖人, “Heaven-Born Sage From the Water-Curtain Cave in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit”) – How he introduces himself to the Ten Kings of Hell in chapter three (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).
  6. Lao Sun (老孫, “Old Sun”) – A term that he uses many, many times throughout the novel. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as “Old Monkey” (vol. 1, p. 128, for example).
  7. Qitian Dasheng (齊天大聖, “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”) – The seditious title that he takes during his rebellion against heaven (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 151). Monkey is worshiped by this name in modern Chinese Folk Religion (fig. 3). Refer back to sec. II, no. 2.
  8. Dasheng (大聖, “Great Sage”) – He is more commonly referred to by this title than Qitian dasheng. [8] Variations include Dasheng Yeye (大聖爺爺, “[Paternal] Grandpa Great Sage”) and Sun Dasheng (孫大聖, “Great Sage Sun”). Refer back to sec. II, no. 2.
  9. Zhexing Sun (者行孫, “Grimpil Sun”) – A pseudonym taken in chapter 34 when Monkey secretly escapes imprisonment and then presents himself as his own brother in an attempt to trick demons (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 130). The strange English rendering is Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) way of accounting for the change from Xingzhe Sun (孫, “Pilgrim Sun”) to Zhexing Sun (孫, “Grimpil Sun”). Refer back to sec. II, no. 11.
  10. Sun Waigong (孫外公, “([Maternal] Grandpa Sun”) – A name that he uses to taunt demons (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 407, for example). It’s a cheeky way of saying, “I’m your elder, so you better submit to me.”
  11. Sun Yeye (孫爺爺, “([Paternal] Grandpa Sun”) – Same.
  12. Sun Erguan (孫二官, “Second Master Sun”) – A pseudonym taken in chapter 84 in order to investigate an anti-Buddhist kingdom under the guise of a horse trader. The other pilgrims take similar names (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 132).

Fig. 3 – A Great Sage idol from Shengfo Tang (聖佛堂, “Sage Buddha Hall”) in Beigang Township, Yunlin County, Taiwan (larger version). It is one of many Monkey King Temples on the island. Photo by the author.


1) The Jinxian (金仙) of Monkey’s title Taiyi Jinxian (太乙金仙, “Golden Immortal of the Great Monad”) is associated with far more lofty figures. For example, a poem in chapter one refers to the Patriarch Subodhi as the Dajue Jinxian (大覺金仙, “Golden Immortal of Great Awareness”) (see section 2.3 here).

2) I’m placing the name in this category because the Tathagata is stating a fact instead of bestowing it as a proper name.

3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as the “macaque hard to distinguish” (vol. 4, p. 360). But I think that the original Chinese term is likely referring to both Sun and Six Ears. Their battle across the cosmos is counted in chapter 99 as the 46th of 81 hardships that Tripitaka was fated to endure (Wu &Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 360).

4) Wivell (1994) translates the name as “Great Sage of Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (p. 1207). But the gang (鋼) of Gangjin tiegu dasheng (鋼筋鐵骨大聖) means “steel.”

5) This references the homophonous term Bimawen (避馬瘟, “avoid the horse plague”), the historical practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sickness (see the 02-26-22 update here).

6) The term Xingzhe (行者, “pilgrim”) appears 4,355 times, while Sun xingzhe and Sun Wukong appear 239 and 127 times, respectively. Xingzhe is used numerous times to refer to other characters, such as Guanyin’s disciple Hui’an (惠岸行者, 6 times; a.k.a. Mucha or Mokṣa, 木叉行者, 9 times), but the vast majority refer to Monkey.

7) The term Hou wang (猴王, “Monkey King”) appears 185 times, while Meihou wang (美猴王) appears 42 times.

8) The term Dasheng (大聖, “Great Sage”) appears 1,273 times, while Qitian dasheng (齊天大聖) appears 103 times. I believe Dasheng is also used to refer to the Buddha a few times, so please keep this in mind.


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

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

Is Sun Wukong FTM Trans?

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

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

Last updated: 09-27-2023

Warning: This article contains adult language and content.

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

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

2) Historically and canonically speaking? No.

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

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

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

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

1. An Important Statement

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

2. Arguments and Counterarguments

2.1. Gender Neutral Terms 

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

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

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

2.2. Matriarchal Primate Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.3. Feminine Title

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


See the 08-09-2023 and 09-27-23 updates below for another reason why he might have been called Meihou wang (美猴王).

2.4. Etymology of Surname

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

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


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

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

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

2.5. Stable Monkeys

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

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

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

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

3. Final Counterarguments

3.1. Historical Male Depictions

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

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

3.1A. Art

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

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

3.1B. Oral literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

龍王 … 遂棄寶劍,也不興雲雨,出岸上,搖身一變,變作一個白衣秀士)

3.1C. Zaju play

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

3.1D. Other Published Literature

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

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


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

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


The novel doesn’t elaborate on how the other four sons are conceived. But in the case of Pāramitā, Sun’s presence in Iron Fan’s stomach acts as sperm fertilizing an egg.

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

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

3.2. Spiritual Gender Transitions in Buddhism

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

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

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



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

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

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

4. Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Update: 05-19-2023

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

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

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

Update: 05-27-23

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

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

Update: 08-09-23

It just occurred to me that another reason why Sun Wukong might be called Meihou wang (美猴王), or “Handsome or Beautiful Monkey King,” is because it’s a pun on mihou (獼猴), another word for macaque. The 1592 JTTW already includes a separate character named Mihou wang (獼猴王) in chapters three, four, and 41. And most importantly, even the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys is called Mihou wang (獼猴王). See the article below for more info.

The Female Monkey King: A Brief Study of the Term Mihou (獼猴) in Journey to the West

Update: 09-27-23

It just dawned on me that Sun Wukong’s precursor, the Monkey Pilgrim” from the 13th-century JTTW, is also called Mihou wang (獼猴王). Chapter two refers to him as Huaguo shan ziyun dong bawan siqian tongtou tie’e Mihou wang (花果山紫雲洞八萬四千銅頭鐵額獼猴王, the “Bronze-Headed, Iron-Browed King of the Eighty-Four Thousand Monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits”) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182).

This might lend support to the suggestion in my 08-09-23 update above.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive #39 – Journey to the West Adaptations

The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Monkey Ruler (Twitter and Tumblr). They have graciously written an essay on the global nature of Journey to the West adaptations, as well as provided a link to their ongoing project recording JTTW media (fig. 1). As of the publishing of this article, it includes a long list of almost 570 movies, 90 TV shows, and 160 video games! – Jim

Fig. 1 – Depictions of Sun Wukong from adaptations produced over 50 years apart: (left) Havoc in Heaven (Danao tiangong, 大鬧天宮, 1961) and (right) Monkey King: Hero is Back (Xiyouji zhi Dasheng guilai, 西遊記之大聖歸來, lit: “Journey to the West: Return of the Great Sage,” 2015) (larger version). Courtesy of Monkey Ruler.

I. Media adaptations

This started out as a collection of Xiyouji (西遊記; lit: “Journey to the West,” 1592) movies and TV shows for the sake of a Master’s class project; it was simple enough to look for Xiyouji media and start adding them to a collection datasheet. But even when the project was over, I kept finding more and more adaptations, even stumbling across others trying to show the magnitude of how much this novel has encompassed popular culture throughout the centuries. It has been told and re-told again and again in oral and published literature, plays, art, songs, poems, etc., and now on the big and small screens. Audiences are re-introduced to the image of Sun Wukong and his fellow pilgrims with every new media addition.

What really inspired me was the book Transforming Monkey: Adaptations and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018) by Hongmei Sun, where she explained in depth the cultural impact that Sun Wukong (fig. 2) and Xiyouji has had on Chinese media, as well as how this loose set of franchises have come to represent Chinese culture as these shows and movies have become more globally accessible. Xiyouji is such an iconic cultural universe that it can be both heavily entertaining while still being so personal to audiences of any generation depending on how the artist/writer portrays their interpretation of these characters and their stories. 

There hasn’t been a lot written about how these interpretations influence modern Xiyouji adaptations despite how the story has greatly influenced popular culture.

Fig. 2 – The front cover of Transforming Monkey (2018) (larger version).

Xiyouji is such an influential story, one that will continue to grow more and more globally known throughout time because it is such an all-encompassing piece that can cover politics, identities, and allegories, while still being a very personal and interpersonal work that artists or writers can relate to. 

However, even with these layers of meaning and symbolism to be found, the story never loses the charming and entertaining aspects that can and have captured audiences. Despite being published over 430 years ago (with a history stretching back even further), Xiyouji is still able to relate to modern audiences through its allegories of oppression, rebellion, and self-identity. It has the capability to resonate with any generation depending on what artists or writers at the time wish to highlight or personally connect with themselves or their current world around them, using Xiyouji as a medium for their own struggles.

As Xiyouji starts to become more and more globally known, it is important to understand and resonate that this is still a Chinese story and how to address further adaptations with cross-nation gaps in both translation and cultural differences. There are media forms that are far more exploitative of the mythical journey, creating impractical scenarios of the narrative and thus changing the message of the story and characters completely. However, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what doesn’t work as Xiyouji adaptations due to the ever-changing zeitgeist in not only its home of origin but introducing it to a global sphere as it adds influence. 

In order to see what works for adaptations, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what is the core of the story and just why it remains popular, story-beat or character-wise. For example, Sun Wukong can be used as a great model for positive ambivalence in media, moving away from set limits of a single stereotype and rather being a constant motion of new ideas and new identities. Monkey has been changed from a mischievous monkey to a revolutionary hero to a post-modern rebel against authority throughout the years. But even throughout the constant changes and interpretations, people never lose sight of what the nature of Sun Wukong is: rebelliousness, variability, optimism, and persistence. 

Monkey is a transcending character as he is able to mediate contradictions within his own design, one being his gold-banded staff, a symbol of breaking barriers, and his golden filet (fig. 3), a symbol of limits. These two simple but prominent pieces of iconography immediately tell audiences who the character is supposed to be and what they are about.

Fig. 3 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden filet or headband (larger version).

While it is entertaining and able to be enjoyed by younger audiences, Xiyouji still has a deeper meaning that can be interpreted and recognized into adulthood. This is one of the few stories that I imagine can be adapted again and again without the issue of overlap as there are so many ways people can personally connect with these characters. 

Having that any generation, anyone really can find enjoyment in this media, and perhaps even be inspired to read the novel itself.

II. Archive link

Please consult the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet linked below. They are listed as “Movie Information,” “Movie Links,” “Honorary Shows,” “Game Information,” “Game Pictures,” “Honorary Games,” and “Sources.” – Jim

Interesting Facts about the Monkey King

Last updated: 08-28-2022

I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.

Current count: 108

  1. He was likely influenced by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Ch: Ha nu man, 哈奴曼) in different waves, one possibly from the north (via Tibet) and another from the south (via Southeast Asia). But the parallels are most apparent from the standard 1592 edition of JTTW, suggesting that the author-compiler had access to some form of the Indian epic Rāmāyana (7th-c. BCE to 3rd-c. CE). The novel even includes material from the epic Mahābhārata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE).
  2. In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
  3. He has the second longest association with the JTTW story cycle, appearing as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) circa 1000 (or before). Sha Wujing’s earliest antecedent appeared during the 8th-century, while Zhu Bajie didn’t appear until the 14th-century.
  4. The oldest published mention of the Monkey Pilgrim is a eulogy appearing in a tale from Zhang Shinan’s (張世南) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen, 遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). One scholar dates the story to around 1127.
  5. The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
  6. A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.

  7. This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.

  8. He is called the “Monkey King” (Houwang, 猴王) as far back as the 13th-century version. This position is likely based on a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys.
  9. The immortal is bestowed the title “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) at the end of the story by Tang Taizong.
  10. This immortal was heavily influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana).
  11. He was popular even in Korea and appeared in a set of carvings from a 14th-century stone pagoda.
  12. The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
  13. The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).

  14. The surname “Sun” (孫) means “grandson” but is an open reference to husun (猢猻, lit: “grandson of the barbarian”), the Chinese word for “macaque“. It was also a popular surname for supernatural primates in stories associated with the Lingyin Temple (靈隱寺), which also likely influenced the Monkey King.

  15. The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.

  16. So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).

  17. The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).

  18. Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).

  19. His story in the 1592 version takes place not in our world but in one modeled after ancient Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which features four island-like continents floating in a great ocean around the four respective faces of a cosmic mountain. And yet the novel was published during a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe, precisely 49 years after Copernicus suggested that the Earth orbits the sun.
  20. His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
  21. He has had past lives (see the 11-24-20 update here).
  22. He’s not the only figure from world myth born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.

  23. While his stone birth (ch. 1) is likely based on that of Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a legendary King of the Xia dynasty (more on this below), it may ultimately be linked to Tibetan stories of stone-born monkey deities.
  24. He was likely born during the late-Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046-256 BCE).
  25. He serves as a physical manifestation of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist philosophy denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep Man trapped in the illusory world of Saṃsāra (see the material below figure three here). This phrase is also surprisingly associated with sexual desire.
  26. Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
  27. The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branch shen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
  28. The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).

  29. His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’s Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
  30. Despite modern media portraying him as an adult-sized humanoid character that is sometimes handsome and/or very muscular, the 1592 version describes him as an ugly, bald, and skinny Rhesus macaque that is less than four feet tall. This means that one of the most powerful warriors in the Buddho-Daoist cosmos is the size of a child.
  31. While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
  32. The breathing and energy circulation methods that Monkey uses to achieve immortality (ch. 2) are based on real Daoist elixir practices.
  33. The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
  34. This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
  35. He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
  36. But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
  37. While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
  38. He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
  39. His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
  40. Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
  41. The novel only mentions him learning martial arts in passing (ch. 67 – see section 4.5 here), but one episode (ch. 51) features a battle between Monkey and a demon king in which they use a host of real world fighting techniques that are still known and practiced today.
  42. His favorite style of boxing is “Short Fist” (duanquan, 短拳) (see the 05-02-18 update here).
  43. His skill with the staff is so great that the novel compares it to techniques from two manuals listed among the Seven Military Classics of China (see the 08-07-18 update here).
  44. The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
  45. When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
  46. The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
  47. The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
  48. It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).

  49. The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬五百斤.

  50. He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
  51. His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!

  52. His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
  53. His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
  54. The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
  55. His conflict with Erlang (ch. 6) can be traced to ancient Han-era funerary rituals, and their battle of magic transformations shares parallels with ancient Greek tales and can ultimately be traced to even older stories from the Near East.
  56. His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
  57. He is shown to be weak against spiritual fire and smoke (see the 06-28-22 update here).
  58. Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
  59. The message that he leaves on the Buddha’s finger (ch. 7) is a popular form of graffiti in East Asia.
  60. His time under Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山) (ch. 7) is based on stories of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi (無支奇/巫支祇) being imprisoned under a mountain by Yu the Great.
  61. He was pressed under the mountain during the late-Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220CE – see section II here).
  62. A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
  63. This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
  64. One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
  65. Monkey’s mountain imprisonment was only part of his punishment. The other half was a hellish diet of hot iron pellets and molten copper, punishments straight from Buddhist canon.
  66. His golden headband (ch. 13) has three influences: 1) a historical ritual circlet worn as a physical reminder of right speech and action by Esoteric Buddhist yogins in ancient India; 2) adornments, likely based on stylized lingzhi mushrooms, worn by Daoist protector deities; and 3) an Iranic triple-crescent crown.
  67. The oldest depiction of Monkey with his headband that I know of appears in a late-Xixia (late-12th to early-13th-century) Buddhist cave grotto in Northwestern China.
  68. The earliest depiction of his double “curlicue-style” headband that I’m aware of is a 13th-century stone carving in Fujian.
  69. The secret spell that tightens his headband is likely the Akshobhya Buddha mantra.
  70. Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.

  71. Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
  72. Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
  73. The baby-shaped fruit that he eats (ch. 24) comes from a tree based on Indo-Persian lore.
  74. He claims to have eaten people when he was a monster in his youth (ch. 27) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).
  75. His greatest feat of strength is carrying two mountains while running at meteoric speeds (ch. 33). One is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, while the other is the place from which (according to legend) Buddhism spread upon entering China. This episode is based on an older tale in which Erlang does the lifting.
  76. His doppelganger, the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 56-58), is actually an aspect of his troubled mind. Once he kills him, Monkey takes one step closer to Buddhahood.
  77. He fights and is defeated by an ancient bird demon who is a spiritual uncle of the Buddha (ch. 77). This monster is based on the Hindu bird god Garuda.
  78. He and his religious brothers take human disciples in India (ch. 88), and Monkey later performs an arcane ritual in which he grants them superhuman strength (and possibly some form of immortality).
  79. His title, “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Douzhan sheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) (ch. 100), is based on a real world deity numbering among the “Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas“.
  80. The novel ranks him higher than Guanyin after his ascension (see the third quote here).
  81. As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
  82. Despite his association with the Victorious Fighting Buddha, he is primarily worshiped as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in East and Southeast Asian Chinese folk religion.
  83. Fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (Yihetuan yundong, 義和團運動, 1899-1901) believed that they could channel the Monkey King to gain his great combat skills.
  84. Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
  85. Chinese folk religion recognizes more than one Great Sage, usually between three and five individuals.
  86. Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
  87. He was even worshiped in 19th-century America!
  88. The iconic pose where he shades his eyes to search the horizon is likely based on a common motif associated with Chinese sea gods.
  89. He has a number of religious birthdays, one of which is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month (the day after the Mid Autumn Festival).
  90. There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishing kyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwar kyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
  91. His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
  92. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was a fan of the Monkey King, even associating himself with the character in his poetry. Also, a CCP propaganda play of the 1960s associates the scripture pilgrims with members of the Communist Party, with Monkey referencing Mao.
  93. He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
  94. He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).

  95. He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).

  96. He time travels to different points in Chinese history in an unofficial 17th-century sequel to JTTW.
  97. He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.

  98. He influenced the manga/anime hero Son Goku (a Japanese transliteration of 孫悟空) from the Dragon Ball Franchise.
  99. He almost appeared in an Indiana Jones movie!
  100. He has appeared in both Marvel and DC comic book series.
  101. The world’s tallest statue of Monkey is 40 ft (12.192 m) tall and resides at the Broga Sak Dato Temple (武來岸玉封石哪督廟) in Malaysia.
  102. He is the mascot of several entities in Taiwan, including the HCT delivery company, the Hang Yuan FC football team, and the Taipei Water Department.
  103. He has appeared in nearly 65 video games.
  104. He is the namesake for a Chinese satellite designed to search for dark matter.
  105. He is the namesake of a fossa on Pluto. This plays on his association with the underworld.
  106. He is the namesake of the Wukongopterus (Wukong yilong shu, 悟空翼龍屬), a genus of Chinese pterosaur.

  107. He is the namesake of Syntelia sunwukong, a Synteliid beetle from mid-Cretaceous Burma.
  108. A Covid-19 lab in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China adopted the name “Fire Eyes” (Huoyan, 火眼) in honor of Monkey’s ability to discern evil spirits.


Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.

Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Campany, R. F. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming in Early Medieval China. In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150), University of Hawaii Press.

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

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

Archive #26 – Bimawen, Heavenly Horses, and Dragon Horses in Chinese Literature and History

Last updated: 03-12-2023

In chapter four of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), Sun Wukong is invited to heaven to serve as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the imperial horse stables (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 148). He takes the position seriously, caring for nearly 1,000 horses day and night, making sure they are all well-fed, exercised, and rested (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149) (fig. 1). But these are no ordinary horses. A poem associates them with the most famous steeds in Chinese history (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149), and most importantly, the last line states: “They tread the mist and mount the clouds with unflagging strength” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149). This suggests that they have the supernatural ability to gallop through the skies (fig. 2). Additionally, the novel refers to them as “dragon horses” (long ma, 龍馬) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 309), which brings to mind the White Dragon Horse (Bai long ma, 白龍馬) that serves as Tripitaka‘s mount throughout the journey (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328).

Monkey’s position gives him power over all horses, especially those of mortal stock:

When the horse saw [Pilgrim], its torso slackened and its legs stiffened. In fear and trembling, it could hardly stand up. For you see, that monkey had been a [Bimawen], who used to look after dragon horses in the celestial stables. His authority was such that horses of this world inevitably would fear him when they saw him (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 309). [1]

The heavenly post is a homophonous pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”), an ancient superstition where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness. For example, Essential Techniques for the Common People (Qimin yaoshu, 齊民要術, c. 544) states: 

[Horses] are often associated with macaques [mihou, 猕猴] in the horse stable. This is in order to calm the horses, repel evil, and eliminate all diseases.


The later Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu, 本草綱目, 1596) mentions this concept twice. The first reads:

The Shuowen says: The characters (for macaque) look like “mother monkey” (muhou), but it’s “bathing monkey” (muhou, i.e. macaque), not a female. Since a macaque resembles a hu-barbarian, he is also called hu-sun “grandson of a barbarian”. The Zhuangzi calls him ju. People who raise horses keep a macaque in the stables, which will ward off horse-diseases. The Hu barbarians call a macaque maliu, in Sanskrit books he is called Mosizha (makaṭa). [2]


The second explains how monkeys are believed to help the horses:

The Classic of Horses states: Domesticated macaques used in horse stables help avoid horse diseases [lit: bimawen]. Their monthly menstruation runs onto the grass, and once the horses eat it, they will never be sick.


This is insanely comical as it directly links Sun Wukong, a powerful cosmic warrior, to menstruation! This then might explain why Monkey is so enraged when enemies call him a Bimawen. As noted by my friend Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog, it challenges the Great Sage’s masculinity.


The following essay by Arthur Waley (1955), famed translator of the Journey to the West abridgement Monkey (1942), links heavenly horses to a historical breed from Central Asia, the Ferghana horse. He describes China invading the region to procure these horses by force, suggesting Emperor Wu of Han directed this action because the ruler believed the equines were dragon horses capable of transporting him to heaven. This is linked to stories of ancient Chinese rulers attaining immortality by riding horses or dragons to the celestial realm. Waley (1955) notes both the Chinese and Indians believed supernatural steeds hailed from the water, showing a link between horses and dragons.

But Creel (1982) refutes the claim that the heavenly horses were procured for purely religious reasons. He shows they were indeed used in military battles. 

Fig. 1 – A 2014 stamp featuring a scene from the classic 1960s animation Havoc in Heaven in which Sun Wukong serves as the keeper of the heavenly horses (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 2 – A photo of the famous circa 2nd-century BCE Flying Horse of Gansu (larger version). Image found here.

I. The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana

Individuals are not happy in proportion to the amount of space their persons occupy. Yet certain nations, at certain periods of their history, seem to take it for granted that the wider they spread themselves the happier they will be. China is a case in point. Why did this enormous country in the second century BC, in the first century AD and again at various later periods ruin itself by gratuitous westward expansion? Were her aims commercial or strategic? Was she defending her silk trade, or guarding against possible wars on two fronts? What part was played by the individual ambition of Emperors or generals, or by mere restlessness and love of adventure?

To answer these questions we should have to take the campaigns one by one. In doing so we should not be reduced to mere guesses. In Imperial edicts and addresses about military campaigns certain traditional pretences are, of course, kept up: ‘everything under Heaven’ belongs by right to the Chinese Emperor, and any peoples who do not think so must be chastised. Concrete and material motives for war are not always mentioned in these regal utterances, any more than an Address from the Throne (or its equivalent) in modern countries usually mentions petrol or rubber. But statesmen and officials were often quite frank about material motives for conquest: more so, I think, than is the case with us today. Thus, as justifying a proposal to secure from the Huns a strip of territory that projected into the Kansu corridor in north-western China the following reasons are given by a statesman in 8 BC: first, that it was a good source of supply for the sort of wood and feathers used in making arrows; secondly, that it would mean a large increase of Chinese territory, and lastly that it would give the general in command of the campaign a chance to win a big reputation. It is interesting to find that extension of territory is here regarded as an end in itself. Possibly supporters of the proposal might, if pressed, have pointed out as an afterthought that Chinese farmers could be settled in the new territory and that the taxes they paid would be a help to the exchequer.

The tendency of modern historians, and not only in Marxist countries, is to stress material and particularly economic motives for war, and to regard the profession of other motives as mere propaganda. In dealing with early Chinese history I do not think this view would generally lead us far astray, so long as we bear in mind the additional factor of personal ambition and the almost axiomatic belief that extension of territory was an end in itself. But I am going to deal with a case that seems to me to be exceptional. Oddly enough the early Chinese military adventure that modern scholars have most unanimously explained solely on materialist lines, seems, on closer examination, to have been to a large extent a religious quest

In 102. BC the Chinese Emperor Wu sent a huge military expedition (there had been a small and abortive one two years before) to Ta Yüan, corresponding roughly to the modern Ferghana in Russian Turkestan, to capture Heavenly Horses. Modern scholars, both Far Eastern and European, have usually assumed that the real object of the expedition was a purely practical one; namely, to secure a better type of cavalry horse. It is certain that by the middle of the second century AD the Chinese did possess two kinds of horse: a steppe-pony, with a large clumsy head, and a western type of horse, similar to that shown on Greek coins of the fourth to the second century BC, with small graceful head. It may well be that one of the results of the Ferghana expedition was the introduction of a western type of horse into China; and in the eyes of the generals and the horse-experts who accompanied them this may have been the main object as well as the result of the expeditions. But modern historians, intent on the very interesting material aspects of the episode, have tended to overlook its place (amply attested by contemporary texts) in the history of Chinese religion. Incidentally, by examining these texts more closely, I think one gets fresh light on what concretely and zoologically (as opposed to mythologically) the Heavenly Horses really were. I should mention that as a result of the expedition thirty or so ‘superior horses’ and 3,000 horses and mares of ‘middling or lower quality’ were handed over to the Chinese. How many of these survived the journey of 2,500 miles back to the Chinese capital we do not know. A few years later the king of Ferghana agreed to send two Heavenly Horses to China every year. I shall here be concerned only with the thirty ‘superior’ Or ‘Heavenly’ horses. There is no reason to suppose that the 3,000 inferior horses were of a type different from the usual Chinese horse. They may merely have been needed as remounts.

In studying what was said about the horses in contemporary Chinese literature the best point of departure is the hymn made in 101 B.C. when the horses were about to arrive at the Chinese capital :

The Heavenly Horses are coming,
Coming from the Far West.
They crossed the Flowing sands,
For the barbarians are conquered.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
That issued from the waters of a pool.
Two of them have tiger backs.
They can transform themselves like spirits.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
Across the pastureless wilds
A thousand leagues at a stretch,
Following the eastern road.
The Heavenly horses are coming.
Jupiter is in the Dragon.
Should they choose to soar aloft,
Who could keep pace with them?
The Heavenly Horses are coming;
Open the gates while there is time.
They will draw me up and carry me
To the Holy Mountain of K’un-lun.
The Heavenly Horses have come
And the Dragon will follow in their wake
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven,
I shall see the Palace of God.

This song has often been spoken of by western historians as though it were a purely secular literary poem. It is in reality one of a series of hymns written (possibly by the Emperor Wu himself, but the authorship is very uncertain) for use at the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth-sacred rituals performed by the Emperor in person. One or two of the phrases in it obviously need further explanation. Whether the people of Ferghana believed that their sacred horses ‘issued from a pool’ we do not know. But there are, apart from other instances of this belief elsewhere in Central Asia, many Chinese stories of horses coming up out of the water, the implication being that they are dragon-horses, that is to say, water-dragons who have changed themselves into horses, often retaining their dragon wings. As we shall see, the Emperor had been on the look-out for a water-born horse for some time. What is meant by ‘the Dragon will follow in their wake,’ more literally ‘they will be introducers of the Dragon’ ? The idea underlying these words is best illustrated by the following story, dating perhaps from some forty years earlier than the hymn: Recently a man who lived on the frontier lost his horse which ran away into the land of the barbarians. He was very much upset, and everyone condoled with him, except his father who remarked cheerfully, ‘This may be a blessing in disguise.’ And sure enough the lost horse came back bringing with it a ‘fine horse,’ that is to say, a horse of superior value and breed. The Emperor in this hymn hopes that the Ferghana horses would one day bring along a Dragon, a being even more magical than a Heavenly Horse.

The general implication of the hymn therefore is that the Heavenly Horses will carry the Emperor to the abode of the Immortals on the magical mountain K’un-lun. He imagines himself, I think, driving in a chariot drawn by horses rather than riding on horseback. Riding did not become common in China till the fourth century BC and was in the second century still felt ‘to be a utilitarian, unlegendary form of transport. More than this, the Ferghana horses being, as another hymn in the series says, ‘friends of the Dragon ‘ who is master of the clouds, will eventually carry him to Heaven, to the Abode of God-on-High-(Shang Ti).

The preceding hymn (No. 9 in the series), which is about the fleeting and uncertain nature of man’s life, ends with the words, ‘Why does not Tzu-huang come down to me?’ Tzu-huang was the horse with dragonwings that carried up the mythical Yellow Emperor to Heaven. There are many Chinese stories of legendary monarchs being carried up to Heaven by magic steeds; but it would be difficult to prove that any of them is older than the fourth century BC. It is interesting to compare these Chinese myths with Indian ideas about the relation of monarchs to magic steeds. In Indian legends the magic horse Valaha (‘Cloud’), is one of the ‘seven treasures’ of a great monarch. Valaha came up out of the sea, just as the Ferghana horse and others in which the Chinese were interested came up out of the water, and carried Simhala, the legendary founder of the Kingdom of Ceylon, back to India when he was on the verge of being eaten by female cannibals.

The Emperor Wu had, as I have mentioned, for some time past been on the look-out for a magic horse, ‘born from’ a stream. In 121 BC someone thought it worthwhile to report to the Court that a horse had come up out of a river to the north of the Ordos, the great square-shaped northern bend of the Yellow River. We have no details about this horse ; but in 113 BC another strange horse was not only seen but captured and sent to Court. A Chinese who in consequence of some misdemeanour had been sent to do service at the military colony near Tun-huang, on the northwest frontier, frequently saw a horse of strange appearance drinking in the river along with a number of wild horses. He tamed the strange horse by putting at the water-side a dummy figure of a man whose hands were bridle and halter. When the horse was used to this sight he substituted himself for the dummy, captured the horse and sent it to Court. In order to prove that the horse was ‘divine’ he pretended that it had come up from under the water. His story was evidently believed at the time, for this horse, too (like the Ferghana horses twelve years later), was made the subject of a hymn to be used in the Imperial sacrifices :

The Heavenly Horse comes down
A present from the Grand Unity,
Bedewed with red sweat
That foams in an ochre stream
Impatient of all restraint
And of abounding energy.
He treads the fleeting clouds,
Dim in his upward flight;
With smooth and easy gait
Covers a thousand leagues.

Historians of religion, particularly those of the Vienna school, regard as ‘the beginning of religion’ the belief in a supreme celestial deity who later becomes merely a vague memory and ultimately fades away or becomes merged in other, more concrete cults. The ‘Grand Unity‘ (or ‘Great Unique,” as one might also translate it) of this hymn has therefore particular interest as a religious phenomenon, being a supreme celestial deity whose origin (at any rate as a national cult), whose heydey and disappearance all take place before our eyes within a limited historical period. So far from belonging to a remote, ‘archaic’ past he begins, officially at any rate, in 133 B.C. Up till then the Grand Unity was a philosophic conception denoting the primal unity out of which grew the plurality of the universe as we know it. Sometimes the phrase is a synonym of Tao, the underlying principle of the Universe in Taoist philosophy. But in the second century BC a cult sprang up in which the Grand Unity figures not as a philosophic conception but as a personal divinity, the highest of all gods, worshipped with an elaborate ritual. About 133 BC a member of the Grand Unity sect prevailed on the Emperor Wu to make the whole Imperial cult centre round this deity. The Grand Unity maintained this position during several reigns and the cult was only brought to an end (along with many other religious innovations of Wu’s reign) in 32 BC.

I will leave aside for the moment the other points of interest in the Heavenly Horse hymn of 113 BC and note here that the Emperor’s search for immortality did not begin with his interest in divine horses. He had, as is well known, for long past been pursuing this quest on other lines. He had sent numerous and costly expeditions to the East in the hope of discovering islands inhabited by Immortals who might be persuaded to yield their secrets to him. He had dabbled in alchemy, in the belief that if he ate out of vessels made of alchemic gold he would live forever, or at any rate for a prodigiously long time. The expedition to fetch magic horses from the West was, it seems to me, merely a continuation of his earlier quests in the East. ‘The Emperor Wu,’ says Wen Ying in about AD 200, ‘had set his heart on immortality. He was always hoping that a Heavenly Horse would come and carry him to K’un-lun,’ the western Abode of the Immortals. At last when all his guests in the East had failed and when the Horse did not come of its own accord (as it had come to legendary Emperors in the past, both in India and in China) he determined, having known for long that the king of Ferghana had such horses, to wrest some from him by diplomacy or, if need be, by force.

We have seen, then, how the horses were regarded by the Chinese Emperor. Other people, less obsessed by magico-religious ideas, may have viewed them differently; but there is nothing in the Chinese sources to suggest that they were needed or used for military purposes. Naturally, the normal political excuses were made for the expedition. In a public proclamation the Emperor accused Ferghana of having killed two Chinese envoys on their way to the west and an Indian envoy who was on his way to China. The excuse has a familiar ring. One is reminded, for example, of the German seizure of Tsingtao in 1897, alleged to be a reprisal for the murder of the German missionaries Nies and Henle.

Another question clearly arises. How were the Heavenly Horses regarded by the king of Ferghana and what role did they play at his Court? It is generally assumed that they were battle-chargers. But I wonder whether their function was not perhaps something like that of the ten Nesaean horses ‘most gorgeously caparisoned,’ who in the procession of the Persian king Xerxes, as described in the seventh book of Herodotus, walked immediately in front of the sacred chariot of ‘Zeus’ ? ‘And it occurs to one that to this same category of ceremonial horse may very well belong the ten yellow mares of the Pazaryk grave mound, in the eastern Altai, preserved in a solid ice block. They form part of the burial gear of a semi-nomad chieftain who lived perhaps somewhere about the 5th century B.C. ‘They are,’ says the Swedish archaeologist Karl Jettmar, ‘certainly of the noblest breed. They resemble the best strains of Turkmenistan or Ferghana.’ Two of them have masks. One mask represents a deer or reindeer; the other, a composite mythological creature. They may well have been special horses used by a ruler for ritual purposes, and perhaps (as Jettmar suggests) they took part in the funeral procession, which like the Scythian funeral processions described’ by Herodotus may have travelled an immense way. Their mythological function may well have been to carry the dead Khan to Immortality, just as the horse Tzu-huang carried the legendary Chinese Yellow Emperor and as in historic times the Emperor Wu hoped to be carried by the Ferghana horses. One is reminded, again, of the ‘treasure-horses,’ blue-grey in colouring and with black heads (that is to say, descendants of the magic horse Valaha) and gorgeously caparisoned, who took part in the procession that brought the infant Buddha back from Lumbini to his father’s palace. If the function of the Heavenly Horses at the Ferghana Court was a ritual rather than a practical one it would well explain why the king was so anxious not to part with them and at one point even threatened to kill them all rather than let them fall into the hands of the Chinese.

Though the main subject of this essay is the relation between the Ferghana expeditions and the religious pre-occupations of the Chinesr Emperor, the texts we have studied do also tell us something about the physical characteristics of the Ferghana horses, and it may be worth while to close with a few remarks on this subject. The first of the two hymns mentions that two Heavenly Horses had stripy backs. Lydekker in The Horse and Its Relatives says : ‘It has been noticed that dun-coloured domesticated horses frequently show a tendency to develop … one or two transverse dark stripes across the shoulder, and another along the middle line.’ Such presumably were the two Ferghana horses, and the Chinese regarded them as ‘marked’ by heaven and consequently particularly sacred. The other physical characteristic commonly attributed to Ferghana horses is that they ‘sweated blood.’ This, as we have seen, was also said of the horse sent from near Tun-huang in 113 BC. Professor Dubs, in his valuable translation of the Han History, has suggested that the flow of blood was caused by lesions inflicted on the horses by a parasite with the intimidating name Parafilaria multipapillosa. There is in any case no question of this characteristic being merely legendary. In AD 78 the Emperor Chang gave one of his uncles ‘a Ferghana horse which bled from a small hole above its front upper leg.’ In the letter that accompanied this gift he said, ‘I had often heard the line in Emperor Wu’s song about the Heavenly Horse in which it is said that it is ‘ bedewed with red sweat,’ and I have now seen with my own eyes that this is actually the case.’ Presumably the ‘hole’ looked more like a pore in the skin than a wound, and therefore what came out of it was regarded as sweat rather than blood.

Nowhere, I think, is it said that they were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers. The only horses that the Chinese at this period call big (ta) were to be found not in Ferghana but in Parthia. ‘They have the big horse and the big bird (ostrich),’ says the Han History. But there is no record of those huge Parthian steeds (no doubt the Parthikoi of Strabo, which he says were of the same build as the huge Nesaean horses) being brought to China.

To sum up: the accepted idea about the Ferghana expeditions is that the Emperor Wu sent them in order to obtain ‘horses larger and fleeter than the small steppe breed.” It is assumed that in this he was successful and that the ‘western’ type of horse seen in some of the second century A.D. grave-reliefs corresponds to the type of horse brought back from Ferghana in 101 BC. I would re-formulate this view as follows: The Emperor sent the expeditions in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven. There is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or China: If they had been they would hardly have remained long, as it were, ‘on the secret list.’ I’m inclined, to think that their function was a ritual one, both in Central Asia and in China. About the breed of the horses that the Emperor secured we know nothing. But it is reasonable to suppose that the existence of the ‘Western’ horse in China, in the second century AD was due to Chinese intercourse with the West from the second century BC onwards and that the Ferghana expedition, as an episode in this intercourse, may well have played its part in what was perhaps a gradual process. There is no justification for saying as Tam does that ‘the origin of the Ferghana horses must have been one of the great Parthian war-horses’ or that the Ferghana horses were ‘of the great Nesaean-Parthian breed.’.

Thus though my main object was to show that this episode cannot be properly understood without taking into account more than has hitherto been done its magico-religious aspects, my conclusions about its secular, concrete aspects are also somewhat different from those of my predecessors (Waley, 1955).

II. The Role of the Horse in Chinese History

Creel (1982) successfully refutes the former’s claim that the horses were procured for only religious reasons:

Waley, “Heavenly Horses of Ferghana,” 102, takes the position that the horses of Fergana were sought by the Han Emperor Wu “in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven.” He says that “there is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or in China.” (Ibid., 102.) But in fact, as we have seen, the use of Fergana horses in fighting is mentioned in Hou-Han-shu, 110A.4b. By speaking here of “Heavenly Horses” Waley is evading the real question: were horses obtained from Fergana used in battle in Han times? The answer is that they were. Waley also says: “Nowhere, I think, is it said that they [i.e., “Heavenly Horses”] were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers.” (Ibid.) The evidence cited above certainly indicates that the Fergana horses were extremely large and that there is every reason to feel assured that they were much larger than most of the horses in China both in Han times and later. Further evidence against Waley’s view is the nature of the titles of the two men sent by the Emperor to Fergana “to select good horses.” (Shih-chi, 123.37.) These would appear to be ordinary official titles and refer to “managing horses” and “driving horses.” If the purpose had been primarily to select horses having special religious virtues, why did the Emperor not send men with religious qualifications? Certainly there was some religious aspect to this curious affair, and Waley has performed a service by emphasizing it. But in doing so he has given undue attention to a part of the evidence and neglected other parts of it entirely (p. 176 n. 66).

Please see the PDF below for the entire chapter.

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Update: 01-25-2023

I previously mentioned the White Dragon Horse in the introduction. A reader recently contacted me to ask why he, while still a dragon prince, set fire to his father’s pearls. This is what the prince says to Guanyin in chapter eight:

Because I inadvertently set fire to the palace and burned some of the pearls therein, my father the king memorialized to the Court of Heaven and charged me with grave disobedience. The Jade Emperor hung me in the sky and gave me three hundred lashes, and I shall be executed in a few days. I beg the Bodhisattva to save me” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 213).


But the original Chinese doesn’t include a word meaning “inadvertently,” so it appears that he did it on purpose (for whatever selfish reasons). I suggest that this episode is intended to explain the “dragon chasing a jewel” (ganzhu longwen, 趕珠龍紋) motif in Chinese art (fig. 3). The jewel is often shown emitting flames.

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era plate showing the dragon chasing a flaming jewel motif (larger version). Image found here. I like to think the title of this piece is “SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT!!!! MY DAD’S GONNA KILL MEEE!!!!”

Update: 03-12-23

Twitter user Lava (@Lavaflowe) has allowed me to post their lovely drawing of Sun Wukong as the Bimanwen. The image is comically labeled “horse girl“. I especially love how he has transformed his magic staff into a pitchfork. Also, check out the hay covering his heavenly robes (fig. 4). That’s such a great detail.

Fig. 4 – Monkey as the Bimawen (larger version). The original tweet can be seen here.


1) This power was given to Monkey by the Jade Emperor, who gives him the Bimawen post. This was pointed out to me by Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog.

2) The translation is partly based on Gulik, 1967, p. 35. I changed the Wade-Giles to pinyin.


Creel, H. G. (1982). What is Taoism?: And other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Waley, A. (1955, February). The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana. History Today, 5, 95-103.

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