How Tall are the Main Characters from Journey to the West?

A member of a Monkey King Facebook group I belong to posted a Chinese informational picture titled “Journey to the West: The Four Body Height Ratios of the Master and His Disciples” (Xiyou ji: Shitu siren shengao duibi, 西游记 师徒四人身高对比) (fig. 1). Each character is depicted with their correct corresponding height, ranging from Sun Wukong as the shortest to Sha Wujing as the tallest. The bottom of the picture provides some measurements:

The original novel describes Bajie’s body as being 1 zhang tall. Three chi is 1 meter. One zhang is around 3.3 meters. Sha Monk is 1.2 zhang, which is close to 4 meters. The Tang monk is 1.8 meters. The Lord Great Sage is 4 chi, or approximately 1.3 meters.


The information is overgeneralized and at times conjectural, but I figured the picture would be interesting to my followers on Twitter. Little did I know that it would explode in popularity. As of this writing, my tweet has 940 likes (most of these received in a few days). This indicates that not many people were aware of the great height disparity between the pilgrims. I’ve therefore decided to write an article recording what Journey to the West actually says about each character’s height. 

I believe that the creator of the informational picture got their measurements from this essay, for it has the exact same title and very similar material (Zhongshi Damei Shenghuo [ZDS], 2020). I will use the claims therein to compare and contrast with the actual text from the novel.

Fig. 1 – The Chinese informational picture listing the pilgrims’ heights (larger version). I unfortunately don’t know who the original artist is. A reverse image search didn’t turn up anything. This page has the earliest appearance of the informational picture that I can find.

1. Measurements

ZDS (2020) uses a mixture of the ancient Chinese chi (尺) and zhang (丈) and the modern meter (mi, 米). The chi (and subsequently the zhang) varied at the local level at different times. During the Ming (1368-1644), when Journey to the West was published, the measurements equaled:

  • One chi (尺) = roughly 31.8 cm (12.3 in)
  • Ten chi = one zhang (丈)
  • one zhang (丈) = roughly 3.18 m (10.43 ft) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi).

Yes, the novel is set during the Tang (618-907), but many elements of the story (e.g. language, religion, mythos, martial arts, etc.) are filtered through the lens of the Ming. Therefore, it’s appropriate to use Ming-era measurements.

2. Heights

The characters are listed below from shortest to tallest.

(Note: I will be relying on the Wu & Yu (2012) translation. But since it uses “feet” instead of the original chi or zhang, I’ll alter the source throughout the article for more accuracy.)

2.1. Sun Wukong

See my previous articles discussing Monkey’s height (here and here).

ZDS (2020) states that Sun is “4 chi, that is less than 1.3 m [4.26 ft] or the same height as a child” (4 chi, yejiushi budao 1.3 mi, gen haitong yiban gao, 4尺,也就是不到1.3米,跟孩童一般高). But they miss an important distinction. The novel twice describes him as being “not four chi tall” (buman sichi, 不滿四尺), meaning that Monkey is an unknown height below 1.272 m (4.17 ft).

The phrase is first spoken by the Monstrous King of Havoc (Hunshi mowang, 混世魔王) in chapter 2:

When the Monstrous King saw him, he laughed and said, “You’re not four chi tall (emphasis added), nor are you thirty years old; you don’t even have weapons in your hands. How dare you be so insolent, looking for me to settle accounts?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).


The second is said hundreds of years later by the Great King Yellow Wind (Huangfeng dawang, 黃風大王) in chapter 21:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim—less than four feet (emphasis added), 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).


Some readers may wonder why such a powerful character can be so tiny. This is because the novel describes Sun as a literal monkey. Refer back to this article for more information.

2.2. The Tang Monk

I have yet to formally write about Tripitaka‘s height.

ZDS (2020) suggests that the “Tang Monk should be about 1.8 m [5.90 ft]” (Tangseng yinggai zai 1.8 mi zuoyou, 唐僧应该在1.8米左右). This estimate is based around the size of a stone box used in chapter 49 to imprison him:

Pilgrim … mov[ed] towards the rear of the palace. He looked, and sure enough there was a stone box, somewhat like a trough that people use in a pigpen or a stone coffin. Measuring it, he found it to be approximately six chi in length (emphasis added). He crawled on top of it and soon heard the pitiful sound of Tripitaka’s weeping coming from inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 347).

行者 … 徑直尋到宮後看,果有一個石匣,卻像人家槽房裡的豬槽,又似人間一口石棺材之樣,量量足有六尺長短。卻伏在上面,聽了一會,只聽得三藏在裡面嚶嚶的哭哩。

Six chi is 1.9 m or 6.25 ft. Tripitaka would obviously be shorter given the inside thickness of the stone walls, but the novel doesn’t provide such detailed information. This means that the 1.8 m estimate is conjecture. So, what other proof is there?

ZDS (2020) also cites a poem from chapter 54 as evidence that the Tank Monk is “tall and handsome” (yougao youshuai, 又高又帅):

What handsome features!
What dignified looks!
Teeth white like silver bricks,
Ruddy lips and a square mouth.
His head’s flat-topped, his forehead, wide and full;
Lovely eyes, neat eyebrows, and a chin that’s long.
Two well-rounded ears betoken someone brave.
He is all elegance, a gifted man.
What a youthful, clever, and comely son of love,
Worthy to wed Western Liang’s gorgeous girl! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol.  3, p. 55). [1]


But, as can be seen, the verse mentions nothing about his height, only his beauty.

Hence, there isn’t enough information in the novel to officially say how tall Tripitaka is. But for those demanding some sort of answer, we can always speculate using real world data.

According to one study, out of a sample size of 28,044 Chinese men from 31 provinces/autonomous regions, the average modern height is 169 cm (5.54 ft). Additionally, this Chinese article references a study claiming that men from ancient times up to the Ming were between 165 cm (1.65 m or 5.41 ft) and 167 cm (1.67 m or 5.47 ft). This is obviously shorter than the 1.8 m suggested above.

Therefore, the most we can say is that the Tang Monk would be average historical height.

2.3. Zhu Bajie

I’ve written about Zhu Bajie’s height in the past (see here).

ZDS (2020) writes that Zhu’s “snout is 3 chi long” (zui chang 3 chi, 嘴长3尺). This is based on a descriptive poem from chapter 85:

A snout, pestlelike, over three chi long (emphasis added)
And teeth protruding like silver prongs
Bright like lightning a pair of eyeballs round,
Two ears that whip the wind in hu-hu sound.
Arrowlike hairs behind his head are seen;
His whole body’s skin is both coarse and green.
His hands hold up a thing bizarre and queer:
A muckrake of nine prongs which all men fear.

(Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149).


But, again, an important distinction is missed. Zhu’s nose is “over three chi long,” or larger than 95.4 cm (3.12 ft), which is over half the height of an average humanZDS (2020) says this measurement indicates that: “According to the laws of biology, (Zhu’s) body is approximately 3.5 m [11.48 ft]” (Anzhao shengwuxue de guilu, shenti yue 3.5 mi zuoyou, 按照生物学的规律,身体约3.5米左右). However, they never explain what laws they are referring to.

The only other information about Zhu’s size that I’m aware of appears in chapter 29. Upon entering a new kingdom, Tripitaka describes his two remaining disciples. [2] He starts with the pig spirit:

“My elder disciple has the surname of Zhu, and his given names are Wuneng and Eight Rules. He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge, fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks (emphasis added) …” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).

我那大徒弟姓豬,名悟能八戒,他生得長嘴獠牙,剛鬃扇耳,身粗肚大,行路生風 …

This tells us that Zhu has a large body capable of stirring the wind when he moves. But it’s important to note that Tripitaka’s subsequent dialogue assigns Sha Wujing a specific height (see below). This points to Zhu being shorter in comparison.

Therefore, just like the Tank Monk, there isn’t enough info to officially say how tall Zhu is. But we can again speculate using real world data.

My friend Barbara Campbell (blog) suggested that I use extinct prehistoric pigs as reference. A prime example is Megalochoerus homungous, which has been estimated to be 3.8 m (12.46 ft) long, 1.8 to 2.2 m (5.9 to 7.21 ft) at the shoulder, and up to 1,600 kg (3,527.39 lbs) (Uchytel, n.d.). A reconstruction by the paleo artist Roman Uchytel presents a towering creature with a head half as long as a man’s body (fig. 2). This is quite similar to the size of Zhu’s nose. Even with it’s head facing forward, a bipedal M. homungous would still be around 3.8 m (12.46 ft) tall. But as you’ll read below, this is too tall if Zhu is supposed to be shorter than Sha.

So how tall is Zhu? Your guess is as good as mine. But for those demanding some sort of answer, we can use human arm span to body height ratio, which is roughly 1:1. Using 1.8 m (5.9 ft), or the lower estimate for M. homungous‘ shoulder height, Zhu could be as much as 3.6 m (11.81 ft). But I am in no way comfortable with this estimate. It’s 100% pure conjecture, and I think it is still too tall.

Fig. 2 – A reconstruction of M. homungous by Roman Uchytel (larger version). Mr. Uchytel graciously gave me permission to use a watermarked version of his art for free. Please consult his website here.

2.4. Sha Wujing

I’ve previously mentioned Sha’s height in an article about Zhu Bajie’s appearance (refer back to here).

ZDS (2020) writes that Sha is “One zhangchi, nearly 4 m” (yizhang erchi, chabuduo 4 mi le, 一丈二尺,差不多4米了). This is based on Tripitaka’s continued dialogue with the foreign king in chapter 29:

“… My second disciple has the surname of Sha, and his religious names are Wujing and Monk. He is one zhang two chi tall and three span wide across his shoulders (emphasis added). His face is like indigo, his mouth, a butcher’s bowl; his eyes gleam and his teeth seem a row of nails” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).


This tells us that the monstrous monk is a whopping 3.816 m (12.51 ft) tall, with an exceptionally broad body.

Fun fact: Sha Wujing’s height is based on his giant antecedent, an obscure desert spirit appearing in the 7th-century biography of  the historical monk Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based). The spirit comes to the cleric in a dream to admonish him for sleeping on the journey to India:

[Xuanzang] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several zhang tall (emphasis added), holding a halberd and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (based on Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


“[S]everal zhang” would be 3 zhang (9.54 m or 31.29 ft) or more tall! That’s one big spirit!

3. Conclusion 

Journey to the West: The Four Body Height Ratios of the Master and His Disciples” is an informational picture that depicts the pilgrims with their correct corresponding heights. The bottom of the picture also provides measurements to supplement the illustration. These numbers were likely borrowed from ZDS (2020), an online article with the exact same name and very similar material. According to the essay, Sun Wukong is less than 1.3 m (4.26 ft), the Tang Monk is about 1.8 m (5.90 ft), Zhu Bajie is 3.5 m (11.48 ft), and Sha Wujing is nearly 4 m (13.12 ft). However, this information is overgeneralized and at times conjectural.

The original Chinese text of Journey to the West naturally gives more accurate information. But, unfortunately, the book only lists specific heights for two characters: Monkey is shorter than 1.272 m (4.17 ft) and Sha is 3.816 m (12.51 ft). As for the other two, not enough information is given for Tripitaka or Zhu to officially say how tall they are. However, speculating with real world historical height data suggests that the literary monk could be somewhere between 1.65 m (5.41 ft) and 1.67 m (5.47 ft), which is obviously shorter than the 1.8 m cited above. But even using prehistoric pigs as a reference, Zhu Bajie is the hardest to calculate since the novel indirectly implies that he is shorter than Sha. I used the lower end shoulder height estimate of the extinct M. homungous to suggest that Zhu could be as much as 3.6 m (11.81 ft) tall. But I think this is still too big.

On an interesting note, Sha’s great height is based on his giant antecedent, a desert spirit appearing in the historical Xuanzang’s 7th-century biography. The spirit is described as being 9.54 m (31.29 ft) or more!


1) “Western Liang’s gorgeous girl” is referring to the Queen of Womanland.

2) The Tang Monk had previously expelled Monkey from the group in chapter 27 (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp. 26-28).


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

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

Uchytel, R. (n.d.). Megalochoerus. Prehistoric Fauna. Retrieved from

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

Zhongshi Damei Shenghuo. (2020, August 18). Xiyou ji: Shitu siren shengao duibi [Journey to the West: The Four Body Height Ratios of the Master and His Disciples]. Sohu. Retrieved from



Archive #39 – Journey to the West Adaptations

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

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

I. Media adaptations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Archive link

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

Laozi’s Realm in Journey to the West

Last updated: 03-12-2023

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

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

I. What the novel says

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

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


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

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


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

II. The Buddhist Heavenly Realms

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

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

III. Ties to Performance Arts

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

IV. The Daoist Heavens

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

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



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


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

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


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

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

V. Myth vs Religion

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

VI. Conclusion

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

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

Update: 03-02-23

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

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



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


Update: 03-04-23

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Update: 03-06-23

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Update: 03-12-23

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey to the West Artist Spotlight #2: NinjaHaku21

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

Last updated: 05-09-2023

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

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

I. Q & A

1) Can you tell me a little about yourself?

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

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

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

3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?

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

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

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

5) Who is your favorite character?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Art and Thought Process

Note: Click each image to enlarge it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: 05-09-23

I commissioned NinjaHaku21 to draw a religiously accurate illustration of Sun Wukong as the “Victorious Fighting Buddha.” It is based on the traditional iconography of the Yuddhajaya Buddha, the deity from which his religious title is derived. The results are stunning!


My Great Sage Monkey King Statue from Thailand

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

I. Specs

Material: Brass

Length: 9.8 in (24.9 cm)

Width: 11.31 in (28.75 cm)

Height: 16.33 in (41.5 cm)

Weight: Around 24.25 lbs. (11 kg)

II. Pictures

Fig. 1 – The front (larger version).

Fig. 2 – The side (larger version).

Fig. 3 – The back (larger version).

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

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

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

III. Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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