The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Monkey Ruler (Twitter and Tumblr). They have graciously written an essay on the global nature of Journey to the West adaptations, as well as provided a link to their ongoing project recording JTTW media (fig. 1). As of the publishing of this article, it includes a long list of almost 570 movies, 90 TV shows, and 160 video games! – Jim
Fig. 1 – Depictions of Sun Wukong from adaptations produced over 50 years apart: (left) Havoc in Heaven (Danao tiangong, 大鬧天宮, 1961) and (right) Monkey King: Hero is Back (Xiyouji zhi Dasheng guilai, 西遊記之大聖歸來, lit: “Journey to the West: Return of the Great Sage,” 2015) (larger version). Courtesy of Monkey Ruler.
I. Media adaptations
This started out as a collection of Xiyouji (西遊記; lit: “Journey to the West,” 1592) movies and TV shows for the sake of a Master’s class project; it was simple enough to look for Xiyouji media and start adding them to a collection datasheet. But even when the project was over, I kept finding more and more adaptations, even stumbling across others trying to show the magnitude of how much this novel has encompassed popular culture throughout the centuries. It has been told and re-told again and again in oral and published literature, plays, art, songs, poems, etc., and now on the big and small screens. Audiences are re-introduced to the image of Sun Wukong and his fellow pilgrims with every new media addition.
What really inspired me was the book Transforming Monkey: Adaptations and Representation of a Chinese Epic(2018) by Hongmei Sun, where she explained in depth the cultural impact that Sun Wukong (fig. 2) and Xiyouji has had on Chinese media, as well as how this loose set of franchises have come to represent Chinese culture as these shows and movies have become more globally accessible. Xiyouji is such an iconic cultural universe that it can be both heavily entertaining while still being so personal to audiences of any generation depending on how the artist/writer portrays their interpretation of these characters and their stories.
There hasn’t been a lot written about how these interpretations influence modern Xiyouji adaptations despite how the story has greatly influenced popular culture.
Fig. 2 – The front cover of Transforming Monkey (2018) (larger version).
Xiyouji is such an influential story, one that will continue to grow more and more globally known throughout time because it is such an all-encompassing piece that can cover politics, identities, and allegories, while still being a very personal and interpersonal work that artists or writers can relate to.
However, even with these layers of meaning and symbolism to be found, the story never loses the charming and entertaining aspects that can and have captured audiences. Despite being published over 430 years ago (with a history stretching back even further), Xiyouji is still able to relate to modern audiences through its allegories of oppression, rebellion, and self-identity. It has the capability to resonate with any generation depending on what artists or writers at the time wish to highlight or personally connect with themselves or their current world around them, using Xiyouji as a medium for their own struggles.
As Xiyouji starts to become more and more globally known, it is important to understand and resonate that this is still a Chinese story and how to address further adaptations with cross-nation gaps in both translation and cultural differences. There are media forms that are far more exploitative of the mythical journey, creating impractical scenarios of the narrative and thus changing the message of the story and characters completely. However, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what doesn’t work as Xiyouji adaptations due to the ever-changing zeitgeist in not only its home of origin but introducing it to a global sphere as it adds influence.
In order to see what works for adaptations, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what is the core of the story and just why it remains popular, story-beat or character-wise. For example, Sun Wukong can be used as a great model for positive ambivalence in media, moving away from set limits of a single stereotype and rather being a constant motion of new ideas and new identities. Monkey has been changed from a mischievous monkey to a revolutionary hero to a post-modern rebel against authority throughout the years. But even throughout the constant changes and interpretations, people never lose sight of what the nature of Sun Wukong is: rebelliousness, variability, optimism, and persistence.
Monkey is a transcending character as he is able to mediate contradictions within his own design, one being his gold-banded staff, a symbol of breaking barriers, and his golden filet (fig. 3), a symbol of limits. These two simple but prominent pieces of iconography immediately tell audiences who the character is supposed to be and what they are about.
Fig. 3 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden filet or headband (larger version).
While it is entertaining and able to be enjoyed by younger audiences, Xiyouji still has a deeper meaning that can be interpreted and recognized into adulthood. This is one of the few stories that I imagine can be adapted again and again without the issue of overlap as there are so many ways people can personally connect with these characters.
Having that any generation, anyone really can find enjoyment in this media, and perhaps even be inspired to read the novel itself.
II. Archive link
Please consult the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet linked below. They are listed as “Movie Information,” “Movie Links,” “Honorary Shows,” “Game Information,” “Game Pictures,” “Honorary Games,” and “Sources.” – Jim
Someone on Tumblr recently asked me if I knew how many monsters, spirits, and humans that Sun Wukong kills throughout Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). But since he’s a “hyper murder monkey” (fig. 1), this is impossible to quantify without an overly extensive survey of the book. However, the task becomes far more manageable if narrowed down to just humans. I know of at least seven instances in chapters 14, 27, 28, 44, 46, and 56. Although I can’t give an exact count, the number slain is over 1,030!
This study is by no means exhaustive. I’ve surely missed a few examples in the latter half of the book. But I’ll update this piece in the future if anything else pops up.
The first instance happens when Sun and his master are accosted by six robbers shortly after the immortal is released from under Five Elements Mountain:
Master and disciple had traveled for some time when suddenly six men jumped out from the side of the road with much clamor, all holding long spears and short swords, sharp blades and strong bows. “Stop, monk!” they cried. “Leave your horse and drop your bag at once, and we’ll let you pass on alive!” Tripitaka was so terrified that his soul left him and his spirit fled; he fell from his horse, unable to utter a word. But Pilgrim lifted him up, saying, “Don’t be alarmed, Master. It’s nothing really, just some people coming to give us clothes and a travel allowance!” “Wukong,” said Tripitaka, “you must be a little hard of hearing! They told us to leave our bag and our horse, and you want to ask them for clothes and a travel allowance?” “You just stay here and watch our belongings,” said Pilgrim, “and let old Monkey confront them. We’ll see what happens.” Tripitaka said, “Even a good punch is no match for a pair of fists, and two fists can’t cope with four hands! There are six big fellows over there, and you are such a tiny person. How can you have the nerve to confront them?”
As he always had been audacious, Pilgrim did not wait for further discussion. He walked forward with arms folded and saluted the six men, saying, “Sirs, for what reason are you blocking the path of this poor monk?” “We are kings of the highway,” said the men, “philanthropic mountain lords. Our fame has long been known, though you seem to be ignorant of it. Leave your belongings at once, and you will be allowed to pass. If you but utter half a no, you’ll be chopped to pieces!” “I have been also a great hereditary king and a mountain lord for centuries,” said Pilgrim, “but I have yet to learn of your illustrious names.” “So you really don’t know!” one of them said. “Let’s tell you then: one of us is named Eye That Sees and Delights; another, Ear That Hears and Rages; another Nose That Smells and Loves; another, Tongue That Tastes and Desires; another, Mind That Perceives and Covets; and another, Body That Bears and Suffers.” “You are nothing but six hairy brigands,” said Wukong laughing, “who have failed to recognize in me a person who has left the family, your proper master. How dare you bar my way? Bring out the treasures you have stolen so that you and I can divide them into seven portions. I’ll spare you then!” Hearing this, the robbers all reacted with rage and amusement, covetousness and fear, desire and anxiety. They rushed forward crying, “You reckless monk! You haven’t a thing to offer us, and yet you want us to share our loot with you!” Wielding spears and swords, they surrounded Pilgrim and hacked away at his head seventy or eighty times. Pilgrim stood in their midst and behaved as if nothing were happening.
What a monk!” said one of the robbers. “He really does have a hard head!” “Passably so!” said Pilgrim, laughing. “But your hands must be getting tired from all that exercise; it’s about time for old Monkey to take out his needle for a little entertainment.” “This monk must be an acupuncture man in disguise,” said the robber. “We’re not sick! What’s all this about using a needle?” Pilgrim reached into his ear and took out a tiny embroidery needle; one wave of it in the wind and it became an iron rod with the thickness of a rice bowl. He held it in his hands, saying, “Don’t run! Let old Monkey try his hand on you with this rod!” The six robbers fled in all directions, but with great strides he caught up with them and rounded all of them up. He beat every one of them to death, stripped them of their clothes, and seized their valuables. Then Pilgrim came back smiling broadly and said, “You may proceed now, Master. Those robbers have been exterminated by old Monkey” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, pp 314-315).
This ends with Tripitaka becoming angry and exiling Monkey. The cleric later welcomes him back, only to rein in his disciple’s unruly behavior with the heaven-sent golden headband (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 315-317 and 318-320). This becomes a reoccurring theme (see below).
The six murders (fig. 2) are allegories for defeating the desires of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, mind, and body that hinder one’s spiritual progression.  This is explained by Monkey in chapter 43 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).
Fig. 2 – A woodblock print depicting Sun killing the six bandits (larger version). It comes from The Illustrated Journey to the West (Ehon Saiyuki, 繪本西遊記), a 19th-century Japanese translation.
II. Chapter 27
The second is alluded to during the White Bone Spirit episode. In her attempts to eat the monk, the wily skeleton demon takes on the guises of a beautiful girl, her elderly mother, and her elderly father in turn. But each time Sun attacks her with his staff, she leaves a fake corpse in her wake,  making it seem like the immortal has murdered yet another person. This naturally upsets Tripitaka, but Monkey explains that evil spirits commonly disguise themselves as something welcoming in order to catch and eat humans. He uses himself as an example, claiming to have done the same as a young monster:
“Master,” said Pilgrim with a laugh, “how could you know about this? 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 feebleminded 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. Master, if I had returned a little later, you would have fallen into her trap and been harmed by her.” That Tang Monk, however, simply refused to believe these words; he kept saying instead that the woman was a good person (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 20).
In the end, the cleric isn’t convinced that Sun didn’t kill an entire family, and so he punishes him with the band-tightening spell before once again banishing him from the group (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 26-28).
I know some online commentators believe that Monkey lies here about eating people. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make their own decision. But even if his claims are true, there is no way of quantifying the number eaten.
III. Chapter 28
The third happens shortly after Sun’s exile. Upon returning to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he learns that more than half of his 47,000 monkey subjects had been killed centuries ago in a great fire set by Erlang, and then half of the survivors later fled elsewhere due to a lack of food. In addition, half of those who remained were killed and eaten or captured for entertainment by a band of over 1,000 human hunters who recently came to inhabit the mountain. Hearing this greatly enrages the Monkey King. He thereafter instructs his subjects to gather piles of small rocks for a magical wind attack (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp. 31-32):
Making the magic sign with his fingers and reciting a spell, he drew in a breath facing the southwest and blew it out. At once a violent wind arose. Marvelous wind!
It threw up dust and scattered dirt;
It toppled trees and cut down forests.
The ocean waves rose like mountains;
They crashed fold upon fold on the shore.
The cosmos grew dim and darkened;
The sun and the moon lost their light.
The pine trees, once shaken, roared like tigers;
The bamboos, hit abruptly, sang like dragons.
All Heaven’s pores let loose their angry breaths
As rocks and sand flew, hurting one and all.
The Great Sage called up this mighty wind that blew up and scattered those rock pieces in every direction. Pity those thousand-odd (qianyu, 千餘) hunters and horses! This was what happened to every one of them:
The rocks broke their dark heads to pieces;
Flying sand hurt all the winged horses.
Lords and nobles confounded before the peak,
Blood stained like cinnabar the earth.
Fathers and sons could not go home.
Could fine men to their houses return?
Corpses fell to the dust and lay on the mountain,
While rouged ladies at home waited.
The poem says:
Men killed, horses dead—how could they go home?
Lost, lonely souls floundered like tangled hemp.
Pity those strong and virile fighting men,
Whose blood, both good and bad, did stain the sand!
Lowering the direction of his cloud, the Great Sage clapped his hands and roared with laughter, saying, “Lucky! Lucky! Since I made submission to the Tang Monk and became a priest, he has been giving me this advice:
‘Do good a thousand days,
But the good is still insufficient;
Do evil for one day,
And that evil is already excessive.’
Some truth indeed! When I followed him and killed a few monsters, he would blame me for perpetrating violence. Today I came home and it was the merest trifle to finish off all these hunters.”
He then shouted, “Little ones, come out!” When those monkeys saw that the violent wind had passed and heard the Great Sage calling, they all jumped out. “Go down to the south side of the mountain,” said the Great Sage, “and strip the dead hunters of their clothes. Bring them back home, wash away the bloodstains, and you all can wear them to ward off the cold. The corpses you can push into the deep mountain lake over there. Pull back here also the horses that are killed; their hides can be used to make boots, and their meat can be cured for us to enjoy slowly. Gather up the bows and arrows, the swords and spears, and you can use them for military drills again. And finally, bring me those banners of miscellaneous colors; I have use for them” (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp 33-34).
This is by far the largest number of humans killed in one go by the hyper murder monkey.
IV. Chapter 44
The fourth happens shortly after the pilgrims arrive in the Cart-Slow Kingdom. Sun is appalled to learn that three self-proclaimed immortals have convinced the region’s monarch to not only destroy all Buddhist institutions but also to enslave the clerics to the Daoists. His initial response is to play a joke on two cocky Daoist overseers by convincing them (under the guise of an aged coreligionist) that he has a relative among the 500 monks who should be set free. But when they ask which one, our hero claims all of them to be his kin (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 269-275):
The Daoists said, “You must be a little crazy, for all at once you are babbling! These monks happen to be gifts from the king. If we want to release even one or two of them, we will have to go first before our masters to report that they are ill. Then, we have to submit a death certificate before we can consider the matter closed. How could you ask us to release them all? Nonsense! Nonsense! Why, not to speak of the fact that we would be left without servants in our household, but even the court might be offended. The king might send some officials to look into the work here or he himself might come to investigate. How could we dare let them go?” “You won’t release them?” said Pilgrim. “No, we won’t!” said the Daoists. Pilgrim asked them three times and his anger flared up. Whipping out his iron rod from his ear, he squeezed it once in the wind and it had the thickness of a rice bowl. He tested it with his hand before slamming it down on the Daoists’ heads. How pitiful! This one blow made
Their heads crack, their blood squirts, their bodies sink low;
Their skin split, their necks snap, their brains outflow! (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 275).
V. Chapter 46
One civil official
The fifth happens during a magical contest of torture against one of the three supposed immortals. Monkey easily survives a bath in boiling oil but fakes his death in order to play a trick on Zhu Bajie. The officer in charge of the execution reports the development to the monarch, leading Tripitaka to eulogize and present offerings to his disciple’s spirit. But once Zhu hijacks the proceedings by calling Sun a Bimawen,  our hero erupts from the caldron to chastise his religious brother. Fearing possible punishment for seemingly lying to the king, the aforementioned official claims the primate is instead a ghost (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 310-312):
Maddened by what he heard, Pilgrim leaped out of the cauldron, dried himself from the oil, and threw on his clothes. Dragging that officer over, he whipped out his iron rod and one blow on the head reduced him to a meat patty. “What ghost is this who’s manifesting itself?” he huffed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 312-313).
VI. Chapter 56 – Part 1
Two bandit chiefs
The last two instances that I know of take place shortly after the scorpion spirit episode. The sixth follows a similar pattern to chapter 14: Tripitaka is confronted by bandits → He gets scared and falls off the horse → The bandits demand money and the horse → Sun intervenes → His banter enrages them and they hit and stab at his adamantine pate to no avail → They comment on his hard head → Monkey pulls out his iron staff, referring to it as a needle → The bandits infer that he works in a certain profession and claim to have no use for the needle → He enlarges the weapon and eventually beats them to death.  The only difference here is that Sun first challenges the men to lift his staff:
… Sticking the rod into the ground, Pilgrim said to them, “If any of you can pick it up, it’s yours.” The two bandit chiefs at once went forward to try to grab it, but alas, it was as if dragonflies were attempting to shake a stone pillar. They could not even budge it half a whit! This rod, you see, happened to be the compliant golden-hooped rod, which tipped the scale in Heaven at thirteen thousand, five hundred [catties]. How could those bandits have knowledge of this? The Great Sage walked forward and picked up the rod with no effort at all. Assuming the style of the Python Rearing its Body, he pointed at the bandits and said, “Your luck’s running out, for you have met old Monkey!” One of the bandit chiefs approached him and gave him another fifty or sixty blows. “Your hands must be getting tired!” chuckled Pilgrim. “Let old Monkey give you one stroke of the rod. I won’t do it for real either!” Look at him! One wave of the rod and it grew to about seventy feet, its circumference almost as big as a well. He banged it on the bandit, and he at once fell to the ground: his lips hugging the earth, he could not make another sound.
The other bandit chiefs shouted, “This baldy is so audacious! He has no travel money, but he has killed one of us instead!” “Don’t fret! Don’t fret!” said Pilgrim, laughing. “I’ll hit every one of you, just to make sure that all of you will be wiped out!” With another bang he beat to death the other bandit chief Those small thieves were so terrified that they abandoned their weapons and fled for their lives in all directions (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, pp. 80-81).
VII. Chapter 56 – Part 2
One unfilial son
The seventh happens sometime after one of the surviving bandits, the son of an elderly couple surnamed Yang (楊), discovers that his parents are feeding and sheltering the pilgrims for the night. He and his brothers-in-arms make plans to attack the monks after eating dinner and sharpening their weapons, but old Mr. Yang alerts them, giving Tripitaka and his disciples ample time to escape:
Every bandit was darting forward like an arrow, and by sunrise, they caught sight of the Tang Monk. When the elder heard shouts behind him, he turned to look and discovered a band of some thirty men rushing toward him, all armed with knives and spears. “Oh, disciples,” he cried, “the brigand troops are catching up with us. What shall we do?” “Relax, relax!” said Pilgrim. “Old Monkey will go finish them off!” “Wukong,” said Tripitaka as he stopped his horse, “you must not hurt these people. Just frighten them away.” Unwilling, of course, to listen to his master, Pilgrim turned quickly to face his pursuers, saying, “Where are you going, sirs?” “You nasty baldie!” cried the thieves. “Give us back the lives of our great kings!”
As they encircled Pilgrim, the bandits lifted their spears and knives to stab and hack away madly. The Great Sage gave one wave of his rod and it had the thickness of a bowl; with it, he fought until those bandits dropped like stars and dispersed like clouds. Those he bumped into died at once, those he caught hold of perished immediately, those he tapped had their bones broken, and those he brushed against had their skins torn. The few smart ones managed to escape, but the rest of the dumb ones all went to see King Yama!
When Tripitaka saw that many men had fallen, he was so aghast that he turned and galloped toward the West, with Zhu Eight Rules and Sha Monk hard on the horse’s heels. Pilgrim pulled over one of the wounded bandits and asked, “Which is the son of old Yang?” “Father,” groaned the thief, “the one in yellow.” Pilgrim went forward to pick up a knife and beheaded the one in yellow. Holding the bloody head in his hand, he retrieved his iron rod and, in great strides, caught up with the Tang Monk. As he arrived before the horse, he raised the head and said, “Master, this is the rebellious son of old Yang, and he’s been beheaded by old Monkey.” [fig. 3] Paling with fright, Tripitaka fell down from the horse, crying, “Wretched ape! You’ve scared me to death! Take it away! Take it away!” Eight Rules went forward and kicked the head to the side of the road, where he used the muckrake to bury it (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 88-89).
The quote is clear that not all 30 bandits are killed. Apart from Yang the bandit, I think 20(-ish) is a conservative estimate based on the wording.
And just like chapters 14 and 27, this episode ends with Tripitaka punishing his disciple with the band-tightening spell before exiling him from the group (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 89-90).
To my knowledge, the Monkey King kills over 1,030 humans in Journey to the West. This includes six allegorical robbers in chapter 14, an unknown amount alluded to in chapter 27, over 1,000 hunters in chapter 28, two Daoists in chapter 44, one civil official in chapter 46, and two bandits chiefs, one unfilial son, and maybe 20-ish bandits in chapter 56. I may have missed a few instances in the latter half of the novel, so please don’t look at the above total as complete.
I previously mentioned an instance in chapter 27 where Monkey admits to eating humans in his youth, something that some online commentators believe to be a fib. Well, a Tumblr user, who goes by both @abitfiendish and @localcactushugger, reminded me that dialogue in chapter 39 further calls this into question.
After a pill of immortal elixir fails to revive a long-dead king, Tripitaka suggests mouth-to-mouth necessitation is needed to complete the resurrection process. Sun is ultimately chosen for this job since he had apparently never eaten meat:
Eight Rules walked forward and was about to do this when he was stopped by Tripitaka. “You can’t do it,” he said. “Wukong still should take over.” That elder indeed had presence of mind, for Zhu Eight Rules, you see, had been a cannibal since his youth, and his breath was unclean. Pilgrim, on the other hand, had practiced self-cultivation since his birth, the food sustaining him being various fruits and nuts, and thus his breath was pure. The Great Sage, therefore, went forward and clamped his thundergod beak to the lips of the king: a mighty breath was blown through his throat … (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 195-196).
But it should be remembered that Journey to the West is crammed full of inconsistencies (likely born from the novel coalescing from different oral tales). For example, this chapter shows that all it takes to revive a dead person is an elixir pill and mouth-to-mouth. However, in chapter 97, Monkey has to physically retrieve the soul of a recently deceased householder from the underworld in order to resurrect him (see the material below figure 3 here).
Again, I’ll leave it up to the reader to make their own decision.
1) Things that arouse the eyes (sights), ears (sounds), nose (smells), tongue (tastes), and mind and body (wants and desires).
2) This is related to an ancient Daoist concept called “Release by means of a corpse” (Shijie, 尸解). Stories as far back as the Han describe immortals leaving behind a fake corpse (sometimes a magically disguised object) while they ascended in secret to heaven (Kirkland, 2008).
3) This plays on the homophonous relationship between Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”), an ancient belief that female monkeys placed in horse stables could ward off equine sickness, and Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), Sun’s former station as keeper of the heavenly horses (see here).
See Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 78-81.
Kirkland, R. (2008). Shijie In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 2) (pp. 896-897). London [u.a.: Routledge].
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
I learned in April via a private Thai Monkey King Facebook group that a limited run of colored resin, plain brass, painted brass, and gold-plated brass idols were to be made to raise funds to buy land on which a Great Sage temple would be built in Lam Narai, Lopburi province, Thailand. I procured the services of a local who contacted the religious organization building the temple, “The Equaling Heaven Academy (Altar) of Lam Narai” (Thai: Săm-nák chĕe tiian dtŭua lam-naa-raai, สำนักฉีเทียนตั๋วลำนารายณ์; Ch: Qitian tan Nannalai, 齊天壇南那來), and reserved a statue for me. Once the idols were cast (over several months), they shipped mine and it arrived on August 31st, 2022. Here, I’d like to briefly describe and compare the idol to other statues that I’ve seen or own.
A fiery halo embellished with an inner circle of stylized ruyi-pattern mushrooms sits behind the Monkey King’s head. This shares similarities with a Monkey Buddha statue from a temple in Fujian province, China (fig. 7), the home of his cult. His bald head is adorned with the famous “curlicue-style” golden headband topped with a flaming Cintāmaṇi jewel, as well as a pair of slithering dragons wrapping around the back and sides of his crown. His visage is intense, with eyes opened wide and the corners of his mouth drawn downwards, forming a subtle “w” shape. A line marking the boundary of his forehead, the sides of his face, and just above his chin is slightly raised, giving the impression that he’s wearing a covering over his head and neck. This represents the pink facial patch, either covering the whole face or just a mask around the eyes, that often appears on gilded Monkey King statues in Thailand (fig. 8).
Fig. 7 (top) – A stature of Sun Wukong as a Buddha at the Yufeng Equaling Heaven Palatial Ancestor Hall of Pingshan (Yufeng Qitian fu Pingshan zudian, 玉封齐天府屏山祖殿) in Fuzhou City, Fujian (larger version). Picture by Saie Surendra of Hanumovies.com. Fig. 8 (bottom) – An example of a golden Thai Monkey statue with a pink patch on the face (larger version). Picture originally posted here.
Both arms are bent at the elbow and held out palm up towards the viewer. His left hand holds an immortal peach, while the right cups the handle of a ruyi-pattern scepter resting on his shoulder. The peach is a common element of his iconography all around the world (fig. 9 & 10); however, the scepter imagery seems to be more popular in Southeast Asia. See, for instance, the trinity from the syncretic “Three Teachings” cult of Malaysia and Singapore. Monkey holds the ruyi-scepter in the same manner (fig. 11).
Fig. 9 – A Taiwanese Monkey statue holding an immortal peach in the left hand (larger version). Fig. 10 – A Singaporean statue with an immortal peach in the left hand (larger version). Both are in my personal collection. See also figure twelve below. Fig. 11 – The “Three Teachings” trinity of Southeast Asia (larger version). Take note of Monkey’s ruyi-scepter. Picture originally posted here.
He wears a knotted neckerchief over a war coat with scale-pattern armor on his shoulders and the flap of cloth between his legs, a military girdle at his stomach and waist adorned with a dragon face, scale-pattern armored pants, and war boots with blocky, up-turned toes. His clothing and armor are adorned with various ruyi-pattern mushrooms. The Monkey King’s iconography commonly shows him wearing armor (fig. 12).
Fig. 12 – Detail of a Taiwanese Great Sage statue wearing armor (larger version). Take note of the armored Monkey statue behind him. Also notice that, like figures nine and ten, the lead idol is holding a peach in the left hand. All statues are in my personal collection.
He sits in a traditional dragon chair. More kingly depictions of the Great Sage commonly portray him seated (fig. 12 & 13). But this element is rare compared to the number of statues showing him standing (refer back to fig. 12; see also my other statues here).
Fig. 12 – The idol from figure nine is also shown seated in a dragon chair (larger version). Fig. 13 – The statue from figure ten is seated in a similar chair but replaces the dragon elements with lotuses (larger version).
Infront of the chair is a step on which his boots rest. It’s labeled in Chinese “大聖佛祖” (Dasheng fozu), or “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch“. I show in this article that the phrase is sometimes transliterated into Thai as “ต้าเชิ่งโฝจู่” (Dtâa chêrngfŏh jòo) and “ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว” (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow”). Both the chair and step sit on a rectangular base adorned with simplistic stone lions to his left and right. I haven’t seen lions in any of his other imagery. The front of the base is labeled:
“The Equaling Heaven Academy (Altar) of Lam Narai”.
The reverse of the backrest features a large symbol for “Buddha” (Fo, 佛), and below this (between the back legs) is a cloud and thunder-pattern lined placard reading:
รุ่น-ซื้อที่ดิน – จัดสร้างโดย คณะม้าทรงพระบู๊ตระกลูหลี่ จลพบุรี (คณะศิษย์จัดสร้างถวาย) 2565 (Thai: rûn séu têe din jàt sâang doi ká-ná máa song prá bóo ต rá gloo-lèe jà-lóp bù-ree (ká-ná sìt jàt sâang tà-wăai))
“The Young Generation Buys Land – Created by the Royal Horse Riding Troupe Raklu Li, Lopburi Province (a group of students made an offering), 2022”. 
This Thai statue is a welcome addition to my ever-growing collection of Great Sage idols. It’s certainly the biggest metal Monkey statue that I’ve found so far.
1. Thank you to “Nattida” for transcribing and translating the Thai text for me.
I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.
In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.
This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.
The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).
The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.
So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).
The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).
Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).
His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branchshen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).
His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’sNuminous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).
The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬三千五百斤.
He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!
His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.
Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishingkyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwarkyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).
He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).
He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.
Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.
Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.
Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Campany, R. F. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming 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.
Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Various forms of media portray Sun Wukong wearing three types of golden headbands (jingu quan, 金箍圈). The first has blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like a pair of scowling eyebrows. The second has an upturned crescent moon shape in the center. And the third is just a thin fillet devoid of any adornment (fig. 1). This article will briefly discuss the origins of type two, what I call the “crescent-style” headband.
The type two headband is heavily associated with Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s (六小齡童; a.k.a. Zhang Jinlai, 章金萊, b. 1959) portrayal of the Monkey King from the famed 1986 CCTV series. This actor comes from a long line of Chinese opera performers who specialize in playing Sun Wukong. It should be no surprise then that the type of circlet that he wears comes directly from Chinese opera. Known as a “precepts headband” (jiegu, 戒箍), this fillet is worn on stage by Military Monks (wuseng, 武僧) as a sign that they’ve taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328). Such clerics are depicted as wearing a jiegu in combination with a wild mane of hair (fig. 2), which contrasts with the bald heads of religious monks.
To my knowledge, the oldest source associating Sun with the precepts headband is an early-Ming zaju play that predates the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. In act ten, the Bodhisattva Guanyin tells Monkey:
Great Sage Reaching Heaven [a previous title for Sun], you originally destroyed form and extinguished nature, but the honored monk saved you. This time, you will cease your desires. I give you the dharma name Sun Wukong, as well as an iron precepts headband [tie jiegu, 鐵戒箍], a black monk’s robe, and a precepts knife.  The iron headband will guard your nature, the robe will cover your beastly body, and the knife will cut your relations. If you want to go with your master, then you will be called Pilgrim Sun. Swiftly obtain the scriptures and seek the right fruit.
The precepts headband likely finds its origin in the triple-crescent crown of Central Asia. This crown was originally a fixture of Iranic Hephthalite royalty that was later adopted by Sogdian rulers. Zoroastrian gods were even portrayed wearing it. The motif is known to have entered China as early as the 6th-century. For instance, the stone tomb of the Sogdian leader Di Caoming (翟曹明, d. 579) features two foreign-looking, trident-wielding door guardians wearing the crown (fig. 3 & 4). Most importantly, a crown featuring the triple-crescent and wings (also of Hephthalite origin) appears in Chinese Buddhist art, particularly in the headdresses of Bodhisattvas (fig. 5), before, during, and after the Tang and Liang periods (Kageyama, 2007). Therefore, the association of the triple-crescent with guardians and Buddhist deities might then explain why it was later connected to military monks in Chinese opera.
Fig. 3 – Triple-crescent crown-wearing guardians on the door of Di Caoming’s stone tomb (larger version). Fig. 4 – A detail of one of the guardians (larger version). Images found on this tweet. Fig. 5 – A diagram showing the various Bodhisattva crowns featuring the triple-crescent and winged adornments in Chinese Buddhist art (larger version). From Kageyama, 2007, p. 22. 
Various forms of media portray the Monkey King wearing different kinds of headbands. The second type, which includes an upturned crescent moon shape in the middle of the forehead, is featured in Chinese opera depictions of Sun Wukong. This “precepts headband” (jiegu, 戒箍) is a symbol of military monks, thus linking Monkey to such martial clerics. To my knowledge, the oldest source associating our hero with the jiegu is an early-Ming zaju play in which Guanyin gives Sun an “iron precepts headband” (tie jiegu, 鐵戒箍) (among other items).
This style of circlet was likely influenced by the “triple-crescent crown” used by the Iranic Hephthalite and Sogdian cultures as a symbol of royalty. The motif appeared in China as early as the 6th-century as evidenced by the stone tomb of Di Caoming, which features foreign-looking door guardians wearing the triple-crescent crown. Most importantly, the motif also adorns the crowns of Bodhisattvas during China’s medieval period, which (combined with the aforementioned door guardians) might explain why the crescent came to be associated with military monks in Chinese opera.
This Iranic crown is one of three cultural threads influencing the function and look of Monkey’s golden headband, the other two coming from India (Esoteric Buddhism) and China (Daoism).
1) Precept knives (jiedao, 戒刀) were historically small, unadorned, curved, finger-length blades used for cutting robes, trimming fingernails, opening wounds, or slicing food (Yifa, 2009, p. 250, n. 37).
2) The diagram is labeled thusly in the original paper:
Winged crowns and triple-crescent crowns represented in the Buddhist art of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Sui. a, c, e-h: Wall paintings. Dunhuang (Gansu). a: Cave 254 (Northern Wei. Second half of the fifth century or first half of the sixth century), c: Cave 285 (Western Wei. 538-539 CE), e: Cave 276 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), f. Cave 380 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), g. Cave 389 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), h. Cave 407 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century). b: Stone sculpture from Wanfo-si 万仏寺. Liang. First half of the sixth century. Chengdu (Sichuan). d. Stone relief from Dazhusheng 大住聖 Cave, Baoshan Lingquan-si 宝山霊泉寺, Anyang. Sui. 589 CE (Kageyama, 2007, p. 22).
3) After asking him a question on the original tweet, Jin Xu replied:
This type of crown is the prototype of Jiegu. It was a headgear favored by Sogdians, as you can see in some pictures taken by @eranudturan. I’m not sure if it had a specific name at the time, but perhaps related to later Persian word “taj” (tweet).
Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Kageyama, E. (2007). The Winged Crown and the Triple-crescent Crown in the Sogdian Funerary Monuments from China: Their Relation to the Hephthalite Occupation of Central Asia. Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology, 2, 11-22. Retrieved from https://isaw.nyu.edu/publications/jiaaa/Kageyama.pdf.
Yifa. (2009). The Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China: An Annotated Translation and Study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i press.