The Buddhist Monkey King

(Note: I originally wrote this in late 2020 but just now got around to cleaning it up and posting it.)

Following his birth, the Stone Monkey (Shi hou, 石猴) comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The Stone Monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious:

Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] [fig. 1] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

In this article, I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as a primate monarch is based on “The Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka; Ch: Houwang bensheng, 猴王本生, “Birth Story of the Monkey King”; “The Great Monkey” hereafter), an ancient story about the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king, which appears in various collections of moralistic birth tales (Sk: jakata; Ch: bensheng jing, 本生經) in Buddhist literature. After summarizing the tale, I will briefly discuss 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art depicting the story at important religious sites, thereby showing its intense popularity. Next, I will demonstrate that the tale traveled the Silk Road to China, where it was represented in Buddhist art and literature. Finally, I will highlight similarities between “The Great Monkey” and a 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as similarities with the standard 1592 edition of the novel.

Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).

1. Story of the Great Monkey

Buddhist literature contains different versions of the tale. I will describe two of them here. The first is story no. 27 in the Garland of Birth Stories (Sk: Jatakamala, 4th-century) by the monk Arya Sura. [1] The tale opens with the following epigraph: “Those who make a practice of good behavior can win over the hearts even of their enemies” (Khoroche, 1989, p. 186). According to the story, the bodhisattva was born a virtuous monkey king in the verdant paradise of the Himalayas, which abounded in fruits and flowers, crystal clear streams, and choirs of singing birds. He and his tribe lived near an unnamed river and ate from a mountainous banyan tree that produced figs larger than palmyra nuts. The monkey king feared that the fruit would cause trouble for his people, so he gave instructions to regularly clear them from a branch overlooking the river. However, one season a fig escaped the monkeys’ attention and it grew to maturation, dropping into the water, drifting downstream, and lodging in the fence of a pool where an unnamed human king played with his consorts. The smell and color of the fruit entranced the women, and after the king tasted it, he became obsessed with its flavor and led an army in search of the tree. The ruler and his entourage cut a path upstream and followed a sweet scent directly to the massive banyan, which rose high above all the surrounding trees like the lord of the forest. When he saw the monkeys eating figs, the enraged ruler ordered his men to shoot them down with arrows, spears, and rocks. Seeing the dire situation of his tribe, the monkey king made a tremendous leap to the summit of a nearby mountain, a feat that would have required any other monkey a series of jumps. On the mountain, he found a strong-rooted cane of the appropriate length needed to span the gap and tied it to his feet. But his return jump to the tree was hampered by the binding, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch and use his body as a bridge so that his tribe could escape. But the monkey king was mortally wounded as throngs of the panicked primates clawed their way across his body to safety. The human king took note of this selfless deed and ordered his men to relieve the suspended monkey by placing a canopy beneath him and simultaneously shooting the branch and cane. After his wounds were tended and he regained consciousness, the monkey king spent the last few moments of his life teaching the human king the virtue of putting his people’s needs before his own (Khoroche, 1989, pp. 186-192).

The second is story no. 407 [2] in Commentary on the Birth Stories (Pali: Jatakatthakatha, a.k.a. Jatakatthavannana, 5th-century), which is attributed to the monk Buddhagosa. The narrative opens with the Enlightened One talking to a large assembly of monks in Jetavana. He tells them of a previous life when he helped his relatives. Here, the story is quite similar to the first, with slight differences in certain details, such as the monkey king leading a specified number of 80,000 primates, the river is the Ganges, the fruit is water pot-sized mangoes, the specimen that floats downstream is caught in a fisherman’s net, and the human ruler is named King Brahmadatta of Benares. [3] Instead of leaping to a nearby mountain, the monkey king jumps one hundred bow lengths across the Ganges. The cane is tied to his waste instead of his feet, and the cause of falling short on the return jump is not hindrance but miscalculating the length of cane needed to span the gap. And instead of being seriously injured by his people during their escape, a rival of the king—a previous incarnation of the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta—mortally wounds his heart by jumping onto his back from a high branch. Brahmadatta instructs his men to build a tower so that he can retrieve the primate and tend to his wounds in his last few moments of life. And just like before, the monkey king teaches the human monarch the value of his people’s needs prior to dying. But this time the discussion is much shorter, being presented as a poem of seven stanzas. Brahmadatta then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king and worships the skull as a religious relic. In the end, the Buddha reveals that the ruler was the past incarnation of his disciple Ananda, the 80,000 monkeys were incarnations of the assembled monks, and the monkey king was himself (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, pp. 225-227).

2. The tale in Indian and Chinese Buddhist art

This birth story is over 2,000 years old as it appears among the stone carvings of the Bharhut Stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (fig. 2 and 3) and the western torana (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 3 and 4) (Marshall, Foucher, Majumdar, 1902, vol. 1, pp. 224-225, vol. 2, plate 64). I should note that the story is one of 547 such tales appearing in the Pali canon (Robert & David, 2013, p. 381). So the fact that it was one of only a few past life narratives chosen to appear at these religious sites speaks volumes to its popularity. This explains why the story spread beyond India.

Fig. 2 – “The Great Monkey” medallion from Bharhut stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – Key: A) The monkey king leaps and grasps a banyan tree, making a bridge with his body; B) attendants hold a canopy to catch the injured monkey; and C) The human king sits with the monkey discussing the actions of a good ruler prior to the latter’s death (larger version). Fig. 4 – “The Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 5 – Key: A) Brahmadatta travels with a retinue to the tree; B) he orders his archer(s) to shoot the monkeys; C) He watches as the monkey king leaps across the Ganges and grasps a banyan tree to make a bridge with his body; and D) Brahmadatta’s discussion with the monkey king (larger version).

The tale is known to have traveled east to China along the northern silk road. This is demonstrated by murals appearing in the Kizil cave complex (5th to 7th-century), one of the earliest and most popular Buddhist centers in Kucha, in what is now Xinjiang, China. Zhu (2012) describes the murals, noting that they lack the detail of their Indian counterparts and are therefore more mnemonic than narrative:

[I]n Kizil Cave 38 [fig. 5], a very large monkey is depicted in the center, stretching his body and holding a tree on the other side of a river. Two other smaller monkeys are stepping on his body to cross the river. In the foreground, a kneeling archer is shooting at them. In Kizil Cave 17 [fig. 6] this story is represented even more simply, with the archer omitted. However the stretching monkey, the river, and the trees are enough for anyone who knows the story to recognize it […] Compared to the Indian representations that are more explicitly narrative, the Kizil paintings are more like a reminder of the story. They communicate with the viewers as if they already know the story well” (pp. 59-60).

Fig. 5 – The Kizil cave no. 38 mural (larger version). Found here. Fig. 6 – Kizil cave no. 17 mural (larger version). Found here. Both are circa 5th to 7th-century. Zhu, 2012, p. 61 includes black and white line drawings of the murals.

3. The tale in Chinese Buddhist literature

The Kizil murals are predated by a brief story appearing in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, 3rd-century, The Collection hereafter), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). [4] The 56th story in this collection is an adaptation of the original Indian version with several noticeable differences: The Bodhisattva was formerly a monkey king (mihou wang, 獼猴王) who frolicked with 500 primates. At that time a drought made the various kinds of fruit scarce. Only a river separated their mountain from a nearby kingdom, so the monkey king led his tribe to eat fruit in the royal garden. The human king ordered that they be secretly captured, but the monkey called for his tribe to gather cane to make a rope. One end was tied to a tree and the other to the king, who leaped from a branch across the river. Unfortunately, the rope wasn’t long enough, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch on the other side and create a bridge with his body. After the 500 monkeys crossed to the other side, the king’s body split in two under the strain. When the human king came upon the scene, the dying primate begged that his tribe not be hurt and offered up his own flesh as payment for his bad judgment. However, the king admired the monkey’s superior, sage-like virtue and questioned his own willingness to sacrifice his body for his people. He then issued a proclamation that all monkeys were to be fed throughout the kingdom, and those who refused would be punished as thieves. Upon his return to the palace, the king recounted the events to his queen, touting the monkey’s kindness and comparing it to the height of Mt. Kunlun. She then suggested that the monkeys be fed and the king confirmed that he had already given the order. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the monkey king was himself, the human king was Ananda, and the 500 monkeys were the monks at the assembly (CBETA, 2016a). [5]

Instead of the original 80,000 monkeys, this version reduces the number to only 500. Instead of the king traveling to the banyan/mango tree in the monkey’s mountain territory, the monkeys travel from their mountain to the royal fruit garden in the king’s territory. Instead of being trampled by his people/a rival, the monkey king’s body breaks in two from the strain. And instead of giving the monkey royal funeral rights and worshiping his skull as a relic, the king enacts a law that all monkeys should be fed.

This version is different enough from the originals to suggest a separate Chinese tradition, one that had circulated for some time. This fits with Chavannes’ (1910) suggestion that The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas is not an original Indian text but one compiled in China by Kang Senghui, who likely selected and edited the stories himself (vol. 1, p. 1 n. 1).

Story no. 56 finds parallels with another tale from Chinese Buddhist literature. [6] It appears in the Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (Za baozang jing, 雜寶藏經, mid-5th-century), which was translated into Chinese by the monk Tan Yao (曇曜). According to the 12th story in this collection: The Buddha was in Rajagrha when the monks commented on the woes faced by those who rely on Devadatta, while celebrating the happiness, positive rebirth, and eventual deliverance of those who rely on the Enlightened One. The Buddha confirmed this by telling a brief tale about two monkeys, each with 500 members in their tribe. A prince of Kashi (a.k.a. Benares) was on a hunting excursion when he surrounded the monkeys. The good monkey (shan mihou, 善獼猴) suggested that they cross the river to escape, but the evil monkey (e’mihou, 惡獼猴) wavered. The good monkey instructed his tribe to cross by using the long branches of a nearby tree. But the evil monkey and his tribe were captured due to inaction. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the good monkey was himself and Devadatta was the evil monkey. He used this story to advocate following the virtuous over the evil, for the former would lead others to safety and happiness, while the latter would lead others to suffering over numerous incarnations (CBETA, 2016b). [7]

This version does away with the fruit element altogether. The monkeys are in danger not because a king is protecting his fruit but because a prince is out hunting. The most noticeable difference here is the addition of a second monkey, one who is labeled as “evil” (e, 惡) (no connection to the Six-Eared Macaque). But like story no. 56, the monkey king is said to lead 500 primates.

It is clear that both Chinese tales were influenced by the later Indian version, story no. 407 from Commentary on the Birth Stories, as they specify a number for the troupe size (500 vs. 80,000), state the monkey king leaps over a river (as opposed to jumping to a nearby mountain top), and characters are revealed in the end to have been the past lives of Buddhist personages (the Buddha, Ananda, Devadatta, monks, etc.). Story no. 12 even opens in a city associated with the Enlightened One’s historical lectures (Rajagrha vs. Jetavana), where he discusses philosophical matters with monks; and an unnamed prince who poses a threat to the monkey king and his people is said to hail from Kashi, another name for Benares, the seat of King Brahmadatta.

4. The Chinese Monkey King

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century, The Story hereafter), a 17 chapter storytelling prompt that predates the Ming Journey to the West by 300 years. In chapter two, our hero’s literary antecedent, a white-clad scholar called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), meets the Tang monk Tripitaka on the road to the west and warns the monk that his two previous incarnations have died trying to procure the Buddhist scriptures. When asked how he knows events of the past, the scholar replies: “I am none other than the bronze-headed, iron-browed [8] king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. I have come to help the reverend monk procure the scriptures” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182).

The Story‘s depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim was influenced by Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana) (fig. 7), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late-9th to early-10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment. For example, both are depicted with occult powers enabling them to fly between heaven and earth (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098); both visit a realm ruled by a deity named Brahma, the Mahabrahma devaraja Vaisravana in the case of Monkey and Brahma in the case of Mulian (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, p. 1098); both are bestowed magic weapons by heaven, a golden-ringed monk staff and alms bowl for Monkey and a matching staff for Mulian (he enchants his own alms bowl) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); the power of said weapons are tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name, Vaisravana and the Buddha, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); and both use said weapons with the expressed purpose of saving someone important, Tripitaka and Mulian’s mother, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189, for example; Mair, 1994).

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 7 – A painting depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

If The Story borrows from Mulian’s tale, it’s not a stretch to suggest that it also appropriated material from other Buddhist tales, including “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the massive, fruit-bearing banyan/mango tree. Additionally, both The Story and the “The Great Monkey” describe the respective monkey kings leading a similar number of primates, 84,000 in the former and 80,000 in the latter. [9] While the Chinese variants drastically reduce the number to 500, it’s interesting that both tales would display such similar counts. This is because said numbers are significant to Buddhism. For example, 84,000 generally denotes a very large number, hence the belief that the body contains this many atoms. Other examples include the 84,000 stupas of Asoka, the 84,000 bodily relics of the Buddha, the Amitabha‘s 84,000 rays of illumination, the 84,000 bodily signs of a Buddha, the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, etc. In addition, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) can be shorthand for 84,000. It can also refer to separate Buddhist concepts, such as the “bodhisattva’s 80,000 duties” (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2006, p. 39). It’s certainly possible that both stories independently chose similar numbers due to their demonstrated connection to Buddhism. But maybe the storytellers who developed The Story had access to some non-Chinese version of the tale, perhaps by way of Buddhist monks, for Buddhism has a long history of proselytizing through oral literature. [10]

Furthermore, in chapter 11 of The Story, the pilgrims enter the earthly paradise of the Daoist goddess Queen Mother of the West, home to the famed peaches of immortality. Tripitaka asks Monkey to steal the group a few fruits, but the latter refuses, stating:

Because I stole ten peaches to eat when I was eight hundred years old, I was captured by the Queen Mother and given eight hundred blows on my left side and three thousand blows on the right with an iron cudgel. Then I was exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits. Even today my sides hurt and now I definitely don’t dare to steal any more peaches!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195).

This event was surely influenced by the fabled meeting of Emperor Wu and the Queen mother, during which she reveals his jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔), formerly the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), was exiled from heaven for stealing her peaches (Campany, 2009, p. 126). However, a monkey king running afoul of an earthbound monarch for raiding their imperial fruit garden mirrors story no. 56 in The Collection. As mentioned above, the tale recalls the Buddhist monkey king leading his tribe out of the mountains to eat fruit in a human sovereign’s garden during a time of drought. The ruler orders the primates captured, leading to the monkey king’s sacrifice. Therefore, this portion of The Story could be a combination of Buddhist and Daoist sources.

“The Great Monkey” could have also influenced the 1592 edition. In chapter one, the monkeys following the stream to find its source in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is reminiscent of the human king’s trek up the Ganges to find the source of the fruit in the Himalayas. Also, recall that the Indian and Chinese versions place great emphasis on the monkey king leaping over a river. For example, story no. 407 reads: “[H]e ascended a branch that rose up straight, went along another branch that stretched towards the Ganges, and springing from the end of it, he passed a hundred bow-lengths and lighted on a bush on the [other] bank” (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, p. 226). This could have influenced the competition to leap through the waterfall. It’s interesting that Wukong alone is successful in the jump, leading to his kinghood:

The monkeys said to each other, “We don’t know where this water comes from. Since we have nothing to do today, let us follow the stream up to its source to have some fun.” With a shriek of joy, they dragged along males and females, calling out to brothers and sisters, and scrambled up the mountain alongside the stream. Reaching its source, they found a great waterfall.


All the monkeys clapped their hands in acclaim: “Marvelous water! Marvelous water! So this waterfall is distantly connected with the stream at the base of the mountain, and flows directly out, even to the great ocean.” They said also, “If any of us had the ability to penetrate the curtain and find out where the water comes from without hurting himself, we would honor him as king.” They gave the call three times, when suddenly the stone monkey leaped out from the crowd. He answered the challenge with a loud voice, “I’ll go in! I’ll go in!” 


Look at him! He closed his eyes, crouched low, and with one leap he jumped straight through the waterfall (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 103-104).

This takes us back to where we started from in the introduction.

5. Conclusion

I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as the Monkey King is based on the “The Great Monkey”, a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a primate monarch, which appears in various Indian Buddhist sources, such as the 4th-century Garland of Birth Stories (no. 27) and the 5th-century Commentary on the Birth Stories (no. 407). The tale describes the monkey king’s efforts to save his tribe from a human monarch who seeks to claim a massive banyan/mango tree in the Himalayas by killing all of the monkeys inhabiting it. After leaping to a mountain top or over the Ganges River to retrieve a length of cane needed to span the gap, his return jump is hindered, forcing him to make a bridge with his body. He is mortally wounded in the process, though, when throngs of clambering monkeys run across his back or a rival primate assaults him from a high branch. In the end, the human monarch takes note of this selfless act and learns from him the value of putting the needs of his people first moments prior to the monkey king’s death.

The popularity of the tale, as evidenced by 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art at the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas, explains why it spread beyond Bharata and traveled the Silk Road to the Middle Kingdom, where it was represented in Chinese Buddhist literature and art. Simplistic mnemonic depictions of the tale in Xinjiang’s Kizil Cave complex (no. 17 and 38) (5th to 7th-century) are predated by stories in the 3rd-century Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (no. 56) and the mid-5th-century Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (no. 12). The first tells how the monkey king leads his people down from the mountain to raid an imperial fruit garden and ultimately sacrifices his life so the tribe can escape punishment. The second involves the decisions of two monkey kings, one good and one evil, whether or not to cross a river to escape capture at the hands of a prince on a hunting trip. It serves as a parable warning of the consequences of putting one’s faith in those of evil character.

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is the late-13th-century tale The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures. This story borrows from the Mulian story cycle, so it’s possible that it selected from other Buddhist tales, including Indian and Chinese versions of the “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the banyan/mango tree. The 84,000 primates led by the Chinese Monkey King could be based on the 80,000 from an Indian version. Likewise, Monkey stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West in chapter 11 could be based on the Chinese version in which the monkey king and his people raid an imperial fruit garden. In addition, the emphasis on leaping over a river in the various versions of “The Great Monkey” could have influenced the waterfall jumping contest in the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West.


1) Little is known about Arya Sura’s life. Based on various Indian and Chinese sources, the monk has been estimated to have lived somewhere between the 2nd to the 5th-century, with the 4th-century being the best guess (Khoroche, 1989, pp. xi-xiii).

2) This should not be confused with the similarly named Mahakapi jataka (no. 516). See Cowell, 1895, vol. 5, pp. 37-42.

3) This page (see #3) explains Brahmadatta is the name of several kings from jataka tales.

4) See Nattier, 2008, pp. 149-155 for more information about Kang Shenghui and his work, including the Liudu jijing.

5) See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 1, pp. 216-218 for a French translation of the story. Click here for an English translation by Edward P. Butler (@EPButler).

6) Thank you to Eric Greene of Yale university for bringing this story to my attention.

7) See Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, 1994, pp. 40-41 for a full English translation. As of 03/02/21 the book can be downloaded here for free. See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 3, p. 13 for a partial French translation.

8) According to Mair (1989), “‘Bronze-headed, iron-browed’ is a conventional Chinese epithet for boldness and bravery” (p. 701).

9) Interestingly, the number of primates led by Wukong in the final Ming edition of the novel is 47,000 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). I don’t know if this number holds any significance.

10) Mair (1988) explains Indian Buddhist prosimetric oral literature was very popular in China during the Tang but rapidly became secularized and Sinicized during Song (when The Story was published) due to past anti-Buddhist pogroms, Muslim incursions in Central Asia cutting off fresh Buddhist material, and the reemergence of Confucianism as a state power. But I suggest material that influenced The Story may predate this shift. For example, the Monkey Pilgrim appears with Xuanzang in an 11th-century (Western Xia) mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province (see this article). Xuanzang is shown worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while our hero stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The fact that Monkey appears in religious art at an important stop along the Silk Road shows his association with Xuanzang’s journey was well-known even during this early period. And since story cycles take time to form and become cemented in the public psyche, it’s not a stretch to suggest Monkey’s tale goes back to the previous century or even before the Song. Therefore, it’s possible that these earlier storytellers may have had access to some non-Chinese version of “The Great Monkey”.


Campany, R. F. (2009). Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China. University of Hawaii Press.

Chavannes, E. (1910). Cinq Cents Contes et Apologues, Extraits du Tripitaka Chinois et Traduits en Français: Tome 1 [Five Hundred Tales and Apologues: Extracts from the Chinese Tripitaka Translated into French: Vol. 1]. Paris: E. Leroux.

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016a). T03n0152_006 六度集經 第6卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitās, scroll no. 6]. Retrieved from

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016b). T04n0203_002 雜寶藏經 第2卷 [Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures, scroll no. 2]. Retrieved from

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births: Vol. 1-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Khoroche, P. (Trans.). (1989). Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mair, V. H. (1988). The Buddhist Tradition of Prosimetric Oral Narrative in Chinese Literature. Oral Tradition, 3(1-2), 106-21. Retrieved from

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

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Marshall, J., Foucher, A., & Majumdar, N. G. (1902). The Monuments of Sāñchī: Vol. 1-3. Bhopal: Indra Publishing House.

Nattier, J. (2008). A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations: Texts from the Eastern Han 東漢 and Three Kingdoms 三國 Periods. Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, X. (1994). The Storehouse of Sundry Valuables (C. Willemen, Trans.). Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

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.

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

Zhu, T. (2012). Reshaping the Jātaka Stories: from Jātakas to Avadānas and Praṇidhānas in Paintings at Kucha and Turfan. Buddhist Studies Review, 29(1), 57-83. Retrieved from

Qitian Dasheng Monkey King Temples in Taiwan

Last updated: 02/27/2021

I recently returned from a trip exploring Great Sage temples in northern and central Taiwan. I’ve decided to mirror a former article by creating a list of Monkey King temples that I’ve visited on the island. This should not be considered comprehensive. I intend to update the article as I visit new locations. I will divide the list according to the closest city/municipality and provide the address if possible. If I’ve already written an article about a particular location, I will add a link to the name. All current listed temple ages are as of 2021.

Many temples recognize more than one Great Sage (usually three or more), with those worshiping a single figure being a minority. Like in Singapore, spirit-mediums (Hokkien: tangki, 童乩; Ch: jitong, 乩童) who channel the monkey god play an important role in the Great Sage’s religion. The “Third Prince” (Santazi, 三太子, a.k.a. Nezha, 哪吒) serves as his vanguard both in the temple and during religious processions. This is certainly interesting given that the two were once foes. [1]

(Note: Always consult Google before visiting these temples.)

I. Jilong (Keelung)

1) Shengji Gong (聖濟宮) – 72-years-old

Address: 202基隆市中正區中船路112巷30弄95號

I didn’t get any information about the temple during my visit as the caretaker appeared to be mute (or just didn’t want to talk to me). Online information states the temple was built in 1949. Legend has it that the Great Sage saved villagers from rampant fires plaguing Keelung at the time. Like Yilan’s Wujian Ziyu Temple (see below), Shengji’s Great Sage and his army of monkey soldiers are portrayed as martial monks (wuseng, 武僧) with a golden headband and long hair. The alcove housing his statue is called the Shuilian Grotto-Heaven (Shuilian dongtian, 水濓洞天) after Monkey’s home the “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He is flanked on his left and right by Shennong (神農) and Kai Zhang Shengwang (開漳聖王), respectively


2. Qitian Dasheng Miao (齊天大聖廟) – Unknown

Address: 203基隆市中山區中山二路89巷31號

No caretakers were present at the time of my visit, so I was unable to ask questions about history or names. All statues were locked inside of a glass display case, along with a blue booklet that caught my eye. It was titled “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven’s True Sutra of Awakening People and Enlightening the World” (Qitian Dasheng xingren jueshi zhenjing, 齊天大聖醒人覺世眞經) (a facsimile is apparently available here). Like in Shengji and Wujian Ziyu Temples, the Great Sage and his monkey army are depicted as martial monks. Also like Shengji, he is flanked, this time on his left, by Kai Zhang Shengwang. He is flanked on his right by Fude Zhengshen (福德正神).

(Note: I’ve been told by one informant that they saw the Great Sage sutra at a temple on “Five Fingers Mountain” (Wuzhi shan, 五指山) in Xinzhu. Also, the linked facsimile is hosted on the website of a temple in Tainan. This shows the sutra is present in both northern and southern Taiwan. Another told me they saw an exact copy in Singapore. The printer (新儷城印刷設計有限公司) is in Taipei. In addition, I’ve been told by a few informants that the sutra is likely the product of the “flying phoenix” (feiluan, 飛鸞), otherwise known as “planchette writing” or “spirit writing” (fuji, 扶乩 / 扶箕).)


II. Taipei

1) Shilin Zhengan Gong (士林正安宮) – 31-years-old

Address: 111台北市士林區士東路2巷5號

The Zhengan Temple of Shilin [2] is definitely the smallest Great Sage house of worship that I’ve yet visited. It appears to be a small, open-front store/apartment unit that has been converted into a temple. It recognizes at least seven Great Sages, each with his own name and purpose. I’m still gathering information on the temple, so I will post their names at a later date. While most such temples have one or two spirit-mediums, Zhengan has an astounding seven, each of whom reports to a respective Great Sage. During special occasions, the spirit-mediums perform self-mortification with swords, axes, swordfish noses, spiked clubs, and spiked balls.

I had the pleasure of joining the temple on a pilgrimage to the south of Taiwan back in November of 2020. I was even blessed with the opportunity to help carry the Third Prince’s palanquin, which led the way for a much larger vehicle containing Zhengan’s numerous Great Sage statues. I’ll write more about this in the future.


2) Shuilian Gong (水濂宮) – Unknown

Address: 108台北市萬華區環河南路一段344號

The temple attendants were unable to give me any history on the temple. But I did learn that they worship a trinity: “Great Sage Sun” (Sun Dasheng, 孫大聖), the large central figure (image 1 (27)); the “Black Great Sage” (Hei Dasheng, 黑大聖), the small figure holding the gourd and whip (image 1 (34)); and the “White Great Sage” (Bai Dasheng, 白大聖), the small figure shielding his eyes and holding a staff (image 1 (42)). These color-coded names remind me of the Black and White Spirits of Impermanence, death gods who summon the souls of the recently deceased to the underworld. The temple houses many monkey god statues apart from the trinity, likely soldiers. I’ll return to get more info and better pictures. The soot black figures and bright clothing make it hard to get detailed photos.


III. Xinbei (New Taipei)

1) Qitian Dasheng Dian (齊天大聖殿) – 20-years-old

Address: 249新北市八里區渡船頭路9號

I was told by the temple’s ritual master that she received a religious vision from the Great Sage to move from Gaoxiong in the south and look for land with good fengshui for a temple. After her third move, she founded her temple in the mountainous region of Bali. While the temple has several monkey statues, each is considered a different aspect of the singular “Lord Great Sage” (大聖爺) or “Great Sage Patriarch” (大聖祖師).

The area behind the temple features a garden with a colorful, life-sized statue of the Great Sage seated on a throne. He holds a peach of immortality in one hand and his staff in the other. His throne rests on an elevated rock outcropping painted with the characters for the “Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Huaguo shan, 花菓山). A series of concrete steps laid within the folds of the rocks takes you to a private heaven further into the mountain with flowers and guava, papaya, banana, and tangerine crops. It’s a great experience.

Be forewarned: The route that Google told me to take was NOT reliable. My GPS took me through a neglected cemetery up the side of a mountain. I had to cut a path through the forest, jump streams, and climb rocks before I finally arrived all sweaty and dirty. The temple personnel were amazed that I made such a trip because the route was completely unnecessary. They told me of a road leading directly to the temple! Apparently my GPS showed me the most direct route instead of the slightly longer, yet far more practical one. I highly suggest walking from the foot of Duchuantou Rd. (渡船頭路) and following the signs to the temple.

On the bright side, the caretakers were so thrilled to learn of my great interest in their god that they treated me to tea, fruit, and snacks. They are very welcoming people.  


2) 板橋雲聖宮 (Banqiao Yunsheng Gong) – Unknown

Address: 220新北市板橋區富山街84號

This temple was closed when I visited. I had to shoot pictures through two sliding glass doors. It is very small, possibly as small or even smaller than Zhengan Temple in Taipei.


3) Qitian Dasheng Miao (齊天大聖廟) or Qitian Dasheng Ye Miao (齊天大聖爺廟) – Unknown, possibly new

Address: 238新北市樹林區佳園路一段41巷6號

The caretaker told me that the temple had not yet been consecrated and therefore wouldn’t let me take any pictures inside. However, a Chinese comment on Google says the temple “isn’t open to the outside world”, suggesting that it’s closed to the public. Based on what little I could see, the building unit appears to be someone’s home/business/personal altar. Rows and rows of god statues packaged for sale lined shelves against a back wall.

(Left) The closed front of the temple (larger version). (Right) One of two lamps hanging out front (larger version).

IV. Yilan

1) Wujian Ziyu Si (五間紫雲寺) – 61-years-old (current temple)

Address: 263宜蘭縣壯圍鄉大福路三段449號

Legend has it that around 1899 a man found a monkey-shaped stone and enshrined it in a thatched shed. This was eventually converted to a temple a few years later. It was destroyed by a typhoon in 1960 but subsequently rebuilt. The temple appears to recognize a trinity, with countless monkey soldiers beneath them, each portrayed as martial monks with a golden fillet and long hair. The Great Sage has two aspects: the “Martial Great Sage” (Wu Dasheng, 武大聖) (standing statues), who exorcises evil, and the “Civil Great Sage” (Wen Dasheng, 文大聖) (seated statues), who insures the safety of people and animals.


V. Xinzhu (Hsinchu)

1) Shenglong Gong (聖龍宮) – 5-years-old

Address: 310新竹縣竹東鎮中豐路三段187號

This temple is famous for its nine-meter-tall (29.52 ft.) statue of the Great Sage, which is apparently the tallest in Taiwan. I was told that it was shipped from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. The members appear to only revere a single monkey god, whom they call the “Buddha Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng Foye, 齊天大聖佛爺). The smaller statue in front of the taller one was the original focus of worship at a devotee’s home prior to the building of the temple.


VI. Taizhong (Taichung)

1) Yusheng Si (玉聖寺) – 62-years-old (current temple)

Address: 436台中市清水區頂湳路73號

Records for the original temple apparently go back to the Xianfeng (1850-1861) period. According to legend, Yusheng was built at the behest of a beggar who revealed himself to be the Great Sage. The current house of worship was built in 1959. The members appear to recognize at least five Great Sages (maybe more). I was told that they don’t have individual names; though, the members may have been apprehensive to share secrets with a random foreigner. They just refer to them as “Lord Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng Ye, 齊天大聖爺). One figure has a painted face similar to pestilence gods (wenshen, 瘟神). Perhaps this version of the Great Sage serves a similar purpose. It’s interesting to note that several statues are shown holding spiked balls like those used by spirit-mediums.


2) Wuji Tianyi Jiancha Gong Tiantan (無極天壹監察宮天壇) – Unknown

Address: 406台中市北屯區太原路三段1398號

This temple was closed when I visited. I had to shoot pictures of their lovely statue over the gate. I’m guessing it’s four to five-meters-tall based on the ding censor in front. I plan to go back at a later time to get pictures of the temple interior.

I did see a black command flag (Hokkien: or leng ki; Ch: hei leng qi, 黑令旗) out front, which signifies that a spirit-medium is active in the temple.


VII. Tainan

1) Wanfu An (萬福庵) – 350-something-years-old

Address: 700台南市中西區民族路二段317巷5號

Wanfu is touted as the oldest Qitian Dasheng temple on the island, originally serving as the home of an anti-Qing general’s wife during the Southern Ming (c. 1660s), which was later converted to a house of worship following her death. It was known for taking in orphans during the early-19th-century. The temple recognizes a trinity of Great Sages, followed by a small handful in administrative positions, and finally a plethora of soldier monkeys. The highest-ranking member of the trinity is a 300-plus-year-old Fujianese stone statue called “Laying the Foundations Elder Great Sage” (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖). The temple has a single spirit-medium. But the last time I checked, he was training a disciple, his nephew.

Great Sage temples from all over Taiwan look upon Wanfu as a fount of pure energy, visiting every year to procure its incense ashes in order to replenish their spiritual armies. Spirit-mediums are thought to direct these soldiers in battle while possessed by the monkey god. I personally witnessed this ash ceremony during the Shilin Zhengang Temple pilgrimage (as noted in the introduction). I saw at least three other temples waiting for their turn. I’m sure many more visited that day and the next.



1) See chapter four of Journey to the West.

2) Not to be confused with other Zhengan Temples in Taiwan.

Archive #20 – Qing-Period Color-Illustrated Complete Edition of Journey to the West

Upon the initial release, I was entranced by the cover art for the 2012 revised edition of Anthony C. Yu’s famed Journey to the West translation. For example, the cover for volume one (fig. 1) featured the pilgrims crossing the Flowing-Sands River via a boat made from Sha Wujing‘s skull necklace and a heaven-sent gourd. I loved the individuality and color scheme of each figure. They look almost like characters from a comic book. Though the art style was old, I assumed the bright, vibrant colors signaled the illustration was a modern reproduction. This was not the case. I later learned that the art was made by an anonymous painter of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The paintings from this series were later gathered into an abridged ten-volume set titled Qing-Period Color-Illustrated Complete Edition of Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記, 2008). Here I present lower res PDFs of this work, complete with the gorgeous artwork. Each page is formatted with simplified Chinese dialogue on the left side and art on the right (fig. 2).

Fig. 1 – The cover of volume one (larger version). Fig. 2 – An example of the page format (larger version). It portrays the pilgrims finally coming before the Buddha in India. The formerly subjugated “Peng of 10,000 Cloudy Miles” (i.e. Garuda) can be seen hovering above the Enlightened One’s throne.

Book links


These have been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


Ming, Q. (Ed.). (2008). Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji [Qing-Period Color-Illustrated Complete Edition of Journey to the West]. Beijing: Zhongguo shudian.

The Magic Powers of the Monkey King’s Iron Staff

I’ve written several articles on Sun Wukong’s iron staff, including its origin from religious and martial staves used by historical Buddhist monks, the meaning of its inscription (“‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,550 lb” (7,960.54 kg)), the real world metal that it is made from, its ties to Yu the Great and flood control, its ties to the Buddhist Saint Mulian, its possible ties to a Hindu monument, and modern day misconceptions about its ability to weigh down the entire Milky Way galaxy. Now, I’d like to briefly survey the magic powers associated with this weapon. This will by no means be exhaustive.

I. Powers

A. Size Manipulation

Sun travels to the Eastern Sea Dragon King’s underwater kingdom in ch. 3 to acquire a celestial weapon. But when the immortal fails to find a suitably heavy armament, the Dragon Queen suggests that they give him a black iron pillar from their treasury. It is described as 20 feet (6.096 m) in height and the width of a barrel. Only when Monkey lifts the pillar and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable does it comply with his wishes:

Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The ‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,550 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). [1]

Later in the chapter, Sun shows off the new weapon to his children by shrinking it to the size of a needle and then expanding it to a literal pillar of heaven.

He held the treasure [the staff] in his hands and called out, “Smaller, smaller, smaller!” and at once it shrank to the size of a tiny embroidery needle, small enough to be hidden inside the ear. Awestruck, the monkeys cried, “Great King! Take it out and play with it some more.” The Monkey King took it out from his ear and placed it on his palm. “Bigger, bigger, bigger!” he shouted, and again it grew to the thickness of a barrel and more than twenty feet long. He became so delighted playing with it that he jumped onto the bridge and walked out of the cave. Grasping the treasure in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be one hundred thousand feet tall, [2] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138).

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey grows his staff to touch heaven as he performs a cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

B. Controlling the oceans

Prior to giving Monkey the staff, the Dragon King tells his wife, “That…was the measure with which [Yu the Great] fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). Later, in ch. 88 our hero recites a poem in which he gives more detail about the weapon’s origins and history. The first few lines discuss its power over water:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having bored through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 201).

Despite the staff’s influence on bodies of water both great and small, it paradoxically doesn’t grant Sun an advantage when traveling through the aquatic realm or fighting water-based demons. [3] I’ll just chalk this up to inconsistencies born from oral storytelling.

C. Astral entanglement

Ch. 3 shows that Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in the underworld even when the physical weapon is back with his body in the world of the living.

In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach with a summons with the three characters “Sun Wukong” written on it. They walked up to him and, without a word, tied him up with a rope and dragged him off. The soul of the Handsome Monkey King was reeling from side to side. They reached the edge of a city. The Monkey King was gradually coming to himself, when he lifted up his head and suddenly saw above the city an iron sign bearing in large letters the three words “Region of Darkness.” … Yanking and pulling, they were determined to haul him inside. Growing angry, the Monkey King whipped out his treasure. One wave of it turned it into the thickness of a rice bowl; he raised his hand once, and the two summoners were reduced to hash.


[After reprimanding the 10 judges for bringing his soul to hell, Sun says,] “All I want is to erase my name [from the ledgers of life and death]. Bring me a brush.” The judge hurriedly fetched the brush and soaked it in heavy ink. Wukong took the ledger on monkeys and crossed out all the names he could find in it [fig. 2]. Throwing down the ledger, he said, “That ends the account! That ends the account! Now I’m truly not your subject.” Brandishing his rod, he fought his way out of the Region of Darkness.


While our Monkey King was fighting his way out of the city, he was suddenly caught in a clump of grass and stumbled. Waking up with a start, he realized that it was all a dream (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 139).

Sun’s ability to use the weapon as a disembodied spirit implies that it has some power of astral projection and entanglement (i.e. it goes where his soul goes). However, to my knowledge, this only happens once in the story, and the novel clearly demonstrates that he can’t use the weapon if it is physically taken away from him. [4] This is likely another inconsistency from oral storytelling.

Fig. 2 – Monkey holds his staff as he strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

D. Multiplication

The weapon is shown capable of creating manifold copies of itself. For example, in ch. 4, Monkey multiplies his staff to accommodate his monstrous, multi-armed form while fighting Prince Nezha: “Dear Great Sage! He shouted, ‘Change!’ and he too transformed himself into a creature with three heads and six arms. One wave of the golden-hooped rod and it became three staffs, which were held with six hands” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 155). Later in ch. 50, he rains staves down on a demonic army.

Using the tip of his lance to point at the ground, the demon king shouted for the little imps to attack together. All those brazen fiends, wielding swords, scimitars, staffs, and spears, rushed forward at once and surrounded the Great Sage Sun completely. Entirely undaunted, Pilgrim only cried, “Welcome! Welcome! That’s exactly what I want!” He used his golden-hooped rod to cover his front and back, to parry blows east and west, but that gang of fiends refused to be beaten back. Growing more agitated, Pilgrim tossed his rod up into the air, shouting, “Change!” It changed immediately into iron rods by the hundreds and thousands; like flying snakes and soaring serpents, they descended onto the fiends from the air” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 372).

E. Lock-Picking

Sun demonstrates the staff’s magic lock-picking ability in ch. 25.

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 468-469).

Admittedly, this passage could be read two ways: 1) The staff opens the lock; 2) Monkey uses the staff as a conduit for his own lock-picking magic. But I’m choosing the first interpretation as this ability was likely influenced by Saint Mulian unlocking the gates of hell with his staff. [5]

F. Transformation

In ch. 46, during a competition of Buddhist and Daoist prognostication, Sun magically disguises himself as a Daoist lad’s ritual master and convinces the boy to let him shave his head: “He changed his golden-hooped rod into a sharp razor, and hugging the lad, he said, ‘Darling, try to endure the pain for a moment. Don’t make any noise! I’ll shave your head.’ In a little while, the lad’s hair was completely shorn” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In ch. 65, Sun turns the staff into a drill in order to escape from a pair of magic cymbals, using the tool to bore a hole in the horn of a dragon that was just able to pierce the seam: “Marvelous Great Sage! He changed the golden-hooped rod into a steel drill and drilled a hole on the tip of the horn. Transforming his body into the size of a mustard seed, he stuck himself inside the hole and yelled, ‘Pull the horn out! Pull the horn out!'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218).

G. Sentience

When the Dragon Queen originally suggests giving the pillar to Monkey, she tells her husband: “These past few days the iron has been glowing with a strange and lovely light [fig. 3]. Could this be a sign that it should be taken out to meet this sage?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). This might imply the weapon was aware of its new master’s imminent arrival. Later in ch. 75, Sun recites a poem speaking of the staff’s desire for flight.

Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men.
Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly,
Emitting bright strands of five-colored mist.
Enlightened Monkey took it back to the mount
To experience its pow’r for boundless change.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).

The phase “wanting to fly” (yao feiteng, 要飛騰) could be read as a metaphor for yearning to be released from the dragon treasury and/or a call for adventure. Add to this the staff’s ability to follow Sun’s wishes to grow, shrink, multiply, change form, and pick locks. Therefore, the novel depicts the staff having a certain amount of awareness. [6]

Fig. 3 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).

II. Conclusion

Journey to the West (1592) describes the Monkey King’s iron staff having the magic power to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


1) I have changed Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) dry rendering “Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod” to the more pleasant one based on W.J.F. Jenner. Also, Yu’s original translation says “13,500 pounds”. However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lb.

2) Here, Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating 10 Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates it in chapters six (vol. 1, p. 181) and 61 (vol. 3, p. 157).

3). For example, Monkey relies on Zhu Bajie to fight Sha Wujing when they first come across him at the Flowing-Sands River. This is when Sun admits his weakness to water:

“Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim with a laugh, “in this case I’ve really nothing to brag about, for I’m just not comfortable doing business in water. If all I do is walk around down there, I still have to make the magic sign and recite the water-repelling spell before I can move anywhere. Or else I have to change into a water creature like a fish, shrimp, crab, or turtle before going in. If it were a matter of matching wits in the high mountains or up in the clouds, I know enough to deal with the strangest and most difficult situation. But doing business in water somewhat cramps my style!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 423-424).

4) The rhinoceros demon sucks it away with Laozi’s magic steel bracelet in ch. 50 and 51. A lion spirit uses a magic wind to steal the weapons of all three pilgrims in ch. 88. In both cases, Monkey resorts to trickery to retrieve the physical staff from their respective mountain strongholds.

5) One section of Mulian’s tale reads: “With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls, / On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open” (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

6) The idea of sentient weapons is certainly not unique to Journey to the West considering that the ancient Chinese ascribed souls to noted swords. For example, Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-c.) described famed Spring and Autumn period blacksmith Ou Yezi‘s (歐冶子) treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).


Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing his Mother From the Underworld With Pictures, One Scroll, With Preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

The Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), a Catalog of Chinese Gods

I recently learned about an interesting website called the Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), which catalogs information and pictures for Chinese gods from all over the world. There are currently 2,000 listings and counting.

It is based on the work of religious scholar Keith Stevens (d. 2016), who wrote the amazing Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons (Collins & Brown, 1997) (fig. 1). I recently volunteered to help the project. So far, I’ve written two articles (see reference no. W1001 and W1011) and updated two other existing listings with information and pictures (see the bottom of W8620 and W9305).

Fig. 1 – My well-worn personal copy of Chinese Gods (larger version).

Due to the great number of listings, there are no direct links. Instead, the site has adopted a somewhat confusing (but necessary) cataloging system based around reference numbers, pinyin, Mandarin, and Wade-Giles. However, it’s easy to use once you get used to it. For example, if you were going to search for Sanqing, the “Three Pure Ones“, using, say, Pinyin, I recommend first getting the reference number (RefNo). 

Deities —> Tabular Listing of Xian Shen Deities —> Field: Pinyin —> Type: Contains —> Value: San qing (you may have to play around with the spacing like I did here) —> Filter —> Then look for the correct listing (since other listings mentioning them might appear in the list) —> ☰ —> copy the “RefNo”, in this case W5540 (fig. 2) —> Deities —> Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar —> Field: RefNo —> Type: Contains —> Value: W5540 —> Filter (fig. 3) —> The listing (fig. 4)

If you know the Mandarin or Wade-Giles for the deity you are looking for, the process would be similar. You would just need to change the field to “Mandarin” or “Wade-Giles”. You could just jump to “Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar” to search using pinyin, mandarin, and Wade-Giles, but it’s been my experience that a different listing will pop up first based on a higher RefNo or Romanized spelling. First finding the reference number seems to be the easiest method for me.

I can’t recommend this website enough. New gods, as well as new stories or beliefs associated with more established deities, are appearing all the time, so it is very important to catalog everything as soon as new information becomes available. If you would like to volunteer in some way, please contact Ronni Pinsler using the “contact” form on the BOXS website.

Fig. 2 – How to acquire the reference number (RefNo) (larger version). Fig. 3 – How to navigate to the listing (larger version). Fig. 4 – The listing as seen from the top of the page (larger version).

My Qitian Dasheng Monkey King Talisman Block

In August of 2020 I happened upon an online listing for a carved wooden talisman block bearing Sun Wukong’s divine, rebellious title Qitian Dasheng (齊天大聖) (fig. 1). The seller was located in Singapore, so I asked my local friend to meet with them to make sure it was legitimate. Two weeks later I had the block in hand (thank you Antz). It measures 8.5 x 2.125 x 1 in (21.59 x 5.397 x 2.54 cm) and is made from some kind of light-colored, smooth-grained wood. The face contains a series of intricately carved Chinese characters and magic symbols.

Fig. 1 – The talisman block and a print (larger image). The image has been enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 2 – The talisman legend (larger version). See here for a version without the numbers.

I. Meaning

Here I will explain the various symbols as I understand them (fig. 2). I am by no means an expert, so I am open to comment. I’d like to thank members of the “Talismans of Asia” Heritage Group (亞洲符咒文化資訊網) on Facebook for their suggestions.

1. 齊天宮 (Qitian gong) – The “Equaling Heaven Temple”, a house of worship in Singapore dedicated to Monkey. The characters are written backwards according to traditional fashion.

2. These three checkmark-shaped symbols refer to the 三清 (Sanqing, “Three Pure Ones“), the three highest gods of Daoism. An informant also told me that they can represent heaven, earth, and man.

3. 奉齊天大聖 (Feng Qitian dasheng) – “Revere the Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, the main deity of the Qitian Temple.

4. These barbwire-like designs may represent symbolic weapons of some kind. [1]

5. 六甲 (Liujia) – Refers to the “Six Jia“, protector spirits of Daoism. They are grouped with the Six Ding (Mugitani, 2008).

6. 六丁 (Liuding) – Refers to the “Six Ding” spirits.

7. 令雷 (Ling lei) – “Commanding thunder” refers to the 雷法 (Leifa, “Thunder Ritual”), a corpus of ritual magic that enables the user to command heavenly beings to exorcize malevolent forces (Reiter, 2010). These characters are usually reversed, 雷令 (Lei ling). This essentially commands the Ding and Jia spirits to execute the order (see #9).

8. 甲將軍 (Jia jiangjun) – “Jia generals”, a reference to the Six Jia spirits.

9. 扶身保命 (Fushen baoming) – “Support the body and save life” is the order to be executed by the Ding and Jia spirits.

10. 爪 (zhao/zhua) 罡 (gang) 卩(jie) – Two halves of the character for 印 (yin, “print”), referring to the talisman, sandwich that for “firm”. 罡 (gang) increases the intensity of the command (#9).

11. This angular symbol is the 符胆 (fu dan), the talisman’s locus of power. [2]

II. Use

Unlike Western stamps which are pressed face down onto paper, the paper itself is pressed onto the face of the talisman block like Japanese woodblock prints (Leffman, 2020). This enables a popular temple to mass produce protective talismans without having to handwrite each one. The talisman is then consecrated with a spell and/or blood from a tangki (童乩) spirit-medium.


1) See #17 in Chan, 2014, p. 35.

2) Again, see #17 in Chan, 2014, p. 35.


Chan, M., Goh, R., Choo, P., & Tan, B. (2014). Tangki War Magic: The Virtuality of Spirit Warfare and the Actuality of Peace. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 58(1), 25-46. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

Leffman, D. (2020). Paper Horses: Woodblock Prints of Chinese Gods from 1930s Beijing. [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from

Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol. 1 & 2 (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.

Reiter, F. C. (2010). Taoist Thunder Magic (五雷法), Illustrated with the Example of the Divine Protector Chao Kung-ming 趙公明. Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 160(1), 121-154. Retrieved from

Archive #19 – The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (1981)

Not many people know that there are three main editions of Journey to the West from the Ming Dynasty. The best known is the standard 1592 edition, Newly Printed, Illustrated, Deluxe and Large Character, Journey to the West (Xin ke chu xiang guan ban da zi Xiyou ji, 新刻出像官板大字西遊記) in 20 rolls and 100 chapters (99 in its original form). The second is the “Zhu edition”, Newly printed, Completely Illustrated, Chronicle of Deliverances in Sanzang of the Tang’s Journey to the West (Xin qie quan xiang Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi ni (e) zhuan, 新鍥全像唐三藏西遊释尼(厄)傳) in ten rolls (with three to ten chapters each) by Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Yangcheng (羊城, i.e. Guangzhou). The third is the “Yang edition”, Newly Printed, Complete Biography of Sanzang’s Career (Xin qie Sanzang chu shen quan zhuan, 新鍥三藏出身全傳) in four rolls and 40 chapters by Yang Zhihe (陽至和) of Qiyun (齊雲).

For decades, various scholars have debated the relationship between these three editions. Points raised in this discussion suggest the following: the 1592 edition is based on Yang; Zhu and Yang are based on the 1592 edition; Yang is based on Zhu and the 1592 edition came later, using Zhu as a source; Zhu is based on Yang; Zhu and Yang predate the 1592 edition but all three are based on an earlier, extinct version; Yang is based on Zhu, which is based on the 1592 edition; and the 1592 edition is based on the yang version, which is based on the extinct version.

Koss (1981) performs an in-depth analysis of all three editions, showing that the 1592 edition is an expansion of Zhu and Yang is a later abridgement of the former. Zhu being the oldest, with portions likely predating 1450, is based on its earlier style phrasing and chapter structure; the use of vernacular language with simplistic two-person dialogue and fewer and less literary poems, suggesting a reliance on oral literature; and Zhu illustrations serving as the basis for many pictures from the 1592 edition. This two volume tome is a fascinating, though extremely technical, read for anyone interested in the development of Journey to the West.

An image from the Zhu edition (larger version).

Dissertation link


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


Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (Vol. 1 and 2). (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8112445)

Archive #18 – Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018)


An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.

Book link


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


Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Origin of the Pregnancy Episode in Chapter 53

The 2018 film Monkey King 3 (Xiyouji: Nu er guo, 西遊記·女兒國; lit: “Journey to the West: Woman Kingdom”) sees the pilgrims enter a magic portal to discover a hidden land peopled entirely by women. At one point, Tripitaka jumps into a river to retrieve the scattered words of a sentient piece of paper with information revealing how they can escape this female land; and in Sha Wujing’s attempt to save him, both inadvertently swallow water. The resulting splashes enter the mouth of Zhu Bajie sleeping nearby. Sometime later, all three pilgrims discover that they are pregnant due to drinking from the river (fig. 1-3). The queen of the Woman Kingdom sends Sun Wukong to retrieve magic water to abort the births from a cross-dressing immortal. However, upon his return, Monkey learns that they have decided to keep their babies. Despite this, he uses fixing magic to freeze them in place and gives them the water so that nothing will keep the pilgrims from their quest.

This event from the movie is a very loose adaptation of chapter 53 of Journey to the West (1592). In this article, I describe the chapter and suggest that it is based on a story from Hindu religious literature in which an ancient king becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. I will show that the version appearing in the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE) likely influenced Journey to the West as other events from the Hindu epic appear in the Chinese novel. I will also show that an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas (books) discovered in Xinjiang, China names the parva containing the king’s story, suggesting the tale may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.

Fig. 1 – The Monkey King 3 movie poster showing a pregnant Tripitaka and the Woman Kingdom queen (larger version). Fig. 2 – The Zhu Bajie variant (larger version). Fig. 3 – The (beardless) Sha Wujing variant (larger version).

1. Episode from the novel

After the defeat of the Rhinoceros demon, the pilgrims continue their journey to the west by taking a river ferry. Upon reaching the other side, Tripitaka takes note of the clear water and asks Zhu Bajie to fetch him a bowl full. Both drink from the river, but a short time later they experience horrible abdominal pain and their stomachs swell as if something was growing inside. They seek help from an old woman at a nearby inn, but she simply laughs and calls her friends to come see the spectacle. Her jovial attitude changes, however, once an enraged Wukong grabs hold and offers to spare her life in exchange for some hot water to calm their stomachs. But she explains it won’t help, for they have drunk from the “Child-and-Mother River” (Zimu he,子母河) in the Woman Kingdom of Western Liang (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國), where the sole female inhabitants, according to custom, drink the water to become pregnant upon reaching their 20th year. After hearing the news, both Tripitaka and Bajie panic. Monkey and Sha Wujing take the opportunity to tease Bajie, frightening him with the possibility of a painful, unnatural birth or some natal sickness that would threaten the baby. [1] When asked for a cure, the old woman reveals that the only way to end the pregnancy is to bribe the True Immortal Compliant (Ruyi zhen xian, 如意真仙) (fig. 4), who lords over the Abortion Spring (Luo tai quan, 落胎泉) in the Abbey of Immortal Assembly (Ju xian an, 聚仙庵), formerly known as the Child Destruction Cave (Po er dong, 破兒洞), on the Male-Undoing Mountain (Jie yang shan, 解陽山). Wukong travels to the mountain but is forced to fight when the immortal, the Bull Demon King’s brother, attacks him to avenge Red Boy’s subjugation by Guanyin. Though weaker than Monkey, the immortal’s weapon, an “As-you-wish” golden hook (Ruyi jin gouzi, 如意金鉤子), proves hard to ward off while trying to retrieve the needed water. Wukong ultimately resorts to trickery by luring his foe into battle while Wujing obtains the water. In the end, the immortal is defeated but shown mercy, and the unwanted pregnancies are aborted, being dissolved and passed as fleshy lumps in bowel movements (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 31-46). [2]

Fig. 4 – A drawing of the True Immortal Compliant holding his golden hook as he sits next to a well marked “Abortion Spring” (larger version). Artist unknown. The weapon is here depicted as a hooked sword. Bribes of silk, livestock, and alcohol can be seen at the immortal’s feet.

2. Origin

2.1. Hindu religious literature

This episode shares similarities with a story about the ancient Indian King Yuvanasva (a.k.a. Yuvanashva/Yuvanaswa) (fig. 5) who becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. The tale is well known, appearing in Hindu religious texts like the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE), the Vishnu Purana (400 BCE to 900 CE) and the Bhagavata Purana (8th to 10th-c. CE). [3] The version appearing in the Vana Parva (3rd book) of the Mahabharata reads:

Lomasa said, ‘Hear with attention, O king! how the name of Mandhata belonging to that monarch of mighty soul hath come to be celebrated throughout all the worlds. Yuvanaswa, the ruler of the earth, was sprung from Ikshvaku‘s race. That protector of the earth performed many sacrificial rites noted for magnificent gifts. And the most excellent of all virtuous men performed a thousand times the ceremony of sacrificing a horse. And he also performed other sacrifices of the highest order, wherein he made abundant gifts. But that saintly king had no son. And he of mighty soul and rigid vows made over to his ministers the duties of the state, and became a constant resident of the woods. And he of cultured soul devoted himself to the pursuits enjoined in the sacred writ. And once upon a time, that protector of men, O king! had observed a fast. And he was suffering from the pangs of hunger and his inner soul seemed parched with thirst. And (in this state) he entered the hermitage of Bhrigu. On that very night, O king of kings! the great saint who was the delight of Bhrigu’s race, had officiated in a religious ceremony, with the object that a son might be born to Saudyumni [“Son of Sudyumna”, i.e. Yuvanasva]. O king of kings! at the spot stood a large jar filled with water, consecrated with the recitation of sacred hymns, and which had been previously deposited there. And the water was endued with the virtue that the wife of Saudyumni would by drinking the same, bring forth a god-like son. Those mighty saints had deposited the jar on the altar and had gone to sleep, having been fatigued by keeping up the night. And as Saudyumni passed them by, his palate was dry, and he was suffering greatly from thirst. And the king was very much in need of water to drink. And he entered that hermitage and asked for drink. And becoming fatigued, he cried in feeble voice, proceeding from a parched throat, which resembled the weak inarticulate utterance of a bird. And his voice reached nobody’s ears. Then the king beheld the jar filled with water. And he quickly ran towards it, and having drunk the water, put the jar down. And as the water was cool, and as the king had been suffering greatly from thirst, the draught of water relieved the sagacious monarch and appeased his thirst. Then those saints together with him of ascetic wealth, awoke from sleep; and all of them observed that the water of the jar had gone. Thereupon they met together and began to enquire as to who might have done it. Then Yuvanaswa truthfully admitted that it was his act. Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee. Having performed severe austerities, I infused the virtue of my religious acts in this water, that a son might be born to thee. O saintly king of mighty valour and physical strength! A son would have been born to thee of exceeding strength and valour, and strengthened by austerities, and who would have sent by his bravery even Indra to the abode of the god of death. It was in this manner, O king! that this water had been prepared by me. By drinking this water, O king, thou hast done what was not at all right. But it is impossible now for us to turn back the accident which hath happened. Surely what thou hast done must have been the fiat of Fate. Since thou, O great king, being a thirst hast drunk water prepared with sacred hymns, and filled with the virtue of my religious labours, thou must bring forth out of thy own body a son of the character described above. To that end we shall perform a sacrifice for thee, of wonderful effect so that, valorous as thou art, thou wilt bring forth a son equal to Indra. Nor with thou experience any trouble on account of the labour pains.’ Then when one hundred years had passed away, a son shining as the sun pierced the left side of the king endowed with a mighty soul, and came forth. And the son was possessed of mighty strength. Nor did Yuvanaswa die—which itself was strange. Then Indra of mighty strength came to pay him a visit. And the deities enquired of the great Indra, ‘What is to be sucked by this boy?’ Then Indra introduced his own forefinger into his mouth. And when the wielder of the thunderbolt said, ‘He will suck me,’ the dwellers of heaven together with Indra christened the boy Mandhata, (literally, Me he shall suck). Then the boy having tasted the forefinger extended by Indra, became possessed of mighty strength, and he grew thirteen cubits, O king. And O great king! the whole of sacred learning together with the holy science of arms, was acquired by that masterful boy, who gained all that knowledge by the simple and unassisted power of his thought. And all at once, the bow celebrated under the name of Ajagava and a number of shafts made of horn, together with an impenetrable coat of mail, came to his possession on the very same day, O scion of Bharata‘s race! And he was placed on the throne by Indra himself and he conquered the three worlds in a righteous way; as Vishnu did by his three strides (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384). 

Both events involve men who quench their thirst with water, not realizing that it has the magic power to bestow pregnancy. Tripitaka and Bajie drink from a river which is specifically used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce, while King Yuvanasva drinks ritual water meant to give his wife a son. Additionally, both books state drinking the water is inappropriate, followed by a description of its child-bestowing properties. Journey to the West reads: “That water your master drank is not the best, for the river is called Child-and-Mother River … Only after reaching her twentieth year would someone from this region dare go and drink that river’s water, for she would feel the pain of conception soon after she took a drink” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 39). The Mahabharata reads: “Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee’” (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384).

Fig. 5 – King Yuvanasva (center) holding the vessel of ritual water. From the cover of The Pregnant King (2008) by Devdutt Pattanaik (larger version). The book is a reimagining of the king’s story.

2.2. Mahabharata elements in Journey to the West

The possibility of King Yuvanasva’s story influencing Journey to the West is quite high as other events from the Mahabharata are known to appear in the novel. For example, Subbaraman (2002) reveals striking similarities between an event from the Adi Parva (1st book) and chapters 47 to 48 of the Chinese classic. In the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers and their mother Kunti escape assassination and disguise themselves as Brahmins (Hindu priests) traveling the road. They eventually seek shelter in a village plagued by the rakshasa Baka, who offers safety from foreign invaders in exchange for rice, livestock, and a human sacrifice. Those who try to defy this fate risk seeing their entire family eaten along with themselves. The Brahmin home in which the Pandavas stay has been chosen for that year’s sacrifice. Kunti instead sends her son Bhima, the most powerful of the brothers, in place of the householder’s son and daughter. In the end, the warrior kills Baka with his mighty strength. In Journey to the West, the pilgrims (Buddhist monks) stop for lodging in a village afflicted by the demon Great King of Miraculous Power (Ling gan dawang, 靈感大王), who sends clouds and rain in exchange for offerings of livestock and sacrifices of virgin boys and girls. It is impossible to defy this fate as he has memorized the personal details for every inhabitant. The Buddhist home in which the group stays has been chosen for the sacrifice. Wukong and Bajie instead take the place of the respective son and daughter (fig. 6). In the end, the Great King is defeated with the help of Guanyin (Subbaraman, 2002, pp. 11-18).

Furthermore, my own research shows that the tale of Garuda from the Mahabharata influenced the Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), an ancient demon king and spiritual uncle of the Buddha appearing in chapters 74 to 77 of Journey to the West

Fig. 6 – An 1864 woodblock print by Yoshitoshi depicting the battle between Monkey, Bajie, and the Great King of Miraculous Powers (larger version). From the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

2.3. The Mahabharata in China

Interestingly, the earliest known list of Mahabharata parvas and sub-parvas was discovered in Kizil in what is now Xinjiang, China. This list appears in the Spitzer Manuscript (c. 200-300 CE), a Hindo-Buddhist philosophical palm-leaf manuscript written in Sanskrit. Schlingloff (1969) compares the list with the known books of the completed epic (fig. 7 and 8), noting the absence of some parvas, which indicates that the Mahabharata was still in a state of development at the time the list was compiled. But it’s important to note that the Vana Parva (a.k.a. Aranya Parva/Aranyaka Parva), the book containing the story of King Yuvanasva, is named in the manuscript (Schlingloff, 1969, p. 336). This suggests the story of the monarch’s water-induced pregnancy may have been present in China centuries prior to Journey to the West.

Fig. 7 – Part 1 of a diagram comparing the 100 sub-parvas and 18 parvas of the completed Mahabharata and the Spitzer Manuscript list (larger version). Take note of the highlighted words showing the inclusion of Vana Parva, here called “Aranyakam”. Fig. 8 – Part 2 of the diagram (larger version). From Schlingloff, 1969, pp. 336-337.

3. Conclusion

Chapter 53 tells how Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant after drinking river water used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce. This is similar to a story from Hindu religious literature in which King Yuvanasva becomes pregnant after drinking ritual water meant for his wife. Journey to the West is known to include story elements from the Mahabharata, which means the version of the monarch’s tale from the Varna Parva (3rd book) likely influenced the Chinese novel. The Varna Parva is named in an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas discovered in what is now Xinjiang, China. This suggests the story may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.


1) For example, Wukong tells Bajie: “When the time comes, you may have a gaping hole at your armpit and the baby will crawl out” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 35). This likely references ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, just like Yu the Great and the historical Buddha.

2) I have slightly modified the translation of names in Wu and Yu (2012).

3) See here for the version appearing in the Vishnu Purana. See here for the Bhagavata Purana


Roy, P. C. (1884). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Translated Into English Prose: Vana Parva. Calcutta: Bharata Press. 

Schlingloff, D. (1969). The Oldest Extant Parvan-List of the Mahābhārata. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 89(2), 334-338. doi:10.2307/596517

Subbaraman, R. (2002). Beyond the Question of the Monkey Imposter: Indian Influence on the Chinese Novel The Journey to the West. Sino-Platonic Papers, 114, 1-35. Retrieved from

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 3. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Origin of the Six-Eared Macaque and the Character’s Influence on Black Myth: Wukong

The Six-Eared Macaque (Liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴) (fig. 1) is one of the most interesting villains that Sun Wukong faces in Journey to the West. He is an example of the evil twin archetype from world mythology. But unlike modern media which sometimes differentiates evil twins with goatees,—think of Evil Spock from the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror“—this malicious spirit is an exact duplicate of Monkey with the same features, voice, clothing, and fighting abilities. He’s so similar in fact that no one in the cosmos, save the Buddha, can differentiate him from Wukong. But who is he really and where did he come from?

In this article, I suggest that the Six-Eared Macaque is based on Buddhist concepts of mind and nonduality (Sk: advaya; Ch: bu’er, 不二). In addition, I discuss the character’s origin within the book as a former friend of the Monkey King, explain the significance of the six ears to Buddhism, and detail references to him in a 17th-century sequel to Journey to the West. Finally, I describe the character’s influence on the upcoming Chinese video game Black Myth: Wukong (2023).

Fig. 1 – The Six-Eared Macaque by Zhang Ji (larger version here).

1. Description of the episode

In chapter 56, Monkey magically disguises himself as a 16-year-old monk and comes to the rescue of Tripitaka, who had been captured by mountain bandits demanding money for safe passage. The bandits let the priest go under the pretense that his young disciple has money. However, Wukong murders the two bandit chiefs with his iron cudgel, causing the remaining thirty or so men to flee in terror. That night, the pilgrims find lodging with an old couple. But they soon discover that the couple’s son is one of the bandits routed by Monkey earlier in the evening. The son returns home with his gang late at night and, upon learning of the monks, hatches a plan to attack them in their sleep. But the old man alerts the pilgrims to the danger and allows them to escape out a back gate. The bandits take chase, catching up to them at sunrise, only to meet their death at Wukong’s hands. Monkey finds the old couple’s son and beheads him as punishment for disrespecting his parents. All of this killing horrifies Tripitaka, who recites the tight-fillet spell (jin gu zhou, 緊箍咒) and banishes Wukong from the group.

In chapter 57, Wukong travels to Guanyin’s island paradise to complain about Tripitaka casting him out from the pilgrimage. He asks the goddess if he can be released from monkhood and return to his old life, but she instead uses her eyes of wisdom to foresee a future event in which Monkey will need to rescue his master. Meanwhile, Tripitaka asks his remaining disciples to find him food and drink. However, in their absence, Wukong attacks the priest, knocking him unconscious with the staff and stealing the group’s belongings containing the travel rescript (tongguan wendie, 通關文牒). [1] Sha Wujing is sent to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to retrieve their things, but Monkey refuses to return the rescript as he wishes to win all of the merit and fame by finishing the quest on his own. Wujing points out that the Buddha will only give the holy texts to the chosen scripture seeker. Wukong, however, shows that he’s prepared for this outcome by parading doppelgangers of Tripitaka, Zhu Bajie, Sha, and the white dragon horse. Wujing kills his double (which is revealed to be a transformed monkey spirit) and attempts to attack Monkey but is forced to retreat. He flees to Guanyin only to attack Wukong once more when he finds him sitting next to the goddess. Guanyin stays his hand and explains that Monkey has been with her the entire time. She then sends them both back to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to investigate the double.

In chapter 58, upon seeing the impostor, Wukong rushes forward to attack the double, who defends himself with his “Acquiescent Iron Pole Arm” (Suixin tie gan bing, 隨心鐵桿兵). [2] The two battle their way through the sky to Guanyin’s island paradise in order to determine who is the real Monkey. But when she attempts to weed out the impostor by reciting the tight-fillet spell, both Wukong’s drop to the floor in pain. In the face of failure, Guanyin sends them up to the celestial realm in the hopes that the deities who fought Monkey centuries ago will be able to tell one from the other. Both of them fight their way into heaven and gain an audience with the Jade Emperor, but not even the imp-reflecting mirror (zhao yao jing, 照妖鏡) [3] can tell them apart. The two then battle their way back to earth, and when Tripitaka’s use of the tight-fillet spell fails, they fight down to the underworld. There, the judges are unable to find the impostor in their ledgers, but Investigative Hearing (Diting, 諦聽), the omniscient celestial mount of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, finally solves the riddle. However, the creature is reluctant to reveal the false Wukong for fear he will use his powers to disrupt the underworld. The bodhisattva therefore sends them to the Western Paradise in India to stand before the Buddha, who instantly recognizes the impostor. The Enlightened One gives Guanyin a short lecture on four spiritual primates that fall outside of the ten categories of mortal and immortal life in the cosmos: 1) the intelligent stone monkey (ling ming shihou, 靈明石猴, i.e. Sun Wukong); 2) the red-buttocked baboon (chikao mahou, 赤尻馬猴); 3) the bare-armed gibbon (tongbi yuanhou, 通臂猿猴); and 4) the six-eared macaque (liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴). When the Buddha identifies the doppelganger as the fourth kind, the fake Monkey attempts to flee in the form of a bee but is trapped under the Enlightened One’s alms bowl. In the end, Wukong kills the macaque with his cudgel.

2. Origin

2.1. Background in the novel

Lam (2005) reveals that the Six-Eared Macaque is actually Monkey’s sworn brother, the Macaque King (Mihou wang, 獼猴王) (fig. 2), from his younger days as a demon (p. 168). [4] He explains:

The latter’s other agnomen, “the Great Sage Informing Wind” (Tongfeng dasheng, 通風大聖 …) [5] suggests further that its ears are as good as the six-eared macaque’s in information gathering. Despite all these archaic or anachronistic traces, however, Monkey never comes to recognize the six-eared macaque as his old sworn brother as is the case with the Bull Demon King” (Lam, 2005, p. 168).

This should come as no surprise considering the spirit copies Monkey’s life, including his early years as a king. Interestingly, Wukong is a macaque himself.

The novel doesn’t mention the original home of the Macaque King, only that Wukong “made extensive visits to various heroes and warriors” while “tour[ing] the four seas and disport[ing] himself in a thousand mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). The Macaque King could live on anyone of these thousand mountains.

Fig. 2 – A Zbrush rendering of the Macaque King by Zcool user Nerv99 (larger version here).

2.2. Significance of the six ears

Yu suggests the macaque’s six ears come from the Buddhist saying “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear [i.e., the third pair or person]” (fa bu zhuan liu er, 法不傳六耳) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 387 n. 7). He continues: “This idiom is already used in chapter 2 when Monkey assured Patriarch Subhodi that he could receive the oral transmission of the secret formula for realized immortality because ‘there is no third party [sixth ear] present'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 387 n. 7). This phrase refers to a closely guarded secret that must be kept at all cost, something that can only be passed from a qualified teacher to an initiated disciple.

In this case, the Six-Eared Macaque is the second set of ears, for the Buddha states: “[E]ven if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115). Who knows how long this creature listens in on Monkey’s life before he makes an appearance. Perhaps he hears Subhuti’s secret teachings. This might explain why the impostor has similar abilities to our hero.

As the embodiment of the “sixth ear”, the Six-Eared Macaque also represents heterodoxy (waidao, 外道; pangmen, 旁們, lit: “side door”), for someone eavesdropping on esoteric secrets without full initiation into a tradition would have an incomplete understanding. And any supernatural gifts derived from subsequent practice, though powerful as they may be, would just be pale imitations of that achieved by true disciples. This concept is featured in chapter 46 when three animal spirits-turned-Daoist priests challenge Wukong to contests of torture, but each dies because their magic is not as strong as Monkey’s. The novel stresses this is because their training was only partially completed under a teacher. [6] Wukong is more powerful because he completed his training under Subhuti.

2.3. The Ramayana vs. Buddhist philosophy

Hoong (2004) claims the concept of two identical apes fighting each other “evolved from the well-known episode of the Ramayana where Rama was unable to distinguish between [Vali] and the monkey king Sugriva … when the twin brothers were fighting hand to hand” (p. 36 n. 32). This is an enticing suggestion, and indeed the episode is paraphrased in a collection of Buddhist jataka tales translated into Chinese in the third-century, [7] showing that the story existed in China for centuries prior to the publication of the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. However, I should point out that the jataka doesn’t mention the pugilistic primates being identical. In fact, they’re not even brothers. It simply reads, “The following day the monkey fought with his uncle. The [human] king bent the bow and took out arrows … Though far off, the uncle shuddered with horror. He was mighty afraid. He wandered about [a while] and ran away” (Mair, 1989, p. 677). That’s not to say the author-compiler of Journey to the West wasn’t influenced by the tale and independently came upon the idea of twin monkeys. It’s just that I think there are other avenues open to research.

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and his impostor battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

In Chapter 58, the Buddha gives his congregation a sermon on nonduality, discussing existence and nonexistence, form and formlessness, and emptiness and nonemptiness. Just as the battle between Monkey and his double erupts on Spirit Vulture Mountain (fig. 3), the Buddha tells his congregation, “You are all of one mind, but take a look at two Minds in competition and strife arriving here” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113). “One mind” (Sk: ekacitta; Ch: yixin, 一心) is a high-level philosophy and core tenet of many Buddhist schools that refers to a tranquil, immovable mind that encompasses nonduality (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 1031-1032; Huang, 2005, p. 68). “Two minds” (erxin, 二心) refers to the dichotomy of the “true mind” (zhenxin, 眞/真心), “the original, simple, pure, natural mind of all creatures, [or] the Buddha-mind” and the “illusionary mind” (wangxin, 妄心), “which results in complexity and confusion” (Soothill and Hodous, 1937/2006, pp. 24-25). A poem in chapter 58 specifically associates two minds with confusion. The first two lines read: If one has two minds, disasters he’ll breed; / He’ll guess and conjecture both far and near” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113).

It’s important to remember that Wukong is an embodiment of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. [8] As his double, the Six-Eared Macaque is also a Mind Monkey. Therefore, I suggest the battle between these twin primates is an allegory for the struggle between the true and illusionary minds within not just our hero but also readers of Journey to the West. After all, Wukong is the true Monkey, while his double, the fake Monkey, lives under the fantasy that he can take the Great Sage’s place and finish the quest on his own. Furthermore, given chapter 58’s emphasis on nonduality, I argue Monkey killing the Six-Eared Macaque in the end represents the blossoming of one mind/true mind by extinguishing the illusionary mind. This fits with Sun’s (2018) suggestion that the killing “is an action of eliminating the monster in him [Wukong], indicating that he is getting closer to achieving Buddhahood at this point in the journey” (p. 25). [9]

3. Appearance in other literature

The Six-Eared Macaque is mentioned by name twice and referenced once in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, c. 1640), a 16-chapter sequel and addendum to the original novel taking place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62. In the story, Monkey is trapped in a dream world where he wanders from one disjointed adventure to the next searching for a magic weapon needed to clear the pilgrims’ path to India. In chapter ten, he attempts to leave a magic tower of mirrors and becomes hopelessly entangled in a net of sentient red threads that adapt to any transformation he uses to escape. An elderly man claiming to be Sun Wukong, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, comes to his rescue by snapping the threads for him. But upon hearing the man’s name, Monkey lashes out at him with his weapon, exclaiming: “You rascally six-eared ape! Have you come to trick me again? Take a look at my cudgel!” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 87). But after the old man vanishes in a flash, Wukong realizes that he was saved by his very own spirit.

In chapter 12, a blind court singer plays a tune recounting events from the original novel for the enjoyment of Tripitaka and a foreign king. A section of the song goes: “A pair of Sage Monkeys deceived Guanyin” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 104). [10]

In chapter 15, after giving up the quest and becoming a commander for the foreign king, Tripitaka starts amassing an army. Sun Wukong is listed among the generals, but because Monkey is investigating his master’s change of heart, he instead presents himself as his brother, the Six-Eared Macaque:

The name “Great General Sun Wukong” was called. The Tang Priest blanched and gazed below his platform. It happened that Monkey had mixed amongst the army for the past three days in the form of a six-eared monkey soldier. When he heard the three words “Sun Wukong” he leaped out of formation and knelt on the ground, saying, “Little General Sun Wukong is transporting supplies and couldn’t be present. I’m his brother Sun Wuhuan [孫悟幻, “Monkey Awakened to Fantasy”] , and I wish to take his place in battle. In this I dare disobey the Commander’s order.”

The Tang Priest said, “Sun Wuhuan, what is your origin? Tell me quickly, and I’ll spare your life.”

Hopping and dancing, Monkey said:

In the old days I was a monster,
Who took the name of Monkey.
After the Great Sage left the Tang Priest,
I became his close relation by way of marriage.
There’s no need to ask my name,
I’m the Six-eared Monkey, Great General Sun Wuhuan.

The Tang Priest said, “The six-eared ape used to be Monkey’s enemy. Now he’s forgotten the old grudge and become generous. He must be a good man.” He ordered [the minor general] White Banner to give Sun Wuhuan a suit of the iron armor of the vanguard and appointed him “Vanguard General to Destroy Entrenchment” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 122).

4. Black Myth: Wukong

Black Myth: Wukong (Hei shenhua: Wukong, 黑神話:悟空, 2023) is an upcoming action RPG by the independent Chinese developer Game Science (Youxi Kexue, 遊戲科學) (Adler, 2020; Skrebels, 2020). A trailer with 13 minutes of gameplay was released August 20th and has garnered over 6.7 million views on YouTube alone (as of 11/4/20) (video 1). It opens on an aged, furry and squint-faced, long-nailed monk (likely Wukong) sitting in a rundown temple and recalling assorted legends about Monkey. One says the hero became a Buddha and stayed on Spirit Mountain; another that he died on the journey and a different figure was given buddhahood in his place; and another still that Wukong is just a fictional character from a story. The monk then tells the viewer, “But you must not have heard the story I’m going to tell”, thus alluding to the unofficial or “black myth” (hei shenhua, 黑神話).

The trailer features a gorgeous, immersive world in which Wukong travels by foot, wing, and cloud battling underlings and demonic bosses. Monkey is shown capable of freezing enemies in place, making soldiers with his hair, and hardening his body to avoid damage, as well as transforming into a cicada (for covert travel and reconnaissance) and a large golden ape (for boss battles). See here for a great explanation of the cultural and literary references in the game.

Video 1 – The 13 minute game play trailer for Black Myth: Wukong.

Interestingly, some characters in the game hint at a second Wukong. For example, a low-level demon boss says, “Hmm…another monkey?” upon meeting Wukong. Later, an earth god sees him and proclaims, “Similar!”, thus alluding to the other Monkey. This mystery comes to a head at the end of the trailer when Wukong goes to strike another character and his weapon is blocked by a staff with little effort. The camera pans upwards along the shaft, passed glowing Chinese characters for the “‘As-you-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), revealing the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in his golden armor. This implies the “real” Sun Wukong has arrived and the gamer has been playing as a “fake” Monkey the entire time. But who is this figure?

I suggest this fake Monkey is the Six-Eared Macaque. As noted above, this impostor wishes to win all the glory by completing the quest on his own. His exact words read:

I struck the Tang Monk [with my staff] and I took the luggage not because I didn’t want to go to the West, nor because I loved to live in this place [Flower-Fruit Mountain]. I’m studying the rescript at the moment precisely because I want to go to the West all by myself to ask Buddha for the scriptures. When I deliver them to the Land of the East, it will be my success and no one else’s. Those people of the South Jambudvipa Continent will honor me then as their patriarch and my fame will last for all posterity (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

This would explain why the fake Monkey is traveling alone and why the real Wukong stops him at the end of the trailer.

4. Conclusion

The Six-Eared Macaque is a supernatural primate who wishes to take Wukong’s place in order to win all the glory by finishing the quest on his own. He is in fact Monkey’s former sworn brother, the Macaque King, who took the title “Great Sage Informing Wind”. His six ears are likely based on the Buddhist phrase “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear”, denoting a great secret that must only be passed to an initiated disciple. His ability to eavesdrop on such secrets from a thousand miles away identifies him as a practitioner of heterodoxy. Being a copy of Monkey, the macaque also symbolizes the “Mind Monkey”, thereby marking their battle as an allegory for the internal struggle between the true and illusionary minds. The spirit’s death at the end represents the blossoming of One Mind.

The Six-Eared Macaque is referenced several times in the sequel A Supplement to the Journey to the West (1640). In chapter ten, Monkey is freed from a magical trap by his very own spirit, who presents himself as Sun Wukong, causing our hero to mistakenly assume his doppelganger has returned. In chapter 12, a court singer alludes to Guanyin’s failure to distinguish the true Great Sage from the fake one. Finally, in chapter 15, Wukong presents himself as the macaque in order to infiltrate Tripitaka’s army.

The spirit is likely the main character of the upcoming action RPG Black Myth: Wukong (2023). The trailer shows this Monkey fighting all manner of underlings and bosses along his solo quest. But the “real” Wukong appears at the end to cross staves, thus showing the gamer is playing as the impostor.


1) The travel rescript is like an imperial passport that needs to be stamped by each kingdom to guarantee legal passage along the quest to India. It contains an introductory letter from the Tang emperor and the stamps of all the kingdoms already visited.

2) Yu translates the name as “acquiescent staff of iron” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105). My thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting the alternative translation. “Acquiescent” or “to fulfill one’s desires” (suixin, 隨心) is a play on the “as-you-wish” (ruyi, 如意) of Monkey’s “‘As-you-wish’ Gold-banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒).

3) The imp-reflecting mirror is used in chapter six to see through Monkey’s various magical disguises during his battle with Erlang (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 179 and 184).

4) Wukong takes his six sworn brothers in chapter three shortly after establishing his monkey tribe as a military power. The other brothers include the Bull Monster King, the Dragon Monster King, the Garuda Monster King, the Giant Lynx King, and the Orangutan King (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 138-139).

5) Yu translates the name as “Telltale Great Sage” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 157).

6) For example, after he successfully meets a goat spirit’s challenge to boil in oil, Wukong discovers the liquid is somehow cool to the touch during the animal’s turn. Monkey then summons a dragon king who tells him:

[T]his cursed beast did go through quite an austere process of self-cultivation, to the point where he was able to cast off his original shell. He has acquired the true magic of the Five Thunders, while the rest of the magic powers he has are all those developed by heterodoxy, none fit to lead him to the true way of the immortals (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 313).

7) This tale, commonly known in English as the “Jataka of an Unnamed King” (no. 46), appears in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, third-century) (CBETA, 2016), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). See Mair, 1989, pp. 676-678 for a full English translation.

8) Examples of the term’s use include titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”).

9) Alternatively, Sun (2018) suggests: “[H]e kills the six-eared macaque because the latter has copied him too closely, the best demon among the ones that Monkey has conquered” (p. 25).

10) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin. All other quotes from this source will be thus changed.


Adler, M. (2020, August 26). Black Myth: Wukong – Everything We Know About Gameplay, Release Date, and More. Retrieved from

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016). T03n0152_005 六度集經 第5卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas, scroll no. 5]. Retrieved from

Dong, Y., Lin, S. F., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Hoong, T. T. (2004). Some Classical Malay Materials for the Study of the Chinese Novel Journey to the West. Sino-Platonic Papers, 137, 1-64. Retrieved from

Huang, Y. (2005). Integrating Chinese Buddhism: A Study of Yongming Yanshou’s Guanxin Xuanshu. Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing.

Lam, H. L. (2005). Cannibalizing the Heart: The Politics of Allegory and The Journey to the West. In E. Ziolkowski (Ed.). Literature, Religion, and East/West Comparison (pp. 162-178). Newark: University of Delaware Press.

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

Skrebels, J. (2020, September 11). Black Myth: Wukong – 19 New Details We’ve Learned. Retrieved from

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

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

Parallels Between the Monkey King and the Buddha

I’ve previously written about the similarities between Sun Wukong and the Water Margin bandit Wu Song. In this article, I would like to explore the similarities shared by the Monkey King and the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Ch: Xidaduo Qiaodamo, 悉達多 喬達摩). I know readers are now collectively scratching their heads in confusion and asking, “How in the world are a 5th- to 6th-century BCE Nepalese philosopher and an immortal monkey from Ming-era Chinese fiction similar?” It’s true that the particulars of their stories are different, but I will show that Wukong and the Buddha follow a similar trajectory in their early lives. Both experience a supernatural birth, spend early years as royalty, feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life, set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death, and, finally, achieve this goal through spiritual practices. For details about the Buddha’s life, I rely heavily on Acts of the Buddha (Sk: Buddhacarita; Ch: Fosuoxing za, 佛所行讚, 2nd-century), a full-length biographical poem that survives thanks to its translation into Chinese from the original Sanskrit (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 150). Information about Monkey will of course come from the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記).

I. Supernatural birth

On the day of his birth, the bodhisattva’s mother, Queen Maya, feels the urge to go to the garden of Lumbini. There, following the tradition of sage-kings, the young prince Siddhartha is born from her right side (fig. 1):

Whilst she (thus) religiously observed the rules of a pure discipline, Bodhisattva was born from her right side, (come) to deliver the world, constrained by great pity, without causing his mother pain or anguish. / As king Yu-liu [Aurva] was born from the thigh, as king Pi-t’au [Pruthu] was born from the hand, as king Man-to [Mandhatri] was born from the top of the head, as king Kia-k’ha [Kakshivat] was born from the arm-pit, / So also was Bodhisattva on the day of his birth produced from the right side; gradually emerging from the womb, he shed in every direction the rays of his glory (Beal, 1883, pp. 2-3).

Chapter one of Journey to the West describes how an immortal stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) splits open and gives birth to a stone egg, which is transformed into a stone monkey (shi hou, 石猴) by the elements (fig. 2):

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open [benglie, 迸裂], giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101) (emphasis mine).

As I’ve previously written, Wukong’s birth is likely based on the sage-king Yu the Great (大禹) and his son Qi (啟, “open”) of Xia, who are stated in various sources to have been born from stone. For example, one 4th-century tale states Yu’s pregnant wife transformed into stone out of shame for having seen her husband’s shamanic metamorphosis into a bear. Yu ordered the stone to release his son, and it split open to give birth to Qi (Birrell, 1999, p. 123). The emphasis on the stone splitting open is related to ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, [1] much like the Buddha is born from Queen Maya’s side. For instance, the Genealogical Annals of the Emperors and Kings (Diwang shiji, 帝王世紀, 3rd -century) writes:

“While traveling up in the mountains she [Yu’s mother] saw a falling star piercing the Mao region (of the sky). Then in a dream, she received and felt it, so upon swallowing a divine pearl and Job’s Tears, her chest split open and she gave birth to Yu at Stone Knob” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101).

While Yu’s mother is not a stone in this case, his birth is effected by a pearl (a type of stone) and happens in a place named after stone. Such tales establish a link between split births and stone births, thereby placing the Buddha and Monkey into the same broader birth myth cycle.

Also, just like the Buddha “shed in every direction the rays of his glory” upon his birth, Wukong too produces a great light: “Having learned at once to climb and run, this monkey also bowed to the four quarters, while two beams of golden light flashed from his eyes to reach even the Palace of the Polestar” (fig. 3) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Fig. 1 – A stone carving depicting the birth of Siddhartha from Queen Maya’s side (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century) (larger version on Wikipedia). Fig. 2 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article. Fig. 3 – The bright light shines from Wukong’s eyes as he bows to the four directions (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

II. Royal years

Prince Siddhartha (fig. 4) is born into the royal Shakya clan ruled by his father, King Suddhodana (Beal, 1883, p. 1). Shortly after his son’s birth, the king is told by two sages that the new heir is fated to be either a universal monarch or a cosmic sage (Beal, 1883, pp. 8-18). Suddhodana attempts to defy the latter fate by surrounding his son with royal luxury and even finding him a wife with which to have his own son:

‘My son, the prince, having a son born to him, / ‘The affairs of the empire will be handed down in succession, and there will be no end to its righteous government; the prince having begotten a son, will love his son as I love him, / ‘And no longer think about leaving his home as an ascetic, but devote himself to the practice of virtue […] Would that this might lead my son (he prayed) to love his child and not forsake his home; the kings of all countries, whose sons have not yet grown up, / Have prevented them exercising authority in the empire, in order to give their minds relaxation, and for this purpose have provided them with worldly indulgences, so that they may perpetuate the royal seed; / So now the king, having begotten a royal son, indulged him in every sort of pleasure; desiring that he might enjoy these worldly delights, and not wish to wander from his home in search of wisdom (Beal, 1883, pp. 28 and 29).

Following his birth, the stone monkey comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The stone monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers the “Cave Heaven of Water-Curtain Cave” (Shuiliandong dongtian, 水簾洞洞天), a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious,

Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

The prince is born into a royal clan and yet never rules, while Wukong achieves kinghood through a test of bravery and leads his tribe for over three hundred years (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105). Siddhartha’s lack of authority is of course due to his father’s wish that he indulge in worldly pleasures and forget about leaving to become a sage. But birth tales (Sk: jataka) of the Buddha’s past lives do include several incarnations as rulers, even as a monkey king! [2]

Fig. 4 – A stone carving of Prince Siddhartha as a young man (Gandhara, 3rd-century) (larger version via the Norton Simon Museum). Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

III. Shock at impermanence

One day, Prince Siddhartha wishes to tour the land outside his personal palace for the first time in his life. Not wanting his son to see anything unpleasant, King Suddhodana has the path cleared of the old, sick, and poor and decorated with beautiful canopies, banners, and curtains (Beal, 1883, pp. 30-32). But a deva raja intervenes to initiate the first of the “four signs” (Sk: caturnimitta; Ch: sixiang, 四相; i.e. old age, sickness, death, and monasticism) to cause the future Buddha to pursue a spiritual path that will ultimately lead to his enlightenment (fig. 6) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 171-172). The deva raja transforms into an extremely elderly man, and upon seeing the sight, Siddhartha is shaken when his chariot driver reveals that he too will suffer this fate:

The prince greatly agitated and moved, asked his charioteer another question and said, ‘Is yonder man the only one afflicted with age, or shall I, and others also, be such as he?’ / The charioteer again replied and said, ‘Your highness also inherits this lot, as time goes on, the form itself is changed, and this must doubtless come, beyond all hindrance: / ‘The youthful form must wear the garb of age, throughout the world, this is the common lot’. Bodhisattva, who had long prepared the foundation of pure and spotless wisdom, / Broadly setting the root of every high quality, with a view to gather large fruit in his present life, hearing these words respecting the sorrow of age, was afflicted in mind, and his hair stood up right. / Just as the roll of the thunder and the storm alarm and put to flight the cattle; so was Bodhisattva affected by the words; shaking with apprehension, he deeply sighed (Beal, 1883, p. 33).

After seeing the sign of sickness (Beal, 1883, pp. 34-35), the prince witnesses the sign of death:

(Once more) he asked, ‘What is this they carry? With streamers and flowers of every choice description, whilst the followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously.’ / And now the gods instructing the coachman, he replied and said, ‘This is a “dead man,” all his powers of body destroyed, life departed; his heart without thought, his intellect dispersed; / ‘His spirit gone, his form withered and decayed; stretched out as a dead log; family ties broken—all his friends who once loved him, clad in white cerements, / ‘Now no longer delighting to behold him, remove him to lie in some hollow ditch (tomb).’ The prince hearing the name of death, his heart constrained by painful thoughts, / He asked, ‘Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances?’ Replying thus he said, ‘All, everywhere, the same; he who begins his life must end it likewise; / ‘The strong and lusty and the middle-aged, having a body, cannot but decay (and die).’ The prince now harassed and perplexed in mind; his body bent upon the chariot leaning-board, / With bated breath and struggling accents, stammered thus, ‘Oh worldly men! How fatally deluded! Beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; / ‘The heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not “all is vanishing!” (Beal, 1883, pp. 36-37).

After the Monkey King rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for more than three centuries, he tells his children:

Though we are not subject to the laws of man today, nor need we be threatened by the rule of any bird or beast, old age and physical decay in the future will disclose the secret sovereignty of Yama, King of the Underworld. If we die, shall we not have lived in vain, not being able to rank forever among the Heavenly beings? (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 106).

The “shock” felt by Prince Siddhartha and the Monkey King upon realizing the impermanence of life is known in Buddhism as Samvega (Ch: yanli, 厭離) (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, n.d.). It’s interesting to me that Siddhartha is led to the reality of impermanence, while Monkey comes to the conclusion by himself. This is no doubt due to the differences in their lives. King Suddhodana ensures that his son lives a protected life, one free from the woes of the outside world, by surrounding him with luxury and young, beautiful palace attendants. However, Monkey rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for over three hundred years, no doubt witnessing the decline and death of many of his companions, as well as the waning of his own youth. After all, the thought of impermanence would weigh heavy on anyone nearing the end of their life. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, when his soul is taken to hell in chapter three, Monkey learns from the ledgers of life and death that he was fated to die at 342 years old (fig. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150).

Fig. 6 – Siddhartha experiences the “Four Signs” (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 7 – Monkey striking his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

IV. Quest to overcome impermanence

Siddhartha is wracked by constant, obsessive thoughts on the dangers of old age, sickness, and death. After venturing out once more and witnessing poor farmers toiling away in the fields, he proclaims on the spot that he will find some way to oppose life’s suffering. At that exact moment, a deva affects the fourth sign by transforming into a monk (sk: bhikshu), who tells the prince:

Depressed and sad at [the] thought of age, disease, and death, I have left my home to seek some way of rescue, but everywhere I find old age, disease, and death, all (things) hasten to decay and there is no permanency; / ‘Therefore I search for the happiness of some thing that decays not, that never perishes, that never knows beginning, that looks with equal mind on enemy and friend, that heeds not wealth nor beauty, / ‘The happiness of one who finds repose alone in solitude, in some unfrequented dell, free from molestation, all thoughts about the world destroyed, dwelling in some lonely hermitage…’ (Beal, 1883, pp. 49-50).

This influences Siddhartha to forsake his royal life to become an ascetic and search for a means of escape from the evils of old age, sickness, and death. Cutting off his topknot, thus severing his royal ties, the future Buddha sets out into the world (Beal, 1883, p. 68). Siddhartha travels the land studying meditation (Sk: dhyana; Ch: chan, 禪) under various sages, pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood for years, and even practicing severe austerities that result in the emaciation of his body (fig. 8). But he eventually forsakes these extreme practices, recovering his bodily strength and vowing to achieve perfect enlightenment via meditation beneath a banyan tree (Beal, 1883, pp. 131-147).

When the Monkey King opines the injustice of impermanence, one of his advisors tells him that only three beings live beyond the reach of Yama:

There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages [shensheng, 神聖]; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).  

Monkey then pledges to find these great men and women and learn their secret means of escape from Yama’s grasp:

“Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the corners of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).

He sets sail in a makeshift raft and wonders the world for more than ten years, searching the towns and cities of the Jambudvipa continent before sailing to the Western Aparagodaniya continent. There, he is directed to the Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山, 斜月三星洞), an immortal hermitage lorded over by the great Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 須菩提) (fig. 9). The sage accepts him as a student and gives him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空), or “Monkey Awakened to the Void” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 108-115).

Both tales show that Siddhartha and Monkey set out on their respective quests thanks to outside influences. The devas intervene numerous times to guide the future Buddha’s path to enlightenment, [3] proving that the heavenly realm has a vested interest in his fate. Wukong’s journey is instead influenced by the words of his mortal advisor. In this case, the gods have no interest in the fate of such “creatures from the world below” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). This of course changes once Monkey starts causing havoc throughout the cosmos.

Fig. 8 – A stone carving of the “Fasting Buddha” (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century BCE) (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Monkey King becomes Subhuti’s disciple (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

V. Achieving a means of escape

The heavenly demon Mara (Mo, 魔) fears that Siddhartha will achieve enlightenment and help mankind break free from his domain, the illusionary world of Samsara, and so he leads a monstrous army against the great rishi. But the army is rendered powerless by Siddhartha’s supreme focus of mind and burgeoning grasp of reality (Beal, 1883, pp. 147-156). [4] Continuing his meditation further, the rishi perceives his myriad past lives, as well as the karmic punishment of those who covet or perform bad deeds, being tortured in hell or reborn into lower levels of existence. He then comprehends that suffering arises from clinging, clinging from desire, desire from sensation, sensation from contact, contact from the six senses, and the senses from consciousness. Finally, Siddhartha comes to the realization that breaking each link (e.g. cessation of clinging will end suffering) will stop old age, sickness, and death and ultimately destroy the endless chain of rebirths (Beal, 1883, pp. 156-163). Having achieved perfect enlightenment (fig. 10),

the Buddha then devised for the world’s benefit the eightfold path, right sight, and so on, the only true path for the world to tread. / Thus did he complete the end (destruction) of ‘self,’ as fire goes out for want of grass; thus he had done what he would have men do; he first had found the way of perfect knowledge; / He finished thus the first great lesson (paramartha); entering the great Rishi’s house, the darkness disappeared; light coming on, perfectly silent, all at rest, / He reached at last the exhaustless source of truth (dharma); lustrous with all wisdom the great Rishi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth (Beal, 1883, p. 163).

Journey to the West chapter two tells how Wukong serves as a junior monk for seven years before Subhuti takes him as a close disciple. One night, the sage recites him a poem full of flowery esoteric imagery revealing the secret to Daoist immortality and Buddhahood is the cultivation of chaste semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spiritual energy (shen, 神). The poem has a profound effect on Monkey, for the novel states: “At that moment, the very origin was disclosed to Wukong, whose mind became spiritualized as blessedness came to him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120). Following Subhuti’s instructions, Monkey performs breathing exercises after midnight (zi, 子) and before noon (wu, 午), resulting in immortality after three years of dedicated practice (fig. 11). [5] I should note that the book borrows from real Daoist practices but leaves much of the process up to the reader’s imagination. As I explain here, historical methods combined the aforementioned breathing exercises with the circulation of chaste semen and spiritual energy to create a spirit embryo (shengtai, 聖胎), or an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell. But in the case of the novel, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.

Interestingly, the title of chapter two also refers to Monkey overcoming Mara. It reads: “Fully awoke to Bodhi’s wondrous truths / He cuts off Mara, returns to the root, and joins Primal Spirit” (Wu che puti zhen miao li / Duan Mo gui ben he yuanshen, 悟徹菩提真妙理 / 斷魔歸本合元神) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 116). The title freely associates Buddhist and Daoist concepts, such as Mara and the primal spirit. This synthesis is explained by Darga (2008):

Comparing the development of the embryo to the revelation of Buddhahood is typical of neidan texts of the Ming period. For instance, the Xingming guizhi (Principles of Balanced Cultivation of Inner Nature and Vital Force) uses Body of the Law (fashen 法身, dharmakāya) as a synonym for shengtai. The birth of the embryo represents the appearance of the original spirit (yuanshen 元神) or Buddhahood and is understood as enlightenment (p. 884).

The Buddha’s biography goes on for pages about deep philosophical concepts on the self, suffering, and reality, showing that the means of his liberation was of the utmost importance. By contrast, as noted above, Journey to the West leaves little space for Wukong’s method of immortality. In fact, the hard won moment that he breaks free of Yama’s grasp is not even mentioned in the novel! [6] So the author-compiler no doubt felt Monkey’s subsequent adventures were far more important. This is understandable considering that, in material as far back as the Song dynasty, Monkey is already an ancient immortal at the beginning of the story.

Fig. 10 – Siddhartha achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 11 – Wukong achieves immortality (larger version). By the author.

VI. Conclusion

Despite the particulars of their stories being different, the Monkey King and the historical Buddha share five similarities. First, they experience a supernatural birth, both splitting open their mater in the same fashion as ancient Chinese sage-kings. Siddhartha emerges from the side of Queen Maya and Wukong forms from a stone egg birthed by a split rock. Second, they spend early years as royalty. The prince is born into the royal Shakya clan and Monkey achieves kinghood through a test of bravery. Third, they feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life. Siddhartha is exposed to the evils of old age, sickness, and death via the “four signs” initiated by heaven. Wukong instead comprehends the fearsome hand of Yama through his observation of time. Fourth, they set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death. The prince travels the land studying meditation and pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood. Monkey searches the world for over a decade before he is taken in by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti. Fifth, they achieve their goal through spiritual practices. Siddhartha defeats Mara and achieves perfect enlightenment via intense meditation. Wukong breaks free from Yama/Mara and achieves immortality via Daoist elixir arts.

Having discussed the similarities, the question now arises: Did the story of the Buddha influence the Monkey King? It’s certainly possible that the author compiler of Journey to the West drew upon events from Siddhartha’s life to make Wukong’s journey more familiar or compelling. But I can’t say for certain without further research linking specific Buddhist literature with the novel. Some of the similarities could just as easily be tropes borrowed from Daoist hagiography.


1) See Cook and Luo (2017) chapter five for more examples of split-births.

2) The “Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka, no. 407), or sometimes just the “Monkey King”, tells how the bodhisattva is reborn as a monkey who rules over eighty-thousand primates high in the Himalayas. He and his tribe live near the Ganges and eat from a large mango tree that produces succulent, water pot-sized fruits. A human monarch attempts to take the tree by force, calling on his archers to shoot the monkeys. However, the king leaps across the Ganges to the tree with a makeshift rope around his waist and makes a bridge with his body so that all eighty-thousand monkeys can escape. However, his heart is mortally wounded when a rival jumps on his back from a high branch. The monarch takes note of the monkey’s good deed and personally tends to him in his last few moments of life. Before dying, the monkey teaches him a valuable lesson about putting his people’s needs before his own. The monarch then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king (Cowell, 1895, pp. 225-227).

3) Other than the “Four Signs”, another example of the devas intervening in Siddhartha’s life takes place shortly after he forsakes the extreme austerities that emaciate his body. He bathes in a holy river but can’t leave the water due to weakness from malnourishment. That’s when a deva pushes down a tree branch, allowing Siddhartha to pull himself to safety (Beal, 1883, p. 144).

4) For example, one passage reads: “Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, p. 153).

5) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi [子, midnight] and after the hour of Wu [午, noon]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). However, this is likely a transcription error as Daoist sources cite the opposite, after midnight and before noon (Kohn, 2008, p. 84, for example). Therefore, I have corrected the information.

6) The moment that Monkey achieves immortality is only alluded to in passing:

Suddenly he [Subhuti] asked, “Where’s Wukong?” Wukong drew near and knelt down. “Your pupil’s here,” he said. “What sort of art have you been practicing lately?” the Patriarch asked. “Recently,” Wukong said, “your pupil has begun to apprehend the nature of all things and my foundational knowledge has become firmly established.” “If you have penetrated to the dharma nature to apprehend the origin,” said the Patriarch, “you have, in fact, entered into the divine substance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121).


Beal, S. (Trans.). (1883). The Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king: A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Cook, C. A., & Luo, X. (2017). Birth in Ancient China: A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or stories of the Buddhas former births: Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Darga, M. (2008) Shengtai. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 883-884). Longdon: Routledge.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (n.d.). Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada. Retrieved from

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

The Monkey King and The Buddha Victorious in Strife (a.k.a. Victorious Fighting Buddha)


Last updated: 09/06/2020

At the end of Journey to the West, the Monkey King is elevated in spiritual rank from an immortal to a Buddha for his service in protecting Tripitaka throughout the quest to India. The Tathagata Buddha explains:

Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife [Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

It’s interesting to note that the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Skt: aka Yuddhajaya), also commonly translated as “Victorious Fighting Buddha”, is not a creation of the novel’s author-compiler but one of the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas [1] appearing in “The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Moral Downfalls” from the Three Heaps Sutra (Skt: Triskhandha Sutra). These Buddhas are individually called upon by name during a confessional prayer. For example, the end of one translation of the Confession reads:

To Tathagata Glorious One Totally Subduing, I prostrate.
To Tathagata Utterly Victorious in Battle, I prostrate.
To Tathagata Glorious Transcendence Through Subduing, I prostrate.
To Tathagata Glorious Manifestations Illuminating All, I prostrate (emphasis mine) (Lama Zopa Rinpoche & Mullin, 2000, p. 5).

This is nearly identical to the end of Journey to the West when the names of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats are called upon. One section reads:

I submit to the Buddha of the Gift of Light.
I submit to the Buddha of Candana Merit.
I submit to the Buddha Victorious in Strife.
I submit to the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin.
I submit to the Bodhisattva, Great Power-Coming
[…] (emphasis mine) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

I. Iconography

The Buddha Victorious in Strife is depicted in Buddhist art with the traditional features of a Buddha (i.e., urna, usnisa, long ear lobes, robes, etc.), but he is also shown holding a suit of armor and a sword (fig. 1):

Yuddhajaya Buddha — (Skt.: aka Yuddhajaya) (Chin.: Tou-chan-sheng fo; Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba, rGyal-ba-gYul-lasr-Gyal-ba) A Sanskrit variant for the Jina Yuddhajaya. One of the Buddha images found in the Pao Hsiang Lou [寶相樓] temple of the Forbidden City, Beijing, and one of the thirty-five “Buddhas of Confession.” Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: holding a cuirass up to his chest; body: monastic robes; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; vahana: lotus throne.

— (2) — (Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba) One of the Buddhas of Confession pictured in the Mongolian Kanjur (Mon.: Monggol ganjur-un)(1717-1720) Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: two, right hand holds sword (khadga, ral-gri), left hand holds coat of mail (khrab); body: monastic robes, right shoulder uncovered; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; attributes: 32 major and 80 minor signs; vahana: lotus throne (Bunce, 1994, p. 629). [2]

The name Buddha Victorious in Strife is not a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess. According to Lai (2016), the Buddha “defeat[s] the inner enemies of afflictive emotions and negative actions of sentient beings. He is victorious over cyclic existence and thus able to lead all sentient beings to liberation. He purifies the negative karma of actions committed out of pride”.

Fig. 1 – The Buddha Victorious in Strife (aka Yuddhajaya) holding a sword and suit of armor (larger version). Image found here.

II. The Worship of Sun Wukong

The Monkey King is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore as a great exorcist and protector of children. But readers may be surprised to learn that he is not worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife. Instead, Wukong is exclusively revered as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖), and even when he is called a Buddha, the name includes some reference to the rebellious title. For example, when I attended the Monkey King Festival (sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month) in Hong Kong in 2018, I saw an incense pot labeled “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) (fig. 2).

So why isn’t Sun worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife? I think the most obvious answer is that the Buddha had a long-established following and therefore couldn’t be subsumed under the late-blooming cult of a cultural hero, even one as popular as the Monkey King.

Fig. 2 – An incense pot reading “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (larger version). Taken by the author in Kowloon, Hongkong (Sept. 24, 2018).

II. Precedence for spiritual promotion

The author-compiler likely connected Sun Wukong to the Buddha Victorious in Strife because of the deity’s martial iconography. After all, Monkey is a martial deity in his own right, wielding his magic staff and boxing skills to protect Tripitaka from the demons and spirits who constantly hound the monk.

But the choice to elevate Monkey in rank was likely influenced by previous media. For example, Wukong’s literary antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), receives a promotion at the end of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a late 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. The story ends thus: “Tang Taizong later enfeoffed Monkey Pilgrim as ‘Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones'” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207).

Update: 09/06/2020

If you type “Buddha Victorious in Strife”, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”, “鬥戰勝佛” or “斗战胜佛” into google images, you’ll notice that these terms are almost exclusively associated with Sun Wukong. Most results are fan-made drawings of Monkey wearing his armor. Very few depict him as a Buddha. The only appearance of the latter in popular media that I’m aware is the Victorious Fighting Buddha from the manga / anime High School DxD.

The character is depicted as a jovial old dwarf with long, shaggy brown hair, bushy eyebrows that fall over a cyberpunk-style black visor, no mustache, a long beard, a floor-length, dark gray coat over a red robe, and monkey feet. He wears his famous golden fillet and a set of chunky brown and red prayer beads. In his left hand he holds a smoking pipe, while the right holds his magic staff, which is depicted as red and gold (fig. 6).

Fig. 6 – The Victorious Fighting Buddha from High School DxD (larger version).

The Victorious Fighting Buddha inhabits a universe where various factions of Western and Eastern gods, devils, and heroes battle one another. According to the story, upon ascending to Buddhahood, he steps down as the Monkey King, handing the title to a young descendant, and serves as the vanguard of the Hindu god Indra, during which time he protects the cosmos from a faction of devils and fallen angels. He later takes on the role of sub-leader and mentor to a new faction of young heroes whom he trains to battle god-tier opponents.

High School DxD portrays the Victorious Fighting Buddha as being very powerful. For example, season four, episode six (minute 13:35) of the anime shows him effortlessly blocking the “True Longinus” spear with his index finger. This is quite a feat as this weapon is the same one used to pierce the side of Christ, thereby giving it the power to kill other gods.


1) Thank you to Prateek Kumar Pradhan for bringing this to my attention.

2) I am grateful to Joris Baeyens of Ghent University Library for providing me with scans of Bunce (1994).


Bunce, F. W. (1994). An Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Saints and Demons: With Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Lai, D. (2016, September 3). 35 Confessional Buddhas. Retrieved from

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, & Mullin, G. H. (Trans.). (2000). The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Moral Downfalls: from The Exalted Mahayana Three Heaps Sutra. Ven. Thubten Dondrub and Ven. George Churinoff (Ed.). New Mexico: Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition Education Services. Retrieved from!/a4/booklet/confessiona4bklt.pdf

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

Archive #17 – Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi (1985)

Last updated: 11/24/20

Campany (1985) discusses methods by which demons of Journey to the West move up and down the Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy. He begins by laying out the formulaic pattern of the episodes in which they appear: 1) a description of the demon’s mountain or aquatic home in poetic verse; 2) the initial encounter during which Tripitaka is tricked by the demon’s magic disguise; 3) the initial battle(s) between the disciples and the demon involving contests of magic and weapons, often described in poetic verse; 4) the battles end in a stalemate or defeat, and in the case of the latter the disciples are held captive in the demon’s stronghold; 5) Sun Wukong searches heaven and earth for the master of the demon, for the evil is usually a renegade celestial animal or protégé; 6) the demon is subdued by their master; and 7) the demon is either reintegrated or added to the cosmic order. An example of the former is the moon goddess’ jade hare (ch. 95) being taken back to heaven (fig. 1). An example of the latter is Red Boy (ch. 40-43) becoming a disciple of Guanyin.

There are two types of powerful demons who are subjugated by their master or an appropriate agent (e.g. a rooster god defeating a centipede demon). The first acquires magic powers via Daoist cultivation and, lacking celestial rank, causes havoc (think of Monkey as a young immortal). It is only through their subjugation and addition to the cosmic order that they achieve higher spiritual status. Apart from Red Boy, another example is the Black Bear spirit (ch. 16-17), who is subdued by Guanyin and installed as the guardian of her magic island. The second, being the most common, is one who previously held heavenly rank and was banished to earth. This exile is the result of breaking a rule, the need to burn off negative Buddhist karma, or because of a deficiency in their Daoist cultivation, requiring that they work their way back up the spiritual hierarchy. All five of the pilgrims fit into this category in one way or another.

Two types of demons are not subjugated by a heavenly master. The first is a lessor animal spirit who acts as a servant or soldier for a demon king. They attach themselves to this “upwardly mobile” demon because their master may aid in their own ascension via secrets of cultivation or the gift of longevity-bestowing food. Prime examples are all the (simian and non-simian) animal spirits who attach themselves to Sun Wukong after he establishes himself as a monster king. Such animal spirits are usually slaughtered after their master is defeated. The second are demons who peacefully cultivate themselves without endangering others. A prime example is the White Turtle of the Heaven-Reaching River (ch. 49 and 99) who cultivates human speech but still requires the intervention of the Buddha to evolve to human form.

Campany (1985) moves onto the hierarchy itself, noting how the level of a being’s attainment in spiritual cultivation does not affect their actual rank. This is because Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are viewed differently in the novel. Demons who cause no harm during their cultivation are left alone, while violent offenders are subjugated and added to the hierarchy. And even if an animal spirit has Daoist powers, they are still considered inferior to humans, for they are born into a lower level of the six Buddhist paths of reincarnation. These spirits, however, can move up the hierarchy based on the amount of Buddhist merit, or “right fruit” (zhengguo, 正果), that they acquire through good deeds. Additionally, the Buddha and Guanyin are generally portrayed as higher in rank than Daoist gods, even the Jade Emperor, due to their “Dharma Power” (fali, 法力). Despite this, Sun Wukong is always quick to point out when a high-ranking god, Buddhist or Daoist, has violated Confucian norms. Therefore, the hierarchy presented in the novel follows the Ming-era syncretic emphasis on mental cultivation (xiu xin, 修心).

Fig. 1 – Yoshitoshi, Jade Rabbit: Sun Wukong, from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon, 1889 (larger version). From the Ronin Gallery.

The novel categorizes all beings as part of heaven, earth, or hell, each representing a realm within the hierarchy. Yet, it presents four ways to move between them: one, temporarily taking the form of a higher-ranking figure (human, immortal, deity, etc.) via magical transformation (hua, 化); two, reincarnating into a higher path (e.g. animal to human); three, attaining immortality via Daoist cultivation (or becoming human and then attaining immortality in the case of animal spirits); and four, being subjugated and added to the cosmic order.

The demons of Journey to the West are paradoxical on two counts: one, such beings are realistic, with detailed descriptions of their appearance, speech, and feelings, and yet they are often reduced to mere illusions brought forth by the unfocused or disquieted mind (Campany (1985) waits to explain this until the end); and two, they are evil from a Western perspective, but not wholly evil from an Eastern perspective. Their ambiguous nature is revealed by the Chinese hanzi used to describe them (e.g. yaojing 妖精; yaoguai, 妖怪), suggesting these beings are “undeveloped” or “bogus” and have yet to complete their cultivation. Additionally, the novel connects the demons and pilgrims with five elemental and yin-yang theory, each with its own creative/destructive or magnetic/repelling forces, suggesting a mutual relationship. This relationship is explained below.

Campany (1985) emphasizes that, while Tripitaka’s disciples are themselves former demons, what separates them from the others is “returning to the right path” (gui zheng, 歸正), or converting to Buddhism. As Daoists, they formerly cultivated the self, but as Buddhists they subsume the self to a larger whole by becoming Tripitaka’s disciples, thereby submitting to Buddhist law and cultivating Buddhist merit through their actions. This differs from demons who attempt to subsume the universe into themselves. They follow heretical practices (waidao, 外道) in pursuit of their continued self-cultivation, many seeking a “short cut” by attempting to eat Tripitaka. They don’t realize that accepting the Buddhist concept of “no self” would free them of their attachment to Daoist cultivation and that the accumulation of Buddhist merit would aid in their ascension through the cosmic hierarchy.

Powerful demons like Monkey who consider themselves greater than the universe would continue down the wrong path without the intervention of their master (or an appropriate agent) intervening to reintegrate or add them to the cosmic order. As Campany (1985) explains: “Submission of self is true cultivation of self” (emphasis in original) (p. 114). Therefore, demons rely on the pilgrims to redirect their cultivation to the right path of subsuming the self to a larger whole. An example is Lady Raksasi at the end of her story cycle.

Likewise, the pilgrims rely on the demons for several reasons: one, they help the pilgrims build Buddhist merit; two, via the concept of “non-duality“, the pilgrims learn there is no difference between themselves and the demons; and three, as mental obstacles, the demons help refine the pilgrim’s spiritual cultivation over the journey. This last point is particularly important as the illusionary nature of demons helps the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, understand that all reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “aware of emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the quest.

Campany (1985) ends the paper by explaining the first paradox:

We now see that the juxtaposition of realistic descriptions of demons and reductions of them to miasma of the mind serves as a fascinating and entertaining contrapuntal expression of the central theme of the novel, the complementary relation and ultimate identity between illusion and enlightenment. Why do demons almost always appear according to the paradigm sketched in the first part of this paper? Why this repetition, this sameness, if not to underscore the miasmic quality of the demons even as narrative details convince us of their palpable sensory reality? Why do demons put up so stubborn a resistance, if not to impress upon us the arduousness of right cultivation? The consummate artistry with which the author bodies forth in his tale the relation between illusion and reality is itself a vehicle for the perception of this relation (Campany, 1985, p. 115).

Paper link

Update: 11/24/20

As mentioned above, Campany (1985) explains that animal spirits can move up the Buddho-Daoist hierarchy by becoming human via reincarnation or cultivation. Surprisingly, the novel reveals that Monkey has had previous lives prior to the novel, showing that his soul is subject to the same karmic laws of reincarnation as other im/mortal beings. For example, after Wukong is invited to heaven and fails to bow before the cosmic monarch in ch. 4, the Jade Emperor says:

“That fellow Sun Wukong is a bogus immortal [yaoxian, 妖仙] from the Region Below … and he has only recently acquired the form of a human being. We shall pardon him this time for his ignorance of court etiquette” (emphasis added) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 193).

In ch. 7, the Monkey King angers the Buddha by claiming that he should be able to usurp the Jade Emperor’s throne, to which the Enlightened One replies:

“A fellow like you,” he said, “is only a monkey who happened to become a spirit. How dare you be so presumptuous as to want to seize the honored throne of the Exalted Jade Emperor? He began practicing religion when he was very young, and he has gone through the bitter experience of one thousand seven hundred and fifty kalpas, with each kalpa lasting a hundred and twenty-nine thousand six hundred years. Figure out yourself how many years it took him to rise to the enjoyment of his great and limitless position! You are merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation. How dare you make such a boast? Blasphemy! This is sheer blasphemy, and it will surely shorten your allotted age. Repent while there’s still time and cease your idle talk! Be wary that you don’t encounter such peril that you will be cut down in an instant, and all your original gifts will be wasted” (emphasis added) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 147).

This shows that both the Jade Emperor and the Buddha are aware of Monkeys previous lives. This would be good fodder for a fanfiction about his previous incarnations.


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


Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

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

Sun Wukong’s Curlicue Style Headband

My previous article on the origin of Sun Wukong’s golden fillet describes how various forms of media portray him wearing three different styles: 1) a band with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like scowling eyebrows; 2) a band adorned with an upturned crescent moon shape in the center; and 3) a simple band devoid of decoration (fig. 1). Here, I want to speculate on the origin of the first style, what I call the “curlicue headband”.

Fig. 1 – (Left) Style 1 – From the comedy A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (1995). (Center) Style 2 – From the famous 1986 TV show. (Right) Style 3 – From the 2011 TV show (larger version).

I. The Kaiyuan Temple carving

The oldest example of Sun Wukong wearing the curlicue style headband that I am aware of is a nearly life size stone carving from the Western pagoda of Kaiyuan Temple erected in 1237 CE. He is depicted as a muscular, monkey-headed warrior wearing a circlet, earrings, bracelets, a rosary, arm bangles, and anklets (all prescribed ritual items), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a sutra scroll (fig. 2). Behind his left shoulder can be seen Xuanzang (a.k.a. Tripitaka) ascending to heaven on a cloud, having won a place in paradise thanks to the protection of our hero. In short, Wukong is portrayed as a guardian deity. The significance of this will become clear below.

The carving’s headband has a gentle double curlicue topped with a wedge shape (fig. 3). This design appears in Daoist art from the same period.

Fig. 2 – The Kaiyuan Temple pagoda carving (1237) (larger version). Fig. 3 – Detail of the headband (larger version).

II. Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi

The Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi, (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶) is a collection of 50 ink drawings of the Daoist pantheon attributed to the noted 8th-century artist Wu Daozi but likely produced during the 13th-century. It features many protector/wrathful deities wearing body adornments with this curlicue pattern (with or without the added wedge). There are too many examples to post, so I will choose just three (Fig. 4⁠–⁠9). Please note that, with the exception of the headband and rosary, these figures are wearing the same esoteric ritual items as Monkey (i.e. earrings, bracelets, arm bangles, and anklets).

This shows a clear connection between body adornments with the curlicue pattern and guardian deities.

Fig. 4 – The esoteric protector deity Marshal of Heavenly Reeds, a.k.a. Zhu Bajie’s previous incarnation (larger version). Fig. 5 – Detail of the anklets on his feet (larger version). Note that Heavenly Reed’s necklace also features the curlicue pattern. Fig. 6 – A demonic guardian detaining a soul undergoing judgement in hell (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the bangles on his arms (larger version). Fig. 8 – One of Lord Erlang‘s demonic soldiers helping to clear animal spirits (in this case a turtle) from a mountain river (larger version). Fig. 9 – Detail of his ornate headband with spherical elements, giving it a floral quality (larger version). The images have been enhanced slightly for clarity.

III. Possible origin of the pattern

The Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi shows several generals, officials, and guardians wearing headgear with lingzhi mushrooms (靈芝) (fig. 10⁠–⁠13), a real world fungi shaped like a rounded heart with a lacquered reddish-brown appearance (fig. 14). Also known as ruyi (如意, “as-you-wish”),—yes, the same as Wukong’s staff—the mushroom is associated with immortality and magic wish fulfillment in Buddho-Daoist culture. The ruyi pattern (ruyi wen, 如意紋) is a common motif in Chinese art, lining vases, topping S-shaped scepters, appearing as flourishes on traditional style rooftops, repeating endlessly on extravagant silken textiles, etc. (fig. 15⁠–⁠17). It has a familiar double curlicue swirl that reminds one of Monkey’s headband (fig. 18).

Given the fungi’s high standing in religious culture, I could see the lingzhi/ruyi‘s curlicue pattern being associated with the ritual garb of guardian deities since they are the front line of defense against evil influences.

Fig. 10 – A sword bearer (larger version). Fig. 11 – Lord Erlang overseeing his demonic soldiers clearing the mountain and river of animal spirits (larger version). Fig. 12 – Detail of his helmet (larger version). Fig. 13 – One of Erlang’s soldiers driving out animal spirits with fire (larger version). Fig. 14 – A lingzhi mushroom (larger version). Fig. 15 – The Bodhisattva Guanyin holding a ruyi scepter (larger version). Fig. 16 – A marvelous Qianlong-era celadon glaze vase with a ruyi shape (larger version). Note the pattern repeating on the lid and base. Image found here. Fig. 17 – The Ruyi Gate in the Forbidden City. Note the Ruyi elements on the roof (larger version here). Fig. 18 – A comparison of a ruyi pattern and Sun Wukong’s golden headband (larger version).

The Great Sage Detecting “Ping-Pong” Bottle

Updated: 08/11/20

Elliott (1955/1990) describes a curious glass bottle used in the worship of Sun Wukong in Singapore. Filled with “twelve o’clock water” and topped with a consecrated bulbous glass stem, it is said to make a pinging noise to signal the arrival of the monkey god in a home or temple:

There are, also, sometimes other pieces of apparatus, apart from images, which devotees like to keep in their own homes. An outstanding example is an article of equipment almost exclusively associated with the ‘Great Saint’ [大聖] which goes by the onomatopoeic name of ‘ping-pong’ [乒乓]. It consists of an ordinary bottle filled with ‘twelve o’clock water’, water drawn from a tap or well at midday. Into the neck is fitted a funnel-like piece of glass-ware open at the lower end of the funnel, which dips into the water but completely closes the top [fig. 1 and 2]. Everyday at noon, and sometimes at other hours as well, this apparatus gives off a sudden ‘pinging’ sound, as if bubbles were rising and forcing up the funnel in the bottle’s neck. When this occurs, the shen [神, god] is supposed to be revealing his presence in the temple or the home, and an immediate act of worship must be carried out by the persons there. These ‘ping-pong’ are invariably found in temples associated with the ‘Great Saint’. Devotees will purchase their own funnels and bring them to the temple for the dang-ki [童乩, spirit-medium] to consecrate them with a lick of his blood (p. 58).

Fig. 1 – The ping-pong bottle, a.k.a. “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶), fitted with the bulbous stem, which is closed at the top and open at the bottom (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of the stem (larger version). Images found on google.

The device was also used in Hong Kong according to one personal account shared with me:

I believe the apparatus was used not just in Singapore. My mom told me that as a kid in HK in the 1940s/50s, her aunt also had something similar on the altar where she worshipped the [Great] Saint. And when the apparatus made a noise which signified his arrival, they would light up a joss stick.

I don’t know when the bottle was first associated with Sun Wukong, but the above information points to its active use in Asia as far back as the 1950s. It’s my understanding that the bottle is a rarity in modern practice, suggesting it flourished prior to mid-century.

Why the bottle was associated with the Great Sage is also a mystery to me. But the significance of twelve o’clock water may provide some clues. Astrological theory associates noon with wu (午), the seventh of twelve earthly branches, which is in turn identified with horses, the heart, fire yang, the summer solstice, and the direction south (Wu & Taylor, 2014, pp. 133-134). Readers may remember that Sun Wukong is appointed the keeper of the heavenly horses (bimawen, 弼馬溫) in chapter four of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149). Additionally, Chinese philosophy considers the heart to be the seat of the mind (xin, 心; alternatively translated “heart-mind”). This is important as Sun is called the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿; alternatively translated “Mind Ape”), which is a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted, transient thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). 

(Before I continue, I must warn that using the 16th-century novel as a source for modern folk religion surely overlooks beliefs that I am not aware of. The above info should therefore be considered purely speculative.)

A naturalistic explanation for the pinging noise is air escaping from the bottle due to changes in atmospheric pressure. However, I’d like to speculate on a possible esoteric reason. As mentioned above, noon is identified with fire yang, which is considered the height of yang power. In fact, the hours before wu and after zi (子, midnight) are considered the best time to practice Daoist exlixir cultivation. [1] And since heaven is the embodiment of yang, [2] it’s possible worshipers believe water collected at noon is infused with strong yang energy, thereby giving it the ability to detect the presence of celestial deities like the Great Sage.

Update: 08/11/20

J.D. Martinsen contacted me and noted that “drawing noon water” (da wushi shui, 打午時水) is a common practice in coastal China during the Dragon Boat Festival. The water is apparently known for its demonifugic and medicinal properties. In fact, this custom is even practiced in Taiwan where there is a common saying: “A sip of noon water is better than three years of herbal medicine” (wushi shui yin yi zui, jiao hao buyao chi san nian, 午時水飲一嘴,較好補藥吃三年) (Chen, 2011, p. 210). Therefore, this association with warding malevolent influences/sickness may explain why Sun Wukong is connected with noon water. He is after all the exorcist par excellence, as well as a healer.


1) This is noted as early as the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄) (Kohn, 2008, p. 84).

2) See, for example, Clearly (2003), p. 391.


Chen, X. (2011). Taiwan li shi shang de yi min yu she hui yan jiu [The History of Taiwanese Immigration and Social Studies]. Beijing: Jiu zhou chu ban she.

Cleary, T. F. (2003). The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Volume Two. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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

Wu, Z., & Taylor, W. K. (2014). Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches – TianGan DiZhi: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom Traditions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

When was the Monkey King Born?

Last updated: 07/08/2020

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

I was recently contacted by someone writing a Journey to the West fanfiction and asked when the Monkey King was born from stone. I have therefore decided to write an entry for those interested in the subject. I will start at the end of the novel and work my way backwards. The years presented are guesstimates and should not be taken as wholly accurate considering that the novel does not follow a strict historical timeline.

I should point out that this has nothing to do with his religious birthday, which is variously celebrated on the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 82), the twenty-third (Fuzhou) or twenty-fifth day (Putian) of the second lunar month in Fujian (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 288; Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example), and the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month (Taiwan) (see here).

Monkey’s birth from stone (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West (1950).

Chapter 100

Upon the pilgrims’ return to China from India, Tang Emperor Taizong tells Tripitaka, “We have caused you the trouble of taking a long journey. This is now the twenty-seventh year of the Zhenguan period!” (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, p. 374). It should be noted that this era historically lasted from 627 to 650 CE (Zhang, 2015, p. 49). So the novel dates their return to 654 CE, adding four fictional years to the reign period.

The historical Xuanzang returned in 645 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

Chapter 13/14

In chapter fourteen, Tripitaka releases Sun Wukong from under the Mountain of Two Frontiers (a.k.a. Five Elements Mountain) a short time after leaving the confines of the Chinese empire. But prior to taking Monkey as a disciple, he is briefly guarded by the hunter Liu Boqin on his trek westward. Liu tells Tripitaka the history of the area during their journey across the mountain: “A few years ago, I heard from my elders that during the time when Wang Mang usurped the throne of the Han emperor, this mountain fell from Heaven with a divine monkey clamped beneath it” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 306). [1] The former Han official Wang Mang historically ruled from 9 BCE–23 CE (Bielenstein, 1986). I will return to this point below.

Chapter thirteen states Tripitaka leaves from Chang’an “on the third day before the fifteenth of the ninth month in the thirteenth year of the period Zhenguan” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 293). This dates his departure to the year 640 CE.

The historical Xuanzang left China in 627 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

Chapter 7/8

In the beginning of chapter eight, the Buddha says, “We do not know how much time has passed here since I subdued the wily monkey and pacified Heaven, but I suppose at least half a millennium has gone by in the worldly realm…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 203). But as noted above, Wukong is imprisoned during the reign of Wang Mang (r. 9 BCE–23 CE). Therefore, if he is discovered in 640 CE, this means Monkey’s imprisonment lasts anywhere from 617 to 649 years and not 500 as is commonly thought.

Prior to his wager with the Buddha in chapter seven, Wukong is placed into Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. The novel reads, “Truly time passed swiftly, and the forty-ninth day arrived imperceptibly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative previously revealed that “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 167). So this means his turn in the furnace lasts close to fifty years, starting between 40–26 BCE.

Chapter 5

Following Monkey’s initial rebellion and being granted the empty title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, he is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves. He later flees back to earth after eating the life-prolonging fruits and wreaking havoc on the Queen Mother’s peach banquet. Upon his return, his commanders ask him, “The Great Sage has been living for over a century in Heaven. May we ask what appointment he actually received?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 166) (emphasis mine). This dates his ascension to heaven somewhere below the range of 140–126 BCE (150–136 BCE?). I Obviously can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Chapter 3/4

After Wukong bullies the Eastern Dragon King and the Judges of hell, Heaven appoints him the “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” in order to keep his unruly adventures in check. But upon learning that his position is the lowest in heaven, he returns home in rebellion. His children ask, “Having gone to the region above for more than ten years, you must be returning in success and glory” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150) (emphasis mine). This dates his first ascension somewhere below the range 150–136 BCE (160–146 BCE?). Again, I can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Shotaro_Honda_1939 - Hell (small)
Monkey strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death in hell (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

During his time in hell, Monkey calls for the ledger containing his information. Under a heading marked “Soul 1350”, Wukong reads, “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). [2] If we use 160–146 BCE as a conservative estimate for his first ascension, then this dates his birth to somewhere between 502–488 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE). I think 500 BCE is a nice round number.

This means that Sun Wukong is roughly 1,100 years old when he attains Buddhahood at the end of the novel.

Update: 07/08/2020

The novel suggests a two hour window for the time of Wukong’s birth. This takes place in chapter 61 when Monkey is preparing to battle the Bull Demon King over the palm-leaf fan. Our hero recites an emboldening poem, to which Zhu Bajie replies:

Yes! Yes! Yes!
Go! Go! Go!
Who cares if the Bull King says yes or no!
Wood’s born at Boar,
the hog’s its proper mate,
Who’ll lead back the Bull to return to earth.
Monkey is the metal born under shen [申]:
Peaceful and docile, how harmonious!
Use the palm-leaf
As water’s sign.
When flames are extinct, Completion’s attained.
In hard work we persist both night and day
And rush, merit done, to Ullambana Feast (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 154). (emphasis mine)

The monkey is one of twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, each corresponding to an earthly branch, an elemental phase, and a time period. The monkey is born under the shen (申) branch, which is associated with metal and the hours 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM.


1) I am indebted to study_of_journey_to_the_west on Instagram for bringing this passage to my attention.

2) These include three years as Subhuti’s student (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 121), seven as a junior monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117), and “more than ten years” searching the world for a master (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).


Bielenstein, H. (1986). Wang Mang, the Restoration of the Han Dynasty, and Later Han. In D. Twitchett and M. Loewe (Ed.). The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220 (pp. 223-290). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

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

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual Alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A Survey of Village Temples and Ritual Activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social Life of the Chinese: With Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions. With Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau (vol. 1 and 2). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

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

Zhang, Q. (2015). An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Belgium: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Sun Wukong and Births From Stone in World Mythology

Last updated: 01/27/21

This article is a greatly expanded version of this piece.

One of the many unique aspects about Sun Wukong‘s story cycle is his birth from stone (fig. 1). Chapter one of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE) describes how the 36 foot 5 inch (11.09 m) tall, 24 foot (7.31 m) circumference rock issues forth a stone egg after absorbing celestial and terrestrial energies over countless eons:

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo [xian bao, 仙胞]. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg [shi luan, 石卵] about the size of a playing ball [yuan qiu, 圓毬]. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

The description of Wukong’s conception draws on ancient Chinese cosmological ideas regarding the gendered nature of the universe. Works of the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (Hinsch, 2011, pp. 157-158). As quoted above, the stone is “nourished…by the seeds of Heaven and Earth”. This line was likely influenced by philosophical works such as the Yijing which states: “Heaven and Earth come together, and all things take shape and find form. Male and female mix their seed, and all creatures take shape and are born” (Wilhelm & Baynes, 1977, pp. 342-343).

Surprisingly, Wukong is not the only figure from world mythology born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Eliade (1978) comments: “The theme recurs in the great civilizations of Central America (Inca, Maya), in the traditions of certain tribes of Southern American, among the Greeks, the Semites, in the Caucasus, and generally from Asia Minor right down to Oceania” (p. 43). In this article, I will explore eight examples from Asian and Western myth, demonstrating how stone-born figures share certain parallels with Monkey. I will show that, with the exception of creator gods and savior figures, stone-born beings generally have one or more of the following in common: 1) they are the product of masculine heavenly forces and feminine earthly forces (anthropomorphic or otherwise); 2) they violate the natural order by challenging heaven (in one form or another); and 3) they are eventually defeated by the gods. The purpose of this preliminary survey is to better understand an ancient myth cycle that may have influenced the development of the Monkey King’s lore.

Monkey's stone birth, by Zhang Moyi - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article.

1. Other Examples from Eastern Mythology

1.1. Yu the Great 

Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a demi-god, sage-king, and founder of the Xia Dynasty, is generally portrayed in his mythos either violently erupting from the side or back of his mother or emerging (or being hewn with an ax) from the executed body of his father Gun (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 98-101). However, a few sources briefly note his lithic birth. For example, the Han-era Huainanzi (淮南子, 2nd-century BCE) simply states: “Yu was born from a stone” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 100). Lewis (2006) explains Yu’s stone birth is tied to ancient Chinese beliefs about the fertile, creative power of stone, as evidenced by the stone altar of the High Matchmaker (Gao mei, 高媒), which was historically prayed to for children by married couples, as well as legends of the mending of the sky with five magic stones by the primordial goddess Nuwa, the High Matchmaker’s mythic prototype. [1] This naturally has implications for the stone birth of Monkey.

Interestingly, the Jin-era Diwang Shiji (帝王世紀, 3rd-century) states Yu’s mother was impregnated by swallowing magic seeds and a “divine pearl” (shenzhu, 神珠), a type of stone, and even locates his birth in a place called “Stone Knob” (Shiniu, 石紐) (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101). While the mother is not a stone, his birth is effected by a stone and happens in a place named stone. In this instance, the divine pearl is an encapsulation of the same masculine heavenly and feminine earthly forces that help create Wukong.

Yu is of course most famous in Chinese myth for his monumental effort in quelling the fabled world flood and then establishing the nine provinces of China (Birrell, 1999, pp. 81-83). Therefore, as a savior figure his mythos lacks the rebellious challenge against the gods and eventual defeat that marks several figures in this list. However, in a twist, his father Gun is known for violating the natural order by stealing God’s “self-renewing soil” in his quest to quell the flood. For this crime, he is executed (Birrell, 1999, pp. 79-81).

1.2. Qi of Xia

Yu’s son, Qi (啟) or Kai (開), both meaning “open” (fig. 2), [2] is said in an early 4th-century source to have also been born from stone: [3]

When Yu was controlling the floodwaters and was making a passage through Mount Huanyuan, he changed into a bear. He spoke to the Tushan [土山] girl: “If you want to give me some food, when you hear the sound of a drumbeat, come to me.” But Yu leaped on a stone and by mistake drummed on it. The Tushan girl came forward, but when she saw Yu in the guise of a bear she was ashamed and fled. She reached the foothills of Mount Songgao, when she turned into a stone and gave birth to Qi. Yu said, “Give me back my son!” The stone then split open [4] on its north flank and Qi was born (Birrell, 1999, p. 123).

Lewis (2006) notes that early texts, such as the Diwang Shiji, claim this daughter of the Tushan clan is named Nuwa (with variations on her given name), proving that Yu and the goddess were married in some traditions (p. 134). This then strengthens the association between marriage, procreation, and stones.

Birrell (1999) explains a text appearing in the Zhou to Han-era Guicang (歸藏) records that he tried to “steal” (qie, 竊) music from heaven, while the Shanhaijing (山海經) states he received it as a gift from the realm above (pp. 83-84). While not directly related to Qi’s stone birth story, this shows at least one tradition believed Qi followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by stealing from heaven and violating the natural order, much like Wukong steals immortal peaches and wine.

Qi of Xia from the Shanhai Jing - Small

Fig. 2 – A woodblock print of Qi of Xia from a Ming-era version of the Shanhai jing (larger version). Plate XLIV from Strassberg, 2002, p. 168. 

1.3. The Bodhisattva Hilumandju’s Children

One myth explains the origin of the Tibetan peoples from a magic monkey and a rock-ogress (brag srin mo) (fig. 3). While evidence for it goes back to at least the 7th-century, [5] the best known version comes from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century). As the story goes, the Buddha charges the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva with converting the evil creatures of the “Land of Snow” (Tibet) to Buddhism. The latter sends his avatar, the Bodhisattva Hilumandju (possibly a reference to Hanuman), a monkey king with great spiritual powers, to meditate on a mountain top in Tibet. A rock-ogress comes upon his hermitage and attempts to seduce him by taking the form of a female monkey and then a human woman, but each time her advances are rejected due to his supernatural focus. As a result, the rock-ogress threatens to mate with an ogre and produce a race of demonic creatures that would devour the world, thereby heaping sins upon the monkey king if he does not take her as his wife. So after seeking council with his master, Hilumandju agrees to become her husband (I have archived the full story here):

“So be it (Laso),” he made answer. Then the monkey Bodhisattva, fearing lest the rock-ogress should destroy herself, departed in all haste for the Abode of Snow, and as soon as he arrived he took her unto him as his wife. When the space of nine months had elapsed she bore him six sons, who participated of the nature of the six classes of sentient creatures subject to birth and death. As their father was a monkey, so their bodies were covered with hair, and as their mother was a rock-ogress, so they had tails; their faces were reddish and they were most unsightly. From the mortal gods, one had gentleness and patience; from the mortal (lit., subject to birth and death) Asuras (lh’a-mayin), one of them derived angry passions and quarrelsomeness. One of them had in part great lusts, and love of worldly riches, which qualities he owed to mortal man. One of them owed to hell’s mortal fiends, hate, and anger, and great hardiness. One partook of the mortal Préta’s (yidag) characteristics in being deformed, from his cravings for food (lit., bad stomach), and his avariciousness. One partook of mortal brute beasts in not being able to distinguish right from wrong, and in having neither comprehension nor cleverness. When born they were ruddy-faced, had a taste for flesh and blood, and hair covered their heads and bodies, and, moreover, they knew how to speak (Rockhill, 1891, pp. 357-358). [6]

The resulting six offspring mate with monkeys and reproduce in the many hundreds, becoming more and more human with each new generation. When they eat all of their resources and begin to starve, Avalokitesvara gives Hilumandju grain and jewels for his descendants to grow and mine until they are fully human and ready to receive the Buddhist teachings (Rockhill, 1891, pp. 358-361).

The rock-ogress and her kind are portrayed as vicious, blood-thirsty creatures beyond Avalokitesvara’s ability to convert to Buddhism (Rockhill, 1891, p. 359). The rock-monkey children inherit not only their mother’s misshapen appearance but also many of her negative qualities, making them resistant to the teachings. So, in a way, they too violate the natural order.

I obviously can’t continue without commenting on this tale’s interesting parallels with Sun Wukong. Hilumandju is a monkey king who uses his magic powers in the service of Buddhism at the behest of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. And like Wukong, Hilumandju’s children are the product of a masculine heavenly force and a feminine earthly force (the rock-ogress). Wukong is a monkey king who uses his magic powers in the service of Buddhism at the behest of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (the feminine form of Avalokitesvara).

Tibetan origin myth painting - Monkey and Ogress - small

Fig. 3 – A modern painting showing the monkey and rock ogress of Tibetan myth (larger version). Original from Wikipedia.

2. Stone Births in Western Mythology 

Jong (1997) explains Western myths of stone-born figures “are usually connected with the Song of Ullikummi known from Hittite and Hurrian sources” (p. 292). He continues:

There are many more myths or complexes of myths which largely follow the same pattern: the cycle of Agdistis from Phrygia, the Nart-epics of the Ossetes, the Jewish myths of the monster Armillus and—for some aspects—the Georgian myth cycles of Amirani [fig. 4] (Jong, 1997, p. 292).


Fig. 4 – A chart showing the existence of the rock-born son trope from other cultures (larger version). From Jong, 1997, p. 293.

2.1. Ullikummi

The aforementioned Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE) appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. While named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya” (Ruthford, 2018), foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home (I have archived papers reconstructing the story here and here):

Out of the [rock’s] body like a blade he sprang.
He shall go! Ullikummi be his name!
Up to Heaven to kingship he shall go,
and Kummiya, the dear town, he shall press down!
But the Storm-God he shall hit,
and like salt he shall pound him,
and like an ant with (his) foot he shall crush him!
But Tasmisu [7] like a …… reed he shall break off!
All the gods down from Heaven like birds he shall scatter,
and like empty vessels he shall break them! (Güterbock, 1951, p. 153).

Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads seventy deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. Güterbock (1951) suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (p. 140). [8]

Like Monkey and the other figures listed above, Ullikummi is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Kumarbi) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). Although the assault on heaven is orchestrated by his father, Ullikummi’s challenge to the gods, like that of Monkey, violates the natural order. And his presumed defeat in the end also follows the story cycle of Wukong.

I’d like to add that King Tesub seeking aid from Ea, leading to Ullikummi’s defeat, is reminiscent of the Jade Emperor asking for the Buddha to intervene, leading to Wukong’s defeat.

Fig. 5 – Ullikummi as a playable character from the online video game Final Fantasy XI (larger version).

2.2. Mithras 

The Greco-Roman god of light, Mithras, [9] is perhaps the best known and studied of the stone-born deities in Western mythology. Researchers often refer to his birth stone using the Latin term Petra Genetrix, or the “Fecund rock”. Manfred Clauss notes the symbolism of the rock is tied to the earth and the cosmic egg (I have archived the relevant chapter section here).

The multi-layered quality of Mithraic symbolism…reappears in the case of the rock: represented and understood not only as the kosmos but also as the earth, on many images it is encircled by a serpent, [fig. 6] a creature associated with the earth (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 67).


We can discern the influence of Orphic speculation in a Greek inscription from one of the numerous mithraea in Rome, on a statue-base dedicated Διi ‘Hλω Miθpa Φávητı, that is to Deus Sol Mithras Phanes. Phanes is the embodiment of unlimited light, an Orphic deity who emerged from the cosmic egg. There is also literary evidence for the syncretism of Mithras with Phanes. In this community, therefore, Mithras’ identification with the sun god grounded an allusion to the Orphic-Platonic ideas current among the intellectual élites. Mithras-Phanes is also known to us in iconographic form: a relief from Vercovicium (Housesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall shows Mithras emerging from the cosmic egg, [fig. 7] which is represented both as such and by the shape of the zodiacal ring (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 70).

Mithras’ position as a solar deity and depiction emerging from a cosmic egg/stone establishes him as a self-born creator god. This is supported by another aspect of his holy narrative: the slaying of the bull. Stone reliefs depict him in a great struggle to pin the animal down and then strike it in the neck with a knife. Since the bull was symbolic of the moon (and thus death), its sacrifice is seen as the creation of life and the cosmos. This is represented by zodiac symbols—the path of the newly formed planets—on the god’s fluttering cloak and by grapes or ears of corn in place of the pooled blood on the ground (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, pp. 78-90). Therefore, like Yu the Great, Mithras’ feat distances him from the rebellion and defeat that mark other figures in this list.

Sun Wukong is similar to Mithras as he too struggles against bovine opponents, including Laozi’s buffalo in chapters 50 to 52 and the Bull Demon King in chapters 59 to 61. However, Monkey’s conception involves the mingling of masculine heavenly and feminine earthly forces, while Mithras is born of a virginal stone.

Mithra birth from stone images for Monkey stone birth article

Fig. 6 – An example of Mithras’ serpent-wrapped birth rock from Austria. A larger version is available on Wikicommons; Fig. 7 – The deity emerging from a cosmic egg surrounded by the western Zodiac symbols (larger version). From the Homesteads Roman Fort along Hadrian’s Wall. Found on this article

2.3. Diorphus

Mithras’ son, Diorphus, is said to have also been born from a stone. Pseudo-Plutarch (c. 3rd-century) writes:

Near to this [the Araxes] river lies the mountain Diorphus, so called from Diorphus the son of the Earth, of whom this story is reported. Mithras desirous to have a son, yet hating woman-kind, lay with a stone, till he had heated it to that degree that the stone grew big, and at the prefixed time was delivered of a son, called Diorphus; who, growing up and contending with Mars for courage and stoutness, was by him slain, and by the providence of the Gods was transformed into the mountain which was called Diorphus by his name (Plutarch & Goodwin, 1874, p. 505).

Diorphus is similar to Monkey, Qi of Xia, and the Bodhisattva Hilumandju’s children as he is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Mithras) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). He and Qi share a further connection as they are both the sons of beings who were themselves born from stone. And much like Wukong, Diorphus violates the natural order by challenging the gods (in this case Mars) and is defeated, being transformed into a mountain after his death. While not exactly the same, the end result brings to mind Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain.

The tale of Diorphus’ conception follows the same tradition as the Story of Ullikummi where a god intends to sire a son with a stone and not a goddess, resulting in a powerful, rebellious offspring.

 2.4 Agdistis

The god Agdistis is a monstrous, hermaphroditic being sired by Zeus. His story is recorded by Arnobious of Sicca (died c. 330):

Within the confines of Phrygia, he says (Timotheus), there is a rock of unheard-of wildness in every respect, the name of which is Agdus, so named by the natives of that district. Stones taken from it, as Themis by her oracle had enjoined, Deucalion and Pyrrha threw upon the earth, [10] at that time emptied of men; from which this Great Mother, too, as she is called, was fashioned along with the others, and animated by the deity. Her, given over to rest and sleep on the very summit of the rock, Jupiter assailed with lewdest desires. But when, after long strife, he could not accomplish what he had proposed to himself, he, baffled, spent his lust on the stone. This the rock received, and with many groanings Acdestis (Agdistis) is born in the tenth month, being named from his mother rock. In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars.

Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skillfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree… (Burkert, 1979, pp. 255-256)

Agdistis is similar to Monkey and the above figures as he is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Zeus) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). And like Wukong’s rebellion, the hermaphrodite’s raw, destructive nature threatens the primacy of heaven. As a result, both Agdistis and Monkey share a superiority complex, believing they are mightier than the gods. The deities fear their power and therefore seek ways to tame them. Wukong is placated for a time with celestial posts before ultimately being imprisoned by the Buddha, while Agdistis is stripped of his manhood. 

Agdistis’ conception also follows the tradition of Ullikummi and Diorphus. The end result of Zeus’s attempted rape of the stone/earth goddess is a powerful, rebellious offspring.  

2.5 Armilus

The Book of Zerubbabel (7th-century) describes Armilus, a Jewish anti-messiah figure, as the spawn of Satan and a world conqueror who will force all to worship his lithic mother. Knohl (2009) presents the section where Zerubbabel learns of Armilus from an angel:

This city is Nineveh, the city of bloodshed, which is the big Rome. And I have said to him: “When would be the end of these awful things?’ And he took me by my hand and brought me to the house of disgrace.

And he showed me there a marble stone in the shape of a very beautiful virgin. And he said to me: ‘What do you see, Zerubbabel?’ And I said: ‘I see a marble stone in the shape of a very beautiful woman.’

And he told me: “This stone is the wife of Belial [Satan], and when Belial sees her, he will lie with her and she will become pregnant and will bear him Armilus, and she will be the chief idolatry. And he (Armilus) will rule over the whole world and his dominion will be from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth. And he will make signs. He will worship strange gods, and will speak words against the Most High and no one will be able to stand against him. And all nations will go astray after him except for Israel.

And he Armilus will take his mother from the house of disgrace and all places and all nations will worship this stone and will make sacrifices and libations to it. And no one will be able to look upon her face because of her beauty. He is Arimolaus son of Satan, and he will become a King in Emmaus, the city of his father, and his fear will fall in all places (pp. 79-81). [11]

Another tradition explains Armilus will proclaim himself God and, having won the trust of Christians, lead a vast army to decimate Jews who stand against him. In the end, though, God or the Messiah will gather the scattered Israelites and defeat Armilus:

But as Armilus nevertheless insists upon being recognized as God by the Jews, and they cry out to him that he is Satan and not God, a bitter battle breaks out between Armilus with an immense heathen army on the one side, and Nehemiah with 30,000 Jewish heroes on the other. This unequal combat ends in the death of the “Ephraimite Messiah” and a million Jews. After an interval of forty-five days, … Michael will blow his trumpet; then the Messiah and Elijah will appear, gather the dispersed of Israel, and proceed to Jerusalem. Armilus, inflamed against the Jews, will march against the Messiah. But now God Himself will war against Armilus and his army and destroy them; or the Messiah, as one version has it, will slay Armilus by the breath of his mouth (Kohler & Ginzberg, 1906, p. 119).

Like Monkey and the above figures, Armilus is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Satan) and a feminine earthly force (the stone statue). He violates the natural order by proclaiming himself God and even fights against the All Mighty, much like Monkey proclaims himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” and leads an army against heaven. Armilus’ defeat by God is also like Wukong’s subjugation by the Buddha, Diorphus’ death by Mars, and Ullikummi’s presumed besting by the gods.

Armilus’ conception also follows the tradition of Ullikummi, Diorphus, and Agdistis. Satan lays with the stone statue with the intent of creating a powerful, rebellious offspring.

2.6. Soslan

The hero Soslan, also known as Sozryko, appears in a body of legends associated with the Caucasian Nart Saga:

At the sight of the beautiful Satana [the mother of the Narts] washing clothes on the riverbank, a shepherd across the river poured out his semen on a stone from which, nine months later, the child Soslan came forth. When he had grown up, he demanded to be “tempered” in the milk of a she-wolf, a treatment destined to make him invulnerable. The divine smith Kurdalägon dropped him into a trough containing one hundred goatskins of milk, but since the trough was too short, Soslan had to bend his knees, which consequently were not tempered and thus remained vulnerable.

After a long existence devoted to war exploits, mostly miraculous, Soslan insulted the daughter of Balsäg, a kind of celestial spirit, who took his vengeance by discharging at Soslan a living steel wheel that he controlled. The hero was hit by the wheel on all parts of his body successively and threw it back without being injured until, on the advice of the treacherous Syrdon [a figure similar to Loki], the wheel hit him on the knees and smashed them to pieces. According to an eastern Circassian variant, Soslan indulged in a game during which the Narts, again at Syrdon’s instigation, threw a wheel made of serrated steel at him from the top of a hill. It hit the distracted Soslan in the knees (Honigsblum, 1993, p. 264).

Despite the slight difference, Soslan’s parentage still follows the same tradition as Ullikummi, Diorphus, Agdistis, and Armilus. His father is humanoid, while his mother is a stone. The change from deity to lowly human shows that, in this case, even mortal sperm was thought capable of magically fertilizing earth.

Fig. 8 – “Soslan vs Balsag Wheel” by Maharbek Tuganov (larger version).

3. Influence on popular culture

Monkey’s stone birth is so well known that it is referenced in the world famous anime Dragon Ball Z (DBZ). The original Dragon Ball series presents the main character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, as a good-natured little boy with bulletproof skin and a monkey tail. However, DBZ reveals him to be a Saiyan, a humanoid alien warrior, who was sent as an infant in a rocket ship (à la Superman) to destroy Earth. This vessel, known as an “Attack Ball” (Atakku Bōru, アタックボール), is spherical in shape and represents the stone from which Wukong is born (fig. 9). It is a fun little twist on the original lore.

Fig. 9 – Goku in the stone egg-like Attack Ball (larger version).

4. Conclusion

Eliade (1978) comments that “stone is an archetypal image expressing absolute reality, life and holiness” (p. 43). It is both the cosmic egg, from which the universe sprang, and the womb of the great Mother Goddess, from which all life arises. This brief survey demonstrates that stone is capable of giving birth to creator gods, protoplasts, savior figures, heroes, and even great monsters. But much like a human egg, a father is needed to fertilize it with sperm. Sun Wukong’s stone is nourished by the seeds of heaven. The first Tibetans, born of a rock-ogress, are sired by the Bodhisattva Hilumandju. In almost all cases in Western mythology (with the exception of Soslan), the pater is a heavenly force, an anthropomorphic deity, who begets a son by impregnating a stone in place of a goddess or mortal woman. Examples include Kumarbi and the stone titan Ullikummi, Mithras and the foolhardy Diorphus, Zeus and the violent Agdistis, and Satan and the anti-Messiah Armilus. Misogyny aside, the myths discussed speak to some belief that a son born of stone would pose a threat to the gods. I suggest this tendency towards violating the natural order is a manifestation of their unnatural births.

Sun Wukong’s birth narrative was likely influenced by that of Yu the Great and his son Qi/Kai considering that our hero wields the sage-king’s cosmic ruler, the gold-banded cudgel, as a weapon. But since Monkey’s stone birth and later rebellion mirror the tales above, might this suggest the author-compiler of Journey to the West was aware of the ancient myth cycle of a stone-born son who challenges heaven? Many of the cited Western myths show a clear affinity with the Song of Ullikummi. For example, Burkert (1979) notes six similarities between the myths of Agdistis and the stone titan: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (p. 257). Sound familiar? If this circa 12th-century BCE myth cycle spread west from Anatolia to Greece, could not a version of it have spread east and penetrated China by way of Persia? This need not have been the original Ullikummi story but an older protomyth or even a later variation. Of course this begs the question: How would the author-compiler have learned about this story? Needless to say, much, much more research is needed to determine if such a dissemination took place. Similarities alone aren’t enough without some kind of textural, oral, or archaeological evidence. Perhaps in the future a scholar more qualified than myself will pursue this line of inquiry.

Updated: 01/27/21

I have found a full account of the mythical stone birth of the Nart hero Soslan. It is portrayed as volcanic in nature, with the birth stone growing as it is baked in an oven for nine months. And finally, the child is born glowing red hot, causing a god of blacksmiths to quench and anneal him in water.

There were two brothers, the sons of Sajem. The elder was named Zartyzh, the younger Shawey.

One day Setenaya [Satana] was bathing by the river. On the water’s other side stood one of these brothers, the Nart herdsman Sajemuquo Zartyzh, also called Tezhidada, the “Eldest Ram.” From where he stood he was able to see Lady Setenaya. When that brother saw the beautiful temptress going back and forth, not standing still, strewing her clothes about, he could no longer control his passion. He was enchanted by her beauty and so let loose an arrow of manly fluid.

“Setenaya” It is coming to you.”

“So, let it come, but why did you do that?” said Setenaya.

“Hey, Setenaya! By day I tend the sheep. By night, when I come to you, the lance is always stuck in the ground in front of your house. so how would you have me do it?” said the shepherd.

Heavy steam arose as the bolt skimmed over the water, tracing a path until it reached Setenaya, but the bolt of lust just missed her and instead fell on a stone that was lying beside her on the riverbank. Setenaya picked up the stone, wrapped it in a warm cloth, brought it home, and placed it in the stove. Day by day the stone grew. It lay for nine months and nine days. During this time it grew in size and became very big. Lady Setenaya had her people bring the stone to Tlepsh‘s smithy. There she bade Tlepsh, the god of the forge, to break open the stone.

Tlepsh did as she had bidden him. From inside the stone emerged a baby boy, glowing as bright as fire. The baby fell on the front part of Setenaya’s dress and burned through it until he fell to the ground. Tlepsh seized him with his blacksmith’s tongs, and holding him by the thighs plunged him into the water for the grindstone seven times, thus cooling the baby. Then once again Tlepsh picked up the little child with his metal tongs by his thighs and hardened him seven times, so that the child’s skin became a little bit more flexible. The child became like a human being, but his skin remained tough, like tempered steel. Tlepsh named the baby Sawseruquo [Soslan] and gave him back to Setenaya.

On his thighs, where Tlepsh had held him with the tongs, Sawseruquo’s skin remained soft like human skin, and because his thighs had been squeezed, he was bowlegged (Colarusso, 2015, pp. 52-53).

This story has obvious parallels with the Greek story of Achilles, a mighty warrior with a vulnerable spot on his feet. Interestingly, a character from the Iliad (8th-century BCE) suggests due to his unwillingness to help in comrades in battle, Achilles’ parents were not the human couple commonly associated with him but the very sea and a rock cliff. Alepidou (2020) convincingly argues that these are references to the ancient Hurro-Hittite “Story of Hedammu” and the “Story of Ullikummi”. Hedammu, the offspring of Kumarbi and a sea goddess, was a massive sea creature that plagued the earth and sea. As noted above, Kumarbi’s subsequent offspring, Ullikummi, is a stone giant who attacked heaven. The stone titan is defeated when he is chiseled free from his base of power on the shoulder of an underworld god. This weakness of the lower extremities likely influenced that of Achilles and Soslan.


1) See chapter four, especially the sections “The Mythology of Nü Gua and the Flood” and “Yu, Marriage, and the Body”.

2) Strassberg (2002) explains the variant Kai (開) was used during the Han to avoid conflicting with Emperor Jing’s personal name, Liu Qi (劉啟) (p. 169). Whether Qi or Kai is used, both names reference the story of the stone splitting open to give birth to Yu’s son. See also note four below.  

3)Birrell (1999) writes:

It is said by the Tang classical scholar and commentator Yan Shigu (A.D. 581-645) to be a reference he located in a text from Huainanzi, compiled circa 139 B.C. That text, however, does not appear in the extant editions of Huainanzi. The only reference the latter makes to the Yu/Qi myth is: “Yu was born of a stone.” Embroidered versions of the metamorphosis of the Tushan girl into stone begin to appear in the writings of Han commentators such as Gao You (third century A.D.), and Ying Shao (second century A.D.). The fourth-century commentator of The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Guo Pu, however, specifies that the mother of Qi (Kai) metamorphosed into stone and gave birth to Qi on the mountain. Thus the tradition of Qi’s miraculous birth is confirmed by at least the early fourth century A.D. and probably derives from an earlier tradition (p. 122).

I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) The stone “splitting open” is related to stories of sage-kings erupting from the backs or sides of their mothers, splitting them open in the process (Cook & Luo, 2017, pp. 97-100). See also note two above.

5) Sørensen notes that the myth was depicted in a mural from the famous Jokhang Temple, which was built in the 7th-century (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 582). 

6) Another version of the tale appears in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, 14th-century). An annotated translation can be read in Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, pp. 125-133.

7) The vizier and brother of Tesub.

8) Güterbock (1951), pp. 138-140 gives a summary of the tale. The paper also translates the first half of the fragmented epic. Güterbock (1952) translates the other half. Both papers are archived above.

9) I am indebted to Jose Loayza for bringing the stone birth of Mithras to my attention. This resulted in the rest of the Western figures in this article.

10) This references another myth in which, following the great flood, mankind is repopulated by Deucalion and Pyrrha casting the “bones” (stones) of the “great mother” (Gaia) over their shoulders. Thus thrown, the stones soften and take on human shape. See for example Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Ovid & More (n.d.)).

11) Knohl (2009) suggests Armilus’ story is a veiled attack against Augustus Caesar: 1) who is said to have been sired by the god Apollo under the guise of a dragon, the Jewish symbol for Satan; 2) who founded the Greek city of Nicopolis, which brings to mind the biblical Emmaus Nicopolis; 3) and who helped spread the cult of the goddess Roma (a statue of a beautiful woman) (pp. 81-83). So Satan impregnating the stone statue to produce Armilus likely refers to the myth of Apollo siring Augustus.


Alepidou, A. (2020). Near Eastern Echoes in Iliad 16.33–35, Yearbook of Ancient Greek Epic Online4(1), 1-26. doi:

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, & Sørensen, P. K. (1994). The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies: Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: An Annotated Translation of the XIVth Century Tibetan Chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Burkert, W. (1979). Von Ullikummi zum Kaukasus. Die Felsengeburt des Unholds. Würzb. Jahrbb. 5, 252-261. Retrieved from

Clauss, M., & Gordon, R. (2001). The Roman Cult of Mithras: The god and his mysteries. New York: Routledge.

Colarusso, J. (2015). Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz and Ubykhs. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cook, C. A., & Luo, X. (2017). Birth in Ancient China: A study of metaphor and cultural identity in pre-imperial China. Albany: State University of New York Press

Eliade, M. (1978). The Forge and the Crucible (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Güterbock, H. (1951). The Song of Ullikummi Revised Text of the Hittite Version of a Hurrian Myth. Journal of Cuneiform Studies,5(4), 135-161. doi:10.2307/1359008

Güterbock, H. (1952). The Song of Ullikummi Revised Text of the Hittite Version of a Hurrian Myth (Continued). Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 6(1), 8-42. doi:10.2307/1359160

Hinsch, B. (2011). Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Honigsblum, G. (1993). The Religion and Myths of the Ossets. In Y. Bonnefoy (Ed.). American, African, and Old European mythologies (pp. 262-265). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jong, A. (1997). Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin literature. Leiden; New York: Brill.

Knohl, I. (2009). Messiahs and Resurrection in ‘The Gabriel Revelation’. Israel: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Kohler, K., & Ginzberg, L. (1906). Armilus. In The Jewish Encyclopedia (vol. 2, pp. 118-120). United Kingdom: Funk & Wagnalls. Retrieved from

Lewis, M. E. (2006). The Flood Myths of Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ovid, & More, B. (n.d.). Metamorphoses, lines 348-415. Retrieved June 6, 2020, from

Plutarch, & Goodwin, W. W. (1874). Plutarch’s Morals: Translated from Greek by Several Hands. United States: Little, Brown. Retrieved from

Rockhill, W. W. (1891). The Land of the Lamas: Notes of a Journey Through China, Mongolia and Tibet with maps and Illustrations. New York: Century Co.

Ruthford, I. (2018). Kingship in Heaven in Anatolia, Syria and Greece: Patterns of Convergence and Divergence. In L. Audley-Miller & In B. Dignas (Ed.). Wandering Myths: Transcultural Uses of Myth in the Ancient World. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc.

Wilhelm, H., & Baynes, C. F. (1977). I Ching or Book of Changes (3rd ed.). Princeton University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2013). Journey to the West, Revised Edition (vol. 1). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Generals Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear

Last updated: 04/26/20

After Monkey’s birth from stone in chapter one, two beams of light shoot forth from his eyes, [1] alarming the Jade Emperor in heaven (fig. 1). The cosmic ruler then orders the personification of his eyes and ears, generals Thousand-Mile Eye (Qianliyan, 千里眼) and Fair-Wind Ear (Shunfenger, 順風耳), respectively, to trace the source:

At this command the two captains went out to the gate, and, having looked intently and listened clearly, they returned presently to report, “Your subjects, obeying your command to locate the beams, discovered that they came from the Flower-Fruit Mountain at the border of the small Aolai Country, which lies to the east of the East Pūrvavideha Continent. On this mountain is an immortal stone that has given birth to an egg. Exposed to the wind, it has been transformed into a monkey, who, when bowing to the four quarters, has flashed from his eyes those golden beams that reached the Palace of the Polestar. Now that he is taking some food and drink, the light is about to grow dim.” With compassionate mercy the Jade Emperor declared, “These creatures from the world below are born of the essences of Heaven and Earth, and they need not surprise us” (vol. 1, p. 102).

Monkey Lazer Eyes - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey’s laser eyes. From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939) (larger version). 

I. History

Today, these generals are celebrated as the guardians of Mazu (fig. 2), a popular sea goddess worshiped in Southern China, Macao, and Taiwan. Thousand-Mile Eye is commonly portrayed as a fierce, red warrior scanning the horizon with one hand shielding his eyes (fig. 3), while Fair-Wind Ear is green with one hand to his ear (fig. 4). According to Ruitenbeek (1999), the story of their subjugation is told in a series of circa 1880 mural paintings from the Temple of Divine Mercy (Lingcimiao, 靈慈廟) in Fengting village (楓停), Xianyou district (仙遊), Fujian.

Thousand-Miles Eye (in the murals called Jinxing yan [金星眼], “Venus-eye”), in the disguise of a lovely girl, lures men into a cave, and then dismembers and devours them. [2] When With-the-Wind Ear sees this, he starts a fight with Thousand-Miles Eye, but in the end the two monsters pledge to become sworn brothers. Guanyin, seated on Mount Potala, orders the Dragon’s Daughter to tell Mazu to subdue the monsters. In the first round of the battle, Mazu is forced to retreat. She then implores heavenly warriors to help her, and with their assistance is able to defeat the two monsters. Thereafter, Thousand-Miles Eye and With-the-Wind Ear become her loyal servants. First they help Mazu to fight a man-eating lion, thereafter they subdue the Evil Dragon Monster (p. 316).

Mazu with generals - small

Fig. 2 – Mazu with her generals (larger version). Fig. 3 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 4 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Original artist unknown.

I am unsure when the generals where first associated with Mazu. They are only alluded to in passing as subjugated planetary spirits in the goddess’ early 17th-century pious novel Record of the Miracles Performed by the Heavenly Princess (Tianfei xiansheng lu, 天妃顯聖錄) (Ruitenbeek, 1999, p. 319). However, it is clear from their appearance in Journey to the West that they were associated with the Jade Emperor during the late 16th-century. [3] This association stretches back to at least the Shaoxing (紹興, 1131–1162) period of Song Emperor Gaozong, for they appear with the cosmic monarch among the rock carvings of the Shimen Mountain Grotto (Shimen shan shiku, 石門山石窟), one of many sites making up the world famous Dazu rock carvings in Sichuan (fig. 5-7). [4]  

Qianliyan and Shunfeng'er with Jade Emperor - Shimen Mountain Grotto - Danzu Rock Carvings - Song Dynasty - For article (small)

Fig. 5 – Song-era statues of generals Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) guarding the Jade Emperor’s alcove (larger version). From the Shimen Mountain Grotto. Photo originally from this article. Fig. 6 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Photos originally from this article

Readers will notice that, apart from being dressed differently, neither statue is striking their characteristic pose. These poses came later and may have been influenced by earlier deities. For example, Nikaido (2011) writes that a Song-era sea god named Zhaobao Qilang (招寶七郎) is sometimes depicted shielding his eyes just like Thousand-Mile Eye, and so he cautiously suggests that, once the deity’s cult waned in popularity and yielded to Mazu, this trait may have been passed on to her general (pp. 89-90). Conversely, the poses could simply be based on postures used by the very sailors who worshiped such gods. After all, keen eyesight and hearing are skills needed to successfully navigate the open ocean.

II. Golden headbands

The generals are normally depicted wearing flowing clothing or open armor to show off their muscular physiques. Apart from their divine sashes, they are commonly shown wearing golden armbands, bracelets, and / or anklets, as well as a tiger skin at the waist. These traits appear to be consistent from all the examples that I’ve seen in Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, the statues in Taiwan stand out the most to me because they are often depicted wearing golden fillets on their heads just like Sun Wukong (fig. 8). This is because these headbands share a common origin.

Qianliyan and Shunfenger religious statues

Fig. 8 – Religious statues of Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) (larger version). Take note of the headbands. Also refer back to figures 4 and 5. Photo originally found here

I explain in this article that the golden fillet can be traced to a list of prescribed ritual items worn by ancient Buddhist yogins in their worship of Hevajra / Heruka, a wrathful protector deity. These items appear in the 8th-century Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經):

The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62; Cf. Linrothe, 1999, p. 250).

You will notice that all of the items associated with the generals, including the headband, the rings on the arms, wrists, and ankles, and the tiger skin are listed here. This is because wrathful protector deities were often depicted in the same attire as their followers, leading to the fillet becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits. For instance, the Hevajra Tanta describes Hevajra / Heruka as a wrathful youth wearing such clothing:

Dark blue and like the sun in colour with reddened and extended eyes, his yellow hair twisted upwards, and adorned with the five symbolic adornments,/ the circlet, the ear-rings and necklace, the bracelets and belt. These five symbols are well known for the purificatory power of the Five Buddhas./ He has the form of a sixteen-year-old youth and is clad in a tiger-skin. His gaze is wrathful. In his left hand he holds a vajra-skull, and a khatvahga [staff] likewise in his left, while in his right is a vajra of [a] dark hue… (Linrothe, 1999, p. 256; Cf. Farrow & Menon, 2001, p. 44).

The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455), allowing this iconography to spread eastward. A prime example is the 13th-century Kaiyuan Temple Pagoda carving of Sun Wukong in Fujian. He is depicted with the headband, armbands, bracelets, anklets, and possibly even a tigerskin apron (fig. 9). 

Given the close cultural connection between Fujian and Taiwan, the generals’ depiction with fillets is likely based on previous examples from the southern Chinese province.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 9 – The  Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .

It’s interesting to note that Fair-Wind Ear’s statue from Shimen Mountain Grotto in Sichuan has the aforementioned body rings (refer back to fig. 6). His head is unfortunately damaged, though. I would be interested in analyzing similarly dressed guardian figures in the area to see if they wear a fillet.

Update: 04/22/20

Here is a lovely Dutch engraving of a Mazu temple from a 17th-century book by Olfert Dapper (fig. 10). The generals can be seen standing in their characteristic poses to the left (fig. 11) and right (fig. 12) of the main altar stage. Their attire includes the aforementioned body rings (and possibly tiger skin pants) but no headband.

Mazu temple with detials of generals, from Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Oost-Indische Maetschappye (1670) - small

Fig. 10 – Engraving from Memorable Mission of the Dutch East India Company up the Coast to China and into the Empire of Taising of China (Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Ooste-Indische Maetschappye, op de kuste en in het keizerrijk van Taising of Sina, 1670) (larger version). Image from the Clark Collection. Fig. 11 – A detail of General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 12 – A detail of General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version).

Update: 04/26/20

The Puji Temple (普濟寺) in Datong district (大同區), Taipei (near my home) includes door god paintings of the two generals (fig. 13-16). They are depicted with bejeweled headbands. These demonstrate the variability of fillet designs. 

Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear (Puji Temple, Taipei) - For Article - small

Fig. 13 – General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of his head (larger version). Fig. 15. General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 16 – Detail of his head (larger version).


1) This feat may be based on Daoist mind-training exercises where adepts try to expand their vision to the ends of the earth/cosmos. According to Robinet (1979), one source reads: “Consider that your two eyes radiate a single light which is like liquid fire and as brilliant as the stars; glowing red, it extends for ten thousand miles. The mountains, marshes, rivers, thickets and forests of the four directions are all resplendent with its light” (p. 55). 

2) Wukong states in chapter 27 that he used the same trick to eat humans:

When I was a monster back at the Water-Curtain Cave, I would act like this if I wanted to eat human flesh. I would change myself into gold or silver, a lonely building, a harmless drunk, or a beautiful woman. Anyone feeble-minded enough to be attracted by me I would lure back to the cave. There I would enjoy him as I pleased, by steaming or boiling. If I couldn’t finish him off in one meal, I would dry the leftovers in the sun to keep for rainy days (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).

3) The generals are associated with Huaguang Dadi (華光大帝) in Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). They are referred to as Li Lou (離婁) and Shi Kuang (師曠) (Nikaido, 2011, p. 90). They also make an appearance in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620). Ruitenbeek (1999) writes:

[T]hey occur, without the context of Mazu, in the guise of the brothers Gao Ming and Gao Jue. In reality, these were a Peach-tree Spirit and a Willow-tree Ogre, who had availed themselves of the divine power of two clay statues of Qianli yan and Shunfeng er in the temple of Xuan Yuan in Qipanshan. Only after these statues were smashed to pieces did they lose their power. They were subsequently transformed into Shenshu and Yulei, better known as the Door Gods (p. 319).

4) See Zhao (n.d.). These carvings are described by Hu (1994). I unfortunately don’t have access to it at the time of this writing.


Bangdel, D., & Huntington, J. C. (2003). The circle of bliss: Buddhist meditational art. Chicago, Ill: Serindia Publications.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Hu, W. (1994). Sichuan jiaodao fojiao shiku yishu [Taoist and Buddhist Sichuan rock cave art]. Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Nikaido, Y. (2011). The transformation of gods in Chinese popular religion: The examples of Huaguang dadi and Zhaobao Qilang. A Selection of Essays on Oriental Studies of the Institute for Cultural Interaction Studies. Osaka: Kansai University, 85-92.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Ruitenbeek, K. (1999). Mazu, the patroness of sailors, in Chinese pictorial art. Artibus Asia 58(3/4). 281-329. Retrieved from

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

Zhao, W. (n.d.). Yuhuang dadi jianglin Shimenshan [The Jade Emperor Descends to Shimen Mountain].  Retrieved April 21, 2020, from

Idea: Sun Wukong Animated Music Short

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

Back in 2010 I thought of a short music-based animation set in the Journey to the West universe. The music is a modern arrangement of the 19th-century classic “In the Hall of the Mountain King” composed by Edvard Grieg for Henrik Ibsen‘s play Peer Gynt in 1876. The original play is based on an old Norwegian tale about a man named Per Gynt who travels the land rescuing maidens from the clutches of trolls. The music is used during the play to enhance the drama and action of a particular scene where Peer attempts to hide and then escape from the hall of the mountain king. This plot obviously shares many similarities with Journey to the West. Sun Wukong spends the majority of the novel rescuing Tripitaka from the mountain strongholds of various demon kings.

The arrangement I’ve chosen is performed by the Finnish operatic metal band Apocalyptica, who originally gained fame by covering Metallica songs with cellos. I recommend reading the time-stamped material once, then listening to the song, and then reading and listening in unison to better understand. You can possibly use the stopwatch on your phone and start it the same time as the music.

Apocalyptica’s arrangement of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.

The animation would be completely silent to accommodate the music, the various notes acting as dialogue or sound effects.

0:00 – 0:29 – The scene opens in a cave where a mountain demon is celebrating news that the Tang monk is headed to his territory. An imp runs in to inform him that Tripitaka has been spotted in the mountain with only two of his three disciples.

0:30 – 1:03 – The demon king leaves the cave and silently spies on them from afar as Tripitaka on his dragon-horse, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing walk down a path through the mountains. When it’s obvious that Wukong is off running errands for his master, the demon magically disguises himself as an elderly man or woman and waits for them, drawing them near.

  • The notes in this section sound like someone is sneaking around.

1:04 – 1:42 – He reveals his true form, grabs the monk, and orders his imps to attack Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing. The two fight but are over powered by sheer numbers.

  • The change up from the sneaky notes is when he reveals his true self.
  • Each of the high-pitched notes here represent imps attacking the disciples in wave after wave, coming faster and faster until they are overwhelmed.

1:43 – 1:52 – The monk calls out Sun Wukong’s name. I imagine the words would come out as Chinese characters that drift through the air to Monkey’s ear. He forcefully turns his head towards the sound, his eyes flash with a fiery light.

1:53 – 2:20 – Wukong lands in an explosion of multicolored clouds and light. He waves his staff in front of him, thus forcing the imps away from his brothers. He then pulls out magic hairs and blows on them, creating an army of monkeys to do battle with the imps. The monkeys do all manner of things to the imps while Wukong rolls around on the ground in laughter.

  • 1:58 – Wukong creates the army of monkeys. Also, notice how a few seconds in the notes sound almost like monkeys.

sc137582 - small

“Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).

2:21 – 2:26 – The imps run away in defeat. Monkey stands outside the cave screaming and hopping up and down while shaking his fist in order to entice the mountain demon outside.

  • 2:23 – Double hop while shaking fist and screaming obscenities. The words come out as Chinese characters. They could be “coward” or something demeaning like that. The particular sound of “bwah bwah” in the song at this point is when he screams and hops.
  • 2:26 – Second double hop, same.

2:27 – 2:31 – His trick works as the demon king pokes his head out of the doors and shakes his fist back at Wukong.

  • 2:28 – First fist shake and screams obscenity. Same “bwah bwah” sound but with lower register.
  • 2:31 – Second fist shake, same.

2:32 – 2:50 – The demon emerges with his armor and weapon ready to fight and the two begin their bout. The earth shakes, mountains crumble, forests tumble, and the gods shiver in the realm above.

2:51 – 3:08 – Both take to their clouds, the warriors circling each other, rising higher and higher into the heavens, leaving a double helix-like pattern in their wake.

3:09 – 3:12 – The demon makes one last attack with his weapon. Wukong disappears in a puff of smoke, only to reappear instantly in his 100,000-foot-tall cosmic form, breathing fire from a mouth full of tusk-like teeth, his eyes like the sun and moon. The demon realizes he is not Wukong’s match and flees in terror.

cosmic transformation

Monkey performs the cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

3:13 – 3:16 – Wukong reverts to his original form and rockets towards earth with his staff held high.

3:17 – 3:21 – He lands a mortal blow to the demon and stands over his remains.

  • 3:17 – The exact moment the demon is turned into hamburger.

3:22 – 3:24 – Wukong kicks open the double door of the mountain stronghold. The view would be from the inside out (i.e. it’s dark and then the doors are kicked inward, revealing the dark silhouette of Monkey holding his staff against a bright background).

  • The “boom” at the end is when he kicks in the doors.

After the song stops, the animation silently ends with them all continuing their journey to India. The entire animation would probably be around three minutes and forty seconds long. I would really love to work with an animator to make this a reality.

Archive #15 – Sun Wukong and Chinese Medicine

In my previous article, I noted medicine was among the skills acquired by Monkey while training under the Buddho-Daoist sage, Master Subhuti. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long-standing malady of the Scarlet-Purple Kingdom emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, Sun is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. He deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a secret recipe and administers the elixir with dragon king saliva. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowels, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.

Monkey analyzes the Emperor's Pulse (from Mr. Li Zhouwu's Lit. Criticism) - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey uses golden threads to analyze the emperor’s pulse (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

I. Analyzing the pulse

We were telling you about the Great Sage Sun, who went with the palace attendant to the interior division of the royal palace. He stood still only after he had reached the door of the royal bedchamber. Then he told the attendant to take the three golden threads inside along with the instruction: “Ask one of the palace ladies or eunuchs to tie these three threads to the inch, the pass, and the foot sections of His Majesty’s left hand where the radial pulse are felt. Then pass the other ends of the threads out to me through the window shutters” [fig. 1].

The attendant followed his instruction. The king was asked to sit up on the dragon bed, while the three sections of his pulse were tied by the golden threads, and their other ends were then passed out to Pilgrim. Using the thumb and the index finger of his right hand to pick up one of the threads, Pilgrim first examined the pulse of the inch section; next, he used his middle finger and his thumb to pick up the second thread and examine the pulse of the pass section; finally, he used the thumb and his fourth finger to pick up the third thread and examine the pulse of the foot section.

Thereafter Pilgrim made his own breathing regular and proceeded to determine which of the Four Heteropathic Pneumatics, the Five Stases, the Seven External Images of the Pulse, the Eight Internal Images of the Pulse, and the Nine Pulse Indications were present. [1] His pressure on the threads went from light to medium to heavy, and from heavy to medium to light, until he could clearly perceive whether the condition of the patient was repletion or depletion of energy and its cause. Then he made the request that the threads be untied from the king’s left wrist and be attached as before to the positions on his right wrist. Using now the fingers on his left hand, he then examined the pulse on the right wrist section by section. When he had completed his examination, he shook his body once and retrieved his hairs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 270).

Baring the strings, Monkey’s method of reading the pulse aligns with real Chinese medicinal practice. The area of the forearm analyzed by traditional Chinese doctors is known as Cunkou (寸口, the “inch opening”), and this is broken up into the three spots Cun (寸, “inch”), Guan (關, “pass”), and Chi (尺, “foot”) (fig. 2). The mirrored spots on each arm are believed to correspond to specific internal organs. For example, the Cun spot (nearest the wrist) on the right hand corresponds to the lung, while that of the left hand corresponds to the heart (Liao, 2011, pp. 55-56). Therefore, analyzing the pulse at these spots is believed to reveal the health of the corresponding organs.

TCM hand chart

Fig. 2 – The spots analyzed during pulse diagnosis. Picture originally found here.

II. The Elixir of Black Gold and its historical origins

Wukong selects his ingredients from among 808 requested substances in order to keep the recipe a secret from the foreign kingdom’s doctors. It is made from an ounce of powderizedahuang (大黃), which is said to “loosen phlegm and facilitate respiration [and] sweep out the chill and heat congealed in one’s stomach” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 273-274); an ounce of shelled, powerderized badou (巴豆), which is said to “break up congestion and drain the intestines [and] take care of swellings at the heart and dropsy in the abdomen (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); half a flask of “‘Hundred-Grass Frost” (baicao shuang, 百草霜), or frying pan soot, which is said to “soothe a hundred ailments” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); and half a flask of dragon (horse) urine, which is said to “cure any kind of disease a human may have when it is ingested” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274). The resulting paste is rolled into three pills and presented to the emperor as the “Elixir of Black Gold” (Wujin dan, 烏金丹) (video 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 276).

Video 1 – Episode 20 of the 1986 Journey to the West series portrays this story. See minute 19:19 for the preparation of the Elixir of Black Gold.

Andrew Schonebaum’s (2016) fascinating book Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China explains the historical significance of the real world ingredients used in this elixir. He introduces the first two ingredients to us by way of their anthropomorphization as Badou Dahuang, the ruler of the fictional Hujiao (胡椒, black pepper) kingdom from the vernacular novel Annals of Herbs and Trees (Caomu chunqiu yanyi, 草木春秋演義, c. 17th/18th-century), a work that gives human form to Chinese medicines, pitting armies of mortal, immortal, and demonic characters/remedies against one another. Badou is depicted as having the mandate of heaven (the right to rule) in his own country but wanting to invade the Han empire. This dual nature can be explained by the properties of the ingredients making up his name. Schonebaum (2016) writes:

[B]adou (croton) and dahuang (rhubarb), are two of the most common drugs in Chinese medicine. Badou is toxic and a strong purgative, and it was used to treat stagnation in the viscera and bowels, as well as to facilitate urination, eliminate malignant flesh, and purge vicious agents such as invading ghosts or worms. Dahuang is nontoxic and is sometimes referred to by the name “military general” because “the drug pushes away the old and brings in the new, like a military general putting down a riot and bringing peace” (pp. 99-100).

Regarding the “Elixir of Black Gold,” Schonebaum (2016) explains “black gold” was the name of a common prescription and that badou and dahuang were part of its core, while other ingredients could be replaced with those of similar properties:

One commentator had never heard of this medicine, saying that it had a strange name, but this only reveals his own highbrow background (or general ignorance), since “black gold” was the name of various prescriptions common among hereditary doctors. In fact, it was mentioned in the Systematic Materia Medica repeatedly, and Xu Dachun recommends it in Medical Cases of Huixi, so it was not exclusively the purview of nonelite healers.

“Black gold pills” (wujin wan) was a name and a concoction similar to “elixir surpassing [the value of] gold” (shengjin dan) and “black spirit pills” (heishen wan). All of them were core formulas that could be modified in their effects by ingesting them with different liquids. These “black gold” medicines, along with the likes of “the prescription offering Guanyin’s all-encompassing help” (Guanyin puji fang) and “pills prepared with old ink” (gumo wan), treated a wide variety of ailments (in one medical manuscript, twenty-nine, forty, and seventy-one ailments, respectively), and were extremely common formula in the Qing. The “black gold” formulas had at their core the drugs dahuang and badou. One medical manuscript from the Republican period states in its introduction, “Black gold powder [wujin san] cures all ailments, just as the wind bends the grasses. Other names [of this prescription] are ‘pine smoke elixir’ [songyan dan] and ‘black spirit pills’ [heishen wan]. It cures thousands of illnesses, just as the sun melts the frost.”

Black gold pills (wan), powder (san), paste (gao), and elixir (dan) were commonly employed to cure gynecological issues. A prescription named “black gold powder” was first recorded in the Song work A Spring of Recipes in the Magic Park (Lingyuan fangquan) and was followed by references in the Southern Song prescription collection “Complete Collection of Effective Prescriptions for Women” (Furen daquan liangfang, 1237), Formulas for Universal Benefit (Puji fang, 1390), and other works. Over the centuries, numerous formulas, each with different ingredients, became known under the names “black gold powder,” “black gold pills,” and “black gold elixir.” The three designations of this formula result from the use of pitch (mo), a vernacular name for which is the “black gold” of these prescriptions.

Monkey’s prescription reflects a historical reality, namely that the advent of the imperial pharmacy (huimin yaoju) in the Song required doctors who had previously relied on simple medicines with one or two ingredients to employ formulas with numerous substances whose composition followed theories of systematic correspondences. From this conflict between empirical and theory-based recipes arose a new type of prescription eventually consisting of a nuclear formula that could be adapted to the requirements of a given patient’s disease by omitting or adding individual constituents in accordance with his pathological condition. Monkey is preparing simple, trusted medicine at the core, namely badou and dahuang, and adding to it many exotic, unobtainable ingredients (pp. 103-104).

As noted above, black gold medicines were sometimes used to treat gynecological issues. This makes Monkey’s prescription all the more comical as he had partly attributed the foreign emperor’s ails to a “cessation of the menses” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 271), obviously a woman’s problem. Schonebaum (2016) comments: “To understand this aspect of the carnivalesque comedy, or to realize that it was a mistake in the incorporation of medical materials into the novel, readers would have had to be quite familiar with medicine, at least enough to know that the medicine Monkey is preparing is consistent with his diagnosis” (p. 104). 

III. Archive link

Chapter three of Novel Medicine (2016) is archived here.

Click to access novel-medicine-healing-literature-and-popular-knowledge-in-early-modern-china-chapter-3-contains-jttw-ch.-68-69-material.pdf


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


1) Anthony C. Yu provides explanations for these terms in the end notes of his wonderful translation. See Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 448-449, notes 3-7.


Liao, Y. (2011). Traditional Chinese medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schonebaum, A. (2016). Novel medicine: Healing, literature, and popular knowledge in early modern China. Seattle : University of Washington Press

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Volume 3. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #13 – Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode

Chapters 44 to 46 of Journey to the West sees the pilgrims enter the Cart-Slow Kingdom (Chechi guo, 車遲國) where they find Buddhist monks have been enslaved by local Daoists to haul a cart full of materials up an impossibly narrow, steep, spine-like ridge in order to construct buildings behind an abbey. After some investigation, Sun Wukong discovers their enslavement is a royal punishment for losing a rain-making competition some years prior to three mysterious Daoist priests, Tiger Strength Great Immortal (Huli daxian, 虎力大仙), Deer Strength Great Immortal (Luli daxian, 鹿力大仙), and Goat Strength Great Immortal (Yangli daxian, 羊力大仙) (fig. 1). (For their victory in saving the country during a time of drought, the three priests are bestowed the royal titles “Precepts of State” (Guoshi, 國師).) Monkey and his brothers break into the abbey and trick the three priests, under the guise of the Three Pure Ones, into thinking their urine is heavenly elixir. The enraged priests then gain permission from the country’s ruler to engage our heroes in a series of magical competitions in order to defend their dignity. After aiding Tripitaka in contests of meditation and clairvoyance, the Great Sage personally faces each of the three priests in contests of surviving corporal punishment, namely beheading (vs Tiger Strength), evisceration (vs Deer Strength), and being boiled in oil (vs Goat Strength). Each priest dies as a result of having lesser magical skills born from heretical practices, and in the end they are revealed to have been animal spirits (a tiger, a deer, and a goat) in disguise. The country’s ruler releases the monks from their bondage and our pilgrims continue their journey to India.

Three Animal Priests (Tiger Strength, Deer Strength, Goat Strength) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the three animal priests (larger version). Artist unknown.

Oldstone-Moore’s (1998) paper “Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode” explores the history and hidden meaning of the three chapters. She reveals certain aspects of the episode serve as allegories for internal alchemical processes. For background she explains Daoism sometimes presents the body as a microcosmic mountain landscape. In the case of the story, the ridge represents the spine and the building material being hauled by the monks represents unrefined qi, seminal essence, and spiritual energies that, when purified via circulation up the spine and down the front of the body numerous times, bolster the body and aids in the attainment of immortality. The cart itself represents a meditation technique used in the Quanzhen school of Daoism to transport the aforementioned energies up the spine. Interestingly, one Zhong-Lü scripture [1] notes this “River Cart” (heche, 河車) is pulled by a number of animals, including an oxen, a deer, and a goat. Therefore, Deer Strength and Goat Strength likely represent these animals. Oldstone-Moore (1998) suggests Tiger Strength is based on Uncle Eyes Great Immortal (Boyan daxian, 伯眼大仙), a tiger spirit appearing in an earlier version of the Slow-Cart Kingdom episode recorded in a 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese. Additionally, she highlights the conflict between orthodox and heretical practices in the episode. Sun Wukong is shown to have stronger magic because his early Daoist cultivation was guided by a teacher. This differs from the three priests, whose lesser abilities are the result of self study. So taken together, the episode is a warning that esoteric alchemical cultivation should only be pursued under the guidance of an initiated teacher.   


Fig. 2 – A 14th-century painting of the Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (larger version). Image from Wikipedia. 

Oldstone-Moore (1998) also mentions the rain-making competition between Buddhist and Daoists at the beginning of the episode is based on historical events. This is laid out by Yu (1987), who suggests it is based on Tang-era magic competitions between the Indo-Sogdian Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (Bukong, 不空) (fig. 2) and the Daoist Luo Gongyuan (羅公遠). What’s interesting is that, just like the three priests, Luo was also a Precept of State.

Archive link

Click to access alchemy-and-journey-to-the-west-the-cart-slow-kingdom-episode.pdf


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


1) This refers to teachings associated with the immortals Zhongli Quan and his student Lü Dongbin.


Oldstone-Moore, J. (1998). Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode. Journal of Chinese Religions, 26(1), 51-66, DOI: 10.1179/073776998805306930

Yu, A. C. (1987). Religion and literature in China: The ‘Obscure Way’ in The Journey to the West In C. Tu (Ed.), Tradition and creativity: Essays on East Asian civilization (pp. 122-24). Publisher City, State: Publisher.

The Alchemical Metaphor of Subhuti’s Mountain Home

The Monkey King’s quest for immortality spans some ten years, taking him passed two cosmic continents and two great oceans. After sailing to a continent in the west, our hero is directed to the abode of the Sage Subhuti, a place often translated as “The Mountain of Mind and Heart / Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山,斜月三星洞) (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 113, for example). This translation, however, glosses over deeper meanings associated with the original Chinese. The term lingtai (靈臺/台), literally “spirit platform/tower” or “numinous platform/tower”, was sometimes used in Daoist literature to refer to the “heart” or “mind” (xin, 心, “heart-mind” hereafter), the center of spiritual intellect. Going back centuries to the Zhuangzi (c. 3rd-century BCE), it was represented as something that had to be guarded against malevolent influences:

Utilize the bounty of things and let them nourish your body; withdraw into thoughtlessness and in this way give life to your mind; be reverent of what is within and extend this same reverence to others. If you do these things and yet are visited by ten thousand evils, then all are Heaven-sent and not the work of man. They should not be enough to destroy your composure; they must not be allowed to enter the Spirit Tower. The Spirit Tower has its guardian, but unless it understands who its guardian is, it cannot be guarded (Chuang & Watson, 1968, p. 194).

Subuti's cave, from Mr. Zhuo's literary criticism of Xiyouji - 2mall

Fig. 1 – Monkey kneeling before the entrance of Subhuti’s school asking to become a disciple (larger version). A detail from Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

The term fangcun (方寸), literally “square inch”, was also used historically to refer to the heart-mind. [1] But it’s important to note that Daoist alchemical literature sometimes uses the term to refer to the lowest cinnabar or elixir field located approximately “two inches below the navel, three inches within, where the mind is focused” (Saso, 1995, p. 128). For instance, the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing, 黃庭經, c. 4th-century), a treatise associated with the Highest Clarity tradition, recognizes three fields: brain (upper), heart (center), and belly (lower) (fig. 2), each one represented by a series of place names or an anthropomorphic persona (Saso, 1995, pp. 106-107). The scripture presents the lower field/square inch as the storehouse of vital spiritual energies, the synergy of which is thought to bolster the body and bring about immortality. A portion of the fifth stanza reads: “Inside the square inch, carefully cover and store qi. / Shen spirit and jing intuition returned there, though old, are made new / Through the dark palace make them flow, down to the lower realm. / Nourish your jade tree, now a youth again”. [2]

The scripture treats the central heart-mind field as the seat of the spirit (shen, 神), sometimes anthropomorphizing it as a red-robed man (Saso, 1995, p. 125, for example). But it also calls the field the spirit platform. A section of the sixth stanza reads: “The spirit platform meets heaven in the central field. / From square inch center, down to the [dark] gate, / The soul’s doorway to the Jade Chamber’s core is there”. [3] Saso (1995) explains the first line refers to the interaction between the heart-mind and the Dao, with the second and third referring to spiritual energies being directed into the lower field via a passage near the kidneys (p. 129). Despite the cryptic Daoist jargon, what’s important here is the link between the center field/spirit platform and the lower field/square inch. 

Given the information above, a better translation for Subhuti’s mountain might be the “Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Cinnabar Mind” or the “Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind” (or any combination of the two).

Daoist Dantian Chakras - small

Fig. 2 – An example of the upper, center, and lower cinnabar fields indicated by red dots (larger version).

I propose the name of Subhuti’s mountain home was specifically chosen by the author-compiler of the Journey to the West as a metaphor for the alchemical practices taught in the Scripture of the Yellow Court. This conclusion is supported by the mention of the scripture in the very first chapter of the novel. This happens when Monkey confuses a lowly woodcutter for an immortal just because the man was singing a Daoist song, one taught to him by Subhuti:

The Monkey King explained, “When I came just now to the forest’s edge, I heard you singing, ‘Those I meet, if not immortals, would be Daoists, seated quietly to expound the Yellow Court.’ The Yellow Court contains the perfected words of the Way and Virtue. What can you be but an immortal?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 111)

I find it interesting that Wukong touts the authority of the Scripture of the Yellow Court even before having begun his Daoist training. From where did he learn this? Could this be projection of the author-compiler?

heart calligraphy

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for heart (xin). Original image found here.

Another aspect of Subhuti’s location that requires explanation is the cavern housing his temple, the “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (xieyue sanxing dong, 斜月三星洞). The name is a literal description of the Chinese character for heart-mind (xin, 心). It looks just like a crescent moon surmounted by three stars (fig. 3). This means all three sections of the location name (spirit platform, square inch, cave name) are associated in some form with the heart-mind. The reason for this could be because, in the Ming Journey to the West, Wukong represents the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). Additionally, a poem in chapter seven reads: “An ape’s body of Dao weds the human mind. / Mind is a monkey—this meaning’s profound” (yuanhou dao ti renxin / xin ji yuanhou yisi shen, 猿猴道體配人心 / 心即猿猴意思深) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 190). [4]

I’m not sure when Sun was first associated with this concept, but Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a Western Xia wall painting of the Monkey Pilgrim wearing a golden headband (fig. 4). I show in this article that the band is based on a historical Esoteric Buddhist ritual fillet associated with the Akshobhya Buddha, who is known for his vow to attain Buddhahood through moralistic practices. Therefore, the ritual band most likely served as a physical reminder of right speech and action, making the band from the mural a symbol for the taming of the Monkey Mind. If this is the case, Wukong has represented the Monkey Mind since at least the 11th-century when the mural was painted.

Fig. 4 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. See here for a larger detail showing both Monkey and Tripitaka. 

Allusions to the Mind Monkey appear in the ancient Pali Buddhist canon, but its earliest known occurrences in Chinese sources appear among the translations of the monk Kumarajiva (Jiumoluoshi, 鳩摩羅什, d. 413). For instance, his translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra reads: “Since the mind of one difficult to convert is like an ape [yuanhou, 猨猴], govern his mind by using certain methods and it can then be broken in” (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 168). This shows the concept was present in China for over a millennia prior to the Ming Journey to the West.


1) In Buddhism, for example, the fourth Chan patriarch Daoxin is quoted as saying: “All schools of the Law find their way to the Square Inch; all rivers and sand of wonderful virtues come from the Source of the Mind (xinyuan 心源)” (Liu, 1994, p. 28).

2) See Saso, 1995, p. 127 for the full stanza and explanation. I have changed all quotes used from this source from Wade-Giles to Pinyin. I also slightly modified the translation.

3) See Saso, 1995, p. 129 for the full stanza and explanation. Again, I slightly modified the translation.

4) Anthony Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) suggests this poem is related to the Buddha’s statement that Wukong is “only a monkey who happened to become a spirit, … merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation” (p. 70), thereby alluding to a Confucian hierarchical scale present in the novel where animals are able to attain human qualities through Daoist cultivation. So Monkey’s Daoist training under Subhuti allows him to wed his monkey form to the human heart-mind.


Chuang, T., & Watson, B. (1968). The complete works of Chuang Tzu. Columbia University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: Univ. Press of America.

Saso, M. R. (1995). The Gold pavilion: Taoist ways to peace, healing, and long life. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

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

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subhuti:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.


Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).


Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subhuti observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 5). One passage from the tale reads: 

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subhuti. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subhuti teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.


1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

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

Mair, V. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307

Archive #12 – Huineng, Subhuti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji” (2006)

I present an archived copy of Ping Shao’s (2006) wonderful paper exploring the origin of Sun Wukong’s characterization and how it effects his story cycle. [1] Shao presents a three-fold objective: first, highlight Daoist and Buddhist concepts in chapters one and two that have previously been overlooked or not given enough weight, showing that they serve a function and are not just expendable story elements; second, provide a unified religious vision based on the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of the Daoist southern lineage patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?–1082); and 3) demonstrate that Zhang’s philosophy dictates the course of Sun’s story cycle from unruly immortal to enlightened Buddha. 

Shao (2006) suggests Monkey’s portrayal in the first two chapters is influenced by the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638–713), founder of the “Sudden Enlightenment” school of Buddhism. [2] For example, Sun’s quick-wittedness, demonstrated by his deciphering of his teacher, Subhuti’s, chastisement for refusing to learn certain Daoist skills in chapter two as secret code to receive a private lesson at night, [3] is based on a similar episode involving Huineng and the previous patriarch Hongren. Additionally, Monkey’s 108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km)-spanning somersault cloud (fig. 1) is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. [4] Only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping there instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years. Shao provides further examples, but I feel these suffice.


Monkey flying on clouds. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The unified religious vision is demonstrated by Sun Wukong’s name, which contains both Daoist and Buddhist elements. When broken into its individual components, the surname Sun (孫) refers to an immortality spirit embryo brought about via Daoist cultivation exercises. The given name Wukong (悟空) refers to a vacuous state of mind needed for attaining Buddha-nature. Here, Shao (2006) notes the literary Subhuti is based on a historical disciple of the Buddha who was known for meditating on emptiness and having a superior grasp of the Enlightened One’s teachings. In later chapters, Sun himself shows a grasp of scripture far surpassing even that of Tripitaka. Therefore, an additional influence on Monkey was likely the historical monk. Shao (2006) contextualizes this information by comparing it to Zhang Boduan’s Buddho-Daoist philosophy. Zhang believed Daoists must first attain the elixir (i.e. a method increasing one’s lifespan) and then attain Buddha-nature to truly become an enlightened transcendent. Conversely, he warned Buddhists that achieving Buddha-Nature alone wouldn’t help them escape the wheel of reincarnation. 

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong becoming a Buddha (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

Shao (2006) illustrates how Zhang’s views are played out in the novel. Sun achieves immortality and is even invited to heaven like the hagiographies of famous transcendents, but his unruly nature symbolizes his lack of true spiritual attainment, causing him to wage war against the realm above. He remains a “deviant” or “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙) until the journey proper, the tribulations serving to temper his mind. Moreover, when the pilgrims arrive in the Buddha’s paradise, they must first pass through a Daoist temple (referring again to Zhang’s philosophy). In the end, Sun is bestowed Buddhahood (fig. 2)—thereby Buddha-nature—completing the second step of Zhang’s two-part path to true transcendence.

Archive link


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


1) The paper is copied almost verbatim from chapter three of Shao’s doctoral thesis Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (1997). I am currently reading this and may add an update later.

2) In this article, I discuss how the “Monkey Pilgrim”, Sun Wukong’s precursor from Song Dynasty material, is based on the monk Mulian (Sk. Maudgalyayana), another of the Buddha’s disciples. 

[3] The particular passage reads:

When the Patriarch heard this, he uttered a cry and jumped down from the high platform. He pointed the ruler he held in his hands at Wukong and said to him: “What a mischievous monkey you are! You won’t learn this and you won’t learn that! Just what is it that you are waiting for?” Moving forward, he hit Wukong three times on the head. Then he folded his arms behind his back and walked inside, closing the main doors behind him and leaving the congregation stranded outside […] But Wukong was not angered in the least and only replied with a broad grin. For the Monkey King, in fact, had already solved secretly, as it were, the riddle in the pot; he therefore did not quarrel with the other people but patiently held his tongue. He reasoned that the master, by hitting him three times, was telling him to prepare himself for the third watch; and by folding his arms behind his back, walking inside, and closing the main doors, was telling him to enter by the back door so that he might receive instruction in secret (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 118-119).

4) Huineng explains in the Platform Sutra:

This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person […] Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling ten [thousand li]. Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand [li]. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

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

Archive # 11 – The Origin of Sun Wukong’s 72 Transformations

Upon Sun Wukong achieving immortality, his Buddho-Daoist master Subhuti warns him of three calamities sent by heaven to kill those who defy their fate and attain eternal life. The Sage then offers to teach Monkey one of two forms of transformation in order to avoid this outcome by living in hiding. [1] The first form, called the “Multitude of the Heavenly Ladle” (Tiangang shu, 天罡數), contains thirty-six changes, while the second, the “Multitude of Earthly Fiends” (Disha shu, 地煞數), contains seventy-two. [2] Our hero chooses the latter and quickly masters a set of secret oral formulas (koujue, 口訣). This becomes one of his signature abilities used throughout the narrative. Monkey’s most famous use of the skill appears in chapter six when he battles Lord Erlang, a divine demon queller and fellow master of transformations (video 1).

Video 1 – Sun’s battle with Lord Erlang. From the great animated Classic Havoc in Heaven (1965).

I. Connection to Chinese astrology and literature

The names of the two forms of transformation that Subhuti offers to teach Monkey can be traced to Chinese astrology. The “Heavenly Ladle” (Tiangang, 天罡; i.e. the Big Dipper) is associated in some traditions with thirty-six stars (fig. 1). Regarding the origin of these stellar bodies, Werner (1932/1969) explains: “The gods of these stars (all stars of good omen) are all heroes who fell on the field of battle in the epic combat known as Wan Xian Zhen 萬仙陣, “The Battle of the Myriad Genii [or Immortals]” (p. 506). [3]

Sun Wukong Transformation - 36 Heavenly Ladle Stars - small

Fig. 1 – A list of the thirty-six Heavenly Ladle stars (larger version). Photograph of Werner, 1932/1969, p. 506. Apologies for not having access to a scanner at this time. 

Furthermore, he writes that the “Earthly Fiends” (Disha, 地煞) are:

[S]eventy-two stars [fig. 2] of evil influence, opposed to the Tiangang. The wicked genii of these stars are cast out and slain by tongzi 童子 magicians [i.e. spirit mediums], who impale them on forks and shut them up in earthen jars, then take them to waste lands, throw them into fires, and surround the spot with a circle of lime, which is supposed to prevent any spirit which may have survived the burning from getting out of it (Werner, 1932/1969, p. 496). [4]

Sun Wukong Transformation - 72 Earthly Fiend Stars - small

Fig. 2 – A list of the seventy-two Earthly Fiend stars (larger version). Photographs of Werner, 1932/1969, pp. 496-497.

Additionally, the Earthly Fiends are considered the “enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments” (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii). Several Buddho-Daoist folk talismans exist to ward afflictions caused by the Fiends. One such Buddhist talisman said to cure the “one hundred ailments” even invokes the thirty-six Heavenly Ladle stars to aid in the conquering of the seventy-two demons:

An order is hereby made by the “Ministry of the Thunderbolt”, commanding in the name of the “three religions” that the auspicious stellar gods, Tiangang 天罡, reduce to order the maleficent demons, Disha 地煞, who have caused this disease. The charm must also repress these malignant beings and expel them forthwith (fig.3) (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. 312).

Di-sha talisman spell #2- small

Fig. 3 – A reproduction of the illness-curing Buddhist Talisman (larger version).

It’s interesting that Sun Wukong chooses the transformation method centered around stars of evil influence and later becomes a demon who challenges heaven. [5] Good fodder for fan fiction, no?

When these dichotomous stellar bodies were first acknowledged isn’t exactly clear. [6] But the Heavenly Ladle stars go back to at least the mid-13th-century as they are mentioned in the Old Incidents in the Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事) (Anonymous, n.d.), a storytelling prompt of the late-Song to early-Yuan. It contains the earliest stories associated with the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400), a Chinese classic that predates Journey to the West. The one hundred and eight heroes of this novel are famous for being reincarnations of the Heavenly Ladle and Earthly Fiend stars, a fact revealed in chapter seventy-one when a heaven-sent stone slab is found to list their human names along with the corresponding stellar titles. The long association of the stars with the hugely popular Water Margin novel therefore may have inspired the names for the techniques taught by the sage Subhuti in Journey to the West.

II. Ties to Daoist practices

Robinet (1979) expertly explains that transformation (bianhua, 變化), or “metamorphosis” as she calls it, is central to Daoism. Gods and Saints are portrayed in Daoist literature as being in constant flux, changing with the seasons, taking on different guises and titles, disappearing and reappearing, never remaining the same, thereby living eternally. Daoists and magicians achieve metamorphosis through external and internal alchemical processes, the former involving the ingestion of drugs and talismans and the latter via mental exercises. Those who succeed in their practice can divide themselves endlessly; create rivers, mountains, and forests from meager samples of water, earth, and seeds; and, most importantly, change their form into anything (fig. 4), including the five elements, dragons, clouds, rays of light, or even celestial bodies like the sun and moon. 

72 Transformations Childrens Book - small

Fig. 4 – The cover of a vintage children’s flip book about Monkey’s transformations (larger version). Here he is seen changing into a fish.

Interestingly, transformations could be used to live in hiding, much like originally intended by Subhuti in Journey to the West. Adepts still questing for immortality could magically transform a sword, staff, or slipper into their deceased body, thereby faking death and escaping elsewhere to find a method leading to eternal life. (Often times, those who took this route assumed a new identity to avoid heaven’s gaze (Campany, 2005)). Additionally, sages are said to use their powers to hide in the earth or in the light of the sun, moon, and stars. One source mentions adepts hiding by scattering their shadow and transforming it into seventy-two types of light. In a related book chapter, Robinet (1993) notes this number “alludes to [Laozi’s] seventy-two supernatural marks” (clearly borrowing from the Buddhist Mahapurusa laksana) (p. 166). This is fascinating as it shows there is precedent for seventy-two transformations in Daoism.

III. Archive link

I have archived Robinet’s (1979) wonderful paper on metamorphosis. It can be read here:

Click to access robinet-metamorphosis.pdf


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


1) It should be noted that the calamities are sent every five hundred years. Sun never has to live in hiding, though, as he is trapped under Five Elements Mountain upon the five hundredth anniversary of his immortality (he lived to be roughly four hundred prior to taking up spiritual cultivation). And he achieves Buddhahood prior to reaching the one thousandth year of his immortality, so he never has to guard against subsequent calamities.

2) The translation of these names are loosely based on Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122). I have provided more accurate names based on related Chinese literature (see section one above).

3) Source changed slightly. I updated the Wade-Giles to Pinyin. This refers to a military trap appearing in the Chinese classic Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, 16th-century), which was published around the same time as Journey to the West

4) I’ve previously mentioned a similar ritual in the first section of this article.

5) Conversely, Zhu Bajie is shown capable of thirty-six transformations (for example, Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 2, p. 328), meaning he studied the method associated with the stars of good omens. And of course we know his sordid story…

6) Though, in my opinion, the thirty-six stars are likely based on the thirty-six generals led by the stellar exorcist, Marshal Tianpeng (天蓬, i.e. Zhu Bajie’s former incarnation), who is himself one of the nine stars of the Big Dipper. The Marshal and his generals appear in the liturgy of the Song-era “Correct Method of the Celestial Heart” (Tianxin zhengfa, 天心正法) exorcist tradition (Anderson, 2008).


Anderson, P. (2008) Tianxin zhengfa In F. Pregadio (ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 989-993). Longdon: Routledge.

Anonymous. (n.d.). Da Song Xuanhe Yishi [Old incidents in the Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty]. Retrieved from

Campany, R. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming 命 [Preallotted Lifespan] in Early Medieval China In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150). University of Hawaii Press.

Doré, H., & Kennelly, M. (1916). Researches into Chinese superstitions: Vol. 3 – Superstitious practices. Shanghai: T’usewei Printing Press. Retrieved from

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Robinet, I. (1993). Taoist meditation: The Mao-shan tradition of Great Purity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

E. T. C. Werner (1969). A dictionary of Chinese mythology. New York: The Julian Press. (Original work published 1932)

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

Monkey Fist: The Connection Between Primates and Martial Arts in Ancient China

Look up the terms “monkey” or “ape” in the dictionary and you’ll find that they serve as verbs meaning to mimic the movements or actions of another. This is because monkeys and apes have a propensity for observation and mimicry. Being primates ourselves, humans are no different. But interestingly this mimicry sometimes mirrors our primate cousins. Chinese martial arts, for example, has developed several primate-based fighting arts, including White Ape Connected Arms boxing (Baiyuan tongbei quan, 白猿通背拳) and several flavors of Monkey boxing (Houquan, 猴拳), and other styles have even adopted primate techniques, such as the monkey footwork of Praying Mantis boxing (Tanglang quan, 螳螂拳). Humans have long marveled at the physical prowess and acrobatic mastery of apes and monkeys. So it’s only natural that boxers would want to incorporate the powerful arm movements and awe-inspiring leaps and flips of primates into various fighting arts. But how long have our cousins been associated with martial arts in Chinese culture, and when and how did primate-based martial arts develop?

Two approaches can be used in an attempt to answer both questions. The first method involves charting similarities in techniques shared between modern regional primate-based Chinese martial arts styles and relying on folk lineages, ethnographic data, and (when possible) historical manuals to discover the earliest vestiges of primate boxing in China. A second method is to search for references to primate-based martial arts in the historical record. A benefit of the first approach would be pinpointing the areas in China where these styles likely first emerged in recent history. The downside is that martial arts are passed from teacher to student via embodied practices (e.g. fist and weapons forms and sparring), often without the material being recorded in a manual. This means such styles can’t be reliably traced beyond a certain time period. A benefit of the second approach is that it provides a deeper view of history, giving the researcher license to record not only the odd mention of historical boxing styles but also associations between primates and weapons and other forms of physical exercise in ancient folklore, literature, medicine, and religion. Obviously, the best approach would be a combination of the two. However, I lack the necessary encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese martial arts techniques. Such a grand project will have to wait for a more qualified researcher. I have instead decided to adopt the second approach.

This article is divided into five sections. The first presents a folk history for Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern form of Monkey boxing, to serve as an example of how such styles can be created. The second provides three references to premodern Monkey boxing appearing in military and travel writings of the 16th-century during late Ming (1368-1644), pointing to the commonplace nature of the style. Here I suggest the lack of evidence for pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing points to the style emerging during this time. This section also gives examples of armed techniques associated with apes in military literature of the 16th and 17th-century. The third discusses the story of the noted literary monkey hero Sun Wukong (孫悟空), his portrayal as a master of armed and unarmed fighting, and how he bridges the gap between the aforementioned lack of pre-Ming boxing references and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. The fourth presents ancient stories pitting a magic white ape against the martial skills of legendary Chinese heroes, including the archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) and the swordswoman the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 5th-c. BCE). And the fifth discusses ancient animal mimicry and suggests primate-based boxing is tied to war-like shamanic totemic dances and yoga-like daoyin calisthenics (8th-c. to 2nd-c. BCE). [1]

I. Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey boxing

There are three main styles of monkey boxing:

  • Shaolin Monkey – This combative style is said to have developed among various animal styles at the famed Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) in Henan province, China. Matsuda (2013) claims this particular style to be thousands of years old (p. 50); however, this has no basis in history, as will be explained below.
  • Wushu Monkey – This modern, non-combative style focuses on gymnastic leaps and flips for entertainment purposes. It is used in both Chinese opera and the floor routines of form competitions (video 1) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 54-56).
  • Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey – This is the Cantonese variant of the Mandarin Dasheng Pigua men (大聖劈掛門), or the “Great Sage Ax School” of boxing. This combative style is said to be quite young, being a little over 100 years old (Matsuda, 2013, p. 56).

To this I add one more:

Video 1 – The first half of this video shows a youth performing Wushu Monkey for a form competition.

Tai Shing Pek Kwar is a combination of two different styles. The first, which I will only describe briefly, is Pek Kwar kyun (Pigua quan, 劈掛拳), a style that mimics the swinging of an ax, relying on the lively arm movements to generate power much like the Choy Li Fut style of southern China. It is said to have been created over two hundred years ago in Shandong (northern China) by a woodcutter named Ma Chi Ho (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 64-68). The weapons practiced by this style include the double-edged sword (jian, 劍), the single-edged saber (dao, 刀), and the staff (gun, 棍) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 70-75).

The Tai Shing kyun (Dasheng quan, 大聖拳) style is said to have been founded in northern China around the year 1911 (the end of the Qing dynasty) by a prisoner named Kou Si (寇四). [2] After being sent to jail for murder, Kou discovered his cell faced a forest where he could observe the day-to-day lives of a troupe of monkeys. He noted five distinct behaviors among them that, when combined with his knowledge of Great Earth boxing (Di tang quan, 地趟拳), a type of ground combat, could be adapted for fighting.

  1. Lost Monkey (Mi Hou, 迷猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a frightened monkey, comprising periods of attack and retreat, with lots of rolling, low kicks, and quick, frantic running low to the ground (video 2).
  2. Stone Monkey (Shi Hou, 石猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an enraged alpha male, comprising slower but drastically more powerful fist, elbow, and knee strikes, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  3. Tall Monkey (Qi Hou, 企猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a tall monkey, comprising longer, quicker swinging arm strikes and higher-level kicks.
  4. Drunken Monkey (Zui Hou, 醉猴) – This form mimics the behavior of intoxicated monkeys, comprising falls, swaying motions with broken footwork, and circular punches, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  5. Wooden Monkey (Mu Hou, 木猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an intelligent, deceptive monkey, comprising quick, low attacks and rolls similar to the Lost Monkey, but feigning retreat only to turn and unleash strikes upon the pursuing opponent.

After perfecting the style, Kou Si is said to have named it “Great Sage boxing” in honor of the monkey hero Sun Wukong (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-116). This is a reference to the title taken by the character during his rebellion against heaven (see section III below). The weapons practiced by this style include the staff and the metal ring (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 118-131).

Video 2 – The Lost Monkey form.

II. Primates and martial arts during the Ming

Textural evidence for Monkey boxing actually predates Kou Si’s lineage, appearing in late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) records. The first reference appears in the eighteen volume edition of famed general Qi Jiguang‘s (戚繼光, 1528-1588) (fig. 1) New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shiba juan ben, 紀效新書十八卷本), a military training manual completed in 1561 or 1562. The fourteenth chapter, titled “Chapter on the Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness” (Quanjing Jieyao Pian, 拳經捷要篇), reads:

Among the past and present fist specialists, the Song Great Founder had the Long Fist system with thirty-two positions. Moreover there are six pace and fist techniques, the Monkey Fist, and the Feinting Fist. The famous positions each have their own names, but in reality they are quite similar and scarcely differ from one another (Gyves, 1993, p. 34).

While Qi believed boxing had no place in armed conflict, he thought such training was useful as it strengthened soldiers’ bodies, coordinated their limbs, improved their weapons skills, and bolstered their courage (Gyves, 1993, pp. 33-37). Qi gathered what he considered the most efficient techniques to achieve this goal, meaning he consulted with many martial artists in the process. The fact that he mentions Monkey boxing suggests it was a common style among fighters of this time.

Qi Jiguang statue (Fuzhou) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern statue of General Qi Jiguang (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The second reference appears in Zheng Ruozeng’s (郑若曾, 1505-1580) Strategic Situation in Jiangnan (Jiangnan jinglue, 江南經略, 1564), which was written in response to the ever-present threat of the Woukou (倭寇), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits, invading China’s coastline. In the eighth volume, Zheng provides a long list of armed and unarmed martial arts, including the “thirty-six roads (forms) of Monkey boxing” (Houquan sanshiliu lu, 猴拳三十六路) (Zheng, 1564). Again, this suggests Monkey boxing was quite common.

The third appears in scholar Wang Shixing’s (王士性, 1547-1598) A Journey to Mt. Song (Song you ji, 嵩遊記), a travel log of the mountain on which the famed Shaolin monastery is located:

Martial monks again each came to present skills. With fists and staves contending, they struck as if flying. Their teacher with folded hands looked on. Among them was a monkey striker, spinning and leaping, just like a monkey… (Wells & Chang, 2004, p. 23).

This shows a single Shaolin warrior monk practiced Monkey boxing. But does this mean the style was part of the monastery’s official curriculum at this time? The answer is no. According to Shahar (2008), textual evidence suggests Shaolin officially took up boxing in the proceeding 17th-century, and the first styles practiced were Drunken Eight Immortals boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳) and Lost Track boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), possibly followed by Plum Flower boxing (Meihua quan, 梅花拳) in the 18th-century. The monks adopted pugilism as a form of calisthenic exercise, later combining it with Daoyin (導引) calisthenics and spirituality to create a new form of self-cultivation. [3] Prior to this, the Shaolin monks were only known for their proficiency with the staff. Therefore, given the seeming commonplace nature of Monkey boxing during the late Ming, the monk could have learned the style from an outside source.

Modern folklore associated with one primate-based style, White Ape Connected Arms Boxing (Baiyuan tongbei / bi quan, 白猿通背 / 臂拳), traces its origins to religious and military figures of the Song dynasty (960-1279), centuries prior to the Ming (Lu, 2006, pp. 103-105, for example). However, it should be said that having a Song-era foundation is a reoccurring theme in many martial arts legends. For instance, the famed Song general Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142) is commonly attributed Eagle Claw boxing (Yingzhao quan, 鷹爪拳) and Form-Intent boxing (Xingyi quan, 形意拳) (Liang & Yang, 2002, pp. 15-16, for example). But textual evidence for these styles don’t appear until the Ming and Qing, respectively. [4] Most importantly, the oldest source associated with White Ape Connected Arms Boxing, titled the Connected Arms Boxing Manual (Tongbi quan pu, 通臂拳谱), was written during the late Ming and finally published in 1665 during the early Qing (List of surviving Ming period martial arts, 2017). Likewise, concrete references to primate-based boxing do not predate the Ming. This might suggest such styles arose during this time when there was an explosion in the popularity of pugilism. But this tells us nothing about how primate-based boxing may have developed. The history of animal mimicry in Chinese martial arts can be traced to much older concepts based in medicine and religion. This is discussed in section V below.

Japanese and ape sword-fighting combination - small

Fig. 2 – A compilation of images of the sword-fighting apes from the Collection of Military Works (c. 1621) (larger version). By the author. Fig. 3 – A compilation of the original stick figures and Japanese calligraphy from the fourteen volume edition of the New Treatise on Military Efficiency (1584) (larger version). From Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. Note the similarities in stance and the position of the blades. 

As for the association between primates and armed combat during the Ming, the animals are occasionally referenced in the named fighting techniques of military literature. For example, the tenth volume of Qi Jiguang’s aforementioned manual includes a feinting lance technique titled “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance” (Baiyuan tuo dao shi, 白猿拖刀勢) (Yang & Xie, 1995, p. 336). The 35th volume of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques compiled by Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀, 1594-1640), includes “White ape exits cave” (Baiyuan chudong shi, 白猿出洞勢), a stance appearing in the sequence for an overhead sword guard. [5] (Incidentally, this is also the name of a fist set practiced in some lineages of Praying Mantis boxing). Additionally, the same volume includes a two-section sword manual, the first section of which portrays fanciful images of apes practicing with the “Sprout saber” (miaodao, 苗刀) (Mao, 1621), a long, two-handed blade similar to the Japanese Katana (fig. 2). These strange images differ from the human-based figures in the rest of the source. It’s important to note that the original sword manual, called Saber Techniques of the Xinyou-era (i.e. 1561) (Xinyou daofa, 辛酉刀法), is taken directly from the fourth volume of the revised fourteen volume edition of Qi’s New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shisi juan ben, 紀效新書十四卷本, 1584). The first of the aforementioned two sections reproduces a series of sword-wielding stick figures taken from a Shadow School (Kage-ryu, 影流 / 陰流) manual of Japanese sword fighting. The section is prefaced by lively Japanese calligraphy, and the few words recognizable to readers of Chinese include “ape flying” (yuanfei, 猿飛) and “ape returning” (yuanhui, 猿回) (fig. 3), both of which are Kenjutsu techniques still practiced today (video 3). [6] This then might explain why the stick figures were changed to apes when the material was reproduced in the Collection of Military Works decades later. But I would also like to suggest that the change (as well as the allusion to the sword-wielding white ape from the lance technique mentioned earlier) was influenced by a famous first-century Chinese story about a talented swordswoman who has her skills tested by a magic white ape. This is discussed in section IV below.

Video 3 – A modern demonstration of the “ape-flying” technique.

III. Sun Wukong the Monkey King

By far, the most famous weapon-bearing primate of the late Ming-period is Sun Wukong (a.k.a. “Monkey”), the simian protagonist of the highly popular Chinese novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). According to the tale, the stone-born monkey rules a mountain utopia before learning magic, martial arts, and the secret of immortality under a Buddho-Daoist sage. He soon thereafter acquires a magic, size-changing iron staff, which he uses to wage war against the celestial realm (fig. 4), proclaiming himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖, hence the name for Kou Si’s Monkey boxing). But his rebellion is eventually quelled by the Buddha, who imprisons the indestructible monkey demon beneath a mountain for his crimes. Five hundred years later, the repentant immortal is called upon to use his great strength, martial arts, and powers of transformation to protect the monk Tripitaka on a journey to procure scriptures from India.

Mr. Li's Criticism - Detail of Monkey fighting Heaven (small)

Fig. 4 – A woodblock print of Sun Wukong fighting the heavenly army with his magic staff (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhouwu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West, late 16th-century. 

The narrative portrays Sun as a well-rounded martial artist proficient in both weapons and boxing. For example, during his rebellion with heaven, he trains his monkey children as soldiers, teaching them troop movement and weapons, including swords, spears, axes, and bows and arrows. But he is best known for his skill with the staff (fig. 5). One episode sees Monkey give a display of his martial prowess while he and his master travel through a spooky mountain. His skill is so great that the story likens it to the strategy taught in two of the Seven Military Classics of China: 

“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat.” Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as he walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the Six Secret Teachings and Three Strategies [Liu Tao San Lue, 六韜三略)]. [7] What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 5 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

Furthermore, Monkey displays a mastery of unarmed fighting (fig. 6) in two episodes. A poem in chapter 51, for example, is important because it describes a battle between Sun and a rhinoceros demon in which they use real boxing techniques, many of which are still known and practiced to this day:

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13).

While the techniques are not Monkey boxing, the narrative certainly helped solidify the connection between primates and martial arts during the late Ming when references to the style were recorded.


Fig. 6 – Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).

Sun Wukong’s image as a master of armed and unarmed combat led to his veneration among northern Chinese martial artists at the end of the Qing. As noted in this article, fighters of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) were known to channel the spirit of the Monkey King (among other deities) in order to gain his martial prowess. A German catholic missionary active in Shandong in the late-19th and early-20th-century recorded how four boxer youths were chosen as possible vessels, and after a ritual enticed the deity to earth, the “possessed” individual performed a frightening saber dance, indicating the Great Sage had taken control. Additionally, Dudbridge (1970) cites one 17th-century source that describes Sun’s veneration in the southern Chinese province of Fujian for “appear[ing] in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates” (p. 158). This refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by the aforementioned Wokou pirates. Interestingly, Sun Wukong fighting pirates puts him in the same company as the Shaolin warrior monks, who used their martial arts skills to rout the same bandits during the 1550s (Shahar, 2008, pp. 68-70).

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 7 – The Monkey Pilgrim stone relief carving, 1237, from the Kaiyuan Temple Western Pagoda, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China (larger version).

Monkey is important to this study because he bridges the gap between the lack of pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. Sun first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. The narrative presents our hero wielding two staves, one a golden-ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron staff, in defense of his Buddhist master. These two staves would later be combined by storytellers to create his signature weapon.

Older still, the Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺) of Fujian is home to a nearly life-sized carving of the hero (fig. 7), who is presented as a saber-wielding guardian deity. He appears alongside other such wrathful gods, as well as bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, and eminent monks, on a stone pagoda that was erected in the year 1237. So Monkey was associated with various weapons as far back as the 13th-century.

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 8 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88.

Apart from possible Indian influences, Sun Wukong’s origins can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty tales in which a magical white ape or gibbon (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnaps human woman and spoils their innocence (fig. 8). For example, the unnamed primate antagonist of “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong baiyuan zhuang, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-c.) is described as a 1,000-year-old hermit who lives in a mountain utopia, practices Daoist longevity arts, wields the power to fly and change his shape, and has supernatural strength and an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm him. Most importantly, he is depicted as a master of armed combat, one displaying a fondness for sword dancing. His blade is said to “circl[e] his body as fast as lightning and as round as a full moon”. [8] As noted above, this is not the first story involving a magic white ape who is fond of swordplay. 

IV. Magic apes and ancient Chinese heroes

The Chinese classic the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) describes the literary heroes Hou Jian (侯健), Lin Chong (林沖), and Zhang Qing (張清) (fig. 9) each having ape-like arms, denoting their great strength and agility. This same nickname was applied to powerful archers of the past. Ma (2010) writes:

[I]t is said that the Xiongnu warrior Liu Chong ‘had arms like an ape, was skilled at archery (yuanbei shanshe 猿臂善射), and could pull a bow of three hundred jin’ 斤(Book of Wei《魏書》). Similarly, History of Ming describes General Chang Yuchun 常遇春 as ‘distinguished looking, with peerless courage and strength, had arms like those of an ape and was skilled at archery’; and in the same vein, Tang poet Cui Daorong 崔道融 wrote that ‘the ape-armed general runs as if on wings, sparing no one with his bow from a hundred paces’ (General Li’s Biography [Ti Li jianjun zhuan 題李將軍傳]) (p. 24).

Zhang Qing (Water Margin hero) with Sun Wukong tattoo - small

Fig. 9 – A woodblock print of the hero Zhang Qing by Kuniyoshi produced between 1827 and 1830 (larger version). It is part of the artist’s “One of the 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin” series (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, 通俗水滸傳濠傑百八人一個). Original image found here. Look closely and you’ll notice that the tattoo on Zhang’s back portrays Sun Wukong producing magical clones of himself from his mouth.

Oddly enough, the earliest tales mentioning archers and magic white apes do not liken one to the other. In fact, they are diametrically opposed. For example, a third-century BCE tale about the famed archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) portrays the creature as an elusive target for his arrow:

Once in the palace of Jing 荊 there was a supernatural white ape. Even the skillful archers of Jing could not hit it. Then the king of Jing asked … Yang Youji to shoot it. Yang straightened his bow and went to the palace with arrows in his hands. Before shooting he aimed at a place where the [moving] ape had not yet arrived. When he let the arrow fly, the ape fell immediately. Thus Yang Youji could be called the archer who could hit a target before it was there (Wu, 1987, p. 103; see also Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

A similar version of the tale states the ape recognizes Yang’s supernatural skill, anticipating the arrow and crying out in pain moments before actually being struck (Wu, 1987, p. 103; Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

Perhaps the most famous story associating the magic white ape with martial arts is the “Maiden of Yue” (Yuenu, 越女, 1st-c. BCE), named after its protagonist, a peerless swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE. The story describes how she participates in a sparring match with the shape-changing ape:

The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king [Goujian of Yue]. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was “Old Mr. Yuan” [Yuan Gong, 袁公].

He said to the young woman, “I hear you fight well with a [sword]. I’d like to see a demonstration.”

She replied, “I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.”

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but [she] parried straight back, thrust three times, and finally raised her end of bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan [fig. 10]. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape [baiyuan, 白猿, hence the surname]. Then each went their own way, and she went on to meet with the king. [9]

Upon meeting the king, the Maiden reveals the secret to her fighting ability is the application of yin and yang energy, which are metaphorically described as the opening and closing of large and small swinging doors. This is “[t]he earliest extant published exposition of [the] theory applied directly to the martial arts” (Henning, 2001, p. 746), predating the artificial categorization of Chinese boxing into “internal” (neijia, 内家) and “external” (waijia, 外家) styles during the 17th-century (Henning, 2007, p. 26). Therefore, the importance of the story in the annals of Chinese martial arts history can’t be overstated. Nor can the inclusion of the white ape. His supernatural challenge and subsequent defeat respectively tests and confirms the effectiveness of the theory.

This tale likely influenced the association between white apes and swordplay in later sources, such as the sword-dancing antagonist of the Tang-era “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (section III) and the sword-wielding primates of military literature (section II). For example, “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance”, the aforementioned feinting lance technique from New Treatise on Military Efficiency (c. 1561/1562), may refer to Old Mr. Yuan’s defeat.

Maiden of Yue vs Old Man Yuan (the white ape) - small

Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the Maiden of Yue fighting Old Mr. Yuan by martial historian Stan Henning (larger version). From Henning, 2007, p. 24.

Our heroes’ respective stories make no reference to animal mimicry, the cornerstone of primate-based boxing. In fact, it’s the reverse in the second narrative: an ape mimics man. [10] The tales instead promote the idea of trained human skill conquering the raw, often magical, power of nature. In the case of the Maiden of Yue, her mastery of yin and yang energy enabled her to best the magic white ape. Yang Youji is more of a mythic figure capable of miraculous feats, such as sinking an arrow into a boulder simply because he mistook it for a rhino (i.e. mind over matter) (Selby, 2000, p. 131). But he succeeded in falling a white ape when many archers failed. These tales are therefore the antithesis of primate-based boxing, representing what might have been considered more “civilized” or “noble” forms of martial arts, namely the armed disciplines of archery and swordplay.

V. Animal mimicry in Chinese medicine and religion

I suggested above that primate-based styles may have arisen during the Ming. But how the styles developed is likely tied to the long history of animal mimicry in China. For example, around the year 60 BCE (during the Han), the courtier Tan Changqing (檀長卿) is said to have been reprimanded for violating ritual norms by performing the dance of the “dog and macaque combat” (wu wei mu hou yu gou dou, 舞為沐猴與狗鬭) while at a drunken party (Harper, 2001, p. 18). This dance may have some connection to a funerary motif appearing in Han-era stone tombs in which dogs are shown intimidating apes, the motif representing the conquering of evil influences. [11] Tan’s display can’t be assigned a martial role, however, because it was likely a comical pantomime. [12] But this shows mimicking primates served a variety of purposes in Chinese culture.

Primate-based movements figure in a number of ancient therapeutic exercises. For instance, the monkey appears in the Five Animals’ Frolic (Wuqin xi, 五禽戲), a 3rd-century system of daoyin calisthenics, which mimics the movements or behaviors of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird (in that order), each animal set strengthening a particular area of the body (Kohn, 2008, pp. 163-169). Movements mimicking the bear, monkey, and bird actually predate this system, appearing among forty-four exercises listed in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (Daoyin tu, 導引圖, 168 BCE), the oldest known diagram of daoyin exercises, discovered in Mawangdui (馬王堆) (fig. 11 and 12). Primate-based exercises include the “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (muhou guan yinling zhong, 沐猴灌引靈中) (#35) and “Gibbon Shouting” (yuanhu, 猿謼) (#40) (fig. 13 and 14) (Harper, 1998, pp. 315 and 316). [13]

The Masters of Huainan (Huananzi, 淮南子, 139 BCE), a compendium of Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist thought, references another primate-based daoyin set in a section criticizing such exercises as inferior to spiritual cultivation:

If you huff and puff,
exhale and inhale,
blow out the old and pull in the new,
practice the Bear Hang [xiongjing, 熊經], the Bird Stretch [niaoshen, 鳥伸],
the Duck Splash [fuyu, 鳧浴], the Ape leap [yuanjue, 蝯躩],
the Owl Gaze [chishi, 鴟視], and the Tiger Stare [hugu, 虎顧]:

This is what is practiced by those who nurture the body. They are not the practices of those who polish the mind (Liu & Major, 2010, p. 236).

Daoyin tu - Original, reconstruction, monkey and gibbon - 35 and 40

Fig 11 – (Top left) The Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling, 2nd-c. BCE, paint on silk, 142 x 70 cm (55.9 x 27.5 in) (larger version). Image originally found here. Fig. 12 – (Top right) A modern reconstruction (larger version). Image originally found on Wikipedia. Harper (1998) warns such reconstructions “should be regarded as conjectural in many details” since the original is in such poor condition (p. 191). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) The reconstruction of “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (larger version). Fig. 14 – (Bottom right) The reconstruction of “Gibbon Shouting” (larger version).

These therapeutic exercises likely find their origin in ancient Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences (Harper, 1985, pp. 487-488). One such dance was the seasonal Da Nuo (大儺 / 難; Jp: Tsuina, 追儺) ritual in which a bearskin-clad exorcist (Ch: fangxiangshi; Jp: hōsōshi, 方相氏) and his army of fur, feather, and horn-clad youths, representing twelve animal deities, expelled evil spirits from human dwellings. Evidence suggests it may have been performed as early as the Shang (17th to 11th-c. BCE), but the earliest concrete references come from the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE) (Poo, 2009, p. 286). What’s interesting for our purposes is that the exorcism has a martial aspect; not only does the exorcist bear a lance and shield for ritual combat (fig. 15), but also the group travels throughout the given location dancing and shouting, with the youths beating drums and commanding twelve spirits by name to devour or eviscerate anthropomorphic representations of malevolent influences (Poo, 2009, pp. 287-288). So by wearing animal products, the exorcist and his ritual army gained the strength of animal deities to combat dark forces.

Nuo exorcist expelling demon (Hayaike Yu Okami and Oni Yarai) - small

Fig. 15 – A Japanese woodblock print portraying the Da Nuo exorcist expelling a “pestilence” spirit with his lance and shield (larger version). Originally found here. Note the four-eyed mask. This is based on the four golden-eyed bear skin worn by the exorcist in ancient Chinese records (Poo, 2009, p. 287).

It’s possible that the “twelve animals” of the Da Nuo exorcism refer to some precursor of the Chinese zodiacal animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig). If true, monkey fur could have been among the animal products worn by the ritual army. After all, monkeys have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. [14] A modern example of exorcists who don monkey fur are the shamans of the Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan. The Qiang worship monkeys as the source and savior of their sacred knowledge, as well as the progenitor of their people, the latter being a myth cycle common among ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China.

Henning (2001) highlights the connection between animal totemism and animal boxing:

Another view is that at least some animal forms may hark back to a distant totemic past that still occupies a place in the Chinese psyche. This totemic influence is difficult if not impossible to trace in majority Han Chinese boxing styles; however, it can be seen in the combination of martial arts and dance practiced by some of China’s many national minorities. Cheng Dali, in his Chinese Martial Arts: History and Culture, points to Frog Boxing, practiced by the Zhuang Nationality of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as an example, the frog being considered their protector against both natural and man-made disasters (p. 16).

Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming could descend from totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices. The development could have gone something like this:

  1. Early shamanic dances drawing on the totemic power of primate deities (via their fur) to exorcise evil influences through ritual combat, including the bearing of weapons, drumming, dancing, and the shouting of spells.
  2. The animal fur and martial dancing give way to calisthenics drawing on primate mimicry to expel sickness and strengthen the body.
  3. These calisthenic movements are adapted for fighting.

It’s even possible that the war-like shamanic dancing gave way directly to boxing. Martiality (wu, 武) and dance (wu, 舞) have long been associated in Chinese history, for drums and gongs were used to direct the movements of both troops and dancers (Lorge, 2012, p. 26-27). Musical accompaniment remains a staple of folk martial arts performances. A modern example of totemic mimicry, dancing, and martial arts is the Lion Dance (wushi, 舞獅) popular in Asian communities throughout the world (video 4).

Video 4 – Five lion dancing teams performing before a crowd. 

VI. Conclusion

Apes and monkeys have been associated with armed and unarmed martial arts in Chinese culture for over two thousand years. Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern combat style of Monkey boxing created in the early 20th-century, is predated by even older instances of Monkey boxing alluded to in military and travel writings of the 16th-century, suggesting it was a common form of pugilism. Additionally, military literature of the 16th and 17th-century associates white apes with swordplay. The lack of historical references to primate-based boxing prior to the Ming (1368-1644) suggests such styles developed during the explosion in popularity of pugilism at this time. The image of the highly popular late Ming literary monkey hero Sun Wukong as a master of armed and unarmed martial arts, as well as his association with staff and sword fighting in 13th-century oral literature and Buddhist art, respectively, helps bridge this gap between the lack of historical boxing references and older material associating primates with armed combat. He can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty stories about magic white apes who, due to their supernatural abilities, were portrayed as the ultimate test of a warrior’s martial skills. The most famous of these tells how the Maiden of Yue, a talented swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE, vets her yin-yang theory-based sword style by defeating a white ape-turned-old man in a sparring match. This story is important because it’s the first recorded association of yin-yang theory and martial arts in Chinese history. This tale and another involving the mythic archer Yang Youji are the antitheses of primate-based boxing because each touts the superiority of trained human skill over the raw, magical power of nature. Despite this, animal mimicry played a large role in early therapeutic yoga-like Daoyin calisthenics, such as the Five Animals Frolic (3rd-c. CE) and those appearing in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (168 BCE), which copied the movements of monkeys and apes (among other animals) to strengthen given areas of the body. These exercises likely find their origin in ancient war-like Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences, one example being the seasonal Da Nuo exorcism of the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE). The Da Nuo exorcist and his ritual army wore animal products (fur, horns, feathers, etc.) to invoke the power of animal deities capable of driving away malevolent forces. Monkey fur may have been worn by members of the ritual army because the animal and its products have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. Shamans among the modern Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan worship monkeys and draw on the power of their fur to perform exorcisms. Animal totemism plays a part in some animal-based martial arts, such as the Frog boxing of the Zhuang ethnic group. Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming may have been influenced by the ancient totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices, those that formed the basis of later animal-based therapeutic exercises. This is where the historical study would benefit from modern ethnographic field research. A follow-up study might bridge the gap between the historical data and modern practice.


1) A shorter paper with a similar focus is Ma (2010). The editor of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies was gracious enough to provide me with a PDF copy of the article when I was nearing completion of this paper.

2) Regarding the name of the creator of Monkey boxing, Kou Si (寇四), kou (寇) means “bandit, foe, or enemy”. I find this especially interesting given he was imprisoned for murder, the reasons for which range from accidentally killing a villager in a fight to purposely killing a military official to avoid service (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-87). It’s possibly this name is simply a folk title given to an unknown creator, or one known to have been active in crime.

3) See chapters three and four.

4) The earliest mention of Eagle Claw appears in Qi Jiguang’s training manual. It refers to “Eagle Claw Wang’s grappling methods” (Yingzhao Wang zhi na, 鷹爪王之拿) (Gyves, 1993, p. 35). Qing-era manuals and family histories suggest Xingyi was created by a certain Ji Jike (姬際可, fl. 1650) (Shahar, 2008, pp. 134-135).

5) For an English translation of the sword technique mentioning the stance, see Chen, 2018, pp. 73-75.

6) Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. I’m indebted to the operator of the Great Ming Military blog for explaining the connection between the ape images and the visible characters from the Japanese calligraphy, as well as providing me with a digital copy of the fourteen volume edition of Qi’s training manual.

7) The original English translation omits the two named books from the Chinese version. It reads, “…the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

8) Chen, 1998, p. 84. Some readers may have noticed the sword is a reoccurring theme in Sun Wukong’s history: 1) The Qing-era boxers are said to have performed a saber dance under his possession; 2) he is depicted with a saber on the Kaiyuan temple pagoda in Fujian; and 3) the magic white ape on whom he is likely based loves performing sword dances. In addition, two other sources mention Monkey’s association with the sword. First, a 15th-century Zaju play describes Guanyin giving Sun Wukong a Buddhist saber (jiedao, 戒刀) (apart from other magic items) to protect his master on the eve of their journey. Second, a 17th-century tale set in Fujian describes the Great Sage magically afflicting a merchant with painful leg sores using a “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

I don’t think these have any unifying significance, however. For example, the saber requires less training and is cheaper than other implements of war. So it was often the go to weapon for soldiers and bodyguards. Monkey’s association with the saber on the pagoda is likely tied to this same concept. As a guardian deity, he is portrayed with the same weapon used by mortals to protect others in times of need. The magic white ape is portrayed as a Daoist gentleman, one in possession of a pair of treasure swords (baojian, 寶劍), the kind used in Daoist ritual. His fancy for the sword may be based on Old Mr. Yuan from the Maiden of Yue (see section IV). Another literary character with Buddhist sabers is Wu Song from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). I explain in this article (footnote #2) that his sabers are based on real world Buddhist knives issued to monks. The same concept is no doubt tied to Monkey’s weapon from the play. Having said that, I will admit, though, that the saber from the pagoda may have had some influence on that mentioned in the 17th-century story. After all, the pagoda example is portrayed with a lick of heavenly flame, just like one would expect from a celestial sword. Also, both the story and the pagoda take place/are located in Fujian, home to the Great Sage’s cult.

9) Selby, 2000, pp. 155-156. The famous Tang poet Li Bai (李白) referenced Mr. Yuan’s defeat in one of his poems. A line reads “The White Ape was ashamed of his fencing” (Ma, 2010, p. 24). This is fascinating as Li Bai was also known to have been a proficient swordsmen in his youth (Liu, 1967, pp. 46-47).

10) This is based on an old concept in which primates were thought to progress through a type of magical evolution, similar to modern day Pokémon. The Baopuzi (抱朴子, 2nd-c. CE) states a monkey will transform into a gibbon after 800 years of life. It will then change into several legendary apes over some 3,500 years, before evolving into an old man (Ball, 1927, p. 117). Gulik (1967) cites a tale in which the soothsayer Zhou Qun (周羣 / 周群) learns the secrets of divination from a gibbon-turned-old man (p. 50).

11) As noted in this article, Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s hound is tied to the Han-era tomb motif of dogs intimidating apes.

12) Ma (2010) translates the historical passage, noting those at the party were “drinking wine and making merry, then Tan Changqing, the high official of Changxin Palace, starts to dance, to imitate a monkey fighting with a dog, bringing laughter to all present” (p. 25).

13) Harper (1998) suggests an alternate reading for “Gibbon shout” (yuanhu謼) is “Gibbon Jump” (yuanjue, 蝯躩) based on graphical similarities to an exercise from the Huainanzi. (淮南子, 139 BCE) (p. 316, n. 1).

14) This is tied to a Song-era (and likely older) superstition from Sichuan where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness (Eberhard, 1969, p. 52). This is why heaven appoints Sun Wukong the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “Keeper of the (Heavenly) Horses”), which is a pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, “Avoid the horse plague”). Due to his former exalted position, earthly horses are shown to fear the Monkey King throughout the narrative (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309, for example).

In Japan, monkeys were also associated with horses and healing via the warding of evil. Apart from monkeys being kept in stables like their Chinese counterparts, their fur was applied to the harnesses and quivers of Samurai because the warriors believed it gave them more control over their mounts. Furthermore, monkey body parts have been consumed for centuries as curative medicines, and their hides have even been stuffed to make protective amulets (kukurizaru) to ward off illness. Likewise, a genre of painting depicts divine monkeys (saru gami), messengers of the mountain deity, performing Da Nuo-like dances to ensure a good rice harvest (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1987, pp. 43-50)


Ball, K. M. (1927). Decorative motives of oriental art. London, John Lane; New York, Dodd, Mead and Co.

Chen, J. (1998). A supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape. Renditions 49, pp. 76-85.

Chen, J. (2018). Ancient art of Chinese long straight sword. (n.p.): Chen Jiayi.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Eberhard, W. (1969). The local cultures of south and east China. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gyves, C. M. (1993). An English Translation of General Qi Jiguang’s “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” (Master’s thesis). The University of Arizona, Arizona, USA.

Harper, D. (1985). A Chinese demonography of the Third Century B.C. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 45 (2), pp. 459-498.

Harper, D. (1998). Early Chinese medical literature: The Mawangdui medical manuscripts. London: Wellcome Asian Medical Monographs.

Harper, D. (2001). Poets and Primates: Wang Yanshou’s Poem on the Macaque, Asia Major 14(2), pp. 1-25.

Henning, S. (2001). Written Texts: China In T. A. Green (Ed.), Martial arts of the world: An encyclopedia, volume two: r–z (pp. 745-748). Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

Henning, S. (2007). The maiden of Yue: Fount of Chinese martial arts theory. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 16(3), pp. 24-27.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese healing exercises: The tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Liang, S. Y., and Yang, J. M. (2002). Xingyiquan: Theory, applications, fighting tactics and spirit. Boston: YMAA Publication Center.

List of surviving Ming period martial arts. (2017, December 3). Retrieved from

Liu, J. Y. (1967). The Chinese knight-errant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Liu, A., and Major, J. S. (2010). The Huainanzi: A guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lu, S. (2006). Combat techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua: Principles and practices of internal martial arts. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books.

Ma, L. (2010). From ape worship in ancient China to monkey imitation in modern competition wu shu. Journal of Chinese Martial Studies 2, pp. 20-28.

Mao, Y. (1621). Wubei zhi: juan sanshiwu  [Collection of Military Works: Volume 35]. Retrieved from

Matsuda, M. (2013). Monkey kung fu: History & tradition. (n.p.): Michael Matsuda.

Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1987). The monkey as mirror: Symbolic transformations in Japanese history and ritual. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Poo, M. (2009). Ritual and ritual texts in early China In J. Lagerwey and M. Kalinowski (Ed.). Early Chinese religion, part one: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (pp. 281-313). Leiden: Brill.

Qi, J. (2001). Jixiao xinshu shisi juan ben [New Treatise on Military Efficiency: Fourteen volume edition]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1584)

Selby, S. (2000). Chinese archery. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wu, C., and Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yang, J., and Xie, G. (Ed.) (1995). Zhongguo bingshu jicheng [Collection of Chinese Military Literature]. Beijing: Liaoshen shushe.

Zheng, R. Z. (1564). Jiangnan jinglue: juan ba shang [Strategic Situation in Jiangnan: vol. 8]. Retrieved from江南經畧_(四庫全書本)/卷8上

The Great Sage Purple Cloud Temple of Yilan, Taiwan: A Photo Essay

I recently visited another Great Sage temple, this time the Wujian Purple Cloud Temple (Wujian Ziyu si, 五間紫雲寺) of Yilan (宜蘭), Taiwan. The temple was bustling with people during the Chinese New Year celebrations, so I didn’t have time to ask many questions. This entry will serve more as a picture essay until I return to conduct proper research.

1. History

Legend has it that around 1899 a man found a monkey-shaped stone and enshrined it in a thatched shed. This was eventually converted to a temple a few years later. It was destroyed by a typhoon in 1960 but subsequently rebuilt. The temple appears to recognize a trinity, with countless monkey soldiers beneath them. The Great Sage has two aspects: the “Martial Great Sage” (Wu Dasheng, 武大聖) (standing statues), who exorcises evil, and the “Civil Great Sage” (Wen Dasheng, 文大聖) (seated statues), who insures the safety of people and animals.

2. How to get there

(Note: Always consult google if you are directionally challenged like myself)

Address: No. 449, Section 3, Dafu Road, Zhuangwei Township, Yilan County, Taiwan, 263

I took bus #1571 (google calls it #1571A) from gate 15 of the Taiwan City Hall Bus Station. This heads towards the Yilan Bus Station. (If you plan to take this route, please note that buses headed to different areas of Yilan will board from this gate. So pay very close attention to the calls of the bus station attendant. For example, they called “Jiaoxi” (礁溪) (bus #1572), a small township in Yilan, and those waiting for another destination had to stand off to the side while those from different sections of the line made their way to the front. If you aren’t careful, you might end up on the wrong bus.) My destination was the first stop, the Zhuangwei (壯圍) bus stop, a small shelter by an overpass. My short walk to the temple took me passed rows of flooded rice fields and small patches of buildings.

(Click images for larger versions)


Gate 15 at the Taiwan City Hall Bus Station.


The Zhuangwei bus stop shelter (as seen from the opposite outgoing bus stop).

1a - Map to Purple Cloud Temple

The route map from the Zhuangwei bus stop to the temple.


Random rice fields along Gonglao Road (see map).


A panorama of a rice field next to Lane 423, Sect. 3, Dafu Road (see map). 

3. The Outside

The temple is located on the side of a busy road. It appears almost out of nowhere since the face of the holy structure is in line with the buildings on either side. The first thing that caught my eye was the highly ornate roof of the furnace covered in mythical creatures, divine heroes, and gods, features typical of South Chinese and Taiwanese temple architecture. Each face of the hexagonal body was covered with beautiful carvings on black marble, two of which included the pilgrims from Journey to the West.


The furnace visible on the left side of the temple (as seen from the road).


A marble carving of Guanyin, the White Dragon Horse, Monkey, and Tripitaka.


A detail of Monkey.


Monkey, Sha Wujing, Tripitaka on the White Dragon Horse, and Zhu Bajie.


A detail of the group.

The front of the temple houses an ornate statue of three brightly colored dragons enclosed in a fence. Looking up, I noticed beautiful hand-painted dragons and Qilin on the ceiling, along with paintings of events from Chinese mythology and Journey to the West on the cross beams. Walking towards one of the five entrances, I noticed the facade was covered in highly detailed stone carvings, some depicting events from the novel.


The front of the Purple Cloud Temple.


The front of the temple. Three of the five entrances are visible behind the dragons.


A detail of the three dragon statues.


Five hand-painted dragons on the ceiling. The Eight Immortals grace the crossbeam below. 


A pair of Qilin on the ceiling. The cross beam below portrays an event from Prince Nezha‘s life.


Zhu Bajie protecting his master from the ogre that will become Sha Wujing.


Monkey escaping from Laozi’s furnace.

24 - BW

A stone carving on the facade showing Monkey (top right), Zhu bajie (top center right), and Sha Wujing (center left) battling a monster (top left). The image has been enhanced for clarity.

25 - BW

Monkey (center) battling the heavenly army. Enhanced for clarity. 

26 - BW

Monkey (center) leaping from Laozi’s furnace. Enhanced for clarity. Apologies for the blur. 

28 - BW

A detail of Monkey leaping.

29 - BW

The Great Sage (top center) and his monkey army battling heaven. Enhanced for clarity. These are just a few of the many carvings covering the temple facade. 

4. The Inside

The interior hall is wide yet shallow in depth and split between three altars, Folk religion to the right, the Great Sage in the Center, and Daoist to the left. I must admit in my zeal to photograph anything Monkey-related, I completely forgot to take pictures of the other two sections. This online image shows the folk section includes Mazu, Budai, and other deities. This image shows the Daoist section includes the Jade emperor, the Earth god, and others. Surprisingly, the incense burner in front of the main entrance was not marked with the name of the Great Sage (unlike what I’ve seen at other such temples) but that of the Jade Emperor, 玉皇上帝 (Yuhuang shangdi).


The main hall.


The incense burner bearing the name of the Jade Emperor (visible from the hall looking out the main door).

Upon entering the right side of the main hall, the first thing that caught my eye was a large wooden sculpture of a tree-bound monkey holding onto a branch with one hand and a pair of peaches in the other. Immediately behind him was a stone carving of a vague monkey with two children. (I’m not sure of the ritual importance of either statue. I’ll report on this later. However, I will say the stone statue recalls Sun Wukong’s origins as a stone monkey.) Next to both statues is one of two cylindrical towers, one positioned on each end of the hall. Each is topped by a Great Sage statue and the towers themselves are comprised of hundreds of small compartments, each filled with a small Great Sage figure. These represent a donor who has given money to the temple.


The wooden monkey statue.


A detail of the monkey holding peaches.


The stone monkey with children.


The tower of donor Great Sages.


The Great Sage topping each tower. He holds a fly whisk in one hand and a peach of immortality in the other.


The many compartments.


A mini Great Sage donor figure. He sits on a throne with his staff held over head in one hand and a calabash gourd held to his front in the other. 

4.1. The Great Sage Altar

The central offering table to the Great Sage was covered in all sorts of fruits, candies, and flowers. Also included were an incense burner, offerings of wine, and a pair of crescent moon-shaped wooden blocks. These blocks are used in tandem with fortune sticks and oracles revealed on slips of paper, all of which are housed in a metal cylinder to the left of the table (see section three of this article on how these items are used).


The table laden with offerings. Take note of the young woman praying to the Great Sage. She told me that she was from Vietnam and that Monkey was not a common deity there.


The incense burner (back center), tea offerings (three cups visible in the center) and wooden blocks (front right).


The metal cylinder housing the fortune sticks (top), with the corresponding oracles located in each of the surrounding drawers.

Like in other parts of Taiwan and Singapore, this temple appears to recognize a plethora of Great Sages, from a holy trinity to an army of soldier monkeys. (I don’t yet know their individual names. I will report on this later.) All of the Great Sage figures are portrayed with golden armor, red-painted humanoid faces, golden fillets, and long, dark hair. The headband and long hair are no doubt influenced by depictions of Military Monks (Wuseng, 武僧) from Chinese opera (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328). Red face paint is also associated with such characters (Bonds, 2008, p. 211). While the red paint of the statues references the red faces of macaque monkeys, it definitely plays into the military monk personna. Portraying Monkey as such defines him as a divine warrior and a guardian deity.

Military Monk - Beijing Opera (Bonds, 2008)

A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (Bonds, 2008, p. 178).

I was pleasantly surprised to see statues of Zhu Bajie appear among the Great Sage’s army. It’s quite appropriate given this is the year of the pig according to the Chinese zodiac. Also included were statues of Ksitigarbha and Nezha.


The three main Great Sages visible in front of the ornate dragon statue. Note the long hair.


Statues of Zhu Bajie among Monkey’s soldiers.


More soldier monkeys. Take note of the Ksitigarbha (front right).


Nezha figures mixed in with the monkey soldiers (left).


This soldier monkey holds a calabash gourd at the ready.


More Nezha figures among the soldiers (right).

I have more pictures of the interior but I’ll leave those for a later article. Lastly, I want to share one of the temple flags stationed opposite the main building.


(Left) “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”. (Right) “(Yi)lan Wujian Purple Cloud Temple”.


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

Story Idea: The Origin of Sun Wukong

Last updated: 01/17/21

The following story sketch was originally posted on my external blog on the Historum website. The site recently switched to a new server but the blogs have yet to be migrated. I’m posting it here for posterity. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

As a lover of Chinese mythology and a former primatology major, I’ve always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Sun Wukong. I originally wanted him to be the son of Monkey or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Sun and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of the character; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [A] a small, long-armed, arboreal ape native to Asia (fig. 1), I thought the character could be an ape immortal. It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons generally mate for life.


Fig. 1 – A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.

A rough sketch of the story is presented below. The tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes contain important information on the texts I used and why particular plot choices were made.

I. Story Idea 1

The Dao (道, the way) gives birth to the One (yiqi, 一氣, the first breath);
The One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang, 陰陽);
The Two gives birth to the Three (San qing, 三清, the Three Pure Ones);
The Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things.
The Ten Thousand Things carry the Yin and enfold the Yang;
Kneading gently, they create harmony. [B]

In the beginning of the universe, the Three Pure Ones, the manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. Among the first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female (fig. 2). They become the progenitors of all apes and monkeys, just like the phoenix and his mate, the next to be created, are the progenitors of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (氣), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. And Like modern apes, the pair shows a propensity for observation, watching the cyclical movement of the stars and planets and becoming aware of the ebb and flow of qi, studying the energy and cultivating its mysteries over endless eons.

Mated Gibbons

Fig. 2 – A pair of mated gibbons. A larger version can be found here.

Once their family grows to titanic proportions, the gibbons wield their arcane knowledge to create an island home, raising up Flower-Fruit Mountain (Huaguo shan, 花果山) from the ocean. There, they construct the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) from which they continue to plumb the depths of the Dao. [C] Their exploration takes them to the heights of the mountain where heaven meets earth, using the corresponding yin (earth/female) and yang (heaven/male) energy to fuel their reenactment of the creation of the cosmos through sexual union. By chance, these powerful, creative sexual energies are absorbed by a boulder atop the mountain. [D]

As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [E] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the ages. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, their song inadvertently topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the devi Nuwa (女媧) is forced to mend the heavens with five magic stones. [F] The primordial devas and spirits fear what might happen if the couple continues, so they plead with the gibbons to separate in order to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.

The immortal lovers reluctantly agree and isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [G] the male becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (東猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (Yuan jiazhang, 猿家長), while the female becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (Xi yuan xian, 西猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (Yuan nu jiazhang, 猿女家長). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subhuti. [H]

The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [I] The newly appointed August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost to time.

It is during the interim when the previously mentioned boulder, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, births a stone embryo that is eroded by the elements into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of his kin had forgotten long after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under Subhuti, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, Monkey Awakened to Vacuity) (fig. 3), and achieving great magical powers with which he later uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a full-fledged god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for 600 years, Sun redeems himself by escorting the monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) to India, and for this he is rewarded with Buddhahood, becoming the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛).


Fig. 3 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (larger version). A photomanipulation by the author.

After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the primordial gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses due to the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. [J] In addition, their individual songs have grown in power, now capable of destroying anything by separating the yin and yang forces therein (fig. 4).

Gibbon yawning

Fig. 4 – A gibbon yawning. Imagine powerful sound waves emanating from its mouth. A larger version can be found here.

The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the Enlightened One, the Tathagata sends their spiritual son, the Victorious Fighting Buddha, to ask them to pacify their rage instead of using trickery to halt the onslaught. [K] After a brief reunion, the pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to the Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine the great injustice done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.

After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (Da jie, 大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element. There are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm, where they can frolic with the Victorious Fighting Buddha. This way the gibbons will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [L]

II. Background information

A) The Chinese viewed the gibbon (Yuan, 猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi. This resulted in long lives and occult powers (Geissmann, 2008).

B) This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德經), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and Wilson, 2012, p. 197. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals. See Stevens, 1997, pp. 68-70.

C) JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.

D) JTTW states the following about the boulder: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love atop of the mountain, thereby impregnating the boulder with powerful, creative energies. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (Wile, 1992, pp. 11-12 and 28-29). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.

E) Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It’s interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Lougheed, 2014).

F) The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.

G) I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey’s imprisonment and the pair’s exile, both of which are connected to mountains.

H) The Buddha’s tutelage under the gibbons happens in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subhuti because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of Sun Wukong’s spiritual parents are transmitted to him by their former student.

I) This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演義), or Investiture of the Gods. In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, 1997, p. 60).

J) The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha and the immortal Subhuti. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. The pair rebels like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. That’s why I present them as living embodiments of yin and yang. Wile (1992) states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (p. 29).

K) An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to make Monkey think that he has left his palm in the seventh chapter of JTTW.

L) Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). For more information on the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind, see my article here.

Update: 01/17/21

III. Story idea 2

Last year I wrote an article that explored other stone-born figures from world mythology. In the conclusion I cautiously suggested that Wukong’s birth and later rebellion was influenced by the Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE), which appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. For example, one scholar noted similarities between Ullikummi and a later figure from Greek mythology: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (see the linked article). Anyone who has read Journey to the West will no doubt notice the striking similarities with Monkey’s tale. Therefore, I think Ullikummi’s story would be a solid basis for a more authentic origin story for the Monkey King.

While the ancient tale is named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya”, foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home.

Fig. 5 – Ullikummi as a playable character from the online video game Final Fantasy XI (larger version).

Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When the goddess Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads seventy deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with his vizier and brother Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. One scholar suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (again, see the linked article).


Fig. 6 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

Now, I’ve previously written a story sketch in which Master Subhuti’s school is actually a training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the Shaolin Temple. I speculated that Wukong’s skill in martial arts and troop movement would come from his time serving as a soldier and eventual officer in this army. Additionally, I suggested that the baddie whom the army faces is the headless monster Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 6), who originally battled the supreme god Shangdi for control of the universe and was beheaded after his defeat. Perhaps he or a figure like him follows in Kumarbi’s footsteps and beds a stone, in this case the rock on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, in an effort to create a powerful son to finish what he started. Then, he works in the shadows, influencing the direction of Monkey’s life, leading to his famous rebellion against heaven. Wukong’s defeat of the seventy-two major gods in the heavenly army [1] would mirror Ullikummi routing the seventy gods led by Astabi. Likewise, the Jade Emperor’s call to the Buddha, leading to Monkey’s defeat, mirrors Tesub’s plea to Ea and the eventual downfall of the stone monster. Thoughts?


1) Koss (1981) writes: “Adding up the number of gods listed here [see Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 169] from the Twenty-Eight Constellations through the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the number arrived at is seventy-three, if 東西星斗 [dongxi xingdou, the “Stars of East and West”] is counted as two, which Yu does in his translation, or seventy two, if the latter is taken as one, which is another possible interpretation” (p. 84).


Geissmann, T. (2008). Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context. Gibbon Journal, 4, 1-38. Received from

Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (Vol. 1 and 2). (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8112445)

Laozi, & Wilson, W. S. (2012). Tao Te Ching: An All-New Translation. Boston & London: Shambhala

Lougheed, K. (2012, August 23). Helium reveals gibbon’s soprano skill. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Wile, D. (1992). Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women’s Solo Meditation Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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

The Connection Between Monkey’s Spiritual Training and Historical Daoist Internal Alchemy

Did you know Monkey’s early spiritual training in chapter one is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? After becoming a student of the great immortal Subhuti in India, Sun receives a private lesson in which his master recites an instructional poem, part of which reads:

This bold, secret saying that’s wondrous and true:
Spare, nurse nature and life—there’s nothing else.
All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit;
Store these securely lest there be a leak.
Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!
Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive.
Hold fast oral formulas so useful and keen
To purge concupiscence, to reach pure cool;
To pure cool
Where the light is bright.
You’ll face the elixir platform, enjoying the moon.
The moon holds the jade rabbit, the sun, the crow;
The tortoise and snake are now tightly entwined.
Tightly entwined,
Nature and life are strong.
You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames.
Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth—
When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subhuti warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak”, he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178). “You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace. The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal spirit embryo (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179). The third stage involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A diagram of the organs and energy pathways in the human body (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Right) A Daoist sage subduing a tiger with his magic powers (larger version). Photos from Kohn (2008).

Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180) (fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.

Various facets of the aforementioned Song-era practices, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Wu and after the hour of Zi” (before noon and after midnight). [1] This time-based practice is described in the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄): “always practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84). [2] So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to forge his immortal spirit body.


1) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). I’ve changed the quote because this is most likely an error. See below.

2) There is a glaring contradiction between what the novel says (before Zi and after Wu) and what Daoist practice prescribes (before Wu and after Zi). I think this is a transcription error in the original text.


Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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

The Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.

In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), an island that lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches a stone egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.

The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for nearly four centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisers notes that only Daoist immortals and Buddhist saints can avoid death, and so he suggests the king find a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life. Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years, adopting human dress and language along way. His quest takes him to the Western Aparagodāniya continent where he is finally accepted as a student by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey who realizes sunyata“. The sage teaches him the seventy-two methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

Sun eventually returns to his island home and faces a demon whom had taken control of it during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he needs a weapon to match his celestial power, and so his adviser suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, to find such a weapon. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythical king of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), to set the depths of the fabled world flood, as well as to calm the seas. Named the “‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim—as small as a needle or as tall as the sky—thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.

Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he shows off his new weapon by turning into a frightful cosmic giant and commanding the staff to grow, with the top touching the highest heaven and the bottom the lowest hell. This display of power prompts demon kings of the seventy-two caves to submit to his rule and host a drunken party in his honor. Soon after falling asleep, Sun is visited by two psychopomps who drag his soul to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he is no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.


Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).

Both the Eastern Dragon King and King Yama submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court adviser, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the August Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial position of “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” (Bimawen, 弼馬温) in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey accepts and steadfastly performs his duties, that is until he learns from an assistant that he’s not a full-fledged god but a glorified stable boy. He immediately storms out of the heavenly gates and returns home to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) in rebellion. Heaven mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Prince Nezha (哪吒), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the August Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s wishes, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to be the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”.

Sun tours the heavenly orchard housing the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years. The sweet aroma of his charge is too much for him to resist, and so he eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits. His theft is soon discovered when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), an ancient primordial goddess, arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. It is from these fairies that Monkey learns he has not been invited due to his rough nature. Enraged, Sun then incapacitates the fair maidens with magic and crashes the party before the guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), the supreme god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived pills of immortality, thus increasing his level of invincibility.

Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up seventy-two heavenly generals, comprising the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods, and 100,000 celestial soldiers. In response, Monkey mobilizes his own army comprising the demon kings of the seventy-two caves and all manner of animal spirits, including his own monkey soldiers. But soon after the battle commences, the demon kings fall to the heavenly forces, forcing Sun to take on three heads and six arms and multiply his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical steel bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.

Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his rendered remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, having found protection in the wind element (xun, 巽). But intense smoke inside the furnace had greatly irritated his eyes, refining his pupils the color of gold and giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles, as well as to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, Sun demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain, yet the Enlightened One explains that the baneful spirit had never left his palm. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.

Fig. 2 – (Left) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong”, October 10, 1889 (larger version). Fig 3. – (Right) Son Goku (孫悟空) from the Dragonball Franchise (larger version).

Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.

A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.

Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.

Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.

Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball (Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).