Interesting Facts about the Monkey King

Last updated: 08-07-2022

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.

Current count: 100

  1. He was likely influenced by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Ch: Ha nu man, 哈奴曼) in different waves, one possibly from the north (via Tibet) and another from the south (via Southeast Asia). But the parallels are most apparent from the standard 1592 edition of JTTW, suggesting that the author-compiler had access to some form of the Indian epic Rāmāyana (7th-c. BCE to 3rd-c. CE). The novel even includes material from the epic Mahābhārata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE).
  2. 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).
  3. He has the second longest association with the JTTW story cycle, appearing as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) circa 1000 (or before). Sha Wujing’s earliest antecedent appeared during the 8th-century, while Zhu Bajie didn’t appear until the 14th-century.
  4. The oldest published mention of the Monkey Pilgrim is a eulogy appearing in a tale from Zhang Shinan’s (張世南) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen, 遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). One scholar dates the story to around 1127 (see the 08-17-2019 update here).
  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. He is called the “Monkey King” (Houwang, 猴王) as far back as the 13th-century version. This position is likely based on a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys.
  8. The immortal is bestowed the title “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) at the end of the story by Tang Taizong.
  9. This immortal was heavily influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana).
  10. He was popular even in Korea and appeared in a set of carvings from a 14th-century stone pagoda.
  11. 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.
  12. 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).

  13. The surname “Sun” (孫) means “grandson” but is an open reference to husun (猢猻, lit: “grandson of the barbarian”), the Chinese word for “macaque“. It was also a popular surname for supernatural primates in stories associated with the Lingyin Temple (靈隱寺), which also likely influenced the Monkey King.

  14. 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.

  15. 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).

  16. The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).

  17. 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).

  18. His story in the 1592 version takes place not in our world but in one modeled after ancient Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which features four island-like continents floating in a great ocean around the four respective faces of a cosmic mountain. And yet the novel was published during a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe, precisely 49 years after Copernicus suggested that the Earth orbits the sun.
  19. 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!
  20. He has had past lives (see the 11-24-20 update here).
  21. He’s not the only figure from world myth born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.

  22. While his stone birth (ch. 1) is likely based on that of Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a legendary King of the Xia dynasty (more on this below), it may ultimately be linked to Tibetan stories of stone-born monkey deities.
  23. He was likely born during the late-Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046-256 BCE).
  24. He serves as a physical manifestation of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist philosophy denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep Man trapped in the illusory world of Saṃsāra (see the material below figure three here). This phrase is also surprisingly associated with sexual desire.
  25. 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.
  26. 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 branch shen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
  27. 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).

  28. 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’s Numinous 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).
  29. Despite modern media portraying him as an adult-sized humanoid character that is sometimes handsome and/or very muscular, the 1592 version describes him as an ugly, bald, and skinny Rhesus macaque that is less than four feet tall. This means that one of the most powerful warriors in the Buddho-Daoist cosmos is the size of a child.
  30. 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.
  31. The breathing and energy circulation methods that Monkey uses to achieve immortality (ch. 2) are based on real Daoist elixir practices.
  32. 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.
  33. 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).
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. 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).
  37. 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.
  38. 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.
  39. 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).
  40. The novel only mentions him learning martial arts in passing (ch. 67 – see section 4.5 here), but one episode (ch. 51) features a battle between Monkey and a demon king in which they use a host of real world fighting techniques that are still known and practiced today.
  41. His favorite style of boxing is “Short Fist” (duanquan, 短拳) (see the 05-02-18 update here).
  42. His skill with the staff is so great that the novel compares it to techniques from two manuals listed among the Seven Military Classics of China (see the 08-07-18 update here).
  43. 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).
  44. 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).
  45. 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.
  46. 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.
  47. 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).

  48. 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: 一萬五百斤.

  49. 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).
  50. 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!

  51. 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.
  52. 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!
  53. 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.
  54. His conflict with Erlang (ch. 6) can be traced to ancient Han-era funerary rituals, and their battle of magic transformations shares parallels with ancient Greek tales and can ultimately be traced to even older stories from the Near East.
  55. 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.
  56. He is shown to be weak against spiritual fire and smoke (see the 06-28-22 update here).
  57. 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).
  58. The message that he leaves on the Buddha’s finger (ch. 7) is a popular form of graffiti in East Asia.
  59. His time under Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山) (ch. 7) is based on stories of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi (無支奇/巫支祇) being imprisoned under a mountain by Yu the Great.
  60. Monkey’s mountain imprisonment was only part of his punishment. The other half was a hellish diet of hot iron pellets and molten copper, punishments straight from Buddhist canon.
  61. He was pressed under Five Elements Mountain during the late-Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220CE – see section II here).
  62. 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.
  63. 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.
  64. His golden headband (ch. 13) has three influences: 1) a historical ritual circlet worn as a physical reminder of right speech and action by Esoteric Buddhist yogins in ancient India; 2) adornments, likely based on stylized lingzhi mushrooms, worn by Daoist protector deities; and 3) an Iranic triple-crescent crown.
  65. The oldest depiction of Monkey with his headband that I know of appears in an 11th-century Buddhist cave grotto in Northwestern China (see section 1 here).
  66. The earliest depiction of his double “curlicue-style” headband that I’m aware of is a 13th-century stone carving in Fujian.
  67. The secret spell that tightens his headband is likely the Akshobhya Buddha mantra.
  68. 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.

  69. 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).
  70. The baby-shaped fruit that he eats (ch. 24) comes from a tree based on Indo-Persian lore.
  71. He claims to have eaten people when he was a monster in his youth (ch. 27) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).
  72. His greatest feat of strength is carrying two mountains while running at meteoric speeds (ch. 33). One is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, while the other is the place from which (according to legend) Buddhism spread upon entering China. This episode is based on an older tale in which Erlang does the lifting.
  73. His doppelganger, the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 56-58), is actually an aspect of his troubled mind. Once he kills him, Monkey takes one step closer to Buddhahood.
  74. He fights and is defeated by an ancient bird demon who is a spiritual uncle of the Buddha (ch. 77). This monster is based on the Hindu bird god Garuda.
  75. He and his religious brothers take human disciples in India (ch. 88), and Monkey later performs an arcane ritual in which he grants them superhuman strength (and possibly some form of immortality).
  76. His title, “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Douzhan sheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) (ch. 100), is based on a real world deity numbering among the “Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas“.
  77. 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).
  78. Despite his association with the Victorious Fighting Buddha, he is primarily worshiped as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in East and Southeast Asian Chinese folk religion. He was also worshiped in 19th-century America!
  79. Fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (Yihetuan yundong, 義和團運動, 1899-1901) believed that they could channel the Monkey King to gain his great combat skills.
  80. Chinese folk religion recognizes more than one Great Sage, usually between three and five individuals.
  81. His worship started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora.
  82. The iconic pose where he shades his eyes to search the horizon is likely based on a common motif associated with Chinese sea gods.
  83. He has a number of religious birthdays, one of which is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month (the day after the Mid Autumn Festival).
  84. There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishing kyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwar kyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
  85. 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).
  86. 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.
  87. 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).

  88. 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).

  89. He time travels to different points in Chinese history in an unofficial 17th-century sequel to JTTW.
  90. 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.

  91. He influenced the manga/anime hero Son Goku (a Japanese transliteration of 孫悟空) from the Dragon Ball Franchise.
  92. He almost appeared in an Indiana Jones movie!
  93. He has appeared in both Marvel and DC comic book series.
  94. He is the mascot of several entities in Taiwan, including the HCT delivery company, the Hang Yuan FC football team, and the Taipei Water Department.
  95. He has appeared in nearly 65 video games.
  96. He is the namesake for a Chinese satellite designed to search for dark matter.
  97. He is the namesake of a fossa on Pluto. This plays on his association with the underworld.
  98. He is the namesake of the Wukongopterus (Wukong yilong shu, 悟空翼龍屬), a genus of Chinese pterosaur.

  99. He is the namesake of Syntelia sunwukong, a Synteliid beetle from mid-Cretaceous Burma.
  100. A Covid-19 lab in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China adopted the name “Fire Eyes” (Huoyan, 火眼) in honor of Monkey’s ability to discern evil spirits.

Sources:

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.

The Monkey King’s Worship in Thailand

Last updated: 06-07-2022

I first learned of Great Sage worship in Thailand when Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project showed me a Monkey King statue on a Thai Facebook group. Since then, I’ve noticed an explosion in social media posts (mainly on Facebook and Instagram) highlighting his veneration in the “Land of Smiles”. Here, I’d like to record what I’ve learned so far.

Please revisit the page for future updates.

I. Names for the Monkey King

  1. เห้งเจีย (Hêng jiia, or just “Heng Jia/Chia” = Xingzhe, 行者, “Pilgrim”). [1] This appears to be the most popular of his Thai names. This should come as no surprise, though, as Xingzhe (行者) is used FAR more to refer to Monkey in Journey to the West (4,335 times) than Wukong (悟空) (512 times). [2]
  2. ซุนหงอคง (Sun ngŏr kong, or just “Sun Ngokong” = Sun Wukong, 孫悟空) (see here).
  3. ฉีเทียนต้าเชิ่ง (Chĕe tiian dtâa chêrng = Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖, “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”)
  4. ฉีเทียนต้าเซิน (Chĕe tiian dtâa sern = same as above)
  5. โต้วจั้นเชิ่งโฝ (Dtôh wá jân chêrng fŏh = Douzhan shengfo, 鬥戰勝佛, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”)
  6. ต้าเชิ่งโฝจู่ (Dtâa chêrng fŏh jòo = Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖, “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch”
  7. ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow” = same as above)

II. Statuary

Various Thai Facebook groups post pictures of the same kinds of monkey god statues found in East and Southeast Asia. These range from armored warriors wielding the magic staff to serene buddhas on lotus thrones (consult the third paragraph after video one here for a description of Monkey’s traditional iconography). But I’ve noticed that one flavor of Thai Great Sage statue is almost entirely gilded (or draped with gold cloth) except for a pink/red mask around the eyes, the latter being similar to his Chinese opera depictions. Said statues tend to feature a golden headband with very tall curlicues (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – An example of a golden Thai monkey statue with a pink mask and a high curlicue headband (larger version). Originally posted here.

I’ve also noticed an abundance of Dizang-like Monkey Buddha statues, similar to those found in Singapore (I haven’t seen many such depictions in Taiwan). This may be of Fujian influence (see here). He is sometimes portrayed wearing an ornate crown (with or without the golden headband) and monk’s robes and seated on a lotus throne. One hand is held in a mudra, while the other clasps a ruyi scepter (or more rarely a fly whisk). I recently purchased such a statue with an amulet pressed in the bottom (fig. 2 and video #1).

Fig. 2 – My 20cm colored resin Thai Monkey Buddha statue (larger version). Take note that the lotus throne sits on a pile of gold coins and ingots. Picture by the original seller.

Video #1 – Video by the original seller.

III. Amulets

Buddhist amulets (Th: prá krêuuang, พระเครื่อง) are immensely important to Thai devotees. Marcus (2018) explains that they are believed to “endow wearers with supernatural faculties”. He continues: “Some amulets are thought to bring success and happiness. Others are believed to protect the wearer against disease, witchcraft, and misfortune” (Marcus, 2018). It’s no different for worshipers of the Monkey King. I’ve seen countless examples on Facebook ranging from Monkey Buddhas to Monkey warriors. See four examples below (fig. 3-6).

Fig. 3 – An amulet listing him as the “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 4 – A multi-armed Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 5 – An armored, flying Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 6 – Another armored example (larger version). Originally posted here.

IV. Spirit-Mediumship

Like East and Southeast Asia, Thailand also has Great Sage spirit-mediums (Ch: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; lit: “Divining Child”) (consult the paragraph after figure six here for more information about these ritual specialists). One temple medium seen on the ไปดีมาดี Channel1928 YouTube channel employs white, black, and gold headbands with the aforementioned high curlicue design. The color used appears to depend on which monkey god takes over the medium. I can’t comment on any rituals particular to the Thai religious sphere. But I have seen the medium perform self-mortification in order to create paper talismans (video #2). This is a normal function of spirit-mediums even in East and Southeast Asia. See my twitter post for pictures of a similar Taiwanese ritual.

I’m hoping to gather more information on Thai Great Sage spirit-mediumship in the future.

Video #2 –  HEADPHONE WARNING!!! The Thai Great Sage medium cuts his tongue to create paper talismans.


Update: 04-20-22

I just learned from this webpage that there is a Thai language book about the history of the Monkey King. Here’s the citation:

จรัสศรี จิรภาส. เห้งเจีย (ฉีเทียนต้าเสิ้ง) ลิงในวรรณกรรมที่กลายเป็นเทพเจ้า. กรุงเทพฯ : มติชน, 2547.

Jaratsri Jirapas. Heng Jia (Chi Tian Da Sheng), a Literary Monkey who has become a God. Bangkok: Matichon, 2004.

This online book seller has pictures of the cover (fig. 7) and some of the internal pages.

Fig. 7 – The cover of the Heng Jia book (larger version).

Also, I’ve learned the name and location of a small monkey god temple in Bangkok, Thailand (fig. 8-10 and video #3). It is claimed to be at least 200 years old(!), suggesting that Heng Jia has been worshiped by Chinese-Thai for several centuries:

ศาลเจ้าพ่อเห้งเจีย (Săan-jâo-pôr Hêng-jiia) – “Shrine of Heng Jia”

66 Rama IV Rd, Talat Noi, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10500, Thailand

+66 2 221 9018

Fig. 8 – The main altar statue, behind which are two gold Monkey Buddha statues with pink masks (larger version). Fig. 9 – The left Monkey Buddha (larger version). Fig. 10 – The right Monkey Buddha (larger version). Pictures by KittyBinny’s Journey on Blockdit.

Video #3 – An episode about the temple on the MY CHANNEL – OFFICIAL YouTube Channel.


Update: 04-21-21

A fellow member of the Taoism Singapore and the Local Gods and their Legends Facebook groups was kind enough to let me post pictures of a Thai Monkey God amulet that he received in San Francisco around the year 2000. The top notes that it’s from the Tanglai Temple (Tanglai gong, 唐來宮), the first two characters being a term used in Journey to the West to indicate that the pilgrims have “come from China” in the east. The characters on the left and right sides combine to read “I submit to the Buddha Amitabha” (Namo Amituofo, 南無阿彌陀佛). The Thai at the bottom reads “Reverend Monk Heng Jia” (lŭuang bpòo hêng-jiia, หลวงปู่เห้งเจีย) (fig. 11). The reverse depicts the eight trigrams encircling a Taiju symbol (fig. 12), indicating that the amulet is Buddho-Daoist.

Fig. 11 – The front of the Monkey God amulet (larger version). Fig. 12 – The backside (larger version). 


Update: 04-22-22

Ellis (2017) mentions a “monument” to Heng Jia in Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (ศาลเจ้าพ่อเขาใหญ่) (p. 86). Mr. Ellis told me in a personal communication that the cave “is on Ko Si Chang island off the coast of Pattaya“. The address is:

5R94+7MM, Tha Thewawong, Ko Sichang District, Chon Buri 20120, Thailand

The small Monkey shrine is located in the interior, and it is surrounded by a forest of red prayer sheets (fig. 13). See here for a video touring the cave. The section featuring Heng Jia starts around minute 3:16.

Munier (1998) notes that this cave is the “only one” dedicated to Monkey in Thailand (p. 170). A big thank you to Mr. Ellis for providing this information. Please check out his blog.

Fig. 13 – The Heng Jia shrine at Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (larger version). Original photo posted here. See here for a wider shot of the shrine.


Update: 04-23-22

A fellow member of a Monkey King group that I belong to posted this article of seven Thai Heng Jia shrines, including the ones I’ve mentioned above.

https://travel.trueid.net/detail/m0gr288wBPQx

Also, here’s a Thai prayer to Hengjia (video #4). It’s called “Prayer to the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Bòt sùuat mon dtâi sìia húk-jôh, บทสวดมนต์ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว), and the video labels it in Chinese as “Scripture of the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu jing, 大聖佛祖經).

Video #4 – The prayer to Hengjia.

Here’s a transcription of the prayer:

ไต่เสี่ยฮุกโจวเก็ง
ไต่ เสี่ย จู เสี่ยง กิ๋ง
บ่อ เสียง กิก เซี้ยง จูง
ก่วย ขื่อ อี ซิว เจ่ง
หลี่ ไอ่ เถี่ยว สี่ กัง
ซุ้ย ชื้อ สี่ เกียง เอ๋า
เหลี่ยง เมี่ยง จู คุ่ง อู๋
ห่วย ซิง เทียง ตง จู้
ปัก เก๊ก ฉิก อ้วง จูง
หู่ เพียก กั่ง ข่วง อ๋วย
จู๋ ไจ้ อี บ่วง ลุ้ย
เสียง ไจ่ เส็ก เกีย ซือ
อุ่ย เจ่ง กู่ ซวง ส่วย
อั้ว เต้ง กิม อี บุ๋ง
ง่วง ก้วง อี ม้วก สี่
หยู่ สี เก็ง กง เต็ก
คิ่ว ฮุก จิ่ง ซวง เอี้ยง
ไต่ เสี่ย ฮุก โจ้ว เก็ง
ยื่อ ซี้ ฮุก เก่า ไต๋ เจ่ง
เยียก อู๋ เสียง น้ำ สิ่ง นึ่ง ยิ้ง
ม้วย ยิก จี่ ซิม เหนี่ยม เจ็ก กึ้ง
หยู่ จ้วง กิม กัง เก็ง ซา จับ บ่วง กิ้ง
อิ่ว ติก สิ่ง เม้ง เกีย หู
เจ่ง ซิ้ง ที หี
ตี่ หุย ไจ เทียง ตี๋
อู่ นั่ง อ่วย เสี้ย เจ็ก ปึ้ง
อื้อ นั้ง หลิ่ว ท้วง
กง เต็ก เกา หยู่ ซู หนี่ ซัว
ชิม หยู่ ไต่ ไห้
บ่อ เหลียง กง เต็ก
ย่ง สี่ ปุก ตะ ตี่ เง็ก มิ้ง
ฉู่ ฉู่ หลั่ง สั่ว
เทีย ตัก มอ อิ้ง ซา ผ่อ ฮอ


Update: 04-24-22

This page mentions the benefits of worshiping Heng Jia (based on Google Translate):

If anyone worships Lord Tai Sia Huk Zhou, it will make everything smooth, turning bad into good, making it possible to do anything without obstacles. This includes family and friends, doing business, selling progress, keeping anything bad from coming into our lives. The believer must behave well, think positively, and never think ill of others. All blessings will bear fruit. Life will be truly happy and business will progress more and more.

[…]

If worshipers are free from evil and have health, intelligence, tact, and courage, they will be able to always find a solution to their problems. Therefore, [Heng Jia’s faith] is very popular among business operators that need to find a solution to every obstacle and problem.


Update: 05-21-22

A Thai temple is raising funds by selling Monkey King statues in different postures, each with their own benefits (fig. 14-16). Here is a translation by a friend:

1. Clairvoyant posture = worship this for blessing of import/export trading.
2. Success posture = worship this for blessing of wealth.
3. Meditation posture = worship this for blessing of wisdom.

Fig. 14 – The “Clairvoyant posture” (larger version). Fig. 15 – The “Success posture” (larger version). Fig. 16 – The “Meditation posture” (larger version).


Update: 06-07-22

My friend posted a picture of a Thai Great Sage shrine to Facebook. It shows a stone monkey statue, behind which is a large silver and gold staff. Whereas the literary weapon is “如意金箍棒” (Ruyi jingu bang), the “As-you-will Gold-Banded Staff”, the shrine version is labeled “如意金剛榜” (Ruyi jingang bang), “As-you-will Vajra staff” (fig. 17 and 18). [3] The Vajra (jingang, 金剛) is a heavenly weapon closely associated with the Buddhist guardian deity Vajrapāni (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩, lit: “The Vajra-Bearing Bodhisattva”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955). Therefore, the name change strengthens Sun Wukong’s association with Buddhism.

Fig. 17 – The Great Sage shrine with a stone monkey statue and the silver and gold staff (larger version). Fig. 18 – Detail of the Chinese characters on the staff (larger version).

Note:

1) See section III of this article for more info on the name “Pilgrim”.

2) Thank you to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.

3) 榜 (bang) should be 棒 (bang).

Source:

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

Ellis, M. (2017). The Caves of Eastern Thailand. (n.p.): Lulu.com.

Marcus, D. (2018, May 5). Featured Object: Thai Buddhist Amulet. Spurlock Museum of World Cultures Blog. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from https://www.spurlock.illinois.edu/blog/p/featured-object-thai/263.

Munier, C. (1998). Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand. Thailand: White Lotus.

Archive #33 – The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel (1970)

Dr. Glen Dudbridge (1938-2017), a British sinologist, was a giant in the field of Journey to the West Studies. His book The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel (1970) is the best treatise on the history of this world famous story cycle. It stresses the oral storytelling origin of the tale, including a 13th-century storytelling prompt; 13th-century poetic allusions to the story; a 13th-century stone carving of Monkey in Quanzhou; fragments of the story in the Korean Pak t’ongsa ŏnhae (14th-c.) and Chinese Yongle Encyclopedia (early 15th-c.); mentions of the journey in a 16th-century baojuanWuzhiqi and white ape tales and how they may relate to the origin of Sun Wukong; Yuan-Ming Zaju plays about Erlang and Monkey; and it also includes translations and synopses of key texts in the appendixes.

Book Description:

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.

Archive link:

Click to access The-Hsi-yu-chi-A-Study-of-Antecedents-to-the-Sixteenth-Century-Chinese-Novel-1970.pdf

Disclaimer:

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

Citation:

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archive #29 – Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (1999)

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.

Book description:

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.

Archive link:

Click to access Ruthless-Compassion-Wrathful-Deities-in-Early-Indo-Tibetan-Esoteric-Buddhist-Art-1999.pdf

Disclaimer:

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

Citation:

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. London: Serindia Publ.

The Monkey King’s Magic Staff: A Complete Guide

I’ve written many articles on the origins of the Monkey King’s staff over the years. Therefore, I’ve decided to combine all of the information in one location for the benefit of people wishing to learn more about the weapon and its history. This will no doubt be interesting to fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592; JTTW hereafter), as well as those of modern franchises like Dragon Ball and Lego Monkie Kid (fig. 1). Citations can be found in the articles linked below.

Fig. 1 – The Lego Monkie Kid character “MK” wielding the Monkey King’s magic staff (larger version). Copyright Lego.

1. The Literary Weapon

1.1. Staff Background

The staff first appears in chapter three of the original novel when the Monkey King goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional weapons offered to him fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun Wukong “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The weapon is said to be a “divine treasure iron” originally used to set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe ding di de shenzhen tie, 天河定底的神珍鐵) by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythic Chinese emperor and demigod.

The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron or bin steel more than 20 feet in height and as wide as a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun notices that the weapon is decorated with a golden ring on each end, as well as an inscription along the body reading: “The ‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff is immensely heavy, weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg).

Apart from the above information, a poem in chapter 75 (see section 2.3 here) highlights another name, “Rod of Numinous Yang” (Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒). In addition, the poem describes the staff being covered in “tracks of planets and stars” (i.e. astronomical charts) and esoteric “dragon and phoenix scripts” (longwen yu fengzhuan, 龍紋與鳳篆).

The novel provides two contradictory origins for the staff. The chapter 75 poem notes that it “[w]as forged in the stove by Laozi himself”. Laozi is of course the high god of Daoism. Chapter 88 instead states that it was “forged at Creation’s dawn / By Yu the Great himself, the god-man of old”.

Contrary to popular images of the Monkey King holding a regular-sized staff, his literary counterpart wields a massive weapon in battle. It is said to be 20 feet long (likely an error for 12), [1] with the width of a bowl (erzhang changduan, wankou cuxi, 二丈長短,碗口粗細) (fig. 2). I did a cursory search of bowls during the Ming (when the standard edition of JTTW was published) and found that they have a radius of between 4 to 6 inches (10.16 to 15.25 cm).

Fig. 2 – An accurate depiction of the size of Monkey’s staff (larger version). Images found here. Artwork by @真·迪绝人.

1.2. Staff Powers

The staff is shown to have multiple powers.

  1. Size manipulation – This is the weapon’s most well-known ability, growing as big or as small as Monkey wishes.
  2. Controlling the oceans –  The aforementioned poem from chapter 88 writes: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. / Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas…”
  3. Astral entanglement – Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in Hell despite the physical weapon being with his body in the world of the living.
  4. Multiplication – He can multiply his staff in the hundreds of thousands.
  5. Lock-Picking – He can open any door just by pointing it at the lock.
  6. Transformation – He can change it into tools like a straight razor or a drill.
  7. Sentience – The weapon glows in anticipation of Monkey’s arrival (fig. 3), responds to his touch, and follows his commands, denoting a certain level of sentience.

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

2. Origins

2.1. Literary Precursors

The staff found in the standard Ming edition of JTTW is actually based on two weapons from a 17-chapter storytelling prompt called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procured the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century). Sun Wukong’s precursor, an ageless immortal called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), magically transports Tripitaka and his entourage to heaven. There, the supreme god, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王; i.e. Vaiśravana), gives the monk a cap of invisibility, a khakkhara (ringed monk’s staff) (fig. 4), and a begging bowl. Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim take turns using these items throughout the journey. The staff is shown capable of shooting destructive beams of light, as well as transforming into magical creatures like an iron dragon or a giant, club-wielding Yaksha. Later, the Monkey Pilgrim also borrows an iron staff from heaven to fight a dragon.

The two staves from this tale were eventually combined by later storytellers. The rings from the first weapon were added to the ends of the second.

Fig. 4 – A beautiful, modern monk’s staff with six rings (larger version).

2.2. Influence from Religion

The Monkey Pilgrim’s magic ringed staff and begging bowl were directly influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the historical Buddha. One particular 9th to 10th-century story notes that the Saint uses the staff to unlock the gates of hell in order to save his mother (fig. 5). This is where Sun Wukong’s weapon from JTTW gets the power to open locks.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

The ringed and metal staves used by the Monkey Pilgrim are based on those historically carried by Buddhist monks in ancient China. The aforementioned ringed variety, called “tin staves” (xizhang, 錫杖) where used by religious monks and decorated with six to twelve metal rings (see fig. 4). These rings were designed to make a clanging noise to not only scare away animals on the road but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence.

Martial monks charged with protecting monasteries or deployed by the Chinese government against pirates wielded wooden or iron staves (fig. 6). The former were chosen for their diminished capacity for fatal injuries, while the latter were explicitly used for killing during times of war. Sun Wukong wielding the iron variety makes sense as he’s a martial monk charged with protecting Tripitaka from monsters and spirits.

Fig. 6 – A martial monk practicing a drunken staff-fighting form (larger version).

The term “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) from Monkey’s staff (mentioned above) is connected with a scepter used in ancient China as a symbol of religious debate and authority and, to a lesser extent, as a weapon. While it can be traced to a Hindo-Buddhist tradition in India, the scepter came to be associated with the highest gods of Daoism thanks to being decorated with a “numinous mushroom” (lingzhi, 靈芝), a real world fungi believed to bestow immortality. This mushroom scepter was at some point associated with the Buddhist Cintamani (Ruyi zhu, 如意珠), or “As-you-will jewel”. This was believed to grant any wish that one might desire. This explains why Monkey’s As-you-will staff grows or shrinks according to his commands. It’s interesting to note that some religious images of the scepter depict it with a syncretic mix of the Daoist mushroom and the Buddhist jewel (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 – An enhanced detail of the Celestial Worthy’s mushroom scepter with a flaming as-you-will jewel (larger version). See here for a fuller version of the deity.

2.3. Influence from Popular literature

The weapon’s portrayal in JTTW as an iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom comes from old stories about the immortal Xu Xun (許遜), a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province. Popular tales describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century version titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace Drives Away Evil” (Jingyang gong tieshu zhenyao旌陽宮鐵樹鎮妖) describes how he chained the flood dragon patriarch to an iron tree (tieshu, 鐵樹) and submerged it in a well, thus preventing the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm and causing trouble. Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 8). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

Fig. 8 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting the immortal Xu overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement the well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version).

As previously noted, the staff weighs 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg). This is likely based on an episode from chapter 27 of the Chinese novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block said to weigh 300 to 500 catties (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg) (fig. 9). This scene and the one from JTTW where Monkey lifts the iron pillar are quite similar. Both involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. And given the close historical and cultural ties between the two heroes, I believe the author-compiler of JTTW embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.

Fig. 9 – Wu Song lifts the stone block (larger version). Image found here.

Note:

1) Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog has suggested that the length is likely an error for 12 feet (zhanger, 丈二) since the staff was already near 20 feet when Monkey first acquired it, and he later asked it to shrink to a more manageable size.