Archive #35 – The Tang Monk Tripitaka as a Confucian in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2022

I’ve already posted three entries on the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang). The first discusses his former incarnation as Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple; the second discusses how chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version published in 1592; and the third discusses the connection between his exile from heaven to ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophy.  Here, I’d like present information that describes the monk’s characterization throughout the story. I’m quoting several pages from Yu’s (2008) paper “The Formation of Fiction in the ‘Journey to the West’“. He shows that, instead of a being a model Buddhist, the literary monk is cast as a Confucian.

I. Relevant pages

However that kind of textual contradiction is to be resolved, what no reader of the full-length novel can fail to notice is how deeply in Xuanzang’s consciousness is imprinted the magnitude of the imperial favor and charge bestowed on him. The historical pilgrim’s dedication to visit the Western region was motivated by the quest for doctrinal clarification (Fashizhuan 法師傳 I: “The Master of the Law … thus vowed to tour the region of the West so as to inquire about the perplexities (of his faith) 法師 … 乃誓遊西方以問所惑”), and this commitment would make him risk even death for defying “the laws of the state 國法” (Xingzhuang 行狀). In sharp contrast, the fictive priest, when promoted to be the emperor’s bond-brother for the willingness to serve as the scripture-seeker, said to his ruler: “Your Majesty, what ability and what virtue does your poor monk possess that he should merit such affection from your Heavenly Grace? I shall not spare myself in this journey, but I shall proceed with all diligence until I reach the Western Heaven. If I did not attain my goal, or the true scriptures, I would not dare return to our land even if I were to die. May I fall into eternal perdition in Hell. 陛下, 貧僧有何德何能, 敢蒙天恩眷顧如此? 我這一去, 定要捐軀努力, 直至西天; 如不到西天, 不得真經, 即死也不敢回國, 永墮沉淪地獄.” 

Whereas the historical pilgrim, upon his successful return to China with scriptures, felt compelled to seek imperial pardon for “braving to transgress the authoritative statutes and departing for India on one’s own authority 冒越憲章私往天竺” through both written memorial and direct oral petition (Fashizhuan 6), the fictive priest would be welcomed by a faithful and expectant ruler who had even built a Scripture-Anticipation Tower 望經樓 to wait anxiously for his envoy for eleven more years (chapter 100). This portrait of the pilgrimage’s imperial sponsorship, intervention (most notably in the travel rescript bearing the imperial seal administered by the emperor himself), and reception helps explain why the fictive priest would consider his religious mission to be, in fact, his obligated service to his lord and state, and that the mission’s success must enact not merely the fulfilment of a vow to Buddha but equally one to a human emperor. As the lead-in poem that inaugurates the priest’s formal journey at the beginning of chapter 13 puts it: “The rich Tang ruler issued a decree/Deputing Xuanzang to seek the source of Zen 大有唐王降敕封/欽差玄奘問禪宗.”

The fact that the fictive pilgrim was sent on his way by the highest human authority with tokens of imperial favor thus also changes fundamentally Xuanzang’s identity and its mode of disclosure. In sharp contrast to the historical figure who, deciding to defy the court’s proscription to travel in the western regions, “dared not show himself in public but rested during the day and journeyed only at night 不敢公出, 乃畫伏夜行” (Fashizhuan 1), the novelistic Xuanzang had no difficulty or hesitation in telling the first stranger he met that he was an imperial envoy sent by the Tang emperor to seek scriptures from Buddha in the Western Heaven. The words, uttered by both master and disciples, would become a formulaic announcement throughout the priest’s journey to every conceivable audience – whether divine, demonic or human – much as the imperial travel rescript authorizing his undertaking would be signed and stamped with royal seals of all the states and kingdoms the pilgrims visited, and from where they had gained permitted passage (chapter 100). The “Shengjiao xu 聖教序 (Preface to the Holy Religion”) bestowed by the historical Taizong on the repatriated Xuanzang, transcribed nearly verbatim in chapter 100 of the novel, had declared unambiguously that the journey was the monk’s solitary expedition 承危達邁, 策杖孤征. In this ex post facto encomium bequeathed to a cleric newly pardoned for a seventeen-year-old crime against the state, not even the emperor could claim credit for authorizing or assisting the project in any manner. On the other hand, the invented rescript, in poignant irony, would not allow the readers to forget for one minute that imperial charge and enablement were as needed as the assistance of the gods.

Throughout the novel’s lengthy course, therefore, there are quite a few examples in which Xuanzang frets about his inability to fulfill the decreed wish of his human lord 旨意 as much as the dreaded failure to reach and see Buddha. Fearing contracted illness might prove fatal during the episode of the Sea-Pacifying Monastery in chapter 81, a tearful Tripitaka would write a poem that he wants Monkey to take back to the Tang court, to inform his Sage Lord 聖君 of his precarious health and request another pilgrim be sent instead. Captured by a leopard monster in chapter 85, Tripitaka explains to a fellow prisoner that “If I lose my life here, would that not have dashed the expectation of the emperor and the high hopes of his ministers? 今若喪命, 可不盼殺那君王, 辜負那臣子?” When told by his interlocutor, a stereotypical wood-cutter who is the sole supporter of an old widowed mother (compare with the one who spoke to Monkey in chapter 1), the priest breaks into loud wailing, crying:

How pitiful! How pitiful! 可憐 可憐
If even a rustic has longings for his kin, Has not this poor priest chanted sūtras in vain?
To serve the ruler or to serve one’s parents follows the same
principle. You live by the kindness of your parents, and I live by the kindness of my ruler. 山人尚有思親意, 空教貧僧會念經, 事君事親, 皆同一理, 你為親恩, 我爲君恩.

Tripitaka’s emotional outburst not only places his sentiments squarely within the most familiar discourse of historical Confucian teachings, but also echoes his parting address to his monastic community at the Temple of Great Blessings 洪福寺 on the eve of his journey: “I have already made a great vow and a profound promise, that if I do not acquire the true scriptures, I shall fall into eternal perdition in Hell. Since I have received such grace and favor from the king, I have no alternative but to requite my country to the limit of loyalty. 我已發了弘誓大願, 不取真經, 永墮沉淪地獄, 大底是受王恩寵, 不得不盡忠以報國耳.” That remark, in turn, even more pointedly repeats a similar confession spoken by the Xuanzang of the twenty-four-act zaju: “Honored viewers, attend to the single statement by this lowly monk: a subject must reach the limit of loyalty, much as son must reach the limit of filial piety. There is no other means of requital than the perfection of both loyalty and filial piety. 眾官, 聽小僧一句言語: 為臣盡忠, 為子盡孝, 忠孝兩全, 餘無所報.” Words such as these may seem hackneyed and platitudinous to modern ears, to say the least, but this portrait of the novelistic Xuanzang cannot be ignored. Built consistently on the tradition of antecedent legend, but with important innovative additions apparently supplied by the Shidetang author, his characterization seems to fit precisely the mold of a stereotype – the traditional Confucian scholar-official.

If the full-length novel seems to indicate a presumption of the Three-Religions-in-One ideology 三教歸一 (or, 三教合一) for both its content and context, who among the five fictive pilgrims is more appropriate than the human monk to live to the limits of political loyalism and filial piety, especially when all four of the other disciples have only such tenuous relations to human culture and lineage? The historical Xuanzang was unquestionably a hero of religion, aptly turning his back on family and court in his youth to face appalling dangers with nary a regret, and without doubt a master of literary Sinitic and of scriptural styles shaped by difficult encounters with Indic languages. His biography, compiled by two disciples and touched with hagiography, duly recorded serial visitations to various states of Central Asia and India beset by encounters with gods and demons, physical perils and privations, triumphal religious proselytism, and royal hospitality in many locales. Nonetheless, could a faithful replica of this character who began his famed journey as a treasonous subject be expected to amuse and entertain in the popular imagination? The novelistic figure, by contrast, is timid, ethically fastidious, occasionally dogmatic and heedful of slander, and prone to partiality – mundane traits not uncommon to other male leads typed in Ming drama or vernacular fiction. Most interestingly, although this pilgrim, consistent with his vocational vow of celibacy, may display intractable resistance to sexual temptations in all circumstances (chapters 24, 54-55, 82-83), he is also so fond of poetry that he would discuss poetics with tree monsters (chapter 64) and compose quatrains in a region near India (chapter 94). Perhaps in parody of filial piety blended with the religious notion of reverting to the source and origin 反本還原 extolled in both Daoism and Buddhism, the narrative shows him to be so attached to his mother (when he is not thinking about the emperor) that an ordeal is almost conveniently structured right in his path nearing its goal that would reenact the fated marriage of his parents – the chance selection of the father by the mother’s thrown embroidered ball (chapters 93-95). In this episode on the Kingdom of India, where to the Tang Monk’s chauvinistic eyes the clothing, utensils, manner of speech, and behavior of the people completely resemble those of the Great Tang, the pilgrim’s persistent invocation of maternal experience also justly invites Monkey’s teasing about his master’s “longing for the past 慕古之意.” Is not such a person, dwelling in the religiously syncretic world of the full-length novel, a fit representative of Confucianism, at least as known and imagined by the vast populace? (Yu, 2008, pp. 22-26).


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.

II. My thoughts

So having read the above, we know that the change from the heroic historical monk to the cowardly literary figure was likely done for entertainment purposes, as well as to interject a bit of Confucianism in honor of syncretic Ming philosophy. But I can’t help but think that this was also meant to fuel the constant bickering between Tripitaka and Sun Wukong. After all, Confucianism and Buddhism were bitter enemies throughout the centuries. While Confucianism also critiqued Daoism, Buddhism was an easier target due to (among other objections) its foreign origins. [1] Ming-era scholar Wang Shouren (王守仁, 1472-1529), for instance, faulted the religion for “ignoring canonical human relations, abandoning affairs and things [of the world] …, and fostering selfishness and self-benefit” (Wang, 1992, as cited in Yu, 2012, p. 72). In addition, the Monkey King is often cast as the voice of reason, while the monk remains blind to reality (a prime example being the white bone spirit episode). This dynamic may have been intended to lampoon Confucianism. If true, this would mean the author-compiler, be it Wu Cheng’en (吳承恩, c. 1500-1582) or some other scholar-official, was likely poking fun at himself and those in his social circle.

Update: 04-29-22

Here’s a great example of Monkey being the voice of reason by chastising the monk for being too worldly:

 Pilgrim said, “Old Master, you have forgotten the one about ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind: Those of us who have left the family should see no form with our eyes, should hear no sound with our ears, should smell no smell with our noses, should taste no taste with our tongues; our bodies should have no knowledge of heat or cold, and our minds should gather no vain thoughts. This is called the extermination of the Six Robbers. But look at you now! Though you may be on your way to seek scriptures, your mind is full of vain thoughts: fearing the demons you are unwilling to risk your life; desiring vegetarian food you arouse your tongue; loving fragrance and sweetness you provoke your nose; listening to sounds you disturb your ears; looking at things and events you fix your eyes. You have, in sum, assembled all the Six Robbers together. How could you possibly get to the Western Heaven to see Buddha?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).


1) For a detailed discussion of all the various points raised by Confucians against Buddhism, please see Langlais (1972).


Langlais, J. M. (1972). Early Neo-Confucian Criticism of Chinese Buddhism [Unpublished master’s dissertation, McMaster University]. Retrieved from

Yu, A. C. (2008). The Formation of Fiction in the “Journey to the West.” Asia Major21(1), 15-44.

Yu, A. C. (2012). Introduction. In C. Wu and A. C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (pp. 1-100). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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


The Monkey King and the “Three-Teachings” (三教) Trinity of Southeast Asia

Last updated: 04-01-2022

Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project recently introduced me to the Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) [1] folk religion sect of Malaysia and Singapore. It features an intriguing trinity with the Monkey King as the Great Sage Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) in the center, the aforementioned deity to his left, and the Most High Elder Lord (Taishang laojun, 太上老君; a.k.a. Laozi, 老子) to his right. Combined, they respectively represent Confucianism, Buddhism, and DaoismThis is shocking as Sun Wukong replaces the Buddha himself as a representative of the “Three Teachings” (sanjiao, 三教). Needless to say, his inclusion here elevates the Monkey King from a mid-tier god to a supreme one.

I. History?

There doesn’t appear to be any concrete information about when the trinity first appeared. The oldest photograph (fig. 1) that I can find hails from 1970s Singapore (per an informant). But this page states that Chee Chung Temple (慈忠庙), followers of the sect, was founded in 1960, showing that it was flourishing as early as this time. However, an informant tells me that the sect is more rare in Singapore these days. Conversely, Ronni notes it’s more common in Malaysia and that the trinity from the photograph looks similar to “twenty or thirty examples” he’s seen while visiting temples in the south. 

Fig. 1 – The 1970s photograph (larger version). Image in a private Malaysian collection.

I’d like to add that the three-person grouping follows precedent in Chinese religion, with examples including the “Three Pure Ones” (Sanqing, 三清) of Daoism and the “Three Bodies” (Sk: Trikaya; Ch: Sanshen, 三身) of Buddhism. These likely influenced the trinity (see below).

I’ll update this section as new information becomes available.

II. Iconography

The Great Sage Patriarch is portrayed with a small guan cap (xiao guan, 小冠) crowning a furry, simian head, and the face is sometimes painted similar to his Chinese opera depictions. He wears a (sometimes golden) suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed and his hands on his legs. One hand loosely cups the handle of an “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) scepter, with the mushroom head resting near his shoulder. As noted here, this scepter is a symbol of some Buddhist and Daoist gods, most notably the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao tianzun, 靈寶天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, and Guanyin (觀音). 

The Immortal Master Yellow Elder is portrayed with a small guan cap crowning a smiling, elderly man with drawn back white hair and a long, white beard and mustache. He wears bagua robes (of various colors) and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed. And he either holds a fly whisk or command flag in one hand, while the other is sometimes held in a mudra.

The Most High Elder Lord is quite similar to the former (including the guan cap, hair and beard, and bagua clothing), but he’s instead seated cross-legged on a lotus throne. One hand holds a traditional palace fan (gong shan, 宮扇), while the other might delicately hold a pearl.

All three are sometimes depicted in a cave-like alcove over which hangs a sign reading “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (Zhong xian dong, 眾/衆仙洞) or “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (Xian fo dong, 仙佛洞) (fig. 2 & 3).

Fig. 2 – The “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (larger version). This is likely a painting of the idols from figure one. Found on Facebook. Fig. 3 – The “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (larger version). Found on Facebook.

The trinity appears to have borrowed from depictions of the Three Pure Ones. Take for example this painting (fig. 4). Two of the three figures include the As-you-will scepter and the palace fan.

Fig. 4 – A print of the Three Pure Ones from Werner, 1922, p. 124 (larger version).

III. The Immortal Master Yellow Elder

This is not a common deity, so I’ve chosen to quote the BOXS article on the subject. I’ve changed the Wade Giles to pinyin. The information was gathered by Keith Stevens:

[…] His images have been seen on altars in Singapore in Balestier Road, also in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, in Seremban and Muar, and in southern Thailand, where in each temple he is known as one of the Supreme Trinity .

In Kuala Lumpur where he is regarded as a deity who possesses the spirit mediums of his cult, the Huang jiao [黃教], he is known as an avatar of Laozi. He is said to have first appeared and became popular during the Han dynasty as the Governor of the World but without interfering with its day to day running. […] He was identified as Huang Shigong [黃石公], a patron of Zhang Liang [張良] who in about 200 BC was a trusted counsellor of Liu Bang [劉邦] and is said to have written a work on military tactics, the Sanlue [三略, “Three Strategies”].

Zhang Liang was one of the Three Heroes of China, said to have been a governor of a province during the Han, and according to Taoist legend was one day crossing a bridge of a river when a poor old man on a mule passed by. One of the old man’s sandals fell off into the river and in one version Zhang picked up the sandal of his own volition whilst in another, told by devotees, the old man asked him to pick it up. Zhang feeling a great sense of indignity but moved by pity for the old man picked it up. Then, after several tests Zhang Liang was told by the old man that with the book he had just given to Zhang he would become an adviser to the king. In years to come it came about exactly as foretold, and the old man on the mule turned out to be Huang Lao xianshi.

In these temples Huang Lao xianshi’s annual festival is celebrated on the double sixth [i.e. 6th day of the 6th lunar month]. His image has not been noted in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau.

In most temples he is revered for his healing powers, with one sip of water blessed by him curing sickness; it also provides stamina and nerve, and wrestlers and boxers visit his altars to drink his tonic before their matches.

Huang is also known as:

Huang Lao zushi [黃老祖師]

Huang Lao jun [黃老君] (RefNo. W3015).

The article goes on to suggest a possible connection to the Yellow Emperor-Elder Master (Huang Lao, 黃老) school of philosophy.

The Huang Lao school combines the teachings of Huang Di, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Buddhist[s], as well as Confucian[s], developed over the centuries into its own particular form (RefNo. W3015).

This philosophical connection is interesting as one scholar suggests that the Sanlue “was written around the end of the Former Han dynasty, probably by a reclusive adherent of the Huang-Lao school who had expert knowledge of military affairs” (Sawyer & Sawyer, 2007, p. 283). This would explain why the Yellow Elder’s story is associated with Huang Shigong (“Old Man Yellowstone”). Also, his name might imply that he’s considered an embodiment of this philosophy.

One thing not noted in the BOXS article is that some statues alternatively spell his name as 黃老先師 (Huang Lao xianshi), meaning the “First Teacher Yellow Elder” (see the third section on this page). The term 先師 is a reference to one of Confucius‘ titles (Chin, 2007, p. 13).

Update: 04-01-22

Ronni shared with me a source explaining the birth of Master Yellow Elder’s sect. One webpage claims it came about in 1937 at No. 38 Beer Village of Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, Peninsular Malaysia (马来西亚半岛森美兰州马口三十八啤农村). This might explain why the sect is more popular in Malaysia than Singapore:

At that time, Liao Jun [廖俊] was alone in the hall near the Daoist altar when he became curious about learning spirit-mediumship and spirit-writing. All of a sudden, a spirit entered his body, causing him to sit solemnly while stroking his whiskers and mumbling incomprehensively. He didn’t know what spirit had taken hold of his body or what was being said. Afterwards, Liao woke up but didn’t know anything. After that he requested the spirit to descend everyday but wasn’t able to speak. Later, Mr. Dai Zhao [Dai Zhao xiansheng, 戴招先生], the original owner of the Daoist temple, consecrated him as a new spirit-medium with a seal. He was then able to write messages and finally speak. Until that day when Liao Jun called the spirit, he opened his mouth and preached with strict principles and profound meaning. He said that the Immortal Master came to teach disciples in order to help the world. But he did not reveal his origin.

After a period of Liao calling down the spirit, the gathered crowd questioned the deity. He finally revealed that the Immortal Master Yellow Elder was actually Oldman Yellowstone [Huang shigong, 黃石公], known from legends passed down through the generations. According to the Jade Emperor’s decree, he was to open the dharma gate [famen, 法门] by preaching his teachings for the universal deliverance of the people.

Those who wish to enter the dharma gate first have to fast for 30 days and then complete the dharma hall ceremony to become a formal disciple. This dharma transforms according to one’s heart and can be used as one desires. Only when it is used in the right way (zhengdao, 正道) will it be effective. One cannot harbor any evil desires.

All of Immortal Master Yellow Elder’s disciples can worship at home by arranging their own shrine. A memorial tablet [paiwei, 牌位] must be set up in the center, and the following words must be written: mercy [ci, 慈], loyalty [zhong, 忠], faith [xin, 信], righteousness [yi, 义], rituals [li, 礼], relationships [lun, 伦], continence [jie,节], filial piety [xiao, 孝], honesty [lian, 廉], and right virtue [de 德]. A sign on the left side must say, “Obey the Way of Heaven with Loyalty” [Shuntian xingdao zhong, 顺天行道忠], and on the right, “From the Earth Return to Ceremony” [Congdi fu liyi, 从地復礼仪].

Apart from the aforementioned ten precepts [shi xundao, 十训道], the disciples of the Immortal Master can also draw talismans [fu, 符] to exorcise evil spirits from residences. At the same time, they can practice a boxing method to protect oneself in case of emergency.

At that time, more than 40 people were attracted to join. They worshiped the Immortal Master Yellow Elder and were diligent in practicing the dharma and martial arts. Later, the number of disciples increased. After the Immortal Master made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. After the Immortal Master Yellow Elder made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. And after they went before him and asked for instructions, he ordered that the first temple be built in Malacca. Because Malacca is a holy place of Buddhist temples, the sect spread throughout Malaysia and into Singapore (source).

This passage is interesting because it mixes Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist terminology. Examples include “dharma gate” and “right way”; the list of the ten precepts, which are similar to the Four Cardinal Principles and Eight Virtues; and the evil-warding talismans.

It still amazes me, though, that the Great Sage is given such a prominent position in the center when he’s not even the main focus of the sect.


1) The BOXS catalog explains that there’s actually some confusion between two similarity named deities in different versions of the trinity. One is the aforementioned Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) and the other is the Immortal Master Kingly Elder (Wang Lao xianshi, 王老仙師). This is because Huang (黃) and Wang (王) “are almost homophones” (RefNo. W6675 & W3015).


Chin, A. (2007). Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. United Kingdom: Yale University Press.

Sawyer, R. D., & Sawyer, M. (2007). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Werner, E. T. C. (1922). Myths & Legends of China. New York: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.



Archive #33 – The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel (1970)

Dr. Glen Dudbridge (1938-2017), a British sinologist, was a giant in the field of Journey to the West Studies. His book The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel (1970) is the best treatise on the history of this world famous story cycle. It stresses the oral storytelling origin of the tale, including a 13th-century storytelling prompt; 13th-century poetic allusions to the story; a 13th-century stone carving of Monkey in Quanzhou; fragments of the story in the Korean Pak t’ongsa ŏnhae (14th-c.) and Chinese Yongle Encyclopedia (early 15th-c.); mentions of the journey in a 16th-century baojuanWuzhiqi and white ape tales and how they may relate to the origin of Sun Wukong; Yuan-Ming Zaju plays about Erlang and Monkey; and it also includes translations and synopses of key texts in the appendixes.

Book Description:

A study of the early versions of the classic Chinese novel known to readers in English as Monkey. Dr Dudbridge examines a long tradition of earlier versions in narrative and dramatic form through which the great episodic cycle slowly took shape. The two main fields of interest are popular culture and folklore and the development of Chinese vernacular literature. Dr Dudbridge provides a very thorough survey of present knowledge about the whole topic and discusses critically a good deal of theorising about it. This is a study for experts. It uses Chinese characters, both in text pages and in the bibliography, which is very extensive. The plates reproduce paintings, carvings and sections of text relevant to the tradition.

Archive link:

Click to access The-Hsi-yu-chi-A-Study-of-Antecedents-to-the-Sixteenth-Century-Chinese-Novel-1970.pdf


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.


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

Archive #32 – The Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang baojuan) (1562)

The Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang Baojuan, 二郎寳卷; full name Qingyuan Miaodao Xiansheng Zhenjun Yiliao Zhenren huguo youmin zhongxiao Erlang Baojuan, 清源妙道顯聖真君一了真人護國佑民忠孝二郎開山寶卷), is an important baojuan from the 1560s that contains the heroic deeds of the immortal Erlang (二郎) (fig. 1), including his defeat of Sun Wukong (PDF page 46). This shows that the Monkey King was mentioned in a religious context 30 years before the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) was even published. Therefore, apart from recording the religious story of Erlang, it adds to that of Sun Wukong.

I must thank Dr. Benjamin Brose for sending me a PDF of the scroll. I’m excited to archive it on my blog for other scholars to access and read.

Fig. 1 – A relief carving of Erlang as Yang Jian (楊戩) from Investiture of the Gods (c. 1620) (larger version).

Scroll description:

In 1562 a text entitled Erlang baojuan (Precious scroll on Erlang) appeared, providing further information on the emerging Eternal Mother myth. Based on the story of Erlang’s valiant fight with the Monkey King, a famous and entertaining episode from the classic novel Journey to the West (which, incidentally, was given the finishing touches around the same time), the Erlang baojuan describes the final subjugation of the Monkey King by the semidivine Erlang, thanks in large measure to the assistance provided by the Eternal Mother. This text also seems to presage the legend surrounding the building of the Baoming Si, Temple Protecting the Ming dynasty, as described hereafter. In it the story of the bodhisattva Guanyin incarnating as a nun by the name of Lü is first being told. According to this text, the nun had tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Emperor Yingzong from fighting the Oirat Mongols prior to his debacle at Fort Tumu in 1449. When Yingzong was restored to the throne in 1457 after his long captivity, he rewarded the nun for her loyalty and courage and built a temple for her, naming it the Baoming Si. The temple had been reportedly in existence since 1462. By the late years of the Jiajing reign (1522–1567), however, it came under the sway of believers of the Eternal Mother religion (Shek & Tetsuro, 2004, p. 252).

Archive link:

Click to access unnamed-file.pdf


Shek, R., & Tetsuro, N. (2004). Eternal Mother Religion: It’s History and Ethics. In K Liu. & R. Shek. (Eds.). Heterodoxy in Late Imperial China (pp. 241-280). Hong Kong: University of Hawai’i Press.

How Tall is the Monkey King? – A Debate

This was originally posted as a 03-03-2022 update to an existing article, but I decided to make it a standalone piece.

Last updated: 03-08-2022

In “What Does Sun Wukong Look Like?” I highlighted several sentences pointing to the Monkey King’s small stature (fig. 1 & 2). For example, one monster comments:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four Chinese feet [buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m] in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408).

This information was later used in the making of a youtube video called “10 Facts About Sun Wukong the Monkey King“. Fact number seven was that “He’s really short”, and I ended the section by saying: “That’s right! The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the conqueror of the heavenly army … is the size of a child”. A Chinese viewer later left a thought-provoking comment on the video stating that I was wrong about Monkey’s size.

Fig. 1 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Drawn by my friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart). Slightly modified by me to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here. Fig. 2 – A size chart comparing Sun to a six-foot human (larger version).

The Debate

Here, I will present the comment in full but interspersed with my responses:

Hello! I am a Wukong fan from China. I really enjoyed your video! I would like to say that the height of the Monkey King has been very controversial on the internet in China. The data and appearance depictions in classical Chinese novels can be somewhat exaggerated. Journey to the West is a mythological novel is even more so. For example, seventy-two transformations, a somersault that can travel one hundred thousand eight hundred thousand li respectively refer to infinite changes and fly extremely fast. Seventy-two and one hundred and eighty thousand are not exact numbers, so relying solely on data is not reliable. Besides, in addition to four feet, Wukong has also appeared other height data. For example, the earliest version of the Journey to the West, “世德堂本”, Chapter 21. “大圣公然不惧。那怪果打一下来,他把腰躬一躬,足长了三尺,有一丈长短。” “Our Great Sage was not in the least frightened. When the monster struck him once, he stretched his waist and at once grew three chi, attaining the height of one zhang altogether.”

This PDF scan (page 258) shows the original version of the novel did indeed read “grow three chi” (changle sanchi, 長了三尺) and not six like in the modern version (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 408). I was surprised when this was brought to my attention.

One zhang minus three chi equals seven chi. In other words, the height of the Monkey King here was seven chi (Since the height unit in Chinese classical novels is based on the ancient system, 7 chi is around 5.5 feet). But in later versions and translations, “grew three chi” was changed to six chi. This has always been a point of contention. The figure of four feet (four chi) appears twice, both from the perspective of other monsters, such as the Monstrous King, who is three zhangs tall (around 24 feet). It may be possible that Sun Wukong is short in his eyes in comparison.

For those unfamiliar with ancient Chinese measurements, one zhang () equals ten chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese feet”) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). The passage in question does imply that Monkey is seven chi tall. However, there are two problems. First, during the Ming (1368-1644) when the novel was published, one chi equaled approximately 12.52 inches (31.8 cm) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). This would make Sun a whopping 7.3 feet (2.22 m) tall! I must admit that the chi varied at the local level, but I doubt the variations would lead to a nearly two-foot (60.96 cm) difference. Additionally, if we use the measures for the Tang (618-907 CE), when the story is set, a chi was 11.57 inches (29.4 cm), making Monkey 6.75 feet (2.06 m) tall. There was, however, a “small chi” (xiaochi, 小尺) at this time, which was 9.66 inches (24.6 cm) (Nienhauser, 2016, p. 405 n. 40). This would only make him 5.65 feet (1.72 m) tall. But I would question if the common folk reading the novel during the Ming were aware of and still using this truncated measure. Second, as written above, the figure for “not even four chi” (buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m) appears twice. But it’s important to note that this estimate is made by two different characters at two different locations and times. The first is spoken in chapter two by the Monstrous King of Havoc (Hunshi mowang, 混世魔王) in the Water Belly Cave (Shuizang dong, 水臟洞) of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (east of the Eastern Purvavideha Continent) (PDF page 36; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). This takes place over 100 years before Sun’s initial rebellion during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). And the second is spokien in chapter 21  by Great King Yellow Wind (Huangfeng dawang, 黃風大王) in the Yellow Wind Cave (Huangfeng dong, 黃風洞) of Yellow Wind Ridge (Huangfeng ling, 黃風嶺) somewhere in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (PDF page 258; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). This takes place sometime after his release from his 600-plus-year punishment under Five Elements Mountain during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Therefore, this seems like a more reliable measure—given the distance between themthan the ten minus three argument. I suggest the latter was actually a typo that later editions tried to amend by changing three to six. 

Another reason is that the author may be deliberately blurring the height of the Monkey King. Because at least in the story, the author describes Wukong according to the height of normal people. For example: Before Wukong learned Magic skills, when he could not change his height, he had robbed ordinary people’s clothes to wear. If Wukong was the height of a child, the clothes would hardly fit. When Wukong set out on his journey to the west, he once wore the clothes of Tang Monk. Wukong could carry the Taoist priest changed by the Silver Horned King (if he was a child height this would be very difficult).

These are good points, but a 7.3-foot tall Monkey wouldn’t be able to wear the clothing of the aforementioned people either. Conversely, tucking in or rolling up clothing wouldn’t be out of the question. And carrying a priest wouldn’t be a problem for a small-statured hero capable of hoisting the weight of two cosmic mountains while running at meteoric speeds.

In the same chapter, the Tang monk sitting on the horse can pull Wukong’s tiger skin skirt. Wukong can easily grab Eight Rules’ ear. In the Bhikṣu Kingdom, Wukong once exchanged clothes with Tang monk, etc.

Horses are tall animals, so the Tang Monk would’ve probably fallen off before even grabbing the skirt of an adult-sized Sun Wukong. I look at this as something that sounds good on paper until it’s tried in real life.

I think even a 5.5-foot tall Monkey would have problems grabbing the ear of Zhu Bajie, who is likely 10 feet (3.05 m) tall or more given his three chi (3.13 ft / 95.4 cm) snout (PDF page 108; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149) and giant body that “causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (PDF page 367; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Either way, jumping would be involved, making this irrelevant.

And just because Sun might be smaller doesn’t mean he wears child-sized clothing. I believe the first instance of sharing clothes happens in chapter 14: “Pilgrim … noticed that Tripitaka had taken off a [robe] made of white cloth and had not put it on again after his bath. Pilgrim grabbed it and put it on himself” (PDF page 174; Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 313). He seems to wear whatever is available to him.

In China, there is another speculation about Wukong’s height: monkeys are usually hunched over. Wukong is four chi tall when bent over and seven chi tall when standing upright.

I studied primates in college. Monkeys usually walk on their palms (palmigrade) (fig. 3) and only stand when foraging, fighting, or carrying things. But I don’t recall the novel ever mentioning Sun traveling on all fours (please correct me if I’m wrong). Therefore, he likely walks on two legs. In this case, as stated, monkeys have a hunched posture when standing. They can’t stand straight because of mechanical limitations in their skull, spine, hips, legs, and feet (my previous essay on hominids applies to monkeys as well). One could argue that Monkey can overcome these limitations with his immortal body, but this definitely wouldn’t give him three more chi of height. For example, here’s a macaque standing at full height (fig. 4). As can be seen, straightening the head, spine, and legs would only give a handful of inches or centimeters.

Fig. 3 – A macaque skeleton in its natural posture (larger version). Fig. 4 – A young macaque male standing (larger version).

And as stated in this article, Sun shares all of the hallmarks of a macaque, including a “furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears”. This likely includes a smaller stature.

Of course, there is no doubt that he is very thin, and is definitely the shortest one in the scripture takers, but at least, his height is more like that of a shorter adult than a child. The role of Sun Wukong is a combination of human nature, monkey nature, and divinity. The author may be deliberately obscuring his height. Therefore, when describing daily life, Wukong is the same height as normal people, but in the eyes of other demons, he is more prominent in the shape of the monkey. And he has the divine power to change his height at will. Sorry for my bad English, really enjoyed your video!

I will concede that four chi is a rough estimate, so he might be slightly shorter or even taller than this. Either way, he’d be far below average human height.

Update: 03-06-22

Chapter 20 includes a scene where Monkey refers to his stature: “A person like me, old Monkey, may be small but tough, like the skin around a ball of ligaments!” (PDF page 246; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).

Update: 03-08-22

Above, I suggested that the ten minus three argument was a typo. But there might be a numerological explanation. Qing-era scholar Wang Xiangxu (汪象旭, fl.1605-1668) borrowed from the Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?-1082) by applying his “three fives equal one” (sanwuyi, 三五一) five elements concept (fig. 5) to numbers appearing in the novel. As Shao (1997) explains:

One set of five consists of wood (3) and fire (2). Wood in the east produces fire in the south. The second set is that of metal (4) and water (1). Metal in the west produces water in the north. The third is earth in the center whose number is five. The whole business of the “gold elixir” is to integrate all three sets of five to produce one—the gold elixir (pp. 16-17).

Shao (1997) goes on to explain the numeric significance of the dharma vessel constructed from Sha Wujing’s 9-skull necklace and the heavenly gourd in chapter 22: 

Wang Xiangxu shows a keen eye for the “one” gourd and “nine” skulls which make a perfect “ten”—the number for the completion of earth. However, it is not the numbers that attract him, but what they indicate—that the gold elixir is creation—a process that involves the integration of all the five elements—not unlike the creation of the universe (p. 18).

Therefore, three (wood) and seven (fire) may be a reference to the completion of ten (the golden elixir) in Daoist numerology. If this is true, even the later switch from three to six still matches this (refer to fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – A chart explaining the three fives (larger version). From Shao, 1997, p. 17.


Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.

Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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