Laozi’s Realm in Journey to the West

Last updated: 03-12-2023

A reader recently asked me why Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) associates Laozi (老子), a high god of Daoism, with the Tushita Heaven (Doushuai tian, 兜率天). It’s easy to understand why they might be confused, for this is a Buddhist heaven in which bodhisattvas are born prior to their final life and enlightenment as a Buddha (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 930). I’ve therefore decided to do a brief study.

This piece will complement my article about the location of the Buddha’s realm. It will also give me an excuse to add new material to my article about the cosmic geography of Journey to the West.

I. What the novel says

Sun Wukong stumbles upon Laozi’s realm while in a drunken stupor. Chapter five reads:

Dear Great Sage! Reeling from side to side, he stumbled along solely on the strength of wine, and in a moment he lost his way. It was not the Equal to Heaven Residence that he went to, but the Tushita Palace. The moment he saw it, he realized his mistake. “The Tushita Palace is at the uppermost of the thirty-three Heavens,” he said, “the Separation’s Regret Heaven, [1] which is the home of the Most High Laozi. How did I get here? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 165-166).


This is also where the god’s famous alchemical furnace is located. Chapter seven reads:

Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams. He then ordered the Daoist who watched over the brazier and the page boy in charge of the fire to blow up a strong flame for the smelting process (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189).


Based on the above, Laozi and his furnace reside in the “Tushita Palace” (Doushuai gong, 兜率宮) of the “Separation’s Regret Heaven” (Lihen tian, 離恨天), which is said to be the highest of the “thirty-three heavens” (sanshisan tian, 三十三天). I will return to the Tushita Palace below.

II. The Buddhist Heavenly Realms

The twenty-fifth scroll of the Sūtra of the Foundations of Mindfulness of the True Law (Ch: Zhengfa nianchu jing, 正法念處經; Sk: Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra, 6th-century) lists thirty-three Buddhist heavenly realms. [2] These make up the heaven of the “Thirty-Three (Gods)” (Ch: Sanshisan tian, 三十三天; Daoli tian, 忉利天; Sk: Trāyastriṃśa, त्रायस्त्रिंश) (fig. 1). But Separation’s Regret is not mentioned among them, and the actual thirty-third realm is called the “Heaven of Purity” (Qingjing tian, 清淨天). So where does Laozi’s realm come from?

Fig. 1 – The thirty-three heavenly realms overlaid on a map of Buddhist cosmic geography (larger version). From the Establishment of the Dharma-Field with Illustrations (Fajie anli tu, 法界安立圖,17th-century).

III. Ties to Performance Arts

According to Johnson (2020), the Heaven of Separation’s Regret (Lihen tian, 離恨天) is a reoccurring trope in Yuan dynasty stage plays denoting the “[f]rustrations of love” (p. 136). Idema (Wang & Idema, 1995) further explains that it was considered “the home of thwarted lovers obligated to endure eternal separation” (p. 120, n. 24).

The Anthology of Yuan Music Dramas (Yuanqu xuan, 元曲選, 17th-century) contains several examples. One is Listening to a Zither from the Bamboo Thicket (Zhuwu tingqin, 竹塢聽琴, 13th-century) in which a character sings:

Separation’s Regret is the highest of the thirty-three heavenly realms. Of the four hundred and four illnesses, [3] lovesickness is the most bitter. This pining will kill me.


What’s important for my purposes is that the Yuan play Story of the Western Wing (Xixiangji, 西廂記) specifically mentions Separation’s Regret together with the Tushita Palace, the same palace from Journey to the West. While visiting a monastery, the male lead becomes entranced by a woman and longingly sings of her beauty. Part of the song reads:

Stunning knockouts—I’ve seen a million;
But a lovely face like this is rarely seen!
It dazzles a man’s eyes, stuns him speechless,
And makes his soul fly away into the heavens (emphasis added).
She there, without a thought of teasing, fragrant shoulders bare,
Simply twirls the flower, smiling.


This is Tushita Palace,
Don’t guess it to be the heaven of Separation’s Regret (emphasis added).
Ah, who would ever have thought that I would meet a divine sylph?
I see her spring-­breeze face, fit for anger, fit for joy,
Just suited to those flowered pins pasted with kingfisher feathers (Wang & Idema, 1995, pp. 120-121).


When the male lead sings of the Tushita Palace, he is referring here to the “contentment” of the Buddhist Tushita heaven (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 930). That’s why he differentiates it from the Separation’s Regret heaven. After all, Tushita is higher than the traditional Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods (refer back to sec. II) in Buddhist cosmology (fig. 2) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 230-231).

This song (or others like it) might ultimately explain why Journey to the West associates the Tushita Palace with Separation’s Regret. But how does this connect to Laozi?

Fig. 2 – A diagram of the heavens above the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods atop Mt. Sumeru (larger version). From Sadakata, 1997, p. 60. Take note that the heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods is separated from Tushita by the Yama Heaven.

IV. The Daoist Heavens

The Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel (Yunji qiqian, 雲笈七籤, c. 1029), an encyclopedia of mostly Shangqing (上清) Daoist texts, states that the universe has thirty-six heavens. These comprise thirty-two lower heavens, then the three respective heavens of the “Three Pure Ones” (Sanqing, 三清), and a final grand heaven at the top called the “Great Canopy” (Daluo tian, 大羅天) (fig. 3) (here and here, for example; see also Miller, 2008c). The Cloudy Satchel lists the heavens of the Three Pure Ones from top to bottom, associating Laozi with the bottommost (i.e. the thirty-third heaven):

The realms of the Three Pure ones are Jade Clarity, Highest Clarity, and Grand Clarity.



The Lord of Divine Treasures (Laozi) lives in the Grand Clarity Realm, that is the Great Scarlet Heaven.


An earlier work, Pearl Satchel of the Three Caverns (Sandong zhunang, 三洞珠囊, 6th-century), more pointedly refers to the number of Laozi’s heaven, stating:

It is said that the Most High Lord Lao lives at the top of the thirty-third heaven in the Grand Ultimate Palace of the Great Clarity Realm.


As can be seen, Laozi’s heaven, the “Grand or Great Clarity Realm” (Tai / Daqing jing, 太/大清境), is said to be the thirty-third of thirty-six Daoist heavens. This likely explains how he was associated with the thirty-three Buddhist heavenly realms, Separation’s Regret, and thereby the Tushita Palace.

Fig. 3 – The various layers of the thirty-six Daoist heavens according to the Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel (c. 1029) (larger version). Adapted from Miller, 2008c, p. 850. The original source lists the thirty-sixth heaven as number one. I’ve numbered them according to how they are listed in the Cloudy Satchel. 

V. Myth vs Religion

While there is an overlap between Chinese mythology and religion, this article shows that the cosmos of Journey to the West is not an accurate snapshot of religious beliefs. But the novel should not be looked upon solely as entertainment, as is commonly claimed. Like Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), Journey to the West helped spread the mythos of many gods still worshiped today. This is especially true for Sun Wukong because he never received royal patronage due to his literary penchant for rebelling against authority (Shahar, 1996).

VI. Conclusion

The early chapters of Journey to the West state that Laozi and his furnace reside in the Tushita Palace of the Separation’s Regret Heaven, which is the highest of the thirty-three heavenly realms. These realms were borrowed from Buddhism, but Separation’s Regret does not appear among them. It is instead a trope from Yuan-era drama denoting the frustration of being separated from a lover. One Yuan play in particular mentions Separation’s Regret together with the Tushita Palace, a clear reference to the Buddhist heaven of the same name, showing how they might have been associated. And since Laozi’s realm is the thirty-third of thirty-six Daoist heavens, this likely explains why he came to be associated with the thirty-three Buddhist heavenly realms, Separation’s Regret, and thereby the Tushita Palace.

This article shows that Journey to the West is therefore not an accurate snapshot of Chinese religion. But the novel is important as it helped spread the mythos of many gods still worshiped today, including Sun Wukong.

Update: 03-02-23

It turns out that “Tushita Palace” (Doushuai(tian) gong, 兜率(天)宮) is used many times throughout Buddhist literature to refer to the Tushita Heaven (see here and here). For example, the Flower Garland Sutra (Huayan jing, 華嚴經, late-3rd to early-4th-century) reads:

Then the king of the Tushita heaven, having set up the throne for the Enlightened One, respectfully greeted the Buddha together with countless godlings of the Tushita heaven.



In the Tushita palace a host of unspeakably many enlightening beings hovered in the air, and with diligence and single-mindedness produced offerings surpassing all the heavens and presented them to the Buddha, bowing respectfully, while countless forms of music played all at once (Cleary, 1993, pp. 504-505).


Update: 03-04-23

Famed Tang-era poet Li Bai / Bo (李白, 701-762) uses the phrase “Separation’s regret” (Lihen, 離恨), translated below as “Parting’s pain,” to describe the agony of being separated from his beloved winter time items:

“Parting from My Felt Curtain and Brazier” (Bie zhanzhang huolu, 別氈帳火爐)

I recall recently in late winter weather
the north wind and three feet of snow.
Getting old, I couldn’t stop feeling cold,
how was I to get through the long nights?
Luckily I had a green felt curtain,
I hung it up against the wind.
Also there was this red brazier
that warmed me up in the snow.
I was like a fish diving into deep water,
like a rabbit hiding deep in his hole.
Tender and gentle, the wintering scales revive,
poached in warmth, frozen flesh revitalized.
But then those dark and gloomy evenings
changed instantly to a time of balmy light.
It’s the seasons moving inevitably on—
of course my affection has not ceased.
The frizzy curtain is rolled up with the days,
the ashes die in the fragrant brazier.
Parting’s pain (emphasis added) belongs to springtime,
our tryst will be in the tenth month.
If only this body stays healthy,
we will not be parted for long (Owen, 2006, p. 52).


This shows that the phrase carried the same tortured meaning prior to being elevated to a metaphorical heaven during the Yuan.

On an unrelated note, Dario Virga reminded me that Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), a sort of prequel to Journey to the West, places Laozi in a different location. For instance, chapter 44 reads:

Chi Jingzi took his leave of the Elder Immortal of the South Pole and sailed on his auspicious cloud towards the Mysterious Metropolis, arriving at the immortal mountain in no time at all. This was the Mysterious Metropolis Cave of the Great Canopy heaven, [4] which was the residence of Laozi (emphasis added). Inside was the wonderland of the Eight Effulgences Palace … [5]

赤精子辭了南極仙翁,駕祥雲往玄都而來。不一時已到仙山。此處乃大羅宮玄都洞,是老子所居之地,內有八景宮,仙境異常 …

As mentioned above, the Great Canopy is the highest of the traditional thirty-six Daoist heavens (Miller, 2008c; refer back to fig. 3).

Update: 03-06-23

After a quick search, it appears that Journey to the West also makes use of the Great Canopy Heaven (Daluo tian, 大羅天). For example, chapter 35 associates it with Laozi’s Tushita Palace:

After receiving the five treasures, Laozi lifted the seals of the gourd and the vase and poured out two masses of divine ether. With one point of his finger he transformed the ether again into two youths, standing on his left and right. Ten thousand strands of propitious light appeared as

They all drifted toward the Tushita Palace;
Freely they went straight up to Great Canopy (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 146). [6]


But since Journey to the West closely associates the Tushita Palace with the thirty-third heaven of Separation’s Regret, I think the addition of Great Canopy is a clear cut case of a separate oral tradition making its way into the novel.

Lingbao (靈寶) Daoism recognizes thirty-two main heavens topped by the Great Canopy heaven, for a total of thirty-three (fig. 4). This shows that Buddhism came to influence Daoism’s cosmic geography (Miller, 2008b).

This means that the novel places Laozi’s realm in two different locations, but each is treated as the thirty-third heaven.

Fig. 4 – The Thirty-two cardinal Daoist heavens (larger version). Image from Miller, 2008b, p. 848.

Update: 03-12-23

I was surprised to learn recently that the Sutra Spoken by the Buddha on the Names of the Buddhas (Foshuo foming jing, 佛說佛名經, 6th-century) lists a certain “Separation’s Regret Buddha” (lihen fo, 離恨佛). I’m not sure if lihen (離恨) is a translation/transliteration of a foreign Indian Buddhist term. I doubt the deity is related to Laozi’s drama-inspired heaven, but it’s still interesting to see the term associated with a Buddha.


1) Source slightly altered for accuracy. Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation originally reads “the Griefless heaven” (vol. 1, p. 166). See section III above for more context.

2) The Great Dictionary of Buddhism (Foxue dacidian, 佛學大辭典, 1922) gives the same list.

3) This is a concept borrowed from Buddhist medicine (Demiéville, 1985, p. 77).

4) The original Chinese reads “Daluo gong” (大羅宮), which can be translated as “Great Canopy Palace.” But I’ve already shown in my 03-02-23 update that gong (宮) can also refer to a heaven, and this is true of Great Canopy.

5) Translation by the author. The Eight Effulgences (Bajing, 八景) refer to planetary and stellar deities, internal alchemical practices, or divine chariots of the gods (Robinet, 2008).

6) Source altered slightly for conformity. Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation originally reads “Heaven’s Canopy” (vol. 3, p. 77)


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

Cleary, T. (1993). The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Demiéville, P. (1985). Buddhism and Healing Demiéville’s Article “Byō” from Hōbōgirin (M. Tatz trans.). Lanham: University Pr. of America.

Johnson, D. R. (2020). A Glossary of Words and Phrases in the Oral Performing and Dramatic Literatures of the Jin, Yuan, and Ming. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies.

Miller, A. L. (2008a). Daluo tian. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (p. 299). London: Routledge.

Miller, A. L. (2008b). Sanshi’er tian. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (ppp. 847-848). London: Routledge.

Miller, A. L. (2008c). Sanshiliu tian. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (pp. 849-851). London: Routledge.

Owen, S. (2006). The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

Robinet, I. (2008). Bajing. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (pp. 210-211). London: Routledge.

Sadakata, A. (1997). Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Japan: Kosei Publishing Company.

Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China. In M. Shahar & R. P. Weller (Eds.), Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Wang, S., & Idema, W. L. (1995). The Story of the Western Wing. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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

Journey to the West Artist Spotlight #2: NinjaHaku21

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of researching the history and influences of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). But as an artist, I am also a fan of JTTW-related artwork. There are so many talented people in the world who post their traditional and original designs and comics online, so I’ve decided to feature some of them on my blog. My hope is that such posts will expose this art to a wider audience interested in JTTW, while also documenting modern day perceptions and depictions of the novel and its characters.

Our next artist is NinjaHaku21, who goes by @NinjaHaku21_Art on both Twitter and Instagram and @NinjaHaku21Art on Tumblr.  They also have a Patreon and an Etsy storeThey were kind enough to answer some interview questions, as well as allow permission to display a few of their pieces.

I. Q & A

1) Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Hi there! I go by Ninja, and I am a freelance artist! I recently just started my freelancing career this year, and work on a few indie comics along with thumbnails for youtube!

2) Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?

I am self taught! I always wanted to go to art school, but life had other plans in mind!

3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?

While growing up, comics for sure! Was a huge fan of sonic comics, and now, it’s a mix of that and other media!

4) How did you learn about Journey to the West?

I learned about the Journey To The West after watching the show LEGO Monkie Kid! My friends and I have seen clips of it on twitter, and so we binged the entire series up to date. I was so interested in the characters and the world, I had to look up more. I then discovered the novel and was hooked. I am still looking into more movies to see their take on the novel!

5) Who is your favorite character?

Sun Wukong! He grows so much throughout the story and faces so many challenges. It’s hard not to love this murderous Monkey King who seeks redemption.

6) Do you have a favorite episode from the novel?

That’s a tough one! I think my favorites have to be the Six- Eared Macaque, the battle with Red Boy, and the Immortals of Tiger, Elk, and Antelope Power!

7) Does the novel have a special meaning to you?

To me, seeing what the characters have acted before in the past and seeing them grow and learn makes me happy. It helps me remember that even though you may have done some awful stuff in the past, you can still make a difference and grow from it.

8) Can you tell me about any ongoing JTTW-related projects?

Currently I am working on my own designs of the characters for fun! Making illustrations about my versions of them, and making some merch of the designs for my shop!

II. Art and Thought Process

Note: Click each image to enlarge it.

1. Ever since I started reading Journey To The West and watching movies with the Monkey King or anything JTTW-related, I wanted to create my own take of the characters. With this piece, I was seeing how my designs would look with all of them together! I had rough sketched out some draft looks that got inspired by different pieces of them from either shows, movies, or ancient drawings of them, then fit in what I liked most and created this piece! I wanted to have them express their own personality through the look, and I am quite proud of the final results! I imagined some unlucky villager getting a visit from these “ugly demons” and their Master asking for a place to visit.

2. With this piece, I wanted to capture a fun moment on their journey to the west. These guys have to deal with so much while trying to protect their master, so I figured giving them a nice snow day would be a fun thing to draw!

3. The Six-Eared Macaque. Definitely one of my favorite characters from the stories. I wanted to show him off along with the opera mask, kind of symbolizing him transforming into Wukong to trick his companions.

4. I wanted to put these three pieces together, showing how Sun Wukong acts around his companions and Master.

I know for sure Wukong and Zhu Bajie argued a lot, and I haven’t seen any issues between Sha Wujing and Wukong (still reading and learning) and figured they’d have some nice conversations. And of course, Wukong protects his master from a group of hungry demons or bandits!

5. Now this one I did decide on having some fun on creating my own version of a “spider queen” (I know there wasn’t a queen in the story, but it was still fun)! I based this loosely around the chapter with the spider sisters, making the eldest one the queen. I had a fun time drawing this out, making the eldest have a thing for Wukong, haha!

(Jim here. This reminds me of the Scorpion Spirit having a thing for Tripitaka.)

6. In this piece here, I wanted to have my design of Nezha interacting with Wukong. I based Nezha’s design on a few different inspirations (some being from the Monkie Kid series and ancient art of the deity), and descriptions from the story. I also wanted to add in a dragon tattoo, sort of as a remembrance of what Nezha had done in the past. But this picture was to show the type of relationship these two have. Nezha would definitely feel a bit salty of losing to Wukong all those years ago!



A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 02-14-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru. The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another (see 02-14-23 update below). This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).

Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] in his hands. [4] The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


After waking up and mounting his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by the bodhisattva (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?

Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [5] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

But since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [6]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.

Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [7]


As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.

Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.

Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).


This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.

Update: 02-14-23

Above, I mentioned that Japan or Taiwan would be good candidates for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, but I now feel like I didn’t give enough context. As I explain in this article (and briefly in sec. 1.1 above), Buddhist cosmic geography portrays the world as four cardinal continents surrounding a great mountain. Journey to the West changes the original system by associating China with the southern continent and moving India to the western continent. If we continue this trend by associating the other two continents with real countries, the north would be Russia or Mongolia and the east would be Korea (fig. 8). And since the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is said to be an island east of the eastern most continent, Japan would be the best choice (fig. 9). This means Sun would be a Snow Macaque.

 Fig. 9 – A top view of Buddhist cosmic geography overlaid with the names of real world countries (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxi. Fig 10 – Detail from a map of East Asia (larger version). Map found here.


1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) The translation also included “and a flag” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28), but the Chinese version I have access to does not mention a flag. I have therefore left it out.

5) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

6) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

7) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.


Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

My Great Sage Monkey King Statue from Thailand

I learned in April via a private Thai Monkey King Facebook group that a limited run of colored resin, plain brass, painted brass, and gold-plated brass idols were to be made to raise funds to buy land on which a Great Sage temple would be built in Lam Narai, Lopburi province, Thailand. I procured the services of a local who contacted the religious organization building the temple, “The Equaling Heaven Academy (Altar) of Lam Narai” (Thai: Săm-nák chĕe tiian dtŭua lam-naa-raai, สำนักฉีเทียนตั๋วลำนารายณ์; Ch: Qitian tan Nannalai, 齊天壇南那來), and reserved a statue for me. Once the idols were cast (over several months), they shipped mine and it arrived on August 31st, 2022. Here, I’d like to briefly describe and compare the idol to other statues that I’ve seen or own.

I. Specs

Material: Brass

Length: 9.8 in (24.9 cm)

Width: 11.31 in (28.75 cm)

Height: 16.33 in (41.5 cm)

Weight: Around 24.25 lbs. (11 kg)

II. Pictures

Fig. 1 – The front (larger version).

Fig. 2 – The side (larger version).

Fig. 3 – The back (larger version).

Fig. 4 – Detail of the front’s upper half (larger version).

Fig. 5 – Detail of the front’s lower half (larger version).

Fig. 6 – Detail of the placard on the back (larger version).

III. Discussion

A fiery halo embellished with an inner circle of stylized ruyi-pattern mushrooms sits behind the Monkey King’s head. This shares similarities with a Monkey Buddha statue from a temple in Fujian province, China (fig. 7), the home of his cult. His bald head is adorned with the famous “curlicue-style” golden headband topped with a flaming Cintāmaṇi jewel, as well as a pair of slithering dragons wrapping around the back and sides of his crown. His visage is intense, with eyes opened wide and the corners of his mouth drawn downwards, forming a subtle “w” shape. A line marking the boundary of his forehead, the sides of his face, and just above his chin is slightly raised, giving the impression that he’s wearing a covering over his head and neck. This represents the pink facial patch, either covering the whole face or just a mask around the eyes, that often appears on gilded Monkey King statues in Thailand (fig. 8).

Fig. 7 (top) – A stature of Sun Wukong as a Buddha at the Yufeng Equaling Heaven Palatial Ancestor Hall of Pingshan (Yufeng Qitian fu Pingshan zudian, 玉封齐天府屏山祖殿) in Fuzhou City, Fujian (larger version). Picture by Saie Surendra of Fig. 8 (bottom) – An example of a golden Thai Monkey statue with a pink patch on the face (larger version). Picture originally posted here.

Both arms are bent at the elbow and held out palm up towards the viewer. His left hand holds an immortal peach, while the right cups the handle of a ruyi-pattern scepter resting on his shoulder. The peach is a common element of his iconography all around the world (fig. 9 & 10); however, the scepter imagery seems to be more popular in Southeast Asia. See, for instance, the trinity from the syncretic “Three Teachings” cult of Malaysia and Singapore. Monkey holds the ruyi-scepter in the same manner (fig. 11).

Fig. 9 – A Taiwanese Monkey statue holding an immortal peach in the left hand (larger version). Fig. 10 – A Singaporean statue with an immortal peach in the left hand (larger version). Both are in my personal collection. See also figure twelve below. Fig. 11 – The “Three Teachings” trinity of Southeast Asia (larger version). Take note of Monkey’s ruyi-scepter. Picture originally posted here.

He wears a knotted neckerchief over a war coat with scale-pattern armor on his shoulders and the flap of cloth between his legs, a military girdle at his stomach and waist adorned with a dragon face, scale-pattern armored pants, and war boots with blocky, up-turned toes. His clothing and armor are adorned with various ruyi-pattern mushrooms. The Monkey King’s iconography commonly shows him wearing armor (fig. 12).

Fig. 12 – Detail of a Taiwanese Great Sage statue wearing armor (larger version). Take note of the armored Monkey statue behind him. Also notice that, like figures nine and ten, the lead idol is holding a peach in the left hand. All statues are in my personal collection.

He sits in a traditional dragon chair. More kingly depictions of the Great Sage commonly portray him seated (fig. 12 & 13). But this element is rare compared to the number of statues showing him standing (refer back to fig. 12; see also my other statues here).

Fig. 12 – The idol from figure nine is also shown seated in a dragon chair (larger version). Fig. 13 – The statue from figure ten is seated in a similar chair but replaces the dragon elements with lotuses (larger version).

Infront of the chair is a step on which his boots rest. It’s labeled in Chinese “大聖佛祖” (Dasheng fozu), or “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch“. I show in this article that the phrase is sometimes transliterated into Thai as “ต้าเชิ่งโฝจู่” (Dtâa chêrng fŏh jòo) and “ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว” (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow”). Both the chair and step sit on a rectangular base adorned with simplistic stone lions to his left and right. I haven’t seen lions in any of his other imagery. The front of the base is labeled:

สำนักฉีเทียนตั๋วลำนารายณ์ (Thai: Săm-nák chĕe tiian dtŭua lam-naa-raai)

“The Equaling Heaven Academy (Altar) of Lam Narai”.

The reverse of the backrest features a large symbol for “Buddha” (Fo, 佛), and below this (between the back legs) is a cloud and thunder-pattern lined placard reading:

รุ่น-ซื้อที่ดิน – จัดสร้างโดย คณะม้าทรงพระบู๊ตระกลูหลี่ จลพบุรี (คณะศิษย์จัดสร้างถวาย) 2565 (Thai: rûn séu têe din jàt sâang doi ká-ná máa song prá bóo ต rá gloo-lèe jà-lóp bù-ree (ká-ná sìt jàt sâang tà-wăai))

“The Young Generation Buys Land – Created by the Royal Horse Riding Troupe Raklu Li, Lopburi Province (a group of students made an offering), 2022”. [1]

This Thai statue is a welcome addition to my ever-growing collection of Great Sage idols. It’s certainly the biggest metal Monkey statue that I’ve found so far.


1. Thank you to “Nattida” for transcribing and translating the Thai text for me.


What is the Oldest Known Media of Sun Wukong the Monkey King?

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara),
the Monkey-disciple [1] presses on,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).


The tribute references elements that would later appear in 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), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.

Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

1.2. Oldest known depictions

The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音). [2] Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.

Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his (missing) hands are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version).  Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.

But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).

Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.

The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra (fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).

Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.

The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.

Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.

Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).

Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.

The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).

Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.

There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:

From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra),
Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛].
To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim].
In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival
He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). [3]

The poem is openly critical of Buddhism, [4] showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.

And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:

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

This shows that even by the mid-13th-century, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.

3.2. Oldest known depiction

The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.

Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.

Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.

This elevation may have something to do with the fact that the Monkey King’s cult began in Fujian. While concrete references to his worship date to the 17th-century (see section III here), this carving may be an indicator that he was revered at an earlier time. The area is known to have worshiped monkeys as far back as the Tang period (see the material below fig. 3 here, as well as the 08-17-2019 update).

Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.

4. First appearance? 

To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). [5]

The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.

Fig. 19 (top) – Detail of an urban storytelling (jie, ; lit: “explanation”) stall from the famed 12th-century painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (larger version). Fig. 20 (bottom) – A closer detail showing people intently listening to the storyteller (larger version). The images are screenshots taken from this digital version of the painting on Wikimedia. A big thank you to Borrdahl (2002) for pointing out the storytelling stall.

5. Conclusion



1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).

3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).

5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).


Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.

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

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

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Wei, W., & Zhang, L. (2019). Xiyouji bihua yu Xuanzang qujing tuxiang [Journey to the West Wall Murals: Images of Xuanzang Procuring the Scriptures]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House.