I by chance happened upon an old magazine article that mentions the worship of Sun Wukong in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1892. The piece is written by one Frederic J. Masters, D.D., a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about the area’s Chinese community. Not surprisingly, the article is dripping with condescension towards Chinese religion, condemning the Great Sage’s worship as “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness” (Masters, 1892, p. 737). Below is the section discussing the Monkey King.
In the Spofford-alley temple are found the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses, the principal being the Grand Duke of Peace, the God of Medicine, and Pan Kung, a celebrated Prime Minister of the Sung Dynasty. The funniest discovery in this temple was that of Tsai Tin Tai Shing [Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖]. He is a beatified monkey in the image of a man. Hatched from a bowlder [sic], this animal is said to have proclaimed himself king of the monkeys. At last he learned the language of men, and finding himself possessed of supernatural powers, he obtained a place among the gods. Such is the legend. Chinese idolatry thus reaches the acme of absurdity and sinfulness in the canonization of a monkey. Thoughts of Darwin’s descent of man at once flashed across our mind as we looked at this image. It was disappointing at one’s curiosity to find that the old temple keeper who cared more for a pipe of opium than for speculations in theology and anthropology could not tell us what part natural selection played in the evolution of Chinese deities, or whether monkey worship was the newest phase of Chinese ancestral worship. Finding him lamentably ignorant upon the great question of the descent of man, we astonished with him with a complete history of his monkey god.
There was an ape in the days that were earlier; Centuries passed and his hair became curlier; Centuries more and his tail disappeared, Then he was man and a god to be feared (Masters, 1892, pp. 736-737).
So what can we learn from this brief entry? Given the time, place, and use of Cantonese, the worshipers were most likely immigrants from Guangdong province. Refo Mason (1994) explains, “When news of the discovery of gold in California reached South China in 1849, thousands of labourers in Guangdong and Fujian provinces left their villages to seek work in the gum shan ([金山] ‘Gold Mountain’) … Emigration from South China to California…peaked in 1852, when 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco” (p. 200). Monkey‘s adherents may have counted among these men or their descendants (or possibly among those from later periods of immigration). Either way, belief in the Great Sage came with those who traveled from southern China to America.
Somebody please get Neil Gaimon on the phone and tell him that he can now include Monkey in American Gods (fig. 1). What do you think the character would look like? Maybe a short old man with a cane?
Fig 2 – A modern Google satellite image of Spofford Alley (larger version). It is only a few hundred feet long.
During the 19th-century, Spofford Alley (fig. 2), where the temple housing the Great Sage shrine was located, was home to the Chee Kong Tong (Zhigong tang, 致公堂, “Chamber of High Justice Society,” a.k.a. the “Chinese Freemasons”), the secret Chinese society-turned-criminal organization running Chinatown’s illicit opium, gambling, and prostitution trade (Risse, 2012, p. 37). The Chee Kong Tong were originally an offshoot of anti-Manchu rebels who wanted to overthrow the foreign-ruledQing dynasty (Cassel, 2002, pp. 218-219).  Therefore, Sun Wukong’s worshipers may have included gangsters and rebels. As mentioned in this article, the Great Sage was venerated by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). This makes sense as the divine primate is famous for his rebellion against heaven in Journey to the West.
I was very happy to recently find an article called “Map of Temples in San Francisco’s Chinatown 1850s-1906” (Romaskiewicz, 2021). The author, a PhD student named Peter Romaskiewicz, has done a great service by scouring 19th and 20-century material and cross-referencing this with antique maps of Chinatown. The article has a list of over 20 temples/immigrant associations and their corresponding locations plotted on a map. This is great because it has allowed me to pinpoint the exact place where the Monkey King was worshiped in 1892 Chinatown!
Masters (1892) refers twice to temples on Spofford: 1) “[Guanyin’s] shrine is found up a dingy staircase on the southwest corner of Spofford alley and Washington streets” (p. 734); and 2) “In the Spofford-alley temple are found the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses…” (p. 736). Romaskiewicz (2021) shows the Guanyin temple (#10) was located at the end of Spofford, while a different joss house belonging to the Chee Kong Tong (#9) was located in the middle of the street. I therefore assumed Monkey was worshiped at the Chee Kong Tong joss house because Masters’ (1892) second temple reference didn’t mention Guanyin. However, after writing Romaskiewicz, I learned that there were actually three joss houses on Spofford during the 19th-century (one from an 1887 map is not listed). But most importantly, Masters (1982) was likely referring to the Guanyin Temple in both instances. That’s why he highlights “the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses…” (Masters, 1892, p. 736) (emphasis mine), meaning these icons were also found in the same location.
The Guanyin Temple (Guanyin miao, 觀音廟) was located at No. 60 on the corner of Spofford and Washington (fig. 3) (Romaskiewicz, 2021). I’m unsure if it still exists in some form in that location. But I do know from Google Maps that the old No. 60 is not the same as the current No. 60.
Romaskiewicz was kind enough to direct me to an 1883 brochure asking for funds to restore the temple. This shows it was in use for some time.
Fig. 3 – The yellow star marks the location of the Guanyin Temple (larger version). Based on Romaskiewicz (2021). See this 1885 map.
1) Sun Yatsen, the “Father of modern China,” made contact with the Chee Kong Tong several times and even used their no. 36 Spofford Alley office as his own while raising money for his revolution in China (United States, 1993, pp. 45-46; Lum & Lum, 1999, p. 57).
Cassel, S. L. (2002). The Chinese in America: A history from Gold Mountain to the new millennium. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Lum, Y. M., & Lum, R. M. K. (1999). Sun Yat-sen in Hawaii: Activities and supporters. Honolulu: Hawaii Chinese History Center.
Masters. F. J. (1892). Pagan Temples in San Francisco. In C.F. Holder (Ed.). The Californian illustrated magazine: June to November, 1892, vol. 2 (pp. 727-741). San Francisco, Calif.: Californian Pub. Co.
Refo Mason, S. (1994). Social Christianity, American feminism, and Chinese prostitutes: The history of the Presbyterian mission home, San Francisco, 1874-1935 In M. Jaschok and S. Miers (Ed.) Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude, and Escape (pp. 198-220). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
The Qiang (Ch: 羌; Qiangic: Rrmea) ethnic group have been mentioned in Chinese records as far back as the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th-century BCE). Originally inhabiting the northern reaches of China, these sheepherders and warriors were driven southwest over many centuries of conflict with neighboring ethnic groups, as well as the Chinese. Many Chinese dynasties attempted to assimilate them, but the Qiang have resisted up to the present. Today, they live in western Sichuan near the Tibetan border and are listed among the 56 recognized ethnic groups of China (Yu, 2004, pp. 155-156; Wang, 2002, pp. 133-136).
What’s interesting about the Qiang for the purposes of this blog is that both magic monkeys and heavenly stones, and even Sun Wukong himself, play a part in the people’s religious mythology.
Fig. 1 – A map of China showing the location of Sichuan province in red. Larger version available on wikicommons.
I. Monkeys and Qiang shamanism
Shamans (Ch: Duan gong, 端公 or Wu, 巫j; Qiangic: Shüpi) are the heart of Qiang religious life. During special ceremonies, they wear three-peaked hats (fig. 2 and 3) made from the fur of golden monkeys(fig. 4), each peak respectively representing the deities of heaven, earth, and shamanism (more on the latter below).  These hats are especially worn during exorcisms because the monkeys are considered “the purest of animals, [which stand] in extreme contrast to the vilest of beings—the demons” (Oppitz, 2004, p. 13). There are several legends, with many variants, explaining the origins of the headdress. One version states:
[T]he Qiangs used to have a written language, and their patriarch recorded the scriptures he obtained from the gods and other important writings on human affairs on the bark of birch trees. One day when he took out the pieces of bark to be aired, a mountain sheep came and ate them all. With the help of a golden monkey the patriarch captured the guilty sheep and made its skin into a drum. When he beat on the drum he was able to recall the words written on the birch bark. To prevent future mishaps to these precious documents, he memorized them by heart (Yu, 2004, p. 160).
So in essence the hats are worn to commemorate the assistance of the golden monkey. Interestingly, another version replaces the patriarch and golden monkey with Tripitaka and Sun Wukong:
A long time ago, in the Tang period, there was a monk by the name of Tang Seng [唐僧, “Tang Monk”], who undertook a journey to the western skies in the company of a monkey named Sun Wukong, in order to collect sacred scriptures. On their way back, they encountered a sheep ghost who ate all the newly acquired scriptures. The monkey got very angry, killed the sheep ghost, and used its skin to fabricate a drum. Thereupon Tang Seng and the monkey met with the Eighteen Arhats … Listening to their teachings, Tang Seng picked up the sheep-skin drum and repeated all that he heard through their mouths. Since then all shamans use a drum when reciting their knowledge from memory (Oppitz, 2004, p. 23).
Fig. 2 – The three-peaked golden monkey skin shaman hat. From the Sichuan University Museum. Larger version on wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A shaman wearing the headdress and playing the ritual sheep skin drum (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. From Oppitz, 2004, p. 14. Fig. 4 – A golden monkey with child. Larger version on wikipedia.
The golden monkey is closely associated with the Qiang’s pantheistic worship of sacred white stones, each one representing the gods of heaven, sun, fire, mountains, rivers, and trees.  Yu (2004) provides another legend for the origins of the Shaman’s hat, describing how the monkey is the offspring of the sacred stone and noting parallels with the birth of Sun Wukong:
Another legend depicts the golden monkey as a Prometheus-like figure who stole fire from heaven. The first two attempts failed because the god of wind and the god of rain extinguished the fire, but the monkey succeeded the third time by concealing the fire in a white stone. It is worth noting that in this legend the golden monkey is closely related to the white stone. In the Qiang language, the first syllables in the names of the monkey’s mother and father mean respectively “stone” and “fire.” “This implies that fire is produced by stone and hidden inside the stone, and that the half-human, half-simian golden monkey was an offspring of the union between stone and fire”. The white stone and the golden monkey, as the source of fire and the messenger who brought it to the human world, became the totems of the Qiang people. To commemorate the recovery of the lost scriptures, wearing the monkey hat and playing the sheepskin drum also became an indispensable part of Sacrifice to the Mountain[, a Qiang ceremony]. However, the monkey legend is not particular to the Qiang people. The Yi minority people of northwestern Guizhou province have a nuo drama known as bianren xi (changing-into-people drama) based on a legend that people derived from monkeys. Actors wear monkey masks for this performance. There is also the famous monkey, Sun Wukong, who was born from a stone in the Han Chinese novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West, 1592) by Wu Chengen (ca. 1506-1582).  The novel was first published in 1592, but the monkey lore included in it was of much earlier time (p. 160).
A celestial, stone-born monkey who steals from heaven certainly sounds like the Monkey King. As noted here, stories about Sun Wukong have been circulating in Asia for a millennia. So it seems only natural that the Qiang’s reverence for heavenly stones and monkeys would lead to some of them worshiping the beloved cultural figure.
Graham (1958) notes that Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing figure among the Chinese patron deities of the “red” shamans (p. 53).  What’s interesting is that the red shamans are said to speak a special demon language and use their skills to exorcise demons (p. 54). Therefore, their worship of the Monkey King should come as no surprise considering Sun Wukong is the exorcist par excellence.
As noted above, one of the peaks of the ritual headdress represents the patron deity of shamanism. Known among other names as the Abba mula (“father god”; Ch: Aba muna, 阿爸木纳), this is the title given to the shaman’s main focus of worship. For instance, Sun Wukong is the Abba mula of those who revere him. Most importantly, the chosen deity is further represented by a small bundle that the shaman carries with him and guards jealousy, as it is the source of his knowledge and power. Graham (1958) describes the sacred bundle’s importance, construction, and use:
He is the patron or guardian deity and instructor of the Ch’iang priest, and without him the priest could do nothing. It consists of a skull of a golden-haired monkey wrapped in a round bundle of white paper. Its eyes are old cowry shells or large seeds. Inside are also dried pieces of a golden-haired monkey’s lungs, intestines, lips, and fingernails. It is so wrapped that the face of the skull is visible at one end, and the other end is closed [fig. 5 and 6]. After each ceremony in the sacred grove,  the priest wraps another sheet of white paper around it, so that it gradually increases in diameter. Some priests will not allow another person to touch his Abba Mula and only the priest worships this god (pp. 51-52).
I mention this because there are no doubt sacred bundles representing Sun Wukong, which are used under his supernatural guidance.
Fig. 5 – The Abba mula bundle. Note the visible monkey skull with cowry shell eyes (larger version). Original photograph by Wolfgang Wenning. Fig. 6 – A Qiang shaman carry a bundle and sacred cane (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. Both images are from Oppitz, 2004, p. 41.
Oppitz (2004) explains that stories alluding to Sun Wukong appear in Qiang pictorial divination books. Furthermore, he suggests that the ritual of wrapping the Abba mula bundle with additional paper represents the lost written knowledge saved by the Monkey King / golden monkey, which is now passed on orally.
In Qiang divination books the monkey features in various passages. In one book the picture of a monkey alludes to a story in which he destroys a heavenly palace; another book addresses a monkey’s trip to a western land, where he acquires written texts. In both cases the monkey Sun Wukong of popular literature and protagonist of the novel Xi yu ji, who escorts the Tang pilgrim Xuanzang, stands as the model. This character’s association with the acquisition of books and the role a golden-haired monkey plays in a Qiang myth as the inventor of the drum replacing the lost scriptures, suggests that the paper which is wrapped around the venerated monkey skull may also be interpreted as a hint to the conflict between scriptural versus oral tradition at the intersection of which the monkey stands as a mediator (p. 42).
II. Monkeys and the Qiang origin myth
Called “Mutsitsu and Tugantsu” (Ch: Mujiezhu yu Douanzhu, 木姐珠與斗安珠), the Qiang origin myth centers around the romance of Mutsitsu, the daughter of the supreme god Abamubi (or Mubita), and the earthbound monkey Tugantsu. The latter saves the goddess from a ferocious tiger when she visits the mortal world and both instantly fall in love. She brings him to the celestial realm, where Abamubi only agrees to their marriage if Tugantsu can successfully complete a series of impossible herculean tasks. These include falling the trees of ninety-nine mountains, burning the trees, and using the arable land to plant a crop of corn (other sources say grain); but each time Mutsitsu secretly enlists the aid of fellow gods to insure the tasks are completed on time. During the burning of the forest, Tugantsu’s fur is singed, revealing him to be a handsome man. In the end, the supreme god agrees to their marriage and Mutsitsu and Tugantsu become the progenitors of mankind. 
Academia Sinica (n.d.) comments that some Qiang communities who revere Chinese gods often equate Abamubi with the Jade Emperor of Daoism and Tugantsu with Sun Wukong. I find this especially fascinating as the Monkey King then becomes a sacred protoplast.
In addition, Academia Sinica (n.d.) explains this “monkey transforming into human” motif (i.e. Tugantsu becoming a man) has similarities with Tibetan mythology, for the Qiang live in close proximity to the people of Tibet. This refers to the Tibetan origin myth in which the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (the Indo-Tibetan variant of Guanyin) and Tara are respectively reborn on earth as a monkey and his wife, a rock ogress (fig. 7). (Again, the association between the monkey and rock reminds one of Sun Wukong.) The union produces six half-human half-monkey children, from which originate the six original tribes of Tibet. These children and their offspring eventually evolve human features (Stein, 1972, pp. 37 and 46).
The religious mythology of the Qiang ethnic group of China pays reverence to both heavenly monkeys and sacred stones. Examples include stories about a golden monkey born from a stone who both bestows fire on man and creates the sheepskin drum needed to recover lost scriptural knowledge. Qiang communities that revere Chinese deities often replace the golden monkey with Sun Wukong, no doubt due to his birth mirroring the former’s origins. The same holds true for the Qiang origin myth in which a goddess and monkey-turned-man become the progenitors of mankind. The Monkey King is sometimes equated with the father, transforming him from a literary character and cultural figure into a sacred protoplast. Interestingly, the monkey-rock and monkey-to-man motifs have connections to a wider myth cycle present in Tibet.
Some shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi) specializing in exorcism worship our hero as their patron deity, or Abba mula (“father god”). Such deities are given form as a bundled monkey skull successively wrapped in white paper. This sacred object is considered the source of the shaman’s power. It’s possible the wrapping paper references the lost scriptural knowledge that Sun Wukong/the golden monkey helped recover.
To my knowledge, most of what has been written about the Qiang, and by extension their connection with Sun Wukong, was collected by ethnographers during the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the Qiang have no written language (hence the importance of oral knowledge), it’s impossible to say how far back this connection goes. But as noted in this article, the Monkey King has been worshiped by the Chinese since at least the 17th-century. So the Qiang reverence for Sun Wukong could also be centuries old.
Sun Wukong also appears in the folklore of the neighboring (and related) Miao ethnic group. The Miao also believe man derives from monkeys.
Rockhill (1891) provides a complete translation of the Tibetan monkey-ogress origin myth taken from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century), a collection of Tibetan Buddhist texts centered around Avalokitesvara. The translation is too long to transcribe here, so I have made a PDF of the relevant pages. It’s interesting to note that the Bodhisattva Hilumandju, the protagonist, is a monkey king with magic powers.
Hilumandju and Hanumanji are quite similar, as noted by other writers (Chattopadhyaya & Chimpa, 2011, p. 152). The Tibetologist Per K. Sørensen notes “the idea of an ape-gestalt in this myth is directly associated with or inspired by the ape-king … and champion … Ha-lu ma-da = Hanümän, the resourceful figure and protagonist known from Välmlki’s Rämäyana, a tale of considerable popularity already in the dynastic period in Tibet” (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 127, n. 329).
In the high mountains of southwestern Shu [Sichuan and Tibet] there is an animal resembling the monkey. It is seven feet in height, it can imitate the ways of human beings and is able to run fast in pursuit of them. It is named Jia-guo 猳國 or Ma-hua 馬化; some call it Jue 貜. It watches out for young women travelling on the road and seizes and bears them away without anyone being aware of it. If travelers are due to pass in its vicinity they lead one another by a long robe, but even this fails to avert disaster. The beast is able to distinguish between the smell of men and women and can thus pick out the women and leave the men. Having abducted a man’s wife or daughter it makes her its own wife. Women that fail to bear its children can never return for the rest of their lives, and after ten years they come to resemble the beast in appearance, their minds become confused, and they no longer think of return. Those that bear sons return to their homes with the infants in their arms. The sons are all like men in appearance. If any refuse to rear them, the mothers die. So the women go in fear of the beast, and none dares refuse to bring up her son. Grown up, the sons are no different from men, and they all take the surname Yang 楊, which is why there are so many people by that name now in the south west of Shu: they are mostly descended from the Jia-guo or Ma-hua (Wu, 1987, pp. 91-92).
I find the last part fascinating because it states the inhabitants of the Sichuan-Tibet region were fathered by the ape. This recalls the Tibetan, Qiang, and Miao tales of humans descending from monkeys. It also suggests the aforementioned ethnic stories about a primate progenitor stretch back to the early part of the first millennium.
1) Graham (1958) notes the headdress is one of eleven sacred implements of the Qiang shaman. He provides a detailed description of the hat’s significance.
This is made of a golden-haired monkey skin and is believed to be very efficacious, greatly adding to the dignity and potency of the priest and his ceremonies. The eyes and ears of the monkey are left on, and the tail is sewed on at the back. The eyes enable the hat to see and the ears to hear, and add to the efficiency of the hat. The tail also adds to its efficiency. The front of the hat is ornamented with old cowry shells arranged in ornamental designs, one or two polished white bones that are said to be the kneecaps of tigers, and sometimes with carved sea shells. These ornaments improve the looks of the hat and also add to its efficiency. Other ornaments believed to add efficiency when used are two cloth pennants, one or two small circular brass mirrors, and one or two small brass horse bells much like sleigh bells, on which the Chinese character wang 王 meaning king is carved. Near Wen-ch’uan the priests sometimes assist the magistrate in praying for rain and in turn are presented with a small, thin silver plaque to be worn on the hat, on which is stamped the Chinese word shang 賞, or “reward.” This plaque also adds dignity and efficiency (pp. 55-56).
2) The Qiang reverence for these stones is tied to the aforementioned conflict with neighboring tribes. For example, legend states the great heavenly ancestor of the Qiang sent them three white stones to aid in their battle with a neighboring tribe, transforming them into mountains from which weapons were made. Another legend claims these stones help the Qiang make fire (Yu, 2004, pp. 156-157). These white stones often appear on buildings (both temples and houses), walls, altars, and graves in Qiang society (Graham, 1958, p. 103).
3) The original paper reads, “…in the Han Chinese novel Xiyu ji (Journey to the West, 1982)…” I have corrected the typos.
4) The colors red, white, and black signify the class of magic (good vs. dark), though shamans often inhabit all three roles (Graham, 1958, p. 54).
5) Sacred groves are home to a village’s temple and white stone altar, where many rituals are performed at night and in the early morning (Graham, 1958, p. 64).
7) Another version of the tale appears in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, 14th-century). An annotated translation can be read in Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, pp. 125-133.
Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, & Sørensen, P. K. (1994). The mirror illuminating the royal genealogies: Tibetan buddhist historiography : an annotated translation of the XIVth century Tibetan chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Chattopadhyaya, A., & Chimpa. (2011). Atīśa and Tibet: Life and works of Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (alias Atīśa) in relation to the history and religion of Tibet, with Tibetan sources. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
The following story sketch was originally posted on my external Historum blog on 01-20-2014. The site recently switched to a new server but the blogs have yet to be migrated. I’m posting it here for posterity. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
Story Idea #1
As a lover of Chinese mythology and a former primatology major, I’ve always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Sun Wukong. I originally wanted him to be the son of Monkey or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Sun and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of the character; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [A] a small, long-armed, arboreal ape native to Asia (fig. 1), I thought the character could be an ape immortal. It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons generally mate for life.
Fig. 1 – A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.
This tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes below contain important information on the texts I used and why particular plot choices were made.
The Dao (道, the way) gives birth to the One (yiqi, 一氣, the first breath); The One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang, 陰陽); The Two gives birth to the Three (San qing, 三清, the Three Pure Ones); The Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things. The Ten Thousand Things carry the Yin and enfold the Yang; Kneading gently, they create harmony. [B]
In the beginning of the universe, the Three Pure Ones, the manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. Among the first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female (fig. 2). They become the progenitors of all apes and monkeys, just like the phoenix and his mate, the next to be created, are the progenitors of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (氣), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. And Like modern apes, the pair shows a propensity for observation, watching the cyclical movement of the stars and planets and becoming aware of the ebb and flow of qi, studying the energy and cultivating its mysteries over endless eons.
Once their family grows to titanic proportions, the gibbons wield their arcane knowledge to create an island home, raising up Flower-Fruit Mountain (Huaguo shan, 花果山) from the ocean. There, they construct the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) from which they continue to plumb the depths of the Dao. [C] Their exploration takes them to the heights of the mountain where heaven meets earth, using the corresponding yin (earth/female) and yang (heaven/male) energy to fuel their reenactment of the creation of the cosmos through sexual union. By chance, these powerful, creative sexual energies are absorbed by a boulder atop the mountain. [D]
As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [E] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the ages. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, their song inadvertently topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the deviNuwa (女媧) is forced to mend the heavens with five magic stones. [F] The primordial devas and spirits fear what might happen if the couple continues, so they plead with the gibbons to separate in order to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.
The immortal lovers reluctantly agree and isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [G] the male becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (東猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (Yuan jiazhang, 猿家長), while the female becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (Xi yuan xian, 西猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (Yuan nu jiazhang, 猿女家長). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. [H]
The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [I] The August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost to time.
It is during the interim when the previously mentioned boulder, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, births a stone embryo that is eroded by the elements into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of his kin had forgotten long after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under Subodhi, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, Monkey Awakened to Vacuity) (fig. 3), and achieving great magical powers with which he later uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a full-fledged god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for 600 years, Sun redeems himself by escorting the monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) to India, and for this he is rewarded with Buddhahood, becoming the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛).
Fig. 3 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (larger version). A photomanipulation by the author.
After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the primordial gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses due to the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. [J] In addition, their individual songs have grown in power, now capable of destroying anything by separating the yin and yang forces therein (fig. 4).
Fig. 4 – A gibbon yawning. Imagine powerful sound waves emanating from its mouth. A larger version can be found here.
The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the Enlightened One, the Tathagata sends their spiritual son, the Victorious Fighting Buddha, to ask them to pacify their rage instead of using trickery to halt the onslaught. [K] After a brief reunion, the pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to the Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine the great injustice done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.
After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (Da jie, 大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element. There are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm, where they can frolic with the Victorious Fighting Buddha. This way the gibbons will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [L]
2. Background information
A) The Chinese viewed the gibbon (Yuan, 猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi. This resulted in long lives and occult powers (Geissmann, 2008).
B) This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德經), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and Wilson, 2012, p. 197. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals. See Stevens, 1997, pp. 68-70.
C) JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.
D) JTTW states the following about the boulder: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love atop of the mountain, thereby impregnating the boulder with powerful, creative energies. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (Wile, 1992, pp. 11-12 and 28-29). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.
E) Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It’s interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Lougheed, 2014).
F) The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.
G) I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey’s imprisonment and the pair’s exile, both of which are connected to mountains.
H) The Buddha’s tutelage under the gibbons happens in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subodhi because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of Sun Wukong’s spiritual parents are transmitted to him by their former student.
I) This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演義), or Investiture of the Gods. In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, 1997, p. 60).
J) The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. The pair rebels like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. That’s why I present them as living embodiments of yin and yang. Wile (1992) states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (p. 29).
K) An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to make Monkey think that he has left his palm in the seventh chapter of JTTW.
L) Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 496). For more information on the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind, see my article here.
Story idea #2
Last year I wrote an article that explored other stone-born figures from world mythology. In the conclusion I cautiously suggested that Wukong’s birth and later rebellion was influenced by the Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE), which appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. For example, one scholar noted similarities between Ullikummi and a later figure from Greek mythology: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (see the linked article). Anyone who has read Journey to the West will no doubt notice the striking similarities with Monkey’s tale. Therefore, I think Ullikummi’s story would be a solid basis for a more authentic origin story for the Monkey King.
While the ancient tale is named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya”, foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home.
Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When the goddess Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads seventy deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with his vizier and brother Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. One scholar suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (again, see the linked article).
Fig. 6 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.
Now, I’ve previously written a story sketch in which Master Subodhi’s school is actually a training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the Shaolin Temple. I speculated that Wukong’s skill in martial arts and troop movement would come from his time serving as a soldier and eventual officer in this army. Additionally, I suggested that the baddie whom the army faces is the headless monster Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 6), who originally battled the supreme god Shangdi for control of the universe and was beheaded after his defeat. Perhaps he or a figure like him follows in Kumarbi’s footsteps and beds a stone, in this case the rock on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, in an effort to create a powerful son to finish what he started. Then, he works in the shadows, influencing the direction of Monkey’s life, leading to his famous rebellion against heaven. Wukong’s defeat of the seventy-two major gods in the heavenly army  would mirror Ullikummi routing the seventy gods led by Astabi. Likewise, the Jade Emperor’s call to the Buddha, leading to Monkey’s defeat, mirrors Tesub’s plea to Ea and the eventual downfall of the stone monster. Thoughts?
I’ve posted a piece about a folk Taoist white ape god. His story overlaps with Sun Wukong just like the spiritual parents I presented above.
Another idea could predate Monkey’s stone birth and instead focus on a past life as a heavenly being. It would draw from three source: First, the backstory of the Tang Monk, Tripitaka. Those who have read JTTW will know that his past life, the bodhisattva Master Golden Cicada (Jin chan zi, 金蟬子), is exiled from paradise for ten pious lifetimes for falling asleep during the Buddha’s lecture.
Just like his master, Sun Wukong is formerly a bodhisattva in paradise, albeit one from an earlier generation than Master Golden Cicada since Monkey is born centuries prior to Tripitaka. A great name for this figure would be the “Bodhisattva Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu pusa, 鋼筋鐵骨菩薩). This plays on a similar title given to Sun’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), by Tang Emperor Taizong in the 13th-century oral version of JTTW. 
Second, the embellished life story of Song-era General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142). The Complete Vernacular Biography of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quanzhuan, 說岳全傳, c. 17th-century; hereafter The Biography of Yue Fei) actually draws inspiration from the 1592 JTTW by portraying the general as a reincarnation of a bird monster-turned-Dharma protector from chapters 74 to 77. Originally called the “Peng Bird of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鵬) in JTTW, the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王) is exiled from paradise in chapter one of The Biography of Yue Fei for killing a stellar bat-spirit who farted during the Tathagata’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. 
Just like the Great Peng bird, the Bodhisattva Steel Muscles and Iron Bones kills a spirit for seemingly offending the Buddha.  I imagine the Enlightened One would admonish him by saying something like, “You are so sure of your strength, so proud of your physical gifts. And yet you don’t know how to defend the Dharma with it!” He then exiles the bodhisattva to live out ten lifetimes (à la Master Golden Cicada) where he’s a figure of great strength who is continually bested and humiliated and forced by circumstances to protect something weaker than him.
And third, the Buddha’s Jataka tales. The Tathagata has many birth stories where he is both humans and animals who embody an important lesson (Cowell, 1895). In fact, one tale depicts him as a Monkey King!
The bodhisattva is reborn in the lower three paths of reincarnation, and just like the Buddha, he has several past lives as animals. He works his way up the cosmic hierarchy by performing good deeds, such as a past life where he’s a man-eating tiger who comes to protect a small child. He attains the human-like form of a monkey in his final incarnation, leading to the events of JTTW.
I like this option a lot because this would make both Monkey and Tripitaka former bodhisattvas who undergo prolonged trials that refine their spirits over many lifetimes. This would ultimately explain why both of them attain Buddhahood at the end of their respective character arcs, our hero becoming the “Buddha Victorious in Strife” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) and the Tang Monk “Buddha of Candana Merit” (Zhantan gongde fo, 旃檀功德佛) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 381). I also like it because Sun Wukong’s past life references the Tibetan monkey bodhisattva Hilumandju, who is an avatar of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and a possible Buddhist syncretic version of the Hindu monkey god Hanumanji. What’s interesting about this legendary figure is that he mates with a rock ogress (see the 08-02-19 update here), which reminds one of Sun’s stone birth.
1) Koss (1981) writes: “Adding up the number of gods listed here [see Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 169] from the Twenty-Eight Constellations through the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the number arrived at is seventy-three, if 東西星斗 [dongxi xingdou, the “Stars of East and West”] is counted as two, which Yu does in his translation, or seventy two, if the latter is taken as one, which is another possible interpretation” (p. 84).
2) This is how old the ledger of life and death lists Monkey as in chapter 3: “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).
3) In chapter 17, Tang Taizong names him the “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207).
4) Chapter one of The Complete Vernacular Biography of Yue Fei reads:
The Buddha was a great, merciful lord, so he didn’t mind even the slightest bit. But don’t sympathize with the Dharma protector above his head, the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination,” whose eyes shone with golden light and whose back was a scene of auspiciousness. He became angry when he saw the nasty, filthy Maiden Earth Bat, and so he unfurled both his wings and dropped down to kill the spirit by pecking her on the head. The light-point of her soul shot out of the Great Thunderclap Monastery and went to the Lands of the East (China) in the world below to find a mother and reincarnate. She was reborn as a daughter of the Wang clan. She would later marry the Song Prime minister Qin Hui (1091-1155) and come to cruelly kill the righteous (i.e. Yue Fei) as a means to get revenge against today’s enemy. We will talk about this later.
Let’s return to the Buddha, who saw what happened with his all-seeing eyes and exclaimed, “Good! Good! It turns out that this is an episode of karma (cause and effect).” Then he called the Great Peng bird to come closer and shouted, “You evil creature! You already took refuge in my teachings. How can you not follow the five precepts by daring to commit such a horrible crime? I don’t need you here; you will descend to the mortal world to pay off your (karmic) debt and wait until you have fulfilled your work. Once that is completed, only then will I allow you to return to the mountain to achieve the right fruit (Buddhist merit).” The Great Peng complied with the decree, flying out of the Great Thunderclap Monastery directly to the Lands of the East to be reincarnated. We will stop here.
5) A murderous bodhisattva may seem weird, but Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩; lit: “Bodhisattva Holding the Vajra Weapon”), a yaksha-turned-wrathful Dharma protector is considered a bodhisattva (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955).
Buswell, R. E. , & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Did you know that Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) was published the same year that Shakespeare‘s Richard III was first performed? Here is a list of other 16th-century world events that took place before and slightly after the novel was published. The chosen source is Eurocentric, but I think this serves to contrast the hyper distillation of Chinese history and culture presented in the book. This list is by no means exhaustive.
1592 – Shakespeare’s Richard III is performed on stage.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST IS PUBLISHED.
1595 – Matteo Ricci introduces the writings of Confucius to the Western world.
1597 – Dafne, the first opera, is performed in Venice.
1599 – The Globe theater, home to many Shakespearean productions, is built.
1600 – William Gilbert concludes the earth is magnetic and coins the term “magnetic pole.”
Gilbert coins the term “Electricity.”
Journey to the West seemingly takes place in a timeless, magical land full of gods, immortals, demons, and ghosts, yet it was published during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe. One should remember that the novel was not a contemporary masterpiece born from the mind of a singular talented author but a product of oral storytelling stretching back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and possibly even before. These oral tales were built upon and adapted over the centuries, eventually starting to solidify into accepted episodes by at least the 15th-century. While Wu Cheng’en is widely considered the author, scholars remain divided on the issue. I instead prefer to use the phrase “author-compiler” since that is a more accurate description of the book’s construction from existing material.