The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double

Last updated: 12-12-2021

Readers may wonder where I get my inspiration to write articles. Most of the time I seek to answer a question that pops up while reading a book or researching a subject, leading to a subsequent paper on what I learned. Other times, I simply stumble across something online. A prime example of this is the “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人), a rare folk Taoist deity that I recently learned about from Facebook. He is depicted with long hair (sometimes with ear-pressing tufts) and a golden fillet, linking him to Chinese opera depictions of military monks (wuseng, 武僧) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178), thus signaling his position as a martial deity. A headdress with lingzi (翎子) feathers sometimes adorns his crown. His visage ranges from welcoming to fierce and from human to more primate-like. He wears a golden suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with the right knee resting on the seat, exposing the bottom of his foot to the viewer. This armor is sometimes draped in a colorful ritual cape. His left arm is usually bent at the elbow and the hand is clenched in a fist (or two-finger shooting mudra) or holds an immortal peach at the chest, while the other is held high and contains a fly whisk or staff. This iconography is shockingly similar to religious depictions of Sun Wukong as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖). In fact, the two deities are nearly indistinguishable apart from the ape sometimes having white hair and a white face. But this isn’t always a good indicator, though, as one Fujian tradition features a brother of the Monkey King with a white face. And other times, statues of the white ape might be plain wood or even bronze, thereby erasing any signifying color. But the best clue to his identity appears to be the combination of the fist at the chest and a raised foot while in a seated position, what I call the “fist over foot motif” (fig. 1 to 4).

I’ve previously written about magical white apes (gibbons) in relation to Tang-era Chinese literature, primate-based martial arts, and the fictional origin of Sun Wukong. I’ve even archived an entire book on the subject which surveys historical references, poems, folktales, and art spanning over 3,000 years from the Zhou to Qing dynasties. I would like to supplement this material by writing an article about the White Ape Perfected Man and his appearance in vernacular fiction and Taoist scripture. I suggest his iconography was directly influenced by Sun Wukong based on a centuries-long association between the two magic primates in popular literature.

Fig. 1 – One of the first pictures I ever saw of the White Ape Perfected Man (larger version). Photo from Facebook. Fig. 2 – A statue from an unknown temple (larger version). Photo found here. Fig. 3 – One of several statues from the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮濟宮) (larger version). Screenshot from this Facebook video. Fig. 4 – A statue belonging to Jishen Temple of Tainan, Taiwan (Tainan Jishen gong, 台南濟申宮) (larger version). Photo from Facebook.

I. Religious Story

I traveled to the Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple in Yingge District, New Taipei, Taiwan (Yingge Hongde Gong Sun Bin Miao, 鶯歌宏德宮孫臏廟) (fig. 5) to gather material for this article. Unfortunately, the temple’s statue of the White Ape Perfected Man (fig. 6) was out for repairs on the day of my visit. But I collected information about the deity from the temple’s history book (fig. 7). The ape god is associated with Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE) (fig. 8), a deified military strategist of the Warring States period, and is revered as a transmitter of divine knowledge. [1] A rough translation of his religious story follows:

“The White Ape Steals a Peach and Offers a Heavenly Book” (Baiyuan toutao xian tianshu, 白猿偷桃獻天書)

According to legend, when Sun Bin was studying military arts under Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xiansheng, 鬼谷先生), he opened a plot of uncultivated land on the side of Yunmeng Mountain (Yunmeng shan, 雲夢山) and grew a peach orchard with big, fleshy, and delicious fruits using his teacher’s method. At the foot of the mountain lived a mother and son who depended on each other. The son looked like a monkey because his body was covered with white hair, and so he was known as the “Little White Ape” (Xiao baiyuan, 小白猿). His mother was constantly sick and occasionally dreamed of a transcendent pointing and saying, “Eat the immortal peaches on Yunmeng Mountain and your illness will be cured”.

The white ape was a filial son, and so he went to steal a peach for his mother but lost his way. Sun caught the boy and asked him why he would steal from the orchard. Once he heard of the ape’s sick mother, he gave him the peach. The mother ate the fruit and recovered. In return, the white ape gave Sun a heavenly book of military strategy (bingshu, 兵書) passed down from his ancestors, saying, “Thank you for your life-saving grace”.

Another version of the story states the Yunmeng peach was so famous for its large size, fleshy fruit, and delicious taste that, upon hearing of it, the Queen Mother of the West sent the white ape to steal it for her Peach Banquet.

This last part is a reversal of Sun Wukong stealing the Queen Mother’s peaches in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). [2]

Fig. 5 – The Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 6 – A detail of the temple’s White Ape Perfected Man’s statue (larger version). See fig. 8 for a full version. Fig. 7 – A page from the temple’s history book (larger version). Note the bronze statue of the White Ape, including the lingzi headdress. Photo by the author. Fig. 8 – The central statue of Sun Bin (larger version). Note the position of the white ape in front of Sun. Photo from Facebook.

Astute readers will notice that the tale does not touch on the white ape’s religious title, the “Perfected Man” (Zhenren, 真人). Perfected individuals rank among the highest transcendents of the celestial hierarchy and even rule over lower immortals residing in various earthly paradises (Miura, 2008). This contrasts with the meager, filial son presented in the story. It also contrasts with the white ape’s iconography as an armor-clad martial deity. Perfected individuals are usually portrayed as lofty immortals wearing robes decorated with Daoist symbols (Stevens & Welch, 1998, for example). 

I reached out to the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮齊宮), where the White Ape Perfected Man is worshiped as the main deity (zhu shen, 主神) (fig. 9), to make sense of these disparate strands. However, they did not get back to me by the time this article was ready for publication. I’ll make an update when new information becomes available. But until then, I suggest his martial iconography was directly influenced by depictions of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, whose cult is far more prevalent in Taiwan. This proposed connection to Sun Wukong becomes even more evident when the information below is taken into account.

Fig. 9 – Zhenji Temple’s main White Ape Perfected Man statue (center background) surrounded by various smaller figures (larger version). The statue in the left foreground looks very similar to the Great Sage apart from the fist over foot motif. Image from Facebook.  

II. Vernacular Fiction

The White Ape Perfected Man’s religious story can be traced directly to The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (Sun Pang douzhi yanyi, 孫龐鬥智演義, 1636; a.k.a. The Former and Latter Annals of the Seven Kingdoms, Qianhou qiguo zhi, 前後七國志), which tells of the great struggle between Sun Bin and his former friend and classmate Pang Juan (龐涓). The two study supernatural military arts under the Immortal Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xianshi, 鬼谷仙師) in his “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) before their fates take separate paths and they become bitter enemies. Chapter four sees the teacher appoint Sun as guardian of an immortal peach tree on the backside of Yunmeng Mountain. But the young disciple is surprised to discover a talking white ape stealing peaches night after night. When asked how it can speak, the primate reveals his aristocratic family has been soaking up immortal qi energy for three generations northwest of the Master’s cave. His ancestor is the Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯), [3] his father the Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公), [4] and his mother the Princess Mountain Blossom (Shanhua gongzhu, 山花公主). [5] When asked why he’s stealing peaches (fig. 10), the white ape reveals he’s trying to cure his mother of an illness and that she will die unless the treatment is completed. Taking pity on the filial primate, Sun picks the last peach needed and gives it to the white ape, telling him never to return to the orchard. The grateful son repays the favor by stealing three scrolls of heavenly books (tianshu, 天書) from Master Ghost Valley’s secret hiding place to give to his mother’s savior.

But Sun Bin mistakenly incurs the wrath of heaven not only because he acquires the books before he’s fated to but also because he fails to ritually cleanse himself before reading them. Master Ghost Valley is forced to intervene on his student’s behalf by teaching Sun how to hide from heavenly punishment (da zainan, 大災難, lit: “great tribulation”) by meditating in a cave for 49 days (Wumen xiaoke & Yanshui sanren, 1636).

This novel shares many elements with Journey to the West. Both include:

  1. Characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a “Water Curtain Cave”. [6]
  2. Sun characters studying under an immortal master (Master Ghost Valley VS Master Subodhi). [7]
  3. Sun characters being directed to guard trees laden with immortal peaches (one tree on earth VS an entire grove in heaven). 
  4. Supernatural primates stealing the magic peaches for consumption (the white ape VS the Monkey King). [8]
  5. Sun characters defying their fate and incurring the wrath of heaven, thereby learning from their masters how to hide from punishment (Sun Bin Vs. Sun Wukong). [9]

Fig. 10 – A lovely New Years print depicting scenes from the story, including the “White Ape steals peaches” (right) and the “White Ape is filial to mother” (left) (larger version). The right print includes Master Ghost Valley and a young Sun Bin. Print found here.

It’s important to note that there is also some overlap between The Battle of Wits and Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). I quote from my previous article:

[The rogue immortal Huaguang (華光)] works to end his mother’s demonic lust for flesh by procuring an immortal peach in chapter 17. He does this by transforming into Sun Wukong and stealing the magic fruit from heaven. The real Monkey King is subsequently accused of his double’s misdeeds, much like the Six-Eared Macaque episode of the original novel. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give Sun a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit.

So we have two magical primate characters (the white ape VS Huaguang-as-Sun Wukong) that steal immortal peaches to help cure their mothers. This association with the rogue immortal might then explain why the statue of the White Ape Perfected Man from figure one has a third eye. Huaguang’s various incarnations are described as having three eyes in Journey to the South (for example) (Yu, n.d.).

Therefore, it seems that these later novels borrowed from Journey to the West, as well as each other. But I will show the theme of a primate stealing fruit actually predates the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West by hundreds of years, suggesting it too borrowed from an earlier source.

III. Taoist Literature

The story of Sun Bin and the white ape actually prefaces the first scroll of the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin (Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing, 太上六壬明鑑符陰經) (a.k.a., the Ape Book, Yuanshu, 猿書), [10] a Northern Song-era work related to the Taoist doctrine of the Three Sovereigns (Steavu, 2019, p. 195). Instead of peaches, the tale just says “fruit” (guo, 菓). But I imagine the produce is something special like immortal peaches as Sun guards them with a weapon. A rough translation follows (I have skipped over some of the more esoteric parts that escape me):

[Master Ghost Valley] saw the fruit had ripened, so he commanded Sun to watch over it. One night a person jumped the wall into the nine gardens and took some of the fruit. But Sun was hiding with a sword and caught the culprit, a white ape. The primate said: “Don’t hurt my body. I share the same age as heaven and earth and have lived as long as the sun and moon. I have mysterious texts (xuanwen, 玄文). Wait for me the next day and I will give them to you”. The white ape then transformed into white light and left. Sun waited the following day. Suddenly, he saw the white ape fly from the northwest. He was given one scroll of mysterious texts. The primate again transformed into white light and headed towards the southeast. Sun then returned to his room to inspect the text. He didn’t know the name but saw that it was divided into three volumes: initial (shang, 上), middle (zhong, 中) and final (xia, 下). He named it after the white ape (Taishang liuren, n.d.).

The story of a magic monkey stealing peaches was already present in the Journey to the West story cycle by the 13th-century, for the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), Sun Wukong’s predecessor, admits to raiding the Queen Mother’s orchard when he was still a young immortal (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). But the preceding Daoist scripture indicates the motif is even older. [11] In addition, the scripture shows the idea of a character surnamed Sun (Sun Bin) guarding special fruit predates the motif in the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West. It’s not a stretch then to suggest the Most High Luminous Mirror (or related media) influenced the 13th and later 16th-century versions of the story. Therefore, it’s possible the tales of Sun Bin, the white ape, and Sun Wukong have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years.

This centuries-long association between the magical primates in literature then strengthens my suggestion that the White Ape Perfected Man’s iconography was directly influenced by that of Sun Wukong. Drawing upon a well of preexisting cultural beliefs and imagery likely helped the cult of this relatively recent deity establish itself faster, allowing him to take his place in a rapidly evolving religious landscape where ever newer gods are constantly added to the ranks of their older brethren.

IV. Conclusion

The White Ape Perfected Man is a rare folk Taoist deity associated with revealing heavenly scriptures to the Warring States military strategist Sun Bin (4th-cent.). His statues depict him as a seated, armor-clad primate with a “fist over foot” motif and the long hair and golden fillet of military monks from Chinese opera. This martial iconography conflicts with the deity’s title, “Perfected Man”, a high-ranking immortal usually depicted wearing robes. It also conflicts with his own religious story, which presents him as a meager, filial son who steals immortal peaches to cure his sick mother. I suggested above that his religious imagery was directly influenced by depictions of Sun Wukong as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. Beyond shockingly similar iconography, both primate deities have a long association in Chinese popular literature. The white ape appears in The Battle of Wits Between Sun and Pang (1636), which shares many similarities with Journey to the West (1592). These include characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a Water Curtain Cave, studying under immortal masters (Ghost Valley VS Subodhi), guarding immortal peaches, and hiding from heavenly punishment. It also includes supernatural primates (the white ape VS the Monkey King) stealing the life-prolonging fruit for consumption. The number of similarities suggests The Battle of Wits borrowed from Journey to the West. The theft of immortal peaches is already present in a 13th-century version of Journey to the West, but this is preceded by a tale appearing in a work from Taoist canon, the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin. It describes the white ape stealing fruit from a garden protected by Sun Bin. It’s possible the Monkey King’s early story cycle was influenced by this scripture (or related media), suggesting the stories of Sun Wukong, Sun Bin, and the white ape have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years. This centuries-long connection lends support to the martial iconography of Sun Wukong influencing the religious imagery of the White Ape Perfected Man.


Update: 12-11-21

I was under the impression that the White Ape Perfected Man is a deity specific to Taiwan (albeit with a mythos connected to China). But Palmer and Siegler (2017) quote a certain Master Hu, a monk of Mt. Hua in Shaanxi province, China, who claims the immortal taught him a system of primate-based martial arts:

I learned [White Ape Through the Back Boxing] spontaneously; it was transmitted to me by the White [Ape] Immortal (Baiyuan zhenren). When I start, he comes down into me, and I do the forms spontaneously. In the future, perhaps I will arrange it into a method in stages that can be taught to others. The White [Ape] Immortal first transmitted the method to humans in the spring and autumn period (770–476 BC), but owing to the poor moral quality of the inheritors of the method, it was lost. Now, it has been transmitted directly to me by the Immortal (pp. 120-121).

The notion of a white ape revealing knowledge matches with what I have described above. Teaching boxing also aligns with the martial iconography. But northern China is so far removed from the available information that I have to question whether or not this a different figure with the same name. I’ve written the authors to see if I can learn more about this Chinese variant.

Also, Master Ghost Valley’s association with the Water Curtain Cave goes back to at least the Northern Song as his Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) lists him as the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主) (Andersen, 2019). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with the caves of the Master (and Sun Bin) in The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (1636) and Sun Wukong in Journey to the West (1592). But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth. This might suggest, apart from the guarding and theft of immortal peaches, other elements from Sun Bin’s story cycle were borrowed by that of the Monkey King.


Update: 12-12-21

I mentioned in the introduction white face and hair are not always the best indicators that a figure is the White Ape Perfected Man. Take, for example, some depictions of Sun Wukong in glove puppetry (fig. 11).

Fig. 11 – A Taiwanese glove puppet of the Monkey King (larger version). Photo found here.

Notes:

1) The idea of a white ape sharing heavenly knowledge goes back centuries. For example, one 4th-century source reveals Zhou Qun (周羣/群, 3rd-cent.) learned the art of divination from a book of bamboo slips given to him by a gibbon-turned-old man in the Min Mountains (Gulik, 1967, p. 50).

2) Sun is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves in chapter four. He starts eating the life-prolonging fruit early in his tenure, and his theft is eventually discovered by attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 160 and 162-163).

3) The Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯) is an ape spirit appearing in a story from the Song-era Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). A retired official from Sichuan is invited to an eerie, drunken party by the Marquis, only to wake up the next morning to find his host was a gibbon and all of the other guests were also animal spirits (Gulik, 1967, pp. 67 and 68-69).

4) The only Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公) that I’m aware of is a human keeper of monkeys from a parable on freedom appearing in The Collected Works of Bowen (Chengyi Bowen ji, 诚意伯文集, 14th-cent.). I’m not sure if the novel is claiming the ape has a human father, or if it’s just a vague reference to a character from Chinese literature with a connection to primates.

5) I can’t find any information on this character. But given the ancestor and father, I’m sure the mother is associated with apes or monkeys in some way.

6) Wukong becomes king of the monkeys in chapter one by discovering a cave, the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong水簾洞), behind a waterfall. His people soon after take residence inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 104-106).

7) See my article on Master Subodhi’s curriculum.

8) See note #2.

9) Monkey learns the 72 transformations in order to escape heavenly punishments of lightning, fire, and wind sent to kill him for defying his fate by attaining immortality.

10) Steavu (2019) calls it the “Monkey book” (p. 195), but a gibbon is an ape, so I have adjusted the translation accordingly.

11) I suggest in this article that the supernatural ape stealing peaches motif could be a mixture of a Sinicized version of the Great Monkey jataka tale, in which the Buddha’s reincarnation as a monkey king leads his people to raid an imperial fruit garden, and the theft of immortal peaches by the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), who is subsequently exiled to reincarnate as the Han-era jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔).

Sources:

Andersen, P. (2019). Guigu zi tiansui lingwen 鬼谷子天隨靈文. In K. Schipper and F. Verellen (Eds.), The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang (p. 1239). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Miura, K. (2008). Zhenren. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol. 1 & 2 (pp. 1265-1266). Longdon: Routledge.

Palmer, D. A., & Siegler, E. (2017). Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Steavu, D. (2019). The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Stevens, K., & Welch, J. (1998). XU, The Daoist Perfected Lord Xu Zhenjun 許真君 The Protective Deity of Jiangxi Province. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3, 137-146. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23889813

Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing juan yi (n.d.). [Book of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin: First Scroll]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=465883#p3

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wumen xiaoke, & Yanshui sanren (1636). Qianhou qiguo zhi [Annals of the Seven Kingdoms]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=736295#p89

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

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=506975&remap=gb#%E5%8D%8E%E5%85%89%E4%B8%89%E4%B8%8B%E9%85%86%E9%83%BD

Archive #27 – The Journey to the West Japsang Effigies of Korean Royal Palaces

Japsang or Chapsang (Kor: 잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像, “miscellaneous figurines”) are effigies of dark gray fired clay adorning the roof-hips of royal palaces in Korea. The first four of (up to eleven) figures are traditionally associated with the main characters of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (fig. 1 & 2). Tripitaka is connected to the first figure, which wears a suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with hands on splayed knees (fig. 3). Sun Wukong is connected to the second, an ape-like figure with a pointed hat, long arms, and small legs. Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are respectively connected to the third and fourth figures, which are portrayed as scaled beasts with their heads turned in different directions.

Wall (2019) reveals the earliest reference to our our heroes’ association with the japsang appears in Eou yadam (어우야담, “Eou’s Unofficial Histories”), a collection of stories by the scholar-official Yu Mongin (유몽인, 1559-1623). Yu frames knowing the names of the figures as a test for a new official:

When newly appointed officials meet their predecessors for the first time, they have to be able to tell the names of the ten divine figures on top of the palace gates for ten times. . . . The names are Master of Great Tang (Taedang sabu, 大唐師傅 [Tripitaka]), Pilgrim Sun (Son haengja, 孫行者 [Sun Wukong]), Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), [and] Monk Sha (Sa Hwasang, 沙和尙 [Sha Wujing]) (Yu, 2004, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2137).

Interestingly, Sun Wukong was eventually associated with the very nails that fastened the figures to the royal rooftops (Chang, 2004, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2137). They were called “Pilgrim Sun-Nails” ((Sonhaengja taech’ ol; Ch: (孫)行者帶鐵), [1] which implies our hero “was at some point considered representative of all roof ornaments” (Wall, 2019, p. 2137). This connection no doubt references Monkey’s adamantine body and position as the demon-conquering exorcist par excellence. After all, the japsang figurines were believed to “protect the palaces from calamities” (Ro & Park, 2015, p. 78), making them cognates for Chinese roof figurines, which serve as “guardians against fire and evil spirits” (Li, 1990, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2138). This is fascinating from a historical perspective as late dynastic Korea was staunchly Neo-Confucian, showing Journey to the West was so wildly popular in the “Land of the Morning Calm” that the pilgrims were able to transcend their original Buddhist associations (Wall, 2019, pp. 2137-2138).

(I also find this subject interesting because, while not officially worshiped by people of non-Chinese descent, it shows Sun served a religious function in Korea. Thus, we can add this thread to the complex tapestry of his worship in East and Southeast Asia.)

I originally intended to write my own in-depth article on japsang figures but later discovered Macouin (2003). This masterful paper explains the evolution of such roof adornments and their later association with the Chinese novel. Macouin (2003) is written in French, so I am presenting both the original and a rough English translation. I did not include the Korean and Chinese characters in the translation.

Fig. 1 – A chart of nine japsang (larger version). Notice that most feature the same basic arched back design similar to the Hebrew letter mēm (מ). Fig. 2 – Photo of a roof-hip featuring seven figures (larger version). From Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A picture of the lead figure believed to be Tripitaka (larger version). From Yogin, 2001 as cited in Macouin, 2003, p. 29. But as noted, Sun Wukong came to be associated with all japsang figures. 

I. Abstract (with translation)

French

Dans l’architecture ancienne de la Corée, à l’époque de la dynastie des Yi (1392-1910), les toits de certains bâtiments étaient ornés de statuettes protectrices, disposées en file sur leurs arêtes. À la fin du XIXe siècle, seuls les édifices peu ou prou en relation avec la fonction royale en étaient pourvus. La présence de ces figurines, à l’aspect d’animaux accroupis, est attestée au XVe siècle. Elles peuvent avoir succédé à d’autres ornements et, plus lointainement, à des tuiles spéciales à embout relevé.

Une tradition associe quatre de ces grotesques à des personnages bien connus par le roman chinois du XVIe siècle, le Xiyou ji. Plus précisément, la statuette placée en rive est identifiée au célèbre moine Xuanzang, héros de ce livre. Il est suggéré finalement que la personnification de ces statuettes pourrait être en relation avec des pratiques de bizutage.

English

In the ancient architecture of Korea, during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), the roofs of some buildings were adorned with protective statuettes, arranged in a line on their ridges. At the end of the 19th century, only buildings more or less related to the royal function were provided with it. The presence of these figurines, with the appearance of crouching animals, is attested in the 15th century. They may have succeeded other ornaments and, more distantly, special raised-toe tiles.

One tradition associates four of these grotesques with figures well known from the 16th century Chinese novel, Xiyou ji. More precisely, the statuette placed on the bank is identified with the famous monk Xuanzang, hero of this book. It is finally suggested that the personification of these statuettes could be related to hazing practices.

II. Original French Paper

Click to access Chapsang-paper.pdf

III. English Translation

Click to access Chapsang-paper-English-Translation-PDF.pdf

Disclaimer:

This has been uploaded for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.

Notes:

1) For a discussion of Monkey’s “pilgrim” nickname, see section three of my previous article.

Source:

Macouin, F. (2003). Des Figurines De Toiture Coréennes, Les Chapsang. Journal Asiatique, 291(1-2), 17-34.

Ro, M. & Park, S. (Eds.). (2015). The King at the Palace: Joseon Royal Court Culture at the National Palace Museum of Korea (C. Kwon, Trans.). Seoul: National Palace Museum of Korea.

Wall, B. (2019). Dynamic Texts as Hotbeds for Transmedia Storytelling: A Case Study of the Story Universe of the Journey to the WestInternational Journal of Communication 13, 2116-2142. Retrieved from https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/10006/2648

 

 

Dragon Ball and Journey to the West

It recently occurred to me that I’ve referenced the Dragon Ball franchise in several blog articles. So I’ve taken the opportunity to gather everything into one spot, including information that I haven’t previously mentioned. This is meant to be a very basic introduction and not an exhaustive analysis. My current interest here is in modern adaptations of Journey to the West. Those interested in a broader discussion on the influences of Dragon Ball should consult the work of Derek Padula.

I. Son Goku

The name of the series protagonist, Son Goku (孫悟空), is a Japanese transliteration of Sun Wukong, meaning “Monkey Aware of Emptiness“, an allusion to Buddhist enlightenment. While referencing Rhesus macaques and “grandsons”, the surname Sun (孫), is also a veiled symbol for the development of an immortal spirit in Taoist elixir arts. Therefore, the name Son Goku straddles both Buddhism and Taoism.

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Goku’s monkey tailflying nimbus cloud, and extending power pole are all based on the respective trait, skill, and weapon of the Monkey King. The latter’s skill is called the “Cloud Somersault” (jindou yun, 筋斗雲), which can travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), or one and one-third the circumference of Earth, in a single leap. Sun’s staff, the “‘As-You-Will‘ Gold-Banded Cudgel”, weighs a whopping 17,560 lbs (7,965 kg) and (among other abilities) can magically grow as big or shrink as small as the immortal desires.

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Goku’s proficiency in boxing has a fun connection to Sun Wukong. Series creator Akira Toriyama partly based the Saiyan’s fighting style on the Wing Chun techniques used by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in their respective films. This style falls under the umbrella term “Short Fist” (Duan quan, 短拳), a school of martial arts with a low stance and quick, compact punches. Journey to the West states that this very style is the Monkey King’s preferred fighting technique! He uses Short Fist a few times in the novel.

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The spherical spaceship that baby Goku crash lands on Earth in from DBZ is a clever nod to the magic stone that Sun Wukong is born from in the beginning of the novel.

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Goku’s Ozaro (大猿) form, or his ability to change into a titanic “great ape” during a full moon, is largely based on the Monkey King’s cosmic transformation. The novel calls this magical skill the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and Sun uses it to grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall during battles with powerful opponents. This is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han dynasty concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.

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While I don’t have confirmation from Toriyama, Goku’s “Instant Transmission” skill might be based on the aforementioned cloud somersault. This is because Chinese Buddhist literature mentions the world of man is separated from the Buddha’s paradise by 108,000 li (the distance covered by the cloud), and the only way to instantly bypass all of the hardships in-between is achieving enlightenment. Hence the cloud somersault is symbolic of instant travel.

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II. Other characters

Goku’s early quest to find the dragon balls along with Bulma, the shape-shifting pig Oolong, and the desert bandit Yamcha is based on the “journey” of Journey to the West. The Monkey King, along with the pig spirit Zhu Bajie and the sand spirit Sha Wujing, guards a monk traveling to India to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from the Buddha. Not surprisingly, other DB/DBZ characters come from the Chinese novel. The Ox-King and Chi-Chi are respectively based on the Bull Demon King and his wife, Princess Iron FanTien Shinhan is based on Erlang, the only god to truly defeat Sun Wukong, which is why Tien is such a threat to young Goku.

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Goku’s martial arts teacher, Master Roshi, is based on the Buddho-Taoist Sage Subodhi who teaches Sun Wukong magic and the secret of immortality. Subodhi is based on Subhuti, a historical disciple of the Buddha. This is hilarious when you think about how much of a pervert Roshi is.

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The antagonist Broly wears a shock collar and mind-controlling headband in various DB media. These are based on the Monkey King’s “Golden Fillet” (jing gu quan, 金箍圈), which represses his unruly nature by painfully constricting around his head when a magic spell is chanted. It’s interesting to note that this fillet is based on a historical ritual headband worn by ancient Indian Buddhist yogins as a physical reminder of self-restraint.

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III. Miscellaneous

The senzu (仙豆, “immortal bean”) used by Goku and other Z fighters to replenish their strength from prolonged training or battle are based on immortality-bestowing elixir pills that Sun Wukong eats while drunkenly stumbling through the laboratory of the Taoist high god Laozi. Once eaten, the pills immediately counteract the effects of the heavenly wine.

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The Worship of Sun Wukong in 19th-century America

Last updated: 01-15-2022

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.” 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.

Monkey King Bust - American Gods - Instagram 1 - small

Fig. 1 – A photomanipulation of Sun Wukong above the title logo from the ongoing American Gods television show (larger version). By the author. The program is based on the 2001 novel of the same name.

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?

Spofford Alley, home to 19th-century temple with Monkey King shrine - small

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-ruled Qing dynasty (Cassel, 2002, pp. 218-219). [1] 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.


Update: 01-15-2022

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

Notes:

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).

Source:

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.

Romaskiewicz, P. (2021, April 15). Map of Temples in San Francisco’s Chinatown 1850s-1906. Personal Site of Peter Romaskiewicz. Retrieved from https://peterromaskiewicz.com/2020/06/02/map-of-temples-in-san-franciscos-chinatown-1850s-1906/

Risse, G. B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

United States. (1993). An introduction to organized crime in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Organized Crime/Drug Branch, Criminal Investigative Division.

Master Subodhi’s Curriculum II: Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some fun Fanfiction Speculation

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

Last Updated: 09-18-2021

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subodhi teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Shaolin map

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subodhi’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subodhi’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian

Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subodhi’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subodhi expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subodhi had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subodhi’s monastery.


Update: 09-14-2021

A week or so ago I made a post on reddit alluding to this article. I noted it would serve as the basis for a great Xianxia (immortal hero) story. One thing I stressed was the drama caused by Sun’s ability to quickly surpass his far older religious siblings in skill. I think this tension is the key to great magical martial arts action:

Need an idea for a Xianxia story? The first and second chapters of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) have so much untapped potential. The novel briefly mentions that Sun Wukong lives for ten years in the mountain home of the Buddho-Daoist sage Master Subodhi. The first seven are spent as a junior Daoist monk doing menial tasks and learning basic religious or life skills. However, the last three years are spent as a close disciple of Subodhi, learning elixir arts, magic, and combat skills. The novel glosses over his early cultivation in order to jump directly into the action. But imagine a Xianxia story focusing on those three years.

Drama with fellow disciples could arise from Monkey’s supernatural aptitude for quickly learning and mastering a skill. After all, it only takes him three years to go from a mere stone monkey to a powerful immortal capable of going toe-to-toe with gods and demons with millennia of cultivation and combat experience. Think of the resulting battles between our hero and his jealous senior religious brothers and sisters frustrated with his great progress.

In addition, given Sun’s demonstrated knowledge in boxing, weapons, and troop movement, I came up with the story idea that Subodhi’s school is the training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the famous Shaolin temple. Shaolin was mobilized by the Chinese government during the 16th-century to battle pirates attacking the coast. Records indicate that one historical Shaolin monk was made the leader, and he was later forced to singlehandedly defend himself against eight individuals vying for his position. Likewise, I imagine heaven calls up Subodhi’s army to battle some demonic evil, and Monkey might quickly rise through the ranks. This would naturally lead to more tension with his fellow disciples, causing him to defend his position. All of these challenges, plus any action seen by the monastic army in heavenly battles, would explain how Sun Wukong became such a seasoned fighter in such a short time.

Plus, there is the added bonus of Subodhi’s army being called upon to fight Sun during his rebellion against heaven. He might have far surpassed his religious brothers and sisters in skill at this point.

Having written the above, I’m now rethinking my idea of Monkey standing alongside the monastic army in some heavenly battle among the clouds. This is because someone would surely recognize him as one of Subodhi’s students during his rebellion. So either the monk soldiers wear masks (which is an interesting idea), or maybe Sun is involved in a smaller scale yet still significant battle on earth during his days as a young cultivator.


Update: 09-15-2021

Sun Wukong’s master Subodhi has 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the students in his religious lineage: Guang (廣), Da (大), Zhi (智), Hui (慧), Zhen (真), Ru (如), Xing (性), Hai (海), Ying (穎), Wu (悟), Yuan (圓), and Jue (覺). Monkey is part of the 10th generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115). This means that all of Subodhi’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name.

Maybe Sun would train with his fellow Wu generation but move on to older generations as his skill rapidly progresses.


Update: 09-18-2021

Sun is originally expelled from Subodhi’s school for flaunting his newfound powers of transformation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 123-124). But given Monkey’s ability to acquire amazing powers in just three short years, perhaps Subodhi fears his student’s potential for exponential spiritual growth. Whether this is because he sees a spark of malice in his disciple or he’s just plain jealous (the former seems more likely), Subodhi could just use the transformation as an excuse to halt his progression. But imagine Sun after another three years! I imagine high-level cosmic beings like the Buddha would be interested in keeping an eye on his progress.

Sources

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

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