A study of the early versions of the classic Chinese novel known to readers in English as Monkey. Dr Dudbridge examines a long tradition of earlier versions in narrative and dramatic form through which the great episodic cycle slowly took shape. The two main fields of interest are popular culture and folklore and the development of Chinese vernacular literature. Dr Dudbridge provides a very thorough survey of present knowledge about the whole topic and discusses critically a good deal of theorising about it. This is a study for experts. It uses Chinese characters, both in text pages and in the bibliography, which is very extensive. The plates reproduce paintings, carvings and sections of text relevant to the tradition.
This was originally posted as a 03-03-2022 update to an existing article, but I decided to make it a standalone piece.
Last updated: 03-08-2022
In “What Does Sun Wukong Look Like?” I highlighted several sentences pointing to the Monkey King’s small stature (fig. 1 & 2). For example, one monster comments:
The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four Chinese feet [buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m] in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408).
This information was later used in the making of a youtube video called “10 Facts About Sun Wukong the Monkey King“. Fact number seven was that “He’s really short”, and I ended the section by saying: “That’s right! The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the conqueror of the heavenly army … is the size of a child”. A Chinese viewer later left a thought-provoking comment on the video stating that I was wrong about Monkey’s size.
Here, I will present the comment in full but interspersed with my responses:
Hello! I am a Wukong fan from China. I really enjoyed your video! I would like to say that the height of the Monkey King has been very controversial on the internet in China.The data and appearance depictions in classical Chinese novels can be somewhat exaggerated. Journey to the West is a mythological novel is even more so. For example, seventy-two transformations, a somersault that can travel one hundred thousand eight hundred thousand li respectively refer to infinite changes and fly extremely fast. Seventy-two and one hundred and eighty thousand are not exact numbers, so relying solely on data is not reliable.Besides, in addition to four feet, Wukong has also appeared other height data. For example, the earliest version of the Journey to the West, “世德堂本”, Chapter 21.“大圣公然不惧。那怪果打一下来，他把腰躬一躬，足长了三尺，有一丈长短。”“Our Great Sage was not in the least frightened. When the monster struck him once, he stretched his waist and at once grew three chi, attaining the height of one zhang altogether.”
This PDF scan (page 258) shows the original version of the novel did indeed read “grow three chi” (changle sanchi, 長了三尺) and not six like in the modern version (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 408). I was surprised when this was brought to my attention.
One zhang minus three chi equals seven chi. In other words, the height of the Monkey King here was seven chi (Since the height unit in Chinese classical novels is based on the ancient system, 7 chi is around 5.5 feet). But in later versions and translations, “grew three chi” was changed to six chi. This has always been a point of contention. The figure of four feet (four chi) appears twice, both from the perspective of other monsters, such as the Monstrous King, who is three zhangs tall (around 24 feet). It may be possible that Sun Wukong is short in his eyes in comparison.
For those unfamiliar with ancient Chinese measurements, one zhang (丈) equals ten chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese feet”) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). The passage in question does imply that Monkey is seven chi tall. However, there are two problems. First, during the Ming (1368-1644) when the novel was published, one chi equaled approximately 12.52 inches (31.8 cm) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). This would make Sun a whopping 7.3 feet (2.22 m) tall! I must admit that the chi varied at the local level, but I doubt the variations would lead to a nearly two-foot (60.96 cm) difference. Additionally, if we use the measures for the Tang (618-907 CE), when the story is set, a chi was 11.57 inches (29.4 cm), making Monkey 6.75 feet (2.06 m) tall. There was, however, a “small chi” (xiaochi, 小尺) at this time, which was 9.66 inches (24.6 cm) (Nienhauser, 2016, p. 405 n. 40). This would only make him 5.65 feet (1.72 m) tall. But I would question if the common folk reading the novel during the Ming were aware of and still using this truncated measure. Second, as written above, the figure for “not even four chi” (buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m) appears twice. But it’s important to note that this estimate is made by two different characters at two different locations and times. The first is spoken in chapter two by the Monstrous King of Havoc (Hunshi mowang, 混世魔王) in the Water Belly Cave (Shuizang dong, 水臟洞) of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (east of the Eastern Purvavideha Continent) (PDF page 36; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). This takes place over 100 years before Sun’s initial rebellion during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). And the second is spokien in chapter 21 by Great King Yellow Wind (Huangfeng dawang, 黃風大王) in the Yellow Wind Cave (Huangfeng dong, 黃風洞) of Yellow Wind Ridge (Huangfeng ling, 黃風嶺) somewhere in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (PDF page 258; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). This takes place sometime after his release from his 600-plus-year punishment under Five Elements Mountain during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Therefore, this seems like a more reliable measure—given the distance between them—than the ten minus three argument. I suggest the latter was actually a typo that later editions tried to amend by changing three to six.
Another reason is that the author may be deliberately blurring the height of the Monkey King. Because at least in the story, the author describes Wukong according to the height of normal people. For example:Before Wukong learned Magic skills, when he could not change his height, he had robbed ordinary people’s clothes to wear. If Wukong was the height of a child, the clothes would hardly fit. When Wukong set out on his journey to the west, he once wore the clothes of Tang Monk. Wukong could carry the Taoist priest changed by the Silver Horned King (if he was a child height this would be very difficult).
These are good points, but a 7.3-foot tall Monkey wouldn’t be able to wear the clothing of the aforementioned people either. Conversely, tucking in or rolling up clothing wouldn’t be out of the question. And carrying a priest wouldn’t be a problem for a small-statured hero capable of hoisting the weight of two cosmic mountains while running at meteoric speeds.
In the same chapter, the Tang monk sitting on the horse can pull Wukong’s tiger skin skirt.Wukong can easily grab Eight Rules’ ear.In the Bhikṣu Kingdom, Wukong once exchanged clothes with Tang monk, etc.
Horses are tall animals, so the Tang Monk would’ve probably fallen off before even grabbing the skirt of an adult-sized Sun Wukong. I look at this as something that sounds good on paper until it’s tried in real life.
I think even a 5.5-foot tall Monkey would have problems grabbing the ear of Zhu Bajie, who is likely 10 feet (3.05 m) tall or more given his three chi (3.13 ft / 95.4 cm) snout (PDF page 108; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149) and giant body that “causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (PDF page 367; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Either way, jumping would be involved, making this irrelevant.
In China, there is another speculation about Wukong’s height: monkeys are usually hunched over. Wukong is four chi tall when bent over and seven chi tall when standing upright.
I studied primates in college. Monkeys usually walk on their palms (palmigrade) (fig. 3) and only stand when foraging, fighting, or carrying things. But I don’t recall the novel ever mentioning Sun traveling on all fours (please correct me if I’m wrong). Therefore, he likely walks on two legs. In this case, as stated, monkeys have a hunched posture when standing. They can’t stand straight because of mechanical limitations in their skull, spine, hips, legs, and feet (my previous essay on hominids applies to monkeys as well). One could argue that Monkey can overcome these limitations with his immortal body, but this definitely wouldn’t give him three more chi of height. For example, here’s a macaque standing at full height (fig. 4). As can be seen, straightening the head, spine, and legs would only give a handful of inches or centimeters.
And as stated in this article, Sun shares all of the hallmarks of a macaque, including a “furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears”. This likely includes a smaller stature.
Of course, there is no doubt that he is very thin, and is definitely the shortest one in the scripture takers, but at least, his height is more like that of a shorter adult than a child.The role of Sun Wukong is a combination of human nature, monkey nature, and divinity. The author may be deliberately obscuring his height. Therefore, when describing daily life, Wukong is the same height as normal people, but in the eyes of other demons, he is more prominent in the shape of the monkey. And he has the divine power to change his height at will. Sorry for my bad English, really enjoyed your video!
I will concede that four chi is a rough estimate, so he might be slightly shorter or even taller than this. Either way, he’d be far below average human height.
Above, I suggested that the ten minus three argument was a typo. But there might be a numerological explanation. Qing-era scholar Wang Xiangxu (汪象旭, fl.1605-1668) borrowed from the Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?-1082) by applying his “three fives equal one” (sanwuyi, 三五一) five elements concept (fig. 5) to numbers appearing in the novel. As Shao (1997) explains:
One set of five consists of wood (3) and fire (2). Wood in the east produces fire in the south. The second set is that of metal (4) and water (1). Metal in the west produces water in the north. The third is earth in the center whose number is five. The whole business of the “gold elixir” is to integrate all three sets of five to produce one—the gold elixir (pp. 16-17).
Shao (1997) goes on to explain the numeric significance of the dharma vessel constructed from Sha Wujing’s 9-skull necklace and the heavenly gourd in chapter 22:
Wang Xiangxu shows a keen eye for the “one” gourd and “nine” skulls which make a perfect “ten”—the number for the completion of earth. However, it is not the numbers that attract him, but what they indicate—that the gold elixir is creation—a process that involves the integration of all the five elements—not unlike the creation of the universe (p. 18).
Therefore, three (wood) and seven (fire) may be a reference to the completion of ten (the golden elixir) in Daoist numerology. If this is true, even the later switch from three to six still matches this (refer to fig. 5).
Fig. 5 – A chart explaining the three fives (larger version). From Shao, 1997, p. 17.
Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.
Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.
I’m proud to present a PDF of the original edition of Journey to the West anonymously published in 1592 by the Shidetang (世德堂, “Hall of Generational Virtue”) publishing house of Jinling (金陵, “Gold Hill,” a.ka. Nanjing). Titled Newly Printed, Illustrated, Deluxe and Large Character, Journey to the West (Xinke chuxiang guanban dazi Xiyou ji, 新刻出像官板大字西遊記), it features 20 scrolls and 100 chapters (minus the current chapter nine). It contains many charming woodblock prints depicting the events described in the story. For example, this print shows the battle between Monkey and Nezha in their three-headed and six-armed forms.
One doctoral thesis shows that this version is based on an earlier edition of the story titled Newly printed, Completely Illustrated, Chronicle of Deliverances in Sanzang of the Tang’s Journey to the West (Xinqie quanxiang Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi ni (e) zhuan, 新鍥全像唐三藏西遊释尼(厄)傳) in ten scrolls (with three to ten chapters each) by Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Yangcheng (羊城, i.e. Guangzhou).
The PDF is quite large at 1.5 gigs, so it will take time to download. I’ve provided two options.
The world famous Liaozhai zhiyi (聊齋志異, 1740; a.k.a. “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”) is a collection of over 400 narratives serving as a snapshot of late-Ming and early-Qing-era popular stories and culture. This is why story no. 4 of scroll 11, “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖), is important to the study of the Monkey King’s religion as it shows his cult was active in 17th and 18th-century Fujian. It also preserves the condescension that the scholarly class held for certain gods. For example, as Meir Shahar (1996) points out, the author Pu Songling was likely speaking through the main character Xu Sheng (許盛), a young merchant from Shandong, when he states: “Sun Wukong is nothing but a parable invented by [the novelist] Old Qiu [老丘]” (pp. 194).  Here, Xu chastises the people of Fujian for worshiping what he considers to be a fictional god. In addition, the story associates the Great Sage with a heavenly sword as opposed to his famous magic staff. I believe this is related to a 13th-century stone relief carving from Quanzhou.
Below, I have archived the only complete English translation of the tale that I’m aware of. It comes from volume six of Sidney L. Sondergard’s (Pu & Sondergard, 2014) Strange Tales from Liaozhai (pp. 2078-2085). I don’t currently have access to the physical book, so I have isolated the tale from an ebook and converted it into a PDF.
This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.
1) This refers to Qiu Chuji (丘處機, 1148-1227), the founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism during the Song Dynasty. Qiu is associated with a travel journal also named Journey to the West, which Pu Songling confused with the novel of the same name (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2080 n. 1).
Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China. In Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (1996). Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Pu, S., & Sondergard, S. L. (2014). Strange Tales from Liaozhai: Vol. 6. Fremont, Calif: Jain Pub.
I consider one of my greatest accomplishments on this blog to be discovering the origin of Sun Wukong’s golden headband. This would not have been possible without reading about the Hevajra Tantra (8th-century) in Robert Nelson Linrothe’s (1999) Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. This amazing study analyzes Esoteric Buddhist statues and texts to trace the evolution of these guardians from mere dwarf attendants to mighty warrior gods endowed with the power of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. This is a great resource for anyone researching religious art involving wrathful guardians in Buddhism, Daoism, and of course Chinese folk religion, for the iconography of these divine warriors spread far and wide.
I am sharing a PDF of the book found on libgen for the benefit of other scholars. The black and white portions of the book appear to be based on a xeroxed copy. However, there are full color plates in the back.
Buddhists believe that the wrathful spirits represent inherent qualities of our own, and that meditating on them can transmute the otherwise malevolent sides of our own natures into positive qualities and actions. The wrathful deities also provide precious clues as to the early development of esoteric Buddhism in India, about which few early texts survive. Through careful examination of a large body of images as well as Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Indic texts, this lavishly illustrated volume traces the evolution of the forms and the unfolding significance of the wrathful deity in esoteric Buddhist sculpture.