Archive #36 – Sun Wukong and Battles of Magical Transformations

Last updated: 04-10-2022

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) happens in chapter six when heaven sends Erlang to confront Sun Wukong during his rebellion. After a prolonged, indecisive battle between the two immortals in their respective humanoid and cosmic giant forms, Monkey loses heart when his children are captured, causing him to flee. He tries to hide in the guise of a sparrow but is soon spotted by Erlang. This leads to an epic battle of magical transformations (video 1):

[…] Erlang at once discovered that the Great Sage had changed into a small sparrow perched on a tree. He changed out of his magic form and took off his pellet bow. With a shake of his body, he changed into a sparrow hawk with outstretched wings, ready to attack its prey. When the Great Sage saw this, he darted up with a flutter of his wings; changing himself into a cormorant, he headed straight for the open sky. When Erlang saw this, he quickly shook his feathers and changed into a huge ocean crane, which could penetrate the clouds to strike with its bill. The Great Sage therefore lowered his direction, changed into a small fish, and dove into a stream with a splash. Erlang rushed to the edge of the water but could see no trace of him. He thought to himself, “This simian must have gone into the water and changed himself into a fish, a shrimp, or the like. I’ll change again to catch him.” He duly changed into a fish hawk and skimmed downstream over the waves. After a while, the fish into which the Great Sage had changed was swimming along with the current. Suddenly he saw a bird that looked like a green kite though its feathers were not entirely green, like an egret though it had small feathers, and like an old crane though its feet were not red. “That must be the transformed Erlang waiting for me,” he thought to himself. He swiftly turned around and swam away after releasing a few bubbles. When Erlang saw this, he said, “The fish that released the bubbles looks like a carp though its tail is not red, like a perch though there are no patterns on its scales, like a snake fish though there are no stars on its head, like a bream though its gills have no bristles. Why does it move away the moment it sees me? It must be the transformed monkey himself!” He swooped toward the fish and snapped at it with his beak. The Great Sage shot out of the water and changed at once into a water snake; he swam toward shore and wriggled into the grass along the bank. When Erlang saw that he had snapped in vain and that a snake had darted away in the water with a splash, he knew that the Great Sage had changed again. Turning around quickly, he changed into a scarlet-topped gray crane, which extended its heel like sharp iron pincers to devour the snake. With a bounce, the snake changed again into a spotted bustard standing by itself rather stupidly amid the water pepper along the bank. When Erlang saw that the monkey had changed into such a vulgar creature-for the spotted bustard is the basest and most promiscuous of birds, mating indiscriminately with phoenixes, hawks, or crows-he refused to approach him. Changing back into his true form, he went and stretched his bow to the fullest. With one pellet he sent the bird hurtling […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 182-183).

Video 1 – A light-hearted, animated version of the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong. From the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

My friend Irwen Wong over at the Journey to the West Library blog has analyzed this fight, showing that Erlang’s changes are always a stronger response to the Monkey King’s transformations.

[…] 1.3. Round 3

Type: Transformation
Monkey turns himself into a sparrow and flees by flying away. Erlang notices this transformation and turns himself into a sparrow hawk to attack.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.4. Round 4

Type: Transformation
When Monkey now changes into a cormorant to be able to fly higher, out of Erlang’s hawk’s reach. Erlang was aware of this and transforms into an ocean crane to give chase.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.5. Round 5

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey was afraid of Erlang’s powerful transformations and turns himself into a small fish to hide in a stream. Erlang changes into a fish hawk and scans the stream for Monkey’s trace. He cleverly identifies the fish that was Monkey and attempts to catch it.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.6. Round 6

Type: Transformation
Monkey immediately darts out of the water when he sees Erlang and changes into a water snake. Erlang transforms into a grey crane to catch the water snake.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.7. Round 7

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey sees that Erlang had turned into a crane to chase him, so he wittily transformed into a spotted bustard to oppose Erlang’s crane.
Result: Monkey wins – Erlang as a crane did not dare approach the bustard.

1.8. Round 8

Type: Transformation & combat
When Monkey changed into a bustard, Erlang was afraid to approach it. Instead, Erlang reverted to his original form and took out his pellet bow. With the bow, he aimed at Monkey’s bustard and succeeded with a strong direct hit.
Result: Erlang wins.

This magical battle is actually related to an ancient mythic motif involving two warring supernatural beings.

I. Antecedents of the motif

Ioannis M. Konstantakos’ (2016) paper “The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition” explains that the motif can be traced to the Near East of the late-3rd millennium BCE. However, the oldest variants instead depict the combatants transforming objects and not their physical bodies in battle. But the outcome is still the same: one competitor produces stronger responses to the other’s initial attack. For example, the Sumerian tale Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana (c. early-2nd millennium BCE) depicts the two titular characters engaged in a magical battle over the fate of their respective homelands. Konstantakos (2016) writes:

The competition of Sağburu and Urğirnuna consists precisely in the magical fabrication of various animals. Each one of the adversaries throws a certain object of witchcraft into the river and draws out a magically produced creature (or group of creatures). Every time, however, Sağburu’s creations are bigger, stronger, and wilder than those of Urğirnuna, which they seize and lacerate as a result. Specifically, the foreign sorcerer produces in sequence: 1) a big carp; 2) a ewe with its lamb; 3) a cow with its calf; 4) an ibex and a wild sheep; and 5) a young gazelle. The wise witch, on the other hand, counters these creations correspondingly with 1) an eagle; 2) a wolf; 3) a lion; 4) a mountain leopard; and 5) a tiger and another kind of lion. In this way, all of Urğirnuna’s creatures are eliminated, and Sağburu wins the contest (p. 210).

This finds parallels with ancient Egyptian stories and even an event from the book of Exodus (7.8-12) (Konstantakos, 2016, pp. 210-213).

The more familiar version of the motif, which sees competitors transforming their bodies, is found in ancient Greek drama. Konstantakos (2016) describes one such tale involving the lustful adventures of Zeus:

The Cypria offers the most expanded and detailed form of the saga. Zeus was amorously chasing [his daughter] Nemesis, but she was averse to his sexual intentions and ran away. In the course of her flight, Nemesis took the form of various beasts; she became a fish in the sea and swam through the Ocean’s stream; then she changed herself into many kinds of animals on the land, in order to escape. In the end, the goddess was transformed into a bird, the species of which is variously given in the ancient sources. … Zeus assimilated himself to the same species of bird, becoming respectively a gander in the former version and a male swan in the latter one. In this form, the great god finally managed to mate with the metamorphosed and bird-like Nemesis (pp. 213-214).

The body transforming motif came to influence later European stories, many involving a battle between a magician and his arrogant pupil (folklore index no. 325) (Konstantakos, 2016, p. 208).

The Greek version is very similar to the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong, for both feature a character fleeing under different magical disguises while being chased by an assailant who undergoes stronger transformations in response. Given the link between Greek and Indian philosophy, I’d wager that there’s some ancient South Asian version of this motif that came to influence Journey to the West. I’m just happy that Monkey wasn’t handled like Nemesis in the final product. That would have been awkward for everyone!

II. Archive

Below, I archive Konstantakos (2016). The first half of the paper is fascinating, while the second is quite repetitive. It takes up a great deal of space analyzing a Near Eastern-influenced version of the motif in the Greek Alexander Romance. Please keep this in mind.

Archive link:

Click to access The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_t.pdf


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

Update: 04-10-22

I’ve mentioned in this article (section 3) that the Bull Demon King‘s story arc shares many similarities with Sun Wukong’s. He too has a battle of transformations, but instead of Erlang, his opponent is the Monkey King. Chapter 61 reads:

[…] Unable to enter the cave, the old Bull turned swiftly and saw Eight Rules and Pilgrim rushing toward him. He became so flustered that he abandoned his armor and his iron rod; with one shake of his body, he changed into a swan and flew into the air.


Putting away his golden-hooped rod, the Great Sage shook his body and changed into a Manchurian vulture, which spread its wings and darted up to a hole in the clouds. It then hurtled down and dropped onto the swan, seeking to seize its neck and peck at the eyes. Knowing also that this was a transformation of Pilgrim Sun, the Bull King hurriedly flapped his wings and changed himself into a yellow eagle to attack the vulture. At once Pilgrim changed himself into a black phoenix, the special foe of the yellow eagle. Recognizing him, the Bull King changed next into a white crane which, after a long cry, flew toward the south. Pilgrim stood still, and shaking his feathers, changed into a scarlet phoenix that uttered a resounding call. Since the phoenix was the ruler of all the birds and fowl, the white crane dared not touch him. Spreading wide his wings, he dived instead down the cliff and changed with one shake of the body into a musk deer, grazing rather timorously before the slope. Recognizing him, Pilgrim flew down also and changed into a hungry tiger which, with wagging tail and flying paws, went after the deer for food. Greatly flustered, the demon king then changed into a huge spotted leopard to attack the tiger. When Pilgrim saw him, he faced the wind and, with one shake of his head, changed into a golden-eyed Asian lion, with a voice like thunder and a head of bronze, which pounced on the huge leopard. Growing even more anxious, the Bull King changed into a large bear, which extended his paws to try to seize the lion. Rolling on the ground, Pilgrim at once turned himself into a scabby elephant, with a trunk like a python and tusks like bamboo shoots. Whipping up his trunk, he tried to catch hold of the bear (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157).

This fight shows that Sun Wukong learned a lot from his encounter with Erlang, for his transformations are far more fierce in comparison.


Konstantakos, I. (2016). The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition. Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, 26, 207-234. Retrieved from

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

Archive #28 – Tripitaka’s Reincarnation and its Connection to Ancient Greek and Egyptian Philosophy

Last update: 04-05-2022

The Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang) is depicted in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子) (fig. 1), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. This deity is banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time comes for him to build merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise. His crime of not paying attention to the Buddha’s lectures and subsequent exile to the mortal realm is encapsulated in part of a poem from chapter twelve:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).

Fig. 1 – A modern interpretation of Master Golden Cicada as a literal insect by Taylor-Denna (larger version). See here for the full version and the artist’s statement. Used with permission.

I. Similarities to Western philosophy

McEvilley‘s (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought shows that Greek Orphic and Egyptian philosophy also believed in exiling gods from the heavens as a form of punishment. For example, Empedocles (5th-c. BCE) wrote of gods being exiled for ten thousand years for the crime of murder or lying under oath. The fallen deity is believed to reincarnate into every creature of land, air, and sea (fig.3), and when their long punishment is up, they are reborn in their last life as a person of high culture, such as royalty, religious leaders, and scholars. They then return to their former heavenly station upon death (McEvilley, 2002, p. 106). [1] Plato (5th to 4th-c. BCE) specifically mentions the god undergoing ten reincarnations interspersed with thousand-year-long periods of afterlife reward or punishment (McEvilley, 2002, p. 108). [2] The multiples of ten mentioned here fascinate me as they relate to the number of Tripitaka’s incarnations.


Fig. 3 – A symbolic painting showing the course of life, death, and reincarnation (larger version). Artist unknown.

McEvilley (2002) continues by tracing these and related Greek and Indian beliefs to the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

The deceased must somehow be regarded as a king or prince before he is eligible to “get thee back to the heights of heaven.” Thus Ani declares, “I am crowned like unto the king of the gods, and I shall not die a second time in the underworld.” Again, the prayer is made, “May Osiris, the scribe Ani, be a prince … and may the meat offerings and the drink offerings of Osiris Ani, triumphant, be apportioned unto him.” “I am crowned,” Ani claims, “I am become a shining one, I am mighty, I am become holy among the gods.” “I am the prince of eternity.” “May it be granted that I pass on among the holy princes,” Ani prays, and he is reassured: “The god Tmu hath decreed that [Ani’s] course shall be among the holy princes.” “Horus,” the Book of the Dead says, “was like unto a prince of the sacred bark, and the throne of his father was given unto him.”

Something very like the doctrine of Empedocles is suggested, and possibly related to it as forerunner. The ba, which was once a god among the other gods, descends to earth, that is, into a body, in order to right some wrong it has done in the past; either it descended as a pharaoh or it has somehow been processed through nature for long ages until it has purified itself sufficiently to be reborn as a pharaoh; after its purification it is ready to return to the company of the gods in heaven, and this is signified by the status as pharaoh. Empedocles said the final incarnation was as a prince, a poet, or a healer. Plato said the last reincarnation was as a philosopher—but he meant philosophers to be kings. They both may be echoing an Egyptian idea either that gods are incarnated only as pharaohs or that the last incarnation is as a pharaoh. A parallel is found in the Hindu caste system, in the idea that only brahmans can attain moksa—that is, “become Osiris”; the soul must reincarnate upward through the castes before it is in position to get off the wheel.

The nature of the primal crime or ancient wrong which the soul “descended on to the earth” to set right is not clearly stated, as it is not in the Greek versions of the myth, where it is either left undefined or ambiguously declared to be either perjury or bloodshed. The Egyptian texts dwell repeatedly on this subject, but with an ambiguity not unlike that of the Greek texts. Various clues in the Greek tradition indicate that the crime which the Orphic was attempting to expiate was either the ancient war of the Titans against the gods, for which they were exiled from heaven and imprisoned in Tartarus, or their rending and devouring of Dionysus Zagreus, or both. (In the Greek tradition, as West says, “The Titans are by definition the banished gods, the gods who have gone out of this world.”) The Egyptian texts may foreshadow the Greek myth of the Titans when they refer to a primal rebellion of one group of gods against another. “O ye gods of the underworld,” Osiris Ani says, “who set yourselves up against me, and who resist the mighty ones …” Again, he says:

Hail, Thoth! What is it that hath happened unto the holy children of Nut? They have done battle, they have upheld strife, they have done evil, they have created the fiends, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble; in truth, in all their doings the mighty have worked against the weak …I am not one of those who work iniquity in their secret places; let not evil happen unto me.

The children of Nut include Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. When Ani claimed “before Isis I was,” he was dissociating himself from this contentious generation of deities in which the primal murder of Osiris by Set occurred, and claiming to have been one among the earlier generation, the “gods of the first time.” But there are also suggestions that the crime might be Set’s dismemberment of Osiris, whom Ani, in his role as Horus, avenger of his father, has to reconstitute to make reparation. Ani, in other words, might be expiating either or both of the Egyptian versions of the crimes of the Titans, and part of his strategy in doing so is to claim that he belongs to the earlier generation of gods (pp.131-133). [3]

So the crime of murderous rebellion or bearing a false oath became inattentiveness to the Buddha’s teachings in Journey to the West. And the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt became a son of Buddha punished to ten reincarnations as a mortal, his last one as a holy monk. This final point mirrors the concept of the last incarnation being a grand one as a king or holy person.

How these beliefs or related proto-beliefs came to China is unknown to me. If pressed, I would venture it involved some Buddhist text containing an ancient Indian arm of this philosophy.

II. Connection to the other pilgrims

I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention how this also relates to the other pilgrims, who are portrayed as former gods exiled from heaven for some offense. In place of several rounds of reincarnation, they are (among other punishments) forced to serve as Tripitaka’s guardians, protecting him from leagues of demons wanting to jump ahead in the cosmic hierarchy by eating the the monk’s flesh and gaining immortality. Marshal Tianpeng (Zhu Bajie) is banished for drunkenly forcing himself on the Moon goddess and reborn as a grotesque pig spirit (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 212) (fig. 2). The Curtain-Raising General (Sha Wujing) is banished for breaking a treasure cup at a heavenly banquet and reborn as a monstrous water spirit plagued by a magic sword that stabs at him weekly (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 209-210). [4] The dragon prince, son of the Western Sea Dragon King Aorun, is banished for burning a heavenly pearl (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 213-214), but in place of execution, he agrees to transform into a dragon horse (a kind of rebirth) and serve as Tripitaka’s mount (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328). And even Sun Wukong is banished for his rebellion (the divine crime mentioned above) and punished to imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain. It’s interesting to note that one scholar suggests this punishment represents a symbolic death, leading to his eventual reincarnation (see Shao, 1997). (I’d like to add Sun’s additional punishment of eating a hellish diet of molten copper and hot iron balls speaks to a transitional period of afterlife punishment.) And once the pilgrims complete their penance (i.e. the journey), all are welcomed back into heaven, in this case the Buddha’s paradise

Zhu Bajie-Chang'e stamp

Fig. 2 – A Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess.

III. Archive

Below I present a PDF of McEvilley (2002). I converted it from an EPUB, meaning the page count is not the same as the physical edition cited above. I originally intended to just post chapter four, but I was afraid of breaking any internal links, so I instead posted the entire book. This is a very fascinating read. Just know that it is extremely dense and can be hard to follow at times if you lack deep knowledge in Western philosophical history and belief. 

Archive link:

Click to access The-Shape-of-Ancient-Thought-Comparative-Studies-in-Greek-and-Indian-Philosophies-2001.pdf


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

Update: 04-05-22

I’ve archived a paper suggesting that Sun Wukong and Erlang’s magic battle of transformations was influenced by ancient Greek (and by extension Near Eastern) stories.

Archive #36 – Sun Wukong and Battles of Magical Transformations


1. This appears on page 206 of the PDF.

2. See pages 209-210 in the PDF.

3. See pages 247-249 in the PDF.

4) It could be argued that Zhu and Sha do not reincarnate but simply take on monstrous forms upon being banished to earth because they still retain their memories, weapons, and magical skills. But maybe, as immortals, they are able to affect their own rebirth by directing the final destination of their primal spirit, thereby bypassing the normal mode of reincarnation that results in the loss of memory. An example of this is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-c.), who is reborn several times and still has memories of his past and access to his holy weapons.


McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth.

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

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

The Monkey King and Graffiti

Type the phrase “到此一遊/游” (daoci yi you) into an online Chinese dictionary and chances are the results will say it’s a type of vandalism meaning “…was here”, as in “so-and-so was here”. This phrase is often used as a form of graffiti by Chinese tourists wanting to record their visit to a particular site. The most famous modern example that comes to mind happened in 2013 when a Chinese teenager defaced a carving in Egypt’s 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple with the phrase “Ding Jinhao was here” (Ding Jinhao daoci yi you, 丁锦昊到此一游,) (fig. 1) (Wong, 2013).

Chinese graffiti - small

Fig. 1 – The “Ding Jinhao was here” graffiti on the face of a Luxor Temple relief (larger version). Screenshot from a CBS news report

This same phrase appears in the seventh chapter of Journey to the West. After Sun Wukong escapes from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace, the immortal causes such an uproar that the Buddha is forced to intervene. The latter makes the former a wager that, if Monkey can jump out of his hand, the Buddha will make him the new Emperor of Heaven. Sun accepts and leaps from the Enlightened One’s palm:

As the Great Sage advanced, he suddenly saw five flesh-pink pillars supporting a mass of green air. “This must be the end of the road,” he said. “When I go back presently, Tathagata [the Buddha] will be my witness and I shall certainly take up residence in the Palace of Divine Mists.” But he thought to himself, “Wait a moment! I’d better leave some kind of memento if I’m going to negotiate with Tathagata.” He plucked a hair and blew a mouthful of magic breath onto it, crying, “Change!” It changed into a writing brush with extra thick hair soaked in heavy ink. One the middle pillar he then wrote in large letters the following line: “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, has made a tour of this place” [Qitian Dasheng, daoci yi you, 齊天大聖,到此一遊] (fig. 2). When he had finished writing, he retrieved his hair, and with a total lack of respect he left a bubbling pool of monkey urine at the base of the first pillar (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 194-195). (emphasis mine)

Anyone who has read the story knows the pillars are in fact the Buddha’s fingers and that Monkey never left because the former had exercised his great spiritual powers. Sun therefore loses the bet and is crushed under Five Elements Mountain as punishment for his rebellion.

The Great Sage Defaces Buddha's Hand, from Son Goku (1939) - small

Fig. 2 – Sun tags the pillar (Buddha’s finger) with the phrase “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven was here” (larger version). From Son Goku (1939). 

The quoted translation by Anthony C. Yu can be rendered simply as “The Great Sage was here”. This is a perfect example of Monkey’s brash, ego-driven personality, not unlike the type of tourist who’d think it appropriate to defile an ancient monument with their name. A few online sources (example) suggest Journey to the West is the origin of the “…was here” phrase used by so many Chinese tourists. However, knowing that the novel has so many historical influences, I’m of the opinion this literary element certainly has a real world origin. But the novel no doubt helped make the phrase more popular in the public eye.

Can you imagine how many people copied this episode shortly after the novel was published during the Ming Dynasty?


Wong, H. (2013, May 29). Netizen outrage after Chinese tourist defaces Egyptian temple. Retrieved September 6, 2018, from

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