Archive #17 – Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi (1985)

Last updated: 11/24/20

Campany (1985) discusses methods by which demons of Journey to the West move up and down the Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy. He begins by laying out the formulaic pattern of the episodes in which they appear: 1) a description of the demon’s mountain or aquatic home in poetic verse; 2) the initial encounter during which Tripitaka is tricked by the demon’s magic disguise; 3) the initial battle(s) between the disciples and the demon involving contests of magic and weapons, often described in poetic verse; 4) the battles end in a stalemate or defeat, and in the case of the latter the disciples are held captive in the demon’s stronghold; 5) Sun Wukong searches heaven and earth for the master of the demon, for the evil is usually a renegade celestial animal or protégé; 6) the demon is subdued by their master; and 7) the demon is either reintegrated or added to the cosmic order. An example of the former is the moon goddess’ jade hare (ch. 95) being taken back to heaven (fig. 1). An example of the latter is Red Boy (ch. 40-43) becoming a disciple of Guanyin.

There are two types of powerful demons who are subjugated by their master or an appropriate agent (e.g. a rooster god defeating a centipede demon). The first acquires magic powers via Daoist cultivation and, lacking celestial rank, causes havoc (think of Monkey as a young immortal). It is only through their subjugation and addition to the cosmic order that they achieve higher spiritual status. Apart from Red Boy, another example is the Black Bear spirit (ch. 16-17), who is subdued by Guanyin and installed as the guardian of her magic island. The second, being the most common, is one who previously held heavenly rank and was banished to earth. This exile is the result of breaking a rule, the need to burn off negative Buddhist karma, or because of a deficiency in their Daoist cultivation, requiring that they work their way back up the spiritual hierarchy. All five of the pilgrims fit into this category in one way or another.

Two types of demons are not subjugated by a heavenly master. The first is a lessor animal spirit who acts as a servant or soldier for a demon king. They attach themselves to this “upwardly mobile” demon because their master may aid in their own ascension via secrets of cultivation or the gift of longevity-bestowing food. Prime examples are all the (simian and non-simian) animal spirits who attach themselves to Sun Wukong after he establishes himself as a monster king. Such animal spirits are usually slaughtered after their master is defeated. The second are demons who peacefully cultivate themselves without endangering others. A prime example is the White Turtle of the Heaven-Reaching River (ch. 49 and 99) who cultivates human speech but still requires the intervention of the Buddha to evolve to human form.

Campany (1985) moves onto the hierarchy itself, noting how the level of a being’s attainment in spiritual cultivation does not affect their actual rank. This is because Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are viewed differently in the novel. Demons who cause no harm during their cultivation are left alone, while violent offenders are subjugated and added to the hierarchy. And even if an animal spirit has Daoist powers, they are still considered inferior to humans, for they are born into a lower level of the six Buddhist paths of reincarnation. These spirits, however, can move up the hierarchy based on the amount of Buddhist merit, or “right fruit” (zhengguo, 正果), that they acquire through good deeds. Additionally, the Buddha and Guanyin are generally portrayed as higher in rank than Daoist gods, even the Jade Emperor, due to their “Dharma Power” (fali, 法力). Despite this, Sun Wukong is always quick to point out when a high-ranking god, Buddhist or Daoist, has violated Confucian norms. Therefore, the hierarchy presented in the novel follows the Ming-era syncretic emphasis on mental cultivation (xiu xin, 修心).

Fig. 1 – Yoshitoshi, Jade Rabbit: Sun Wukong, from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon, 1889 (larger version). From the Ronin Gallery.

The novel categorizes all beings as part of heaven, earth, or hell, each representing a realm within the hierarchy. Yet, it presents four ways to move between them: one, temporarily taking the form of a higher-ranking figure (human, immortal, deity, etc.) via magical transformation (hua, 化); two, reincarnating into a higher path (e.g. animal to human); three, attaining immortality via Daoist cultivation (or becoming human and then attaining immortality in the case of animal spirits); and four, being subjugated and added to the cosmic order.

The demons of Journey to the West are paradoxical on two counts: one, such beings are realistic, with detailed descriptions of their appearance, speech, and feelings, and yet they are often reduced to mere illusions brought forth by the unfocused or disquieted mind (Campany (1985) waits to explain this until the end); and two, they are evil from a Western perspective, but not wholly evil from an Eastern perspective. Their ambiguous nature is revealed by the Chinese hanzi used to describe them (e.g. yaojing 妖精; yaoguai, 妖怪), suggesting these beings are “undeveloped” or “bogus” and have yet to complete their cultivation. Additionally, the novel connects the demons and pilgrims with five elemental and yin-yang theory, each with its own creative/destructive or magnetic/repelling forces, suggesting a mutual relationship. This relationship is explained below.

Campany (1985) emphasizes that, while Tripitaka’s disciples are themselves former demons, what separates them from the others is “returning to the right path” (gui zheng, 歸正), or converting to Buddhism. As Daoists, they formerly cultivated the self, but as Buddhists they subsume the self to a larger whole by becoming Tripitaka’s disciples, thereby submitting to Buddhist law and cultivating Buddhist merit through their actions. This differs from demons who attempt to subsume the universe into themselves. They follow heretical practices (waidao, 外道) in pursuit of their continued self-cultivation, many seeking a “short cut” by attempting to eat Tripitaka. They don’t realize that accepting the Buddhist concept of “no self” would free them of their attachment to Daoist cultivation and that the accumulation of Buddhist merit would aid in their ascension through the cosmic hierarchy.

Powerful demons like Monkey who consider themselves greater than the universe would continue down the wrong path without the intervention of their master (or an appropriate agent) intervening to reintegrate or add them to the cosmic order. As Campany (1985) explains: “Submission of self is true cultivation of self” (emphasis in original) (p. 114). Therefore, demons rely on the pilgrims to redirect their cultivation to the right path of subsuming the self to a larger whole. An example is Lady Raksasi at the end of her story cycle.

Likewise, the pilgrims rely on the demons for several reasons: one, they help the pilgrims build Buddhist merit; two, via the concept of “non-duality“, the pilgrims learn there is no difference between themselves and the demons; and three, as mental obstacles, the demons help refine the pilgrim’s spiritual cultivation over the journey. This last point is particularly important as the illusionary nature of demons helps the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, understand that all reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “aware of emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the quest.

Campany (1985) ends the paper by explaining the first paradox:

We now see that the juxtaposition of realistic descriptions of demons and reductions of them to miasma of the mind serves as a fascinating and entertaining contrapuntal expression of the central theme of the novel, the complementary relation and ultimate identity between illusion and enlightenment. Why do demons almost always appear according to the paradigm sketched in the first part of this paper? Why this repetition, this sameness, if not to underscore the miasmic quality of the demons even as narrative details convince us of their palpable sensory reality? Why do demons put up so stubborn a resistance, if not to impress upon us the arduousness of right cultivation? The consummate artistry with which the author bodies forth in his tale the relation between illusion and reality is itself a vehicle for the perception of this relation (Campany, 1985, p. 115).

Paper link

Update: 11/24/20

As mentioned above, Campany (1985) explains that animal spirits can move up the Buddho-Daoist hierarchy by becoming human via reincarnation or cultivation. Surprisingly, the novel reveals that Monkey has had previous lives prior to the novel, showing that his soul is subject to the same karmic laws of reincarnation as other im/mortal beings. For example, after Wukong is invited to heaven and fails to bow before the cosmic monarch in ch. 4, the Jade Emperor says:

“That fellow Sun Wukong is a bogus immortal [yaoxian, 妖仙] from the Region Below … and he has only recently acquired the form of a human being. We shall pardon him this time for his ignorance of court etiquette” (emphasis added) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 193).

In ch. 7, the Monkey King angers the Buddha by claiming that he should be able to usurp the Jade Emperor’s throne, to which the Enlightened One replies:

“A fellow like you,” he said, “is only a monkey who happened to become a spirit. How dare you be so presumptuous as to want to seize the honored throne of the Exalted Jade Emperor? He began practicing religion when he was very young, and he has gone through the bitter experience of one thousand seven hundred and fifty kalpas, with each kalpa lasting a hundred and twenty-nine thousand six hundred years. Figure out yourself how many years it took him to rise to the enjoyment of his great and limitless position! You are merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation. How dare you make such a boast? Blasphemy! This is sheer blasphemy, and it will surely shorten your allotted age. Repent while there’s still time and cease your idle talk! Be wary that you don’t encounter such peril that you will be cut down in an instant, and all your original gifts will be wasted” (emphasis added) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 147).

This shows that both the Jade Emperor and the Buddha are aware of Monkeys previous lives. This would be good fodder for a fanfiction about his previous incarnations.


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Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

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