Origin of the Six-Eared Macaque and the Character’s Influence on Black Myth: Wukong

The Six-Eared Macaque (Liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴) (fig. 1) is one of the most interesting villains that Sun Wukong faces in Journey to the West. He is an example of the evil twin archetype from world mythology. But unlike modern media which sometimes differentiates evil twins with goatees,—think of Evil Spock from the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror“—this malicious spirit is an exact duplicate of Monkey with the same features, voice, clothing, and fighting abilities. He’s so similar in fact that no one in the cosmos, save the Buddha, can differentiate him from Wukong. But who is he really and where did he come from?

In this article, I suggest that the Six-Eared Macaque is based on Buddhist concepts of mind and nonduality (Sk: advaya; Ch: bu’er, 不二). In addition, I discuss the character’s origin within the book as a former friend of the Monkey King, explain the significance of the six ears to Buddhism, and detail references to him in a 17th-century sequel to Journey to the West. Finally, I describe the character’s influence on the upcoming Chinese video game Black Myth: Wukong (2023).

Fig. 1 – The Six-Eared Macaque by Zhang Ji (larger version here).

1. Description of the episode

In chapter 56, Monkey magically disguises himself as a 16-year-old monk and comes to the rescue of Tripitaka, who had been captured by mountain bandits demanding money for safe passage. The bandits let the priest go under the pretense that his young disciple has money. However, Wukong murders the two bandit chiefs with his iron cudgel, causing the remaining thirty or so men to flee in terror. That night, the pilgrims find lodging with an old couple. But they soon discover that the couple’s son is one of the bandits routed by Monkey earlier in the evening. The son returns home with his gang late at night and, upon learning of the monks, hatches a plan to attack them in their sleep. But the old man alerts the pilgrims to the danger and allows them to escape out a back gate. The bandits take chase, catching up to them at sunrise, only to meet their death at Wukong’s hands. Monkey finds the old couple’s son and beheads him as punishment for disrespecting his parents. All of this killing horrifies Tripitaka, who recites the tight-fillet spell (jin gu zhou, 緊箍咒) and banishes Wukong from the group.

In chapter 57, Wukong travels to Guanyin’s island paradise to complain about Tripitaka casting him out from the pilgrimage. He asks the goddess if he can be released from monkhood and return to his old life, but she instead uses her eyes of wisdom to foresee a future event in which Monkey will need to rescue his master. Meanwhile, Tripitaka asks his remaining disciples to find him food and drink. However, in their absence, Wukong attacks the priest, knocking him unconscious with the staff and stealing the group’s belongings containing the travel rescript (tongguan wendie, 通關文牒). [1] Sha Wujing is sent to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to retrieve their things, but Monkey refuses to return the rescript as he wishes to win all of the merit and fame by finishing the quest on his own. Wujing points out that the Buddha will only give the holy texts to the chosen scripture seeker. Wukong, however, shows that he’s prepared for this outcome by parading doppelgangers of Tripitaka, Zhu Bajie, Sha, and the white dragon horse. Wujing kills his double (which is revealed to be a transformed monkey spirit) and attempts to attack Monkey but is forced to retreat. He flees to Guanyin only to attack Wukong once more when he finds him sitting next to the goddess. Guanyin stays his hand and explains that Monkey has been with her the entire time. She then sends them both back to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to investigate the double.

In chapter 58, upon seeing the impostor, Wukong rushes forward to attack the double, who defends himself with his “Acquiescent Iron Pole Arm” (Suixin tie gan bing, 隨心鐵桿兵). [2] The two battle their way through the sky to Guanyin’s island paradise in order to determine who is the real Monkey. But when she attempts to weed out the impostor by reciting the tight-fillet spell, both Wukong’s drop to the floor in pain. In the face of failure, Guanyin sends them up to the celestial realm in the hopes that the deities who fought Monkey centuries ago will be able to tell one from the other. Both of them fight their way into heaven and gain an audience with the Jade Emperor, but not even the imp-reflecting mirror (zhao yao jing, 照妖鏡) [3] can tell them apart. The two then battle their way back to earth, and when Tripitaka’s use of the tight-fillet spell fails, they fight down to the underworld. There, the judges are unable to find the impostor in their ledgers, but Investigative Hearing (Diting, 諦聽), the omniscient celestial mount of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, finally solves the riddle. However, the creature is reluctant to reveal the false Wukong for fear he will use his powers to disrupt the underworld. The bodhisattva therefore sends them to the Western Paradise in India to stand before the Buddha, who instantly recognizes the impostor. The Enlightened One gives Guanyin a short lecture on four spiritual primates that fall outside of the ten categories of mortal and immortal life in the cosmos: 1) the intelligent stone monkey (ling ming shihou, 靈明石猴, i.e. Sun Wukong); 2) the red-buttocked baboon (chikao mahou, 赤尻馬猴); 3) the bare-armed gibbon (tongbi yuanhou, 通臂猿猴); and 4) the six-eared macaque (liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴). When the Buddha identifies the doppelganger as the fourth kind, the fake Monkey attempts to flee in the form of a bee but is trapped under the Enlightened One’s alms bowl. In the end, Wukong kills the macaque with his cudgel.

2. Origin

2.1. Background in the novel

Lam (2005) reveals that the Six-Eared Macaque is actually Monkey’s sworn brother, the Macaque King (Mihou wang, 獼猴王) (fig. 2), from his younger days as a demon (p. 168). [4] He explains:

The latter’s other agnomen, “the Great Sage Informing Wind” (Tongfeng dasheng, 通風大聖 …) [5] suggests further that its ears are as good as the six-eared macaque’s in information gathering. Despite all these archaic or anachronistic traces, however, Monkey never comes to recognize the six-eared macaque as his old sworn brother as is the case with the Bull Demon King” (Lam, 2005, p. 168).

This should come as no surprise considering the spirit copies Monkey’s life, including his early years as a king. Interestingly, Wukong is a macaque himself.

The novel doesn’t mention the original home of the Macaque King, only that Wukong “made extensive visits to various heroes and warriors” while “tour[ing] the four seas and disport[ing] himself in a thousand mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). The Macaque King could live on anyone of these thousand mountains.

Fig. 2 – A Zbrush rendering of the Macaque King by Zcool user Nerv99 (larger version here).

2.2. Significance of the six ears

Yu suggests the macaque’s six ears come from the Buddhist saying “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear [i.e., the third pair or person]” (fa bu zhuan liu er, 法不傳六耳) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 387 n. 7). He continues: “This idiom is already used in chapter 2 when Monkey assured Patriarch Subhodi that he could receive the oral transmission of the secret formula for realized immortality because ‘there is no third party [sixth ear] present'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 387 n. 7). This phrase refers to a closely guarded secret that must be kept at all cost, something that can only be passed from a qualified teacher to an initiated disciple.

In this case, the Six-Eared Macaque is the second set of ears, for the Buddha states: “[E]ven if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115). Who knows how long this creature listens in on Monkey’s life before he makes an appearance. Perhaps he hears Subhuti’s secret teachings. This might explain why the impostor has similar abilities to our hero.

As the embodiment of the “sixth ear”, the Six-Eared Macaque also represents heterodoxy (waidao, 外道; pangmen, 旁們, lit: “side door”), for someone eavesdropping on esoteric secrets without full initiation into a tradition would have an incomplete understanding. And any supernatural gifts derived from subsequent practice, though powerful as they may be, would just be pale imitations of that achieved by true disciples. This concept is featured in chapter 46 when three animal spirits-turned-Daoist priests challenge Wukong to contests of torture, but each dies because their magic is not as strong as Monkey’s. The novel stresses this is because their training was only partially completed under a teacher. [6] Wukong is more powerful because he completed his training under Subhuti.

2.3. The Ramayana vs. Buddhist philosophy

Hoong (2004) claims the concept of two identical apes fighting each other “evolved from the well-known episode of the Ramayana where Rama was unable to distinguish between [Vali] and the monkey king Sugriva … when the twin brothers were fighting hand to hand” (p. 36 n. 32). This is an enticing suggestion, and indeed the episode is paraphrased in a collection of Buddhist jataka tales translated into Chinese in the third-century, [7] showing that the story existed in China for centuries prior to the publication of the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. However, I should point out that the jataka doesn’t mention the pugilistic primates being identical. In fact, they’re not even brothers. It simply reads, “The following day the monkey fought with his uncle. The [human] king bent the bow and took out arrows … Though far off, the uncle shuddered with horror. He was mighty afraid. He wandered about [a while] and ran away” (Mair, 1989, p. 677). That’s not to say the author-compiler of Journey to the West wasn’t influenced by the tale and independently came upon the idea of twin monkeys. It’s just that I think there are other avenues open to research.

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and his impostor battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

In Chapter 58, the Buddha gives his congregation a sermon on nonduality, discussing existence and nonexistence, form and formlessness, and emptiness and nonemptiness. Just as the battle between Monkey and his double erupts on Spirit Vulture Mountain (fig. 3), the Buddha tells his congregation, “You are all of one mind, but take a look at two Minds in competition and strife arriving here” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113). “One mind” (Sk: ekacitta; Ch: yixin, 一心) is a high-level philosophy and core tenet of many Buddhist schools that refers to a tranquil, immovable mind that encompasses nonduality (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 1031-1032; Huang, 2005, p. 68). “Two minds” (erxin, 二心) refers to the dichotomy of the “true mind” (zhenxin, 眞/真心), “the original, simple, pure, natural mind of all creatures, [or] the Buddha-mind” and the “illusionary mind” (wangxin, 妄心), “which results in complexity and confusion” (Soothill and Hodous, 1937/2006, pp. 24-25). A poem in chapter 58 specifically associates two minds with confusion. The first two lines read: If one has two minds, disasters he’ll breed; / He’ll guess and conjecture both far and near” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113).

It’s important to remember that Wukong is an embodiment of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. [8] As his double, the Six-Eared Macaque is also a Mind Monkey. Therefore, I suggest the battle between these twin primates is an allegory for the struggle between the true and illusionary minds within not just our hero but also readers of Journey to the West. After all, Wukong is the true Monkey, while his double, the fake Monkey, lives under the fantasy that he can take the Great Sage’s place and finish the quest on his own. Furthermore, given chapter 58’s emphasis on nonduality, I argue Monkey killing the Six-Eared Macaque in the end represents the blossoming of one mind/true mind by extinguishing the illusionary mind. This fits with Sun’s (2018) suggestion that the killing “is an action of eliminating the monster in him [Wukong], indicating that he is getting closer to achieving Buddhahood at this point in the journey” (p. 25). [9]

3. Appearance in other literature

The Six-Eared Macaque is mentioned by name twice and referenced once in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, c. 1640), a 16-chapter sequel and addendum to the original novel taking place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62. In the story, Monkey is trapped in a dream world where he wanders from one disjointed adventure to the next searching for a magic weapon needed to clear the pilgrims’ path to India. In chapter ten, he attempts to leave a magic tower of mirrors and becomes hopelessly entangled in a net of sentient red threads that adapt to any transformation he uses to escape. An elderly man claiming to be Sun Wukong, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, comes to his rescue by snapping the threads for him. But upon hearing the man’s name, Monkey lashes out at him with his weapon, exclaiming: “You rascally six-eared ape! Have you come to trick me again? Take a look at my cudgel!” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 87). But after the old man vanishes in a flash, Wukong realizes that he was saved by his very own spirit.

In chapter 12, a blind court singer plays a tune recounting events from the original novel for the enjoyment of Tripitaka and a foreign king. A section of the song goes: “A pair of Sage Monkeys deceived Guanyin” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 104). [10]

In chapter 15, after giving up the quest and becoming a commander for the foreign king, Tripitaka starts amassing an army. Sun Wukong is listed among the generals, but because Monkey is investigating his master’s change of heart, he instead presents himself as his brother, the Six-Eared Macaque:

The name “Great General Sun Wukong” was called. The Tang Priest blanched and gazed below his platform. It happened that Monkey had mixed amongst the army for the past three days in the form of a six-eared monkey soldier. When he heard the three words “Sun Wukong” he leaped out of formation and knelt on the ground, saying, “Little General Sun Wukong is transporting supplies and couldn’t be present. I’m his brother Sun Wuhuan [孫悟幻, “Monkey Awakened to Fantasy”] , and I wish to take his place in battle. In this I dare disobey the Commander’s order.”

The Tang Priest said, “Sun Wuhuan, what is your origin? Tell me quickly, and I’ll spare your life.”

Hopping and dancing, Monkey said:

In the old days I was a monster,
Who took the name of Monkey.
After the Great Sage left the Tang Priest,
I became his close relation by way of marriage.
There’s no need to ask my name,
I’m the Six-eared Monkey, Great General Sun Wuhuan.

The Tang Priest said, “The six-eared ape used to be Monkey’s enemy. Now he’s forgotten the old grudge and become generous. He must be a good man.” He ordered [the minor general] White Banner to give Sun Wuhuan a suit of the iron armor of the vanguard and appointed him “Vanguard General to Destroy Entrenchment” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 122).

4. Black Myth: Wukong

Black Myth: Wukong (Hei shenhua: Wukong, 黑神話:悟空, 2023) is an upcoming action RPG by the independent Chinese developer Game Science (Youxi Kexue, 遊戲科學) (Adler, 2020; Skrebels, 2020). A trailer with 13 minutes of gameplay was released August 20th and has garnered over 6.7 million views on YouTube alone (as of 11/4/20) (video 1). It opens on an aged, furry and squint-faced, long-nailed monk (likely Wukong) sitting in a rundown temple and recalling assorted legends about Monkey. One says the hero became a Buddha and stayed on Spirit Mountain; another that he died on the journey and a different figure was given buddhahood in his place; and another still that Wukong is just a fictional character from a story. The monk then tells the viewer, “But you must not have heard the story I’m going to tell”, thus alluding to the unofficial or “black myth” (hei shenhua, 黑神話).

The trailer features a gorgeous, immersive world in which Wukong travels by foot, wing, and cloud battling underlings and demonic bosses. Monkey is shown capable of freezing enemies in place, making soldiers with his hair, and hardening his body to avoid damage, as well as transforming into a cicada (for covert travel and reconnaissance) and a large golden ape (for boss battles). See here for a great explanation of the cultural and literary references in the game.

Video 1 – The 13 minute game play trailer for Black Myth: Wukong.

Interestingly, some characters in the game hint at a second Wukong. For example, a low-level demon boss says, “Hmm…another monkey?” upon meeting Wukong. Later, an earth god sees him and proclaims, “Similar!”, thus alluding to the other Monkey. This mystery comes to a head at the end of the trailer when Wukong goes to strike another character and his weapon is blocked by a staff with little effort. The camera pans upwards along the shaft, passed glowing Chinese characters for the “‘As-you-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), revealing the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in his golden armor. This implies the “real” Sun Wukong has arrived and the gamer has been playing as a “fake” Monkey the entire time. But who is this figure?

I suggest this fake Monkey is the Six-Eared Macaque. As noted above, this impostor wishes to win all the glory by completing the quest on his own. His exact words read:

I struck the Tang Monk [with my staff] and I took the luggage not because I didn’t want to go to the West, nor because I loved to live in this place [Flower-Fruit Mountain]. I’m studying the rescript at the moment precisely because I want to go to the West all by myself to ask Buddha for the scriptures. When I deliver them to the Land of the East, it will be my success and no one else’s. Those people of the South Jambudvipa Continent will honor me then as their patriarch and my fame will last for all posterity (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

This would explain why the fake Monkey is traveling alone and why the real Wukong stops him at the end of the trailer.

4. Conclusion

The Six-Eared Macaque is a supernatural primate who wishes to take Wukong’s place in order to win all the glory by finishing the quest on his own. He is in fact Monkey’s former sworn brother, the Macaque King, who took the title “Great Sage Informing Wind”. His six ears are likely based on the Buddhist phrase “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear”, denoting a great secret that must only be passed to an initiated disciple. His ability to eavesdrop on such secrets from a thousand miles away identifies him as a practitioner of heterodoxy. Being a copy of Monkey, the macaque also symbolizes the “Mind Monkey”, thereby marking their battle as an allegory for the internal struggle between the true and illusionary minds. The spirit’s death at the end represents the blossoming of One Mind.

The Six-Eared Macaque is referenced several times in the sequel A Supplement to the Journey to the West (1640). In chapter ten, Monkey is freed from a magical trap by his very own spirit, who presents himself as Sun Wukong, causing our hero to mistakenly assume his doppelganger has returned. In chapter 12, a court singer alludes to Guanyin’s failure to distinguish the true Great Sage from the fake one. Finally, in chapter 15, Wukong presents himself as the macaque in order to infiltrate Tripitaka’s army.

The spirit is likely the main character of the upcoming action RPG Black Myth: Wukong (2023). The trailer shows this Monkey fighting all manner of underlings and bosses along his solo quest. But the “real” Wukong appears at the end to cross staves, thus showing the gamer is playing as the impostor.


1) The travel rescript is like an imperial passport that needs to be stamped by each kingdom to guarantee legal passage along the quest to India. It contains an introductory letter from the Tang emperor and the stamps of all the kingdoms already visited.

2) Yu translates the name as “acquiescent staff of iron” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105). My thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting the alternative translation. “Acquiescent” or “to fulfill one’s desires” (suixin, 隨心) is a play on the “as-you-wish” (ruyi, 如意) of Monkey’s “‘As-you-wish’ Gold-banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒).

3) The imp-reflecting mirror is used in chapter six to see through Monkey’s various magical disguises during his battle with Erlang (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 179 and 184).

4) Wukong takes his six sworn brothers in chapter three shortly after establishing his monkey tribe as a military power. The other brothers include the Bull Monster King, the Dragon Monster King, the Garuda Monster King, the Giant Lynx King, and the Orangutan King (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 138-139).

5) Yu translates the name as “Telltale Great Sage” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 157).

6) For example, after he successfully meets a goat spirit’s challenge to boil in oil, Wukong discovers the liquid is somehow cool to the touch during the animal’s turn. Monkey then summons a dragon king who tells him:

[T]his cursed beast did go through quite an austere process of self-cultivation, to the point where he was able to cast off his original shell. He has acquired the true magic of the Five Thunders, while the rest of the magic powers he has are all those developed by heterodoxy, none fit to lead him to the true way of the immortals (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 313).

7) This tale, commonly known in English as the “Jataka of an Unnamed King” (no. 46), appears in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, third-century) (CBETA, 2016), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). See Mair, 1989, pp. 676-678 for a full English translation.

8) Examples of the term’s use include titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”).

9) Alternatively, Sun (2018) suggests: “[H]e kills the six-eared macaque because the latter has copied him too closely, the best demon among the ones that Monkey has conquered” (p. 25).

10) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin. All other quotes from this source will be thus changed.


Adler, M. (2020, August 26). Black Myth: Wukong – Everything We Know About Gameplay, Release Date, and More. Retrieved from https://www.ign.com/articles/black-myth-wukong-everything-we-know-about-gameplay-release-date-and-more

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016). T03n0152_005 六度集經 第5卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas, scroll no. 5]. Retrieved from http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T03n0152_005

Dong, Y., Lin, S. F., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Hoong, T. T. (2004). Some Classical Malay Materials for the Study of the Chinese Novel Journey to the West. Sino-Platonic Papers, 137, 1-64. Retrieved from http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp137_malay_journey_to_the_west.pdf

Huang, Y. (2005). Integrating Chinese Buddhism: A Study of Yongming Yanshou’s Guanxin Xuanshu. Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing.

Lam, H. L. (2005). Cannibalizing the Heart: The Politics of Allegory and The Journey to the West. In E. Ziolkowski (Ed.). Literature, Religion, and East/West Comparison (pp. 162-178). Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate. In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Skrebels, J. (2020, September 11). Black Myth: Wukong – 19 New Details We’ve Learned. Retrieved from https://www.ign.com/articles/black-myth-wukong-length-series-sequel-19-new-details

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

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

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

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

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

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

Nezha from Fengshen zhen xing tu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book link


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


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

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


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

Koss, N. (1979). The Relationship of Hsi-yu chi and Feng-shen yen-i: An Analysis of Poems Found in Both Novels. T’oung Pao,65(4/5), second series, 143-165. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4528175

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

Taiwanese Religious Humor: The Epidemic Prevention Conference

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen here, here, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

“The Epidemic Prevention Conference” (防疫大會) is a humorous COVID-19-related short story that has been circulating in Taiwan. It gets longer and longer as people add new details. I wanted to share it because it mentions many figures from Journey to the West, including Xuanzang and Sun Wukong. I’ve added notes at the bottom to explain the cultural context of particular statements.

English translation:

The Anti-Epidemic Conference was held in the celestial court. The Jade Emperor was worried when he discovered many seats were vacant, and so he asked the gods:

Jade Emperor: “Why don’t I see the ‘Thousand-Armed’ Guanyin Bodhisattva?”

The gods answered: “She is still washing her hands!”


Jade Emperor asked again: “Why didn’t Brahma, the Four-Faced Buddha, come?”

The gods replied: The government only gave him three masks for the week, so he is short one and can’t come.” [1]


Jade Emperor asked again: “Why didn’t Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, come?”

The gods answered: “The Medicine Buddha is selling masks.”


Jade Emperor asked again: “What about the Eight Immortals?”

The gods replied: “Because they returned from overseas and had to be quarantined at home.” [2]


Jade Emperor asked again: “What about Sage Emperor Guan?”

The gods replied: “His face was flush and he had a fever of more than 37.5 °C (99.5° F). [3] He is isolated at home.”


Jade Emperor asked again: “Why did Tang Sanzang not come?” [4]

The gods replied: “He has a history of travel and is quarantined at home, so he cannot come.”


Jade Emperor asked again: “What about King Yama?”

The gods answered: “Because too many people have died. He is still taking roll of their names.”


Then the Jade Emperor asked again: “Why did Mazu Lin Moniang not come?”

The gods replied: “The DPP government discovered that she is originally from Fujian and thus a different nationality. Now she cannot return and her border crossing has been cancelled.”


“The Plague god did not come because he is busy spreading the plague.


The God of Wealth didn’t come because he is busy giving financial relief.”


“Why didn’t the Bodhisattva King Kṣitigarbha come?”

The gods answered: “The death toll is so high that there is no time to come!”


“Why didn’t Sun Wukong come?”

“Because of contact with the pathogen bat demon. [5] He is in quarantine.”

Monkey King Kicking - small

“Why didn’t the Earth god come yet?”

The gods replied: “He and King Kṣitigarbha are looking for land with good fengshui, [6] so he has no time to come!


The original Chinese:




玉帝又問: 為何四面佛也沒來?








玉帝又問: 為何唐三藏也沒來

眾神回答: 他有旅遊史, 被居家檢疫,不能來…

玉帝又問: 閻羅王呢?

眾神回答: 因為死了太多人,他還在點名中…

然後玉帝又問: 為何媽祖林默娘也沒來?

眾神回答: 民進黨政府查出她是福建人,屬外籍人氏,現在不能入境,不能來了,遶境也取消了。



為何地藏王菩薩也沒來? 眾神回答 :死亡人數超飆 無暇前來!


為何土地公也沒來,眾神回答 :地藏王正在和他一起找風水寶地,無暇前來!


1) At the time this story first started circulating, the Taiwanese government was providing each citizen with three masks a week. This number has since then increased to nine (at least the last time I picked up mine).

2) This references a famous story in which the Eight Immortals cross a sea using their own magic treasures.

3) Guan Yu is typically portrayed with a deep red face.

4) This obviously references Xuanzang’s quest to India.

5) Genomic sequences suggest COVID-19 originated in bats.

6) Edward White notes on Twitter that this “is a reference to seeking gravesites with good Fengshui.”

Sun Wukong’s Greatest Feat of Strength: An Allegory for Cultural or Religious Conflict?

Last updated: 08/10/2018

Now that I’ve written an entry debunking the idea that Sun Wukong’s staff anchored the Milky Way, I now want to write a piece about his greatest feat of strength in Journey to the West. This feat takes place in chapter 33 after Zhu Bajie has been captured by two demon brothers, Kings Goldhorn (Jinjiao Dawang, 金角大王) and Silverhorn (Yinjiao Dawang, 銀角大王). King Silverhorn, the younger of the two, then sets out to capture Tripitaka but is forced to resort to trickery when he learns the monk is protected by Sun Wukong. He transforms himself into an elderly Daoist laying by the roadside with a broken leg. The monk takes pity and forces Monkey to carry him on his back. However, the immortal sees through the disguise and plans to throw his charge off a cliff. But…

As the Great Sage was about to do this, the monster knew instantly of his plan. Knowing how to summon mountains, he resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” Exerting his spirit even more, he recited another spell and sent up the Tai Mountain to press down on Pilgrim’s head. With this magic of the Tai Mountain Pressing the Head, the Great Sage was overpowered as his strength ebbed and his tendons turned numb; the weight was so great that the spirits of the Three Worms inside his body exploded and blood spurted from his seven apertures (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 2, pp. 108-109).

We see here Monkey is able to successfully carry the weight of both the Sumeru and Emei mountains, while running after his master “with the speed of a meteor”. That’s quite impressive, even if he is eventually crushed under the weight of a third mountain (fig. 1). Attention should be given to the particular mountains used in this episode. Let’s start with Sumeru since this is the first one mentioned.

1950s Illustrated Saiyuki - Detail of Monkey crushed under 3 mountains (small)

Fig. 1 – Monkey trapped under the three mountains as King Silverhorn abducts Tripitaka, the dragon horse, and Sha Wujing (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West, a children’s book published in 1950.

Robert & David (2013) describe Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山) as:

The central axis of the universe in Buddhist cosmology; also known as Mount Meru. Mount Sumeru stands in the middle of the world as its axis and is eight leagues high …  The slopes of Sumeru are the abode of demigods, and its upper reaches are the heavens of the four heavenly kings. At the summit of the mountain is the heaven of the thirty-three, ruled by the king of the gods, Sakra. Above Mount Sumeru are located the remaining heavens of the sensuous realm [fig. 2] (p. 896).

A poem in chapter four of Journey to the West describes what Monkey sees when he first comes to live in heaven as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. A portion reads, “Thirty-three mansions were found up here, / With names like the Scattered Cloud, the Vaisravana, the Pancavidya, the Suyama, the Nirmanarati…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 146). Translator Anthony C. Yu notes, “The verse here is alluding to the Indra heaven with it’s thirty-three summits (trāyastriṃśa) [fig. 2] and the six heavens of desire (devalokas)”, which are located atop Mount Sumeru (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 510, n. 1). Therefore, the heaven described in the novel is located on the same cosmic mountain as that from Hindo-Buddhist cosmology, meaning Monkey successfully supports the axis of the universe on one shoulder.

Sumeru World System - Sideview small

Fig. 2 – Mount Sumeru indicated in gold. The location of the aforementioned 33 heavens/mansions are indicated in pink. A great cosmic ocean is indicated in blue (larger version). Adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxxii.

Mount Emei (Emei shan, 峨嵋山; 峨眉山) is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. It is considered extremely important as Chinese tradition believes, upon entering the Middle Kingdom from India, Buddhism spread from this very mountain during the eastern Han Dynasty and proliferated throughout China. The mountain is 10,167 feet high, making it over 3,000 feet taller than the other sacred Buddhist mountains. This place is believed to be the heavenly abode of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, making him the patron saint of Emei (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 282-283).

I want to reiterate the fact that both Sumeru and Emei are important to Buddhism. Not only does Monkey support the very axis of the Buddhist universe on one shoulder, he supports on the other the very mountain from which the religion is believed to have spread into China. I’m not sure if this was the author-compiler’s original intent, but it seems as if this feat of strength could be symbolism for Monkey literally “supporting” Buddhism by protecting his master on their journey to India. After all, the historical Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664) on whom Tripitaka is based is considered to be one of, if not the, most prolific translators of Buddhist texts in the history of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016).

I turn now to Mount Tai (Taishan, 泰山), the mountain that ultimately overwhelms Sun Wukong’s supernatural strength. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China, which differ from the four Buddhist counterparts mentioned above. Mount Tai was the epicenter of a state cult in Ancient China, one in which Sage-Kings and emperors of millennia past traveled there to perform sacrifices to heaven, thereby gaining the right to rule or attaining eternal life. An entry in the Classic of History (Shujing, 書經, 4th-c. BCE) suggests the practice goes all the way back to the Sage-King Shun (3rd millennia BCE) (Poo, 2011, pp. 20-21). Due to its great cultural and historical significance, the mountain came to be recognized as an adamantine monolith, the very name of which was used as a metaphor for something unfathomably heavy, whether it be a physical measure of weight or philosophical importance. For example, Warring States philosopher Mozi took part in a debate over the plausibility of his school of thought taking center stage in Chinese society. His opponent claimed, “As we see it, one can no more put it into practice than one can pick up Mount Tai and leap over a river with it!” Mozi highlighted the irrelevant nature of the metaphor by replying, “As for picking up Mount Tai and leaping over rivers with it, no one from ancient times to the present, from the beginning of humankind to now, has ever succeeded in doing that!” (Watson, 1999a, p. 71). Another example comes from the Han historian Sima Qian who wrote, “A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it” (pp. 371-372). Therefore, the mountain represented the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. It’s no wonder then that not even Monkey could withstand its weight.

The idea of Mount Tai symbolizing a heavy object influenced the name of a 17th-century technique related to the development of Taiji boxing called “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai” (Taishan yading, 泰山壓頂) (fig. 3), which involved climbing onto an opponent (Henning, 2009, pp. 78 and 82). Incidentally, the name of this technique is also a common chinese saying referring to someone being under a lot of stress (Gao, Wang, & Weightman, 2012, p. 191).

Taishan yading - small

Fig. 3 – “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai”. From Henning, 2009, p. 78 (larger version).

I find it interesting that, after easily bearing the weight of two Buddhist mountains, Mount Tai is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Mount Tai represents native Chinese history and culture, while Sumeru and Emei represent Buddhism, a non-native religion from India. Therefore, this episode could be read as a struggle between the domestic and foreign aspects of Chinese culture. Considering the monsters are later revealed to be Daoist attendants of Laozi sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145), it’s possible the conflict is between Daoism, a native Chinese religion, and Buddhism.

This is obviously not a perfect theory, though. For instance, Laozi reveals that it was actually the Bodhisattva Guanyin who requested the lads be sent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). Does this explain why a Daoist spirit would summon two Buddhist mountains to crush Monkey? I’m interested in what others think.

11433390785_ab45584414_b - small

Fig. 4 – A modern painting of Hanuman lifting the mountain (larger version). All credit goes to the original artist S. Keerthi. 

Lastly, I would like to note Sun Wukong’s feat of lifting mountains recalls an episode in the Ramayana (4th-c. BCE) in which the monkey god Hanuman carries back a mountain laden with magical herbs to heal the wounds of his master‘s brother Lakshmana (fig. 4). Hanuman is the living embodiment of strength (shakti) in India (see for example Alter, 1992). Monkey is believed to be loosely based on Hanuman (Walker, 1998), so there could be a connection between both instances of mountain lifting.

Updated: 08/10/2018

Monkey’s feat appears to be based on a native Chinese story and not the Ramayana. This is first hinted at in chapter 33 when the demon exclaims the Great Sage “truly knows how to pole mountains [dan shan, 擔山]!” A poem spoken by Sun Wukong in chapter 67 confirms the connection:

Purvavideha was my ancestral home,
I did cultivation on Mount Flower-Fruit.
I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mind
and perfected with him the martial arts.
I can tame dragons, stirring up the seas;
I can tote mountains to chase down the sun.
In binding fiends and demon’s I’m the best;
Moving stars and planets, I scare ghosts and gods.
Stealing from heav’n and Earth gives me great fame,
Of boundless change, Handsome Stone Monkey’s my name (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243).

ae51f3deb48f8c545c9435e13c292df5e1fe7fbd - small

Fig. 5 – Erlang poling the mountains (larger version). Artist unknown.

“I can tote mountains to chase down the sun” (shan hui dan shan gan ri tou善會擔山趕日頭) is a clear allusion to the ancient tale “Erlang carries mountains to chase the suns” (Erlang dan shan gan taiyang, 二郎擔​​山趕太陽). The tale describes how the ancient earth was plagued by many suns that scorched the land, making it impossible for the people to grow anything. Vowing to end this plight, the hero Erlang shoulders two mountains hanging from a tree and, with the aid of magical shoes, chases down each sun [fig. 5], using the weight from both landmasses to overwhelm and crush the superfluous celestial bodies (担山赶太阳, n.d). Apart from the feat of lifting two mountains, Erlang’s fleet pursuit of each sun (gan taiyang, 趕太陽) foreshadows Monkey “giv[ing] chase to his master with the speed of a meteor” (fei xing lai gan shifu, 飛星來趕師父).

It’s interesting to note that “Erlang Carrying Mountains” (Erlang dan shan, 二郎擔山) is a common Shaolin stance, and a staff variant even appears in the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 6). The staff obviously recalls the pole (or in this case tree) that Erlang uses to bear the weight of the mountains.

Erlang Mountain staff - small

Fig. 6 – The “Erlang Carrying Mountains” staff stance (larger version).


Alter, J. S., & OUP. (1992). The wrestler’s body: Identity and ideology in north India. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Gao, W., Wang, A., & Weightman, F. (2012). A handbook of Chinese cultural terms. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford On Demand Pub.

Henning, S. (2009). Taijiquan: Symbol of traditional Chinese martial arts culture. Journal of Chinese Martial Arts (1), pp. 76-83.

Poo, M. (2011). Preparation for the afterlife in ancient China In Olberding, A., & Ivanhoe, P. J. (Ed.) Mortality in traditional Chinese thought (pp. 13-36). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

Watson, B. (1999a). Mozi: Utility, uniformity, and Universal Love In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 64-76). New York: Columbia University Press.

Watson, B. (1999b). The great Han historians In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 367-374). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

担山赶太阳. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://baike.baidu.com/item/担山赶太阳