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).

Archive #16 – Creation of the Gods Library of Chinese Classics Chinese-English Bilingual Edition (Vol. 1-4)

Here I present a PDF of the Library of Chinese Classics bilingual edition of Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), sometimes translated as Investiture of the Gods or Enfeoffment of the Gods. This 100 chapter Shenmo novel tells of the great struggle between the declining Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and ascending Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties. In the beginning, King Zhou of Shang offends the primordial goddess Nuwa by leaving a lewd poem in her temple, and in response, the devi summons a trio of spirits (a fox, a pheasant, and a lute) to bring about the dynasty’s downfall. The fox spirit takes the place of the king’s concubine Daji and, over the course of nearly 30 years, leads him down a path of imperial neglect, decadence, and sadism. This leads to many of the kingdom’s dukes, marquis, and generals rebelling in favor of King Wu of Zhou, the monarch destined by heaven to rule China. 

The majority of the story follows the countless battles between the forces of Shang and Zhou. Along the way, the latter are aided by immortals of the benevolent Chan (闡) sect (an analogy for Quanzhen Daoism), which favors spiritual cultivation, while the former are aided by the malevolent Jie (截) sect (an analogy for Zhengyi), which favors charms and incantations. [1] Each transcendent wields any number of swords, fans, hooks, staves, axes, halberds, scissors, hammers, rings, sashes, nails, dippers, pennants, pearls, gourds (etc.), each with not only the power to take the lives of thousands of humans but also immobilize other immortals and even kill them. These celestial battles escalate to the point that Laozi and the Buddha must fight side-by-side to defeat a trap designed to kill 10,000 immortals.

A story line present throughout the novel is the fate of Jiang Ziya, a Daoist adept and the military strategist and stalwart commander of the Zhou army. He is destined to deify the souls of the humans and immortals who die in battle using the “List of Creation” (Fengshen bang, 封神榜), an index of preordained names agreed upon at the beginning of time by the heads of the three religions. This list is housed in the “Terrace of Creation”, a reed pavilion in which the souls of the dead are gathered to await their apotheosis. In the end, after defeating the Shang forces, Jiang deifies a total of 365 major gods, along with thousands of lesser gods, ranging from holy mountains, weather, and plagues to constellations, the time cycle, and the five elements.

Nezha from Fengshen zhen xing tu

Fig. 1 – An illustration of Nezha from The True Forms of Invested Gods (Fengshen zhenxing tu, 封神真形圖) (larger version).

Considering the story takes place a millennia prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China, the novel portrays the religion having no presence in the east. There are several times in the narrative when a Buddhist deity travels from the western paradise to halt the execution of a powerful immortal or demon as they are fated to submit to Buddhism. Furthermore, when the Buddha intervenes in the great battle towards the end, he does so to find talented disciples who will help him spread the religion in the east. In fact, Bodhisattvas like Guanyin and Manjusri are depicted as former Chan sect immortals who later become disciples of Buddhism.

For the purposes of this blog, several characters from Journey to the West appear in the novel, including Laozi, the Buddha, Nezha (fig. 1), Muzha, and Li Jing, Ao Guang, Erlang (called Yang Jian, 楊戩) and his hound, etc. Journey to the West also had a number of clear influences on the book, one being the ape spirit Yuan Hong (袁洪) from later chapters who wields a staff and 72 transformations in a fight with Yang Jian. Sound familiar?

This edition of the novel was originally translated by Gu Zhizhong (顾执中, 1898–1995) in 1992. Dr. Barbara Witt notes the translation has its pros and cons:

The positive: It is the only complete translation of Fengshen yanyi into a Western language that I am aware of. The edition I read (from 1992 I think), was also nicely done with interesting woodcut illustrations throughout the novel.

The negative: Firstly, it is not a very faithful translation. Poems are generally left untranslated and sentences often paraphrased. [2] I think, when ever the translator found something difficult, he just skipped it. Secondly, I think Gu Zhizhong was not an English native speaker and not very familiar with Western mythology and some of his translations are really off. For example Taiyi zhenren 太乙真人 (“True Man Primordial”), a powerful Daoist immortal, becomes “Fairy Primordial” in his translation, which conjures up a very different image.

While the translation may not be perfect, I think it is a must read as many of the gods mentioned therein are worshiped in modern temples throughout China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. It is a lens into modern folk religion.

Book link


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1) Prof. Shi Changyu notes in his preface to this translation that the friction between the fictional Chan and Jie sects serves as an analogy for that of Quanzhen and Zhengyi during the Ming, for the former was marginalized, while the latter was held in high esteem and fell prey to decadence, naturally hindering its ability to contribute anything of value to the development of Daoism at this time (Gu, 2000, pp. 50-53).

2) Those interested in reading some of the poetry from the novel should consult Koss (1979), which compares them with those from Journey to the West.


Gu, Z. (2000). Creation of the gods: Vol. 1-4. Beijing: New World Press.

Koss, N. (1979). The Relationship of Hsi-yu chi and Feng-shen yen-i: An Analysis of Poems Found in Both Novels. T’oung Pao,65(4/5), second series, 143-165. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from

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

The Origin of Monkey’s Battle with Lord Erlang and its Ties to Han Dynasty Funerary Rites and Folklore

Did you know the battle between Monkey and Lord Erlang is tied to Han Dynasty funerary rights and folklore? Wu (1987) notes that, during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), the people of Sichuan often buried their dead in stone tombs decorated with brave heroes, such as archers and crossbowmen, and fierce animals, such as tigers and hounds. Regarding the latter, the canines are sometimes depicted attacking or intimidating apes, which were considered emblems of disease or bad luck (fig. 1). Therefore, by portraying the subjugation of such evil forces, the carvings are thought to have served the ritual function of protecting deceased loved ones from dark influences on their wayward journey to the afterlife (pp. 100-101).

The idea of dogs overcoming apes should bring to mind Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s loyal hound at the end of chapter six.

One recurring motif depicts an archer drawing his bow to fall an ape in a tree (fig. 2). This is based on a third-century BCE tale about the legendary Chu archer Yang Youji (養由基) shooting an elusive white ape held in the palace of the King of Jing. This in turn is based on an even older tale about the archer Yi (羿) bringing order to the primordial earth by killing nine of ten suns that took the form of monstrous crows. Han era tombs are known to portray Yi drawing a bow to shoot said birds flying around a tree, so it most likely influenced the motif of Yang shooting the ape in a tree (Wu, 1987, pp. 102-106). Despite his later connection with the three-pointed polearm, Erlang was also portrayed as an archer in early media.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Top left) A Han Dynasty tomb rubbing of oversized dogs intimidating apes (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Bottom left) A Han tomb decoration depicting an archer shooting at an ape (larger version). Fig. 3 – (Center bottom) The 13th-century painting depicting Erlang and his soldiers rounding up and executing ape demons. A captive ape can be seen on the bottom left between the two soldiers (larger version). Fig. 4 (Center right) A detail from the 15th-century painting showing the ape, his humanoid wives, and their gibbon-like children being rounded up (larger version). This section is located in the last four-fifths of the scroll. Fig. 5 – (Right) A detail showing Erlang near the front of the same scroll (larger version). His armor differs slightly from that of the 13th-century version. Also take note of how a young page holds his bow, while a spirit soldier bears his (slightly obscured) three-pointed polearm.


Lord Erlang was originally worshiped during the Han as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. His cult grew and absorbed other deities and heroes under his mantle. For instance, Wu (1987) writes:

The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country.

When the Er-lang cult became increasingly popular in Sichuan, the previous divine archers such as Yang Youji and Yi, (like many other legendary demon-quellers), were mologized into this new cult, and their defeat of an ape demon became an important part of the Er-lang legend. Er-lang’s traits in later stories and art works clearly disclose this transformation (pp. 107-108).

It should also be noted that Erlang was at some point associated with the historical engineer Li Bing (李冰, c. 3rd-cent. BCE) and the official Zhao Yu (趙昱, c. 6th/7th-cent CE), both of whom were worshipped for defeating flood demons (Wu, 1987, p. 107). I suggest this may have led to his cult being connected to that of Yu the Great (大禹), the flood-queller par excellence in Chinese folklore. This is important because Tang Dynasty legends state Yu battled a simian water demon and eventually imprisoned it under a mountain (see Andersen, 2001). Sound familiar? This may have been another avenue in which Erlang was associated with quelling ape demons.

One anonymous 13th-century album leaf ink painting portrays Erlang seated in a kingly fashion and watching as his spirit soldiers round up and execute ape demons (fig. 3). One anonymous 15th-century scroll painting reproduces the scene in color, along with other animal spirits (fig. 4 and 5). The image of the deity as a queller of ape monsters culminated in an anonymous Yuan-Ming Dynasty play called The God Er-lang Locks up the Ape-Demon “Great Sage-Equal to Heaven” (二郎神鎻齊天大聖, Er-lang Shen suo Qitian Dasheng). Much like JTTW, the god is sent to capture a magical primate, in this case an ape, who has stolen immortal food and wine from heaven. (Wu, 1987, pp. 108-109). This no doubt influenced Monkeys mischief in heaven and subsequent battle with the deity.

See also:


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under turtle mountain: The history and mythology of the Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

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.

Journey to the West and Islamic Lore

Last updated: 04-04-2020

Did you know that certain portions of Journey to the West were influenced by Indo-Persian and Arab Islamic lore? For instance, in chapter six Sun Wukong and Lord Erlang engage in a magical battle of skill in which they freely transform into myriad animals, each trying to one-up the other. This battle is unusual as Chinese stories going back to pre-Tang dynasty sources show characters could not transform at will. Conversely, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1704), which is based on stories as far back as the 9th-century, contains a tale featuring a magical battle of transformations between a princess and a genie. Literary critic C.T. Hsia (1996) notes that the similarities in magical combat “does not mean…the makers of the Monkey legend were specifically indebted to [the Arabian Nights], but it certainly indicates their general awareness of the popular literature of the Middle and Near East” (pp. 132-133).

(I no longer feel Hsia’s (1996) suggestion is accurate. See the 11-21-2019 update below.)

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) Modern pears grown in molds to imitate ginseng baby fruit. Fig. 2 – (Right) A 14th to 15th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the women fruit of the Waqwaq tree (larger version).


Chapters 24 to 26 of Journey to the West feature a magical Ginseng Tree (人參樹, Renshen shu) that produces crying, baby-shaped ginseng fruits (人參果, renshen guo) capable of extending the lives of those who eat them to 47,000 years (fig. 1). The literary antecedent of this fruit first appears 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, “The Story” hereafter), a 17-chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Chapter 11 features an immortal peach tree with fruits that transform into edible children once they drop into water. Each is capable of answering when asked a question:

Monkey Pilgrim continued: ‘There are more than ten peaches on the tree now, but there are gods of the earth who are posted here especially to protect them. There is no way to steal the peaches.’ The Master teased: ‘Your supernatural powers are stupendous. If you were to go, what could prevent you?’ Before his words were finished three peaches of immortality fell down into the pool. The Master was startled by the splash and he asked: ‘What fell down?’ Monkey Pilgrim replied: ‘Don’t be alarmed, Master. It was just a few ripe peaches of immortality which fell into the pool.’ The Master said: ‘Can we find them and eat them?’

Monkey Pilgrim took the golden-ringed staff and shook it three times in the direction of the huge, flat stone. A small child with a greenish face appeared. His fingernails were as sharp as a hawk’s claws and from his gaping mouth the teeth showed as he emerged from the pool. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child answered: ‘Three thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I have no use for you.’ Again he rapped five times and a child appeared whose face was as round as the full moon. He wore embroidered clothes and a headdress with tassels. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child replied: ‘Five thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I will not use you.’ And once more he rapped several times with the staff. Another child appeared all of a sudden. Monkey Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ ‘Seven thousand years,” the child replied. Monkey put down the golden-ringed staff and made the child get on his hand. Then he asked: ‘Monk! Will you eat this?’ The monks were terrified and fled. Pilgrim whirled his hand with the child in it a number of times and the child became a milky jujube which he popped into his mouth (Wivell, 1994, p. 1196).

The concept of speaking, human-shaped fruit can be traced to the “Waqwaq tree” from Islamic lore. For example, The Book of the Wonders of India (Kitaab Ajaaib al-Hind), a set of Indo-Persian sailor stories collected between 900 and 953, contains a brief anecdote which reads:

Muhammad b. Babishad told me that, according to what he had learnt from men who had been to the Waqwaq country, there is a large tree there, with round leaves, or sometimes oblong, which bears fruit like a marrow, only larger, and looking something like a human being. When the wind blows, a voice comes out of it. The inside is full of air, like the fruit of the usher. If one picks it, the air escapes at once, and it is nothing but skin (Buzurg & Freeman-Grenville, 1981, p. 39).

The 15th-century Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi took the concept further by describing the fruit as being shaped like voluptuous women (fig. 2) with the power of speech:

On this island are trees that bear as fruit women: shapely, with bodies, eyes, hands, feet, hair, breasts, and vulvas like the vulvas of women. Their faces are exceptionally beautiful and they hang by their hair. They come out of cases like big swords, and when they feel the wind and sun, they shout “Waq Waq” until their hair tears (Toorawa, 2000, p. 393).

Various sources respectively locate the Waqwaq tree and its home of Waqwaq, a faraway, exotic land or island, somewhere within the Indian Ocean, beyond Iraq, or, further still, beyond China. The Waqwaq term was most likely used to describe the limits of the known world at given times (Toorawa, 2000). The tree itself can possibly be traced to a passage in the Quran (Sura 37, verses 60-64) that describes how the “Tree of Zakkum” produces fruit shaped like the heads of demons. The earliest mention of the Waqwaq tree in Chinese sources appears in the late 8th-century Comprehensive Encyclopedia (通典, Tongdian) by the travel writer Du Huan (杜環). This is apparently based on an earlier Arabic source (A floral fantasy, n.d.).

Update: 02-28-2018

I was looking through the Ming-era Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Three Realms (三才圖會, Sancai tuhui, 1609, “Three Realms” hereafter) and happened upon a woodblock print of a Waqwaq tree (fig. 3). The image is labeled Dashi Guo (大食國), A term used since the Tang Dynasty to refer to an ancient country in the Arab World (Zhang & Unschuld, 2015, p. 81). This shows the Chinese were still aware of the tree’s foreign origin around the time that Journey to the West was published.

Ginseng tree - From Sancai tuhui (1609), based on image of Iskander (Alexander the Great) talking to the Talking Tree from the Shamanah

Fig. 3 – Woodblock print from the Three Realms showing the Waqwaq tree (larger version).

Update: 11-21-2019

As noted above, Hsia (1996) suggests the battle of transformations between Monkey and Erlang was influenced in some way by Islamic literature. However, Robinet (1979) describes a tit-for-tat battle from Daoist literature that casts doubt on this view:

The Xianyuan bianzhu [仙苑編珠, “Paired Pearls from the Garden of Immortals”, after c. 921] tells how Wang Tan [王探] received “the art of hiding his light and transforming his body.” Dared by someone to metamorphose himself, he took the form of a tree, but the other fellow seized an axe. Wang immediately transformed himself into a stone, but the other lit a fire (in the theory of the five elements, fire prevails over minerals). After turning himself into bubbling water and so on, Wang Tan finally achieved the upper hand by adopting the appearance of a corpse-the man fled immediately (p. 46). [1]

The way the Daoist and his opponent try to one up the other is very similar to the battle between the Great and Small Sages. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to suggest this story (or related media) was embellished by a storyteller or the author-compiler of the Ming Journey to the West to include two masters of transformation instead of one.

Update: 04-04-2020

Thanks to a recent Twitter post by Guy Reisman, I was delighted to learn that the Islamic Waqwaq tree made its way to Japan, where it is known as the Jinmenju (人面樹, “human-face tree“). In fact, an illustration of the tree appearing in the Edo-period bestiary Konjaku Hyakki Shūi (今昔百鬼拾遺, “Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past”, c. 1781) appears to be based on that from the Three Realms cited above (refer back to fig. 3).

Even more exciting, however, is the revelation of the identity of the man standing beneath the tree in the Three Realms illustration. Foster (2015) traces the Japanese image to the Three Realms and then further back to a Persian source, thereby associating the man with a famous historical king:

If we continue back in time and along the Silk Road, we find different versions of the great Persian epic poem Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020), with illustrations of a man conversing with a tree bearing human heads. The man, it turns out, is Alexander the Great (Sikandar or Iskandar), and the illustrations portray his legendary encounter with a talking tree, sometimes called the Wakwak Tree, that prophesied his death (p. 185).

That’s right, the man in the Three Realms is based on Alexander the Great! See image four for a comparison of the Chinese illustration and one example of Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree”-genre drawings. Both men stand in a similar position, looking upwards. The Persian Alexander is passively listening, while the Three Realms Alexander is actively talking.

Iskander and the Talking Tree - Three Realms Ginseng Tree

Fig. 4 – A comparison of a 15th-century Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree” image and the Three Realms image (larger version). The former is held by the Bodleian Library.

This then raises the question: Did material related to the Shahmana influence the Ginseng Tree in Journey to the the West? [2] I’ve already demonstrated that an antecedent of the Ginseng tree appears in The Story. But this doesn’t necessarily negate some sort of influence. After all, both the Shahmana and Journey to the West feature mythic kings (Alexander and Sun Wukong) coming into contact with magic trees with humanoid fruit. I should note, however, that the trees represent two drastically different fates. Alexander’s tree foresees his death, while Monkey’s tree holds the promise of eternal life. Further research might shed light on stronger connections between both stories.


1) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

2) Hall (2019) explains Iskander’s meeting with the talking tree takes place in both the Shahmana and the older Greek Alexander Romance (p. 149).


A floral fantasy of animals and birds (Waq-waq). (n.d.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from…0Waq%20waq.pdf

Buzurg, S., & Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. (1981). The book of the wonders of India: Mainland, sea and islands. London: East-West.

Foster, M. D. (2015). The book of yōkai: Mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. Oakland: University of California Press.

Hall, M. (2019). The imagination of plants: A book of botanical mythology. Albany : State University of New York Press

Hsia, C. (1996). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia program, Cornell University.

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

Toorawa, S. M. (2000). WaÃq al-waÃq: Fabulous, fabular, Indian Ocean (?) island(s). Emergences, 10(2), 387-402.

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.

Zhang, Z., & Unschuld, P. U. (2015). Dictionary of the Ben cao gan mu: Volume 2 – Geographical and administrative designations. Oakland, California: University of California 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).