The Buddhist Monkey King

(Note: I originally wrote this in late 2020 but just now got around to cleaning it up and posting it.)

Following his birth, the Stone Monkey (Shi hou, 石猴) comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The Stone Monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious:

Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] [fig. 1] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

In this article, I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as a primate monarch is based on “The Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka; Ch: Houwang bensheng, 猴王本生, “Birth Story of the Monkey King”; “The Great Monkey” hereafter), an ancient story about the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king, which appears in various collections of moralistic birth tales (Sk: jakata; Ch: bensheng jing, 本生經) in Buddhist literature. After summarizing the tale, I will briefly discuss 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art depicting the story at important religious sites, thereby showing its intense popularity. Next, I will demonstrate that the tale traveled the Silk Road to China, where it was represented in Buddhist art and literature. Finally, I will highlight similarities between “The Great Monkey” and a 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as similarities with the standard 1592 edition of the novel.

Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).

1. Story of the Great Monkey

Buddhist literature contains different versions of the tale. I will describe two of them here. The first is story no. 27 in the Garland of Birth Stories (Sk: Jatakamala, 4th-century) by the monk Arya Sura. [1] The tale opens with the following epigraph: “Those who make a practice of good behavior can win over the hearts even of their enemies” (Khoroche, 1989, p. 186). According to the story, the bodhisattva was born a virtuous monkey king in the verdant paradise of the Himalayas, which abounded in fruits and flowers, crystal clear streams, and choirs of singing birds. He and his tribe lived near an unnamed river and ate from a mountainous banyan tree that produced figs larger than palmyra nuts. The monkey king feared that the fruit would cause trouble for his people, so he gave instructions to regularly clear them from a branch overlooking the river. However, one season a fig escaped the monkeys’ attention and it grew to maturation, dropping into the water, drifting downstream, and lodging in the fence of a pool where an unnamed human king played with his consorts. The smell and color of the fruit entranced the women, and after the king tasted it, he became obsessed with its flavor and led an army in search of the tree. The ruler and his entourage cut a path upstream and followed a sweet scent directly to the massive banyan, which rose high above all the surrounding trees like the lord of the forest. When he saw the monkeys eating figs, the enraged ruler ordered his men to shoot them down with arrows, spears, and rocks. Seeing the dire situation of his tribe, the monkey king made a tremendous leap to the summit of a nearby mountain, a feat that would have required any other monkey a series of jumps. On the mountain, he found a strong-rooted cane of the appropriate length needed to span the gap and tied it to his feet. But his return jump to the tree was hampered by the binding, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch and use his body as a bridge so that his tribe could escape. But the monkey king was mortally wounded as throngs of the panicked primates clawed their way across his body to safety. The human king took note of this selfless deed and ordered his men to relieve the suspended monkey by placing a canopy beneath him and simultaneously shooting the branch and cane. After his wounds were tended and he regained consciousness, the monkey king spent the last few moments of his life teaching the human king the virtue of putting his people’s needs before his own (Khoroche, 1989, pp. 186-192).

The second is story no. 407 [2] in Commentary on the Birth Stories (Pali: Jatakatthakatha, a.k.a. Jatakatthavannana, 5th-century), which is attributed to the monk Buddhagosa. The narrative opens with the Enlightened One talking to a large assembly of monks in Jetavana. He tells them of a previous life when he helped his relatives. Here, the story is quite similar to the first, with slight differences in certain details, such as the monkey king leading a specified number of 80,000 primates, the river is the Ganges, the fruit is water pot-sized mangoes, the specimen that floats downstream is caught in a fisherman’s net, and the human ruler is named King Brahmadatta of Benares. [3] Instead of leaping to a nearby mountain, the monkey king jumps one hundred bow lengths across the Ganges. The cane is tied to his waste instead of his feet, and the cause of falling short on the return jump is not hindrance but miscalculating the length of cane needed to span the gap. And instead of being seriously injured by his people during their escape, a rival of the king—a previous incarnation of the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta—mortally wounds his heart by jumping onto his back from a high branch. Brahmadatta instructs his men to build a tower so that he can retrieve the primate and tend to his wounds in his last few moments of life. And just like before, the monkey king teaches the human monarch the value of his people’s needs prior to dying. But this time the discussion is much shorter, being presented as a poem of seven stanzas. Brahmadatta then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king and worships the skull as a religious relic. In the end, the Buddha reveals that the ruler was the past incarnation of his disciple Ananda, the 80,000 monkeys were incarnations of the assembled monks, and the monkey king was himself (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, pp. 225-227).

2. The tale in Indian and Chinese Buddhist art

This birth story is over 2,000 years old as it appears among the stone carvings of the Bharhut Stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (fig. 2 and 3) and the western torana (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 3 and 4) (Marshall, Foucher, Majumdar, 1902, vol. 1, pp. 224-225, vol. 2, plate 64). I should note that the story is one of 547 such tales appearing in the Pali canon (Robert & David, 2013, p. 381). So the fact that it was one of only a few past life narratives chosen to appear at these religious sites speaks volumes to its popularity. This explains why the story spread beyond India.

Fig. 2 – “The Great Monkey” medallion from Bharhut stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – Key: A) The monkey king leaps and grasps a banyan tree, making a bridge with his body; B) attendants hold a canopy to catch the injured monkey; and C) The human king sits with the monkey discussing the actions of a good ruler prior to the latter’s death (larger version). Fig. 4 – “The Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 5 – Key: A) Brahmadatta travels with a retinue to the tree; B) he orders his archer(s) to shoot the monkeys; C) He watches as the monkey king leaps across the Ganges and grasps a banyan tree to make a bridge with his body; and D) Brahmadatta’s discussion with the monkey king (larger version).

The tale is known to have traveled east to China along the northern silk road. This is demonstrated by murals appearing in the Kizil cave complex (5th to 7th-century), one of the earliest and most popular Buddhist centers in Kucha, in what is now Xinjiang, China. Zhu (2012) describes the murals, noting that they lack the detail of their Indian counterparts and are therefore more mnemonic than narrative:

[I]n Kizil Cave 38 [fig. 5], a very large monkey is depicted in the center, stretching his body and holding a tree on the other side of a river. Two other smaller monkeys are stepping on his body to cross the river. In the foreground, a kneeling archer is shooting at them. In Kizil Cave 17 [fig. 6] this story is represented even more simply, with the archer omitted. However the stretching monkey, the river, and the trees are enough for anyone who knows the story to recognize it […] Compared to the Indian representations that are more explicitly narrative, the Kizil paintings are more like a reminder of the story. They communicate with the viewers as if they already know the story well” (pp. 59-60).

Fig. 5 – The Kizil cave no. 38 mural (larger version). Found here. Fig. 6 – Kizil cave no. 17 mural (larger version). Found here. Both are circa 5th to 7th-century. Zhu, 2012, p. 61 includes black and white line drawings of the murals.

3. The tale in Chinese Buddhist literature

The Kizil murals are predated by a brief story appearing in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, 3rd-century, The Collection hereafter), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). [4] The 56th story in this collection is an adaptation of the original Indian version with several noticeable differences: The Bodhisattva was formerly a monkey king (mihou wang, 獼猴王) who frolicked with 500 primates. At that time a drought made the various kinds of fruit scarce. Only a river separated their mountain from a nearby kingdom, so the monkey king led his tribe to eat fruit in the royal garden. The human king ordered that they be secretly captured, but the monkey called for his tribe to gather cane to make a rope. One end was tied to a tree and the other to the king, who leaped from a branch across the river. Unfortunately, the rope wasn’t long enough, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch on the other side and create a bridge with his body. After the 500 monkeys crossed to the other side, the king’s body split in two under the strain. When the human king came upon the scene, the dying primate begged that his tribe not be hurt and offered up his own flesh as payment for his bad judgment. However, the king admired the monkey’s superior, sage-like virtue and questioned his own willingness to sacrifice his body for his people. He then issued a proclamation that all monkeys were to be fed throughout the kingdom, and those who refused would be punished as thieves. Upon his return to the palace, the king recounted the events to his queen, touting the monkey’s kindness and comparing it to the height of Mt. Kunlun. She then suggested that the monkeys be fed and the king confirmed that he had already given the order. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the monkey king was himself, the human king was Ananda, and the 500 monkeys were the monks at the assembly (CBETA, 2016a). [5]

Instead of the original 80,000 monkeys, this version reduces the number to only 500. Instead of the king traveling to the banyan/mango tree in the monkey’s mountain territory, the monkeys travel from their mountain to the royal fruit garden in the king’s territory. Instead of being trampled by his people/a rival, the monkey king’s body breaks in two from the strain. And instead of giving the monkey royal funeral rights and worshiping his skull as a relic, the king enacts a law that all monkeys should be fed.

This version is different enough from the originals to suggest a separate Chinese tradition, one that had circulated for some time. This fits with Chavannes’ (1910) suggestion that The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas is not an original Indian text but one compiled in China by Kang Senghui, who likely selected and edited the stories himself (vol. 1, p. 1 n. 1).

Story no. 56 finds parallels with another tale from Chinese Buddhist literature. [6] It appears in the Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (Za baozang jing, 雜寶藏經, mid-5th-century), which was translated into Chinese by the monk Tan Yao (曇曜). According to the 12th story in this collection: The Buddha was in Rajagrha when the monks commented on the woes faced by those who rely on Devadatta, while celebrating the happiness, positive rebirth, and eventual deliverance of those who rely on the Enlightened One. The Buddha confirmed this by telling a brief tale about two monkeys, each with 500 members in their tribe. A prince of Kashi (a.k.a. Benares) was on a hunting excursion when he surrounded the monkeys. The good monkey (shan mihou, 善獼猴) suggested that they cross the river to escape, but the evil monkey (e’mihou, 惡獼猴) wavered. The good monkey instructed his tribe to cross by using the long branches of a nearby tree. But the evil monkey and his tribe were captured due to inaction. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the good monkey was himself and Devadatta was the evil monkey. He used this story to advocate following the virtuous over the evil, for the former would lead others to safety and happiness, while the latter would lead others to suffering over numerous incarnations (CBETA, 2016b). [7]

This version does away with the fruit element altogether. The monkeys are in danger not because a king is protecting his fruit but because a prince is out hunting. The most noticeable difference here is the addition of a second monkey, one who is labeled as “evil” (e, 惡) (no connection to the Six-Eared Macaque). But like story no. 56, the monkey king is said to lead 500 primates.

It is clear that both Chinese tales were influenced by the later Indian version, story no. 407 from Commentary on the Birth Stories, as they specify a number for the troupe size (500 vs. 80,000), state the monkey king leaps over a river (as opposed to jumping to a nearby mountain top), and characters are revealed in the end to have been the past lives of Buddhist personages (the Buddha, Ananda, Devadatta, monks, etc.). Story no. 12 even opens in a city associated with the Enlightened One’s historical lectures (Rajagrha vs. Jetavana), where he discusses philosophical matters with monks; and an unnamed prince who poses a threat to the monkey king and his people is said to hail from Kashi, another name for Benares, the seat of King Brahmadatta.

4. The Chinese Monkey King

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century, The Story hereafter), a 17 chapter storytelling prompt that predates the Ming Journey to the West by 300 years. In chapter two, our hero’s literary antecedent, a white-clad scholar called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), meets the Tang monk Tripitaka on the road to the west and warns the monk that his two previous incarnations have died trying to procure the Buddhist scriptures. When asked how he knows events of the past, the scholar replies: “I am none other than the bronze-headed, iron-browed [8] king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. I have come to help the reverend monk procure the scriptures” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182).

The Story‘s depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim was influenced by Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana) (fig. 7), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late-9th to early-10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment. For example, both are depicted with occult powers enabling them to fly between heaven and earth (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098); both visit a realm ruled by a deity named Brahma, the Mahabrahma devaraja Vaisravana in the case of Monkey and Brahma in the case of Mulian (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, p. 1098); both are bestowed magic weapons by heaven, a golden-ringed monk staff and alms bowl for Monkey and a matching staff for Mulian (he enchants his own alms bowl) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); the power of said weapons are tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name, Vaisravana and the Buddha, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); and both use said weapons with the expressed purpose of saving someone important, Tripitaka and Mulian’s mother, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189, for example; Mair, 1994).

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 7 – A painting depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

If The Story borrows from Mulian’s tale, it’s not a stretch to suggest that it also appropriated material from other Buddhist tales, including “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the massive, fruit-bearing banyan/mango tree. Additionally, both The Story and the “The Great Monkey” describe the respective monkey kings leading a similar number of primates, 84,000 in the former and 80,000 in the latter. [9] While the Chinese variants drastically reduce the number to 500, it’s interesting that both tales would display such similar counts. This is because said numbers are significant to Buddhism. For example, 84,000 generally denotes a very large number, hence the belief that the body contains this many atoms. Other examples include the 84,000 stupas of Asoka, the 84,000 bodily relics of the Buddha, the Amitabha‘s 84,000 rays of illumination, the 84,000 bodily signs of a Buddha, the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, etc. In addition, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) can be shorthand for 84,000. It can also refer to separate Buddhist concepts, such as the “bodhisattva’s 80,000 duties” (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2006, p. 39). It’s certainly possible that both stories independently chose similar numbers due to their demonstrated connection to Buddhism. But maybe the storytellers who developed The Story had access to some non-Chinese version of the tale, perhaps by way of Buddhist monks, for Buddhism has a long history of proselytizing through oral literature. [10]

Furthermore, in chapter 11 of The Story, the pilgrims enter the earthly paradise of the Daoist goddess Queen Mother of the West, home to the famed peaches of immortality. Tripitaka asks Monkey to steal the group a few fruits, but the latter refuses, stating:

Because I stole ten peaches to eat when I was eight hundred years old, I was captured by the Queen Mother and given eight hundred blows on my left side and three thousand blows on the right with an iron cudgel. Then I was exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits. Even today my sides hurt and now I definitely don’t dare to steal any more peaches!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195).

This event was surely influenced by the fabled meeting of Emperor Wu and the Queen mother, during which she reveals his jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔), formerly the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), was exiled from heaven for stealing her peaches (Campany, 2009, p. 126). However, a monkey king running afoul of an earthbound monarch for raiding their imperial fruit garden mirrors story no. 56 in The Collection. As mentioned above, the tale recalls the Buddhist monkey king leading his tribe out of the mountains to eat fruit in a human sovereign’s garden during a time of drought. The ruler orders the primates captured, leading to the monkey king’s sacrifice. Therefore, this portion of The Story could be a combination of Buddhist and Daoist sources.

“The Great Monkey” could have also influenced the 1592 edition. In chapter one, the monkeys following the stream to find its source in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is reminiscent of the human king’s trek up the Ganges to find the source of the fruit in the Himalayas. Also, recall that the Indian and Chinese versions place great emphasis on the monkey king leaping over a river. For example, story no. 407 reads: “[H]e ascended a branch that rose up straight, went along another branch that stretched towards the Ganges, and springing from the end of it, he passed a hundred bow-lengths and lighted on a bush on the [other] bank” (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, p. 226). This could have influenced the competition to leap through the waterfall. It’s interesting that Wukong alone is successful in the jump, leading to his kinghood:

The monkeys said to each other, “We don’t know where this water comes from. Since we have nothing to do today, let us follow the stream up to its source to have some fun.” With a shriek of joy, they dragged along males and females, calling out to brothers and sisters, and scrambled up the mountain alongside the stream. Reaching its source, they found a great waterfall.


All the monkeys clapped their hands in acclaim: “Marvelous water! Marvelous water! So this waterfall is distantly connected with the stream at the base of the mountain, and flows directly out, even to the great ocean.” They said also, “If any of us had the ability to penetrate the curtain and find out where the water comes from without hurting himself, we would honor him as king.” They gave the call three times, when suddenly the stone monkey leaped out from the crowd. He answered the challenge with a loud voice, “I’ll go in! I’ll go in!” 


Look at him! He closed his eyes, crouched low, and with one leap he jumped straight through the waterfall (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 103-104).

This takes us back to where we started from in the introduction.

5. Conclusion

I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as the Monkey King is based on the “The Great Monkey”, a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a primate monarch, which appears in various Indian Buddhist sources, such as the 4th-century Garland of Birth Stories (no. 27) and the 5th-century Commentary on the Birth Stories (no. 407). The tale describes the monkey king’s efforts to save his tribe from a human monarch who seeks to claim a massive banyan/mango tree in the Himalayas by killing all of the monkeys inhabiting it. After leaping to a mountain top or over the Ganges River to retrieve a length of cane needed to span the gap, his return jump is hindered, forcing him to make a bridge with his body. He is mortally wounded in the process, though, when throngs of clambering monkeys run across his back or a rival primate assaults him from a high branch. In the end, the human monarch takes note of this selfless act and learns from him the value of putting the needs of his people first moments prior to the monkey king’s death.

The popularity of the tale, as evidenced by 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art at the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas, explains why it spread beyond Bharata and traveled the Silk Road to the Middle Kingdom, where it was represented in Chinese Buddhist literature and art. Simplistic mnemonic depictions of the tale in Xinjiang’s Kizil Cave complex (no. 17 and 38) (5th to 7th-century) are predated by stories in the 3rd-century Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (no. 56) and the mid-5th-century Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (no. 12). The first tells how the monkey king leads his people down from the mountain to raid an imperial fruit garden and ultimately sacrifices his life so the tribe can escape punishment. The second involves the decisions of two monkey kings, one good and one evil, whether or not to cross a river to escape capture at the hands of a prince on a hunting trip. It serves as a parable warning of the consequences of putting one’s faith in those of evil character.

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is the late-13th-century tale The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures. This story borrows from the Mulian story cycle, so it’s possible that it selected from other Buddhist tales, including Indian and Chinese versions of the “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the banyan/mango tree. The 84,000 primates led by the Chinese Monkey King could be based on the 80,000 from an Indian version. Likewise, Monkey stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West in chapter 11 could be based on the Chinese version in which the monkey king and his people raid an imperial fruit garden. In addition, the emphasis on leaping over a river in the various versions of “The Great Monkey” could have influenced the waterfall jumping contest in the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West.


1) Little is known about Arya Sura’s life. Based on various Indian and Chinese sources, the monk has been estimated to have lived somewhere between the 2nd to the 5th-century, with the 4th-century being the best guess (Khoroche, 1989, pp. xi-xiii).

2) This should not be confused with the similarly named Mahakapi jataka (no. 516). See Cowell, 1895, vol. 5, pp. 37-42.

3) This page (see #3) explains Brahmadatta is the name of several kings from jataka tales.

4) See Nattier, 2008, pp. 149-155 for more information about Kang Shenghui and his work, including the Liudu jijing.

5) See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 1, pp. 216-218 for a French translation of the story. Click here for an English translation by Edward P. Butler (@EPButler).

6) Thank you to Eric Greene of Yale university for bringing this story to my attention.

7) See Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, 1994, pp. 40-41 for a full English translation. As of 03/02/21 the book can be downloaded here for free. See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 3, p. 13 for a partial French translation.

8) According to Mair (1989), “‘Bronze-headed, iron-browed’ is a conventional Chinese epithet for boldness and bravery” (p. 701).

9) Interestingly, the number of primates led by Wukong in the final Ming edition of the novel is 47,000 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). I don’t know if this number holds any significance.

10) Mair (1988) explains Indian Buddhist prosimetric oral literature was very popular in China during the Tang but rapidly became secularized and Sinicized during Song (when The Story was published) due to past anti-Buddhist pogroms, Muslim incursions in Central Asia cutting off fresh Buddhist material, and the reemergence of Confucianism as a state power. But I suggest material that influenced The Story may predate this shift. For example, the Monkey Pilgrim appears with Xuanzang in an 11th-century (Western Xia) mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province (see this article). Xuanzang is shown worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while our hero stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The fact that Monkey appears in religious art at an important stop along the Silk Road shows his association with Xuanzang’s journey was well-known even during this early period. And since story cycles take time to form and become cemented in the public psyche, it’s not a stretch to suggest Monkey’s tale goes back to the previous century or even before the Song. Therefore, it’s possible that these earlier storytellers may have had access to some non-Chinese version of “The Great Monkey”.


Campany, R. F. (2009). Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China. University of Hawaii Press.

Chavannes, E. (1910). Cinq Cents Contes et Apologues, Extraits du Tripitaka Chinois et Traduits en Français: Tome 1 [Five Hundred Tales and Apologues: Extracts from the Chinese Tripitaka Translated into French: Vol. 1]. Paris: E. Leroux.

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016a). T03n0152_006 六度集經 第6卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitās, scroll no. 6]. Retrieved from

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016b). T04n0203_002 雜寶藏經 第2卷 [Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures, scroll no. 2]. Retrieved from

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births: Vol. 1-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Khoroche, P. (Trans.). (1989). Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mair, V. H. (1988). The Buddhist Tradition of Prosimetric Oral Narrative in Chinese Literature. Oral Tradition, 3(1-2), 106-21. Retrieved from

Mair, V. H. (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.

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Marshall, J., Foucher, A., & Majumdar, N. G. (1902). The Monuments of Sāñchī: Vol. 1-3. Bhopal: Indra Publishing House.

Nattier, J. (2008). A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations: Texts from the Eastern Han 東漢 and Three Kingdoms 三國 Periods. Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.

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

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)

Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, X. (1994). The Storehouse of Sundry Valuables (C. Willemen, Trans.). Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Zhu, T. (2012). Reshaping the Jātaka Stories: from Jātakas to Avadānas and Praṇidhānas in Paintings at Kucha and Turfan. Buddhist Studies Review, 29(1), 57-83. Retrieved from

Archive #18 – Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018)


An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.

Book link


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

Origin of the Pregnancy Episode in Chapter 53

The 2018 film Monkey King 3 (Xiyouji: Nu er guo, 西遊記·女兒國; lit: “Journey to the West: Woman Kingdom”) sees the pilgrims enter a magic portal to discover a hidden land peopled entirely by women. At one point, Tripitaka jumps into a river to retrieve the scattered words of a sentient piece of paper with information revealing how they can escape this female land; and in Sha Wujing’s attempt to save him, both inadvertently swallow water. The resulting splashes enter the mouth of Zhu Bajie sleeping nearby. Sometime later, all three pilgrims discover that they are pregnant due to drinking from the river (fig. 1-3). The queen of the Woman Kingdom sends Sun Wukong to retrieve magic water to abort the births from a cross-dressing immortal. However, upon his return, Monkey learns that they have decided to keep their babies. Despite this, he uses fixing magic to freeze them in place and gives them the water so that nothing will keep the pilgrims from their quest.

This event from the movie is a very loose adaptation of chapter 53 of Journey to the West (1592). In this article, I describe the chapter and suggest that it is based on a story from Hindu religious literature in which an ancient king becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. I will show that the version appearing in the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE) likely influenced Journey to the West as other events from the Hindu epic appear in the Chinese novel. I will also show that an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas (books) discovered in Xinjiang, China names the parva containing the king’s story, suggesting the tale may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.

Fig. 1 – The Monkey King 3 movie poster showing a pregnant Tripitaka and the Woman Kingdom queen (larger version). Fig. 2 – The Zhu Bajie variant (larger version). Fig. 3 – The (beardless) Sha Wujing variant (larger version).

1. Episode from the novel

After the defeat of the Rhinoceros demon, the pilgrims continue their journey to the west by taking a river ferry. Upon reaching the other side, Tripitaka takes note of the clear water and asks Zhu Bajie to fetch him a bowl full. Both drink from the river, but a short time later they experience horrible abdominal pain and their stomachs swell as if something was growing inside. They seek help from an old woman at a nearby inn, but she simply laughs and calls her friends to come see the spectacle. Her jovial attitude changes, however, once an enraged Wukong grabs hold and offers to spare her life in exchange for some hot water to calm their stomachs. But she explains it won’t help, for they have drunk from the “Child-and-Mother River” (Zimu he,子母河) in the Woman Kingdom of Western Liang (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國), where the sole female inhabitants, according to custom, drink the water to become pregnant upon reaching their 20th year. After hearing the news, both Tripitaka and Bajie panic. Monkey and Sha Wujing take the opportunity to tease Bajie, frightening him with the possibility of a painful, unnatural birth or some natal sickness that would threaten the baby. [1] When asked for a cure, the old woman reveals that the only way to end the pregnancy is to bribe the True Immortal Compliant (Ruyi zhen xian, 如意真仙) (fig. 4), who lords over the Abortion Spring (Luo tai quan, 落胎泉) in the Abbey of Immortal Assembly (Ju xian an, 聚仙庵), formerly known as the Child Destruction Cave (Po er dong, 破兒洞), on the Male-Undoing Mountain (Jie yang shan, 解陽山). Wukong travels to the mountain but is forced to fight when the immortal, the Bull Demon King’s brother, attacks him to avenge Red Boy’s subjugation by Guanyin. Though weaker than Monkey, the immortal’s weapon, an “As-you-wish” golden hook (Ruyi jin gouzi, 如意金鉤子), proves hard to ward off while trying to retrieve the needed water. Wukong ultimately resorts to trickery by luring his foe into battle while Wujing obtains the water. In the end, the immortal is defeated but shown mercy, and the unwanted pregnancies are aborted, being dissolved and passed as fleshy lumps in bowel movements (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 31-46). [2]

Fig. 4 – A drawing of the True Immortal Compliant holding his golden hook as he sits next to a well marked “Abortion Spring” (larger version). Artist unknown. The weapon is here depicted as a hooked sword. Bribes of silk, livestock, and alcohol can be seen at the immortal’s feet.

2. Origin

2.1. Hindu religious literature

This episode shares similarities with a story about the ancient Indian King Yuvanasva (a.k.a. Yuvanashva/Yuvanaswa) (fig. 5) who becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. The tale is well known, appearing in Hindu religious texts like the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE), the Vishnu Purana (400 BCE to 900 CE) and the Bhagavata Purana (8th to 10th-c. CE). [3] The version appearing in the Vana Parva (3rd book) of the Mahabharata reads:

Lomasa said, ‘Hear with attention, O king! how the name of Mandhata belonging to that monarch of mighty soul hath come to be celebrated throughout all the worlds. Yuvanaswa, the ruler of the earth, was sprung from Ikshvaku‘s race. That protector of the earth performed many sacrificial rites noted for magnificent gifts. And the most excellent of all virtuous men performed a thousand times the ceremony of sacrificing a horse. And he also performed other sacrifices of the highest order, wherein he made abundant gifts. But that saintly king had no son. And he of mighty soul and rigid vows made over to his ministers the duties of the state, and became a constant resident of the woods. And he of cultured soul devoted himself to the pursuits enjoined in the sacred writ. And once upon a time, that protector of men, O king! had observed a fast. And he was suffering from the pangs of hunger and his inner soul seemed parched with thirst. And (in this state) he entered the hermitage of Bhrigu. On that very night, O king of kings! the great saint who was the delight of Bhrigu’s race, had officiated in a religious ceremony, with the object that a son might be born to Saudyumni [“Son of Sudyumna”, i.e. Yuvanasva]. O king of kings! at the spot stood a large jar filled with water, consecrated with the recitation of sacred hymns, and which had been previously deposited there. And the water was endued with the virtue that the wife of Saudyumni would by drinking the same, bring forth a god-like son. Those mighty saints had deposited the jar on the altar and had gone to sleep, having been fatigued by keeping up the night. And as Saudyumni passed them by, his palate was dry, and he was suffering greatly from thirst. And the king was very much in need of water to drink. And he entered that hermitage and asked for drink. And becoming fatigued, he cried in feeble voice, proceeding from a parched throat, which resembled the weak inarticulate utterance of a bird. And his voice reached nobody’s ears. Then the king beheld the jar filled with water. And he quickly ran towards it, and having drunk the water, put the jar down. And as the water was cool, and as the king had been suffering greatly from thirst, the draught of water relieved the sagacious monarch and appeased his thirst. Then those saints together with him of ascetic wealth, awoke from sleep; and all of them observed that the water of the jar had gone. Thereupon they met together and began to enquire as to who might have done it. Then Yuvanaswa truthfully admitted that it was his act. Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee. Having performed severe austerities, I infused the virtue of my religious acts in this water, that a son might be born to thee. O saintly king of mighty valour and physical strength! A son would have been born to thee of exceeding strength and valour, and strengthened by austerities, and who would have sent by his bravery even Indra to the abode of the god of death. It was in this manner, O king! that this water had been prepared by me. By drinking this water, O king, thou hast done what was not at all right. But it is impossible now for us to turn back the accident which hath happened. Surely what thou hast done must have been the fiat of Fate. Since thou, O great king, being a thirst hast drunk water prepared with sacred hymns, and filled with the virtue of my religious labours, thou must bring forth out of thy own body a son of the character described above. To that end we shall perform a sacrifice for thee, of wonderful effect so that, valorous as thou art, thou wilt bring forth a son equal to Indra. Nor with thou experience any trouble on account of the labour pains.’ Then when one hundred years had passed away, a son shining as the sun pierced the left side of the king endowed with a mighty soul, and came forth. And the son was possessed of mighty strength. Nor did Yuvanaswa die—which itself was strange. Then Indra of mighty strength came to pay him a visit. And the deities enquired of the great Indra, ‘What is to be sucked by this boy?’ Then Indra introduced his own forefinger into his mouth. And when the wielder of the thunderbolt said, ‘He will suck me,’ the dwellers of heaven together with Indra christened the boy Mandhata, (literally, Me he shall suck). Then the boy having tasted the forefinger extended by Indra, became possessed of mighty strength, and he grew thirteen cubits, O king. And O great king! the whole of sacred learning together with the holy science of arms, was acquired by that masterful boy, who gained all that knowledge by the simple and unassisted power of his thought. And all at once, the bow celebrated under the name of Ajagava and a number of shafts made of horn, together with an impenetrable coat of mail, came to his possession on the very same day, O scion of Bharata‘s race! And he was placed on the throne by Indra himself and he conquered the three worlds in a righteous way; as Vishnu did by his three strides (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384). 

Both events involve men who quench their thirst with water, not realizing that it has the magic power to bestow pregnancy. Tripitaka and Bajie drink from a river which is specifically used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce, while King Yuvanasva drinks ritual water meant to give his wife a son. Additionally, both books state drinking the water is inappropriate, followed by a description of its child-bestowing properties. Journey to the West reads: “That water your master drank is not the best, for the river is called Child-and-Mother River … Only after reaching her twentieth year would someone from this region dare go and drink that river’s water, for she would feel the pain of conception soon after she took a drink” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 39). The Mahabharata reads: “Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee’” (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384).

Fig. 5 – King Yuvanasva (center) holding the vessel of ritual water. From the cover of The Pregnant King (2008) by Devdutt Pattanaik (larger version). The book is a reimagining of the king’s story.

2.2. Mahabharata elements in Journey to the West

The possibility of King Yuvanasva’s story influencing Journey to the West is quite high as other events from the Mahabharata are known to appear in the novel. For example, Subbaraman (2002) reveals striking similarities between an event from the Adi Parva (1st book) and chapters 47 to 48 of the Chinese classic. In the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers and their mother Kunti escape assassination and disguise themselves as Brahmins (Hindu priests) traveling the road. They eventually seek shelter in a village plagued by the rakshasa Baka, who offers safety from foreign invaders in exchange for rice, livestock, and a human sacrifice. Those who try to defy this fate risk seeing their entire family eaten along with themselves. The Brahmin home in which the Pandavas stay has been chosen for that year’s sacrifice. Kunti instead sends her son Bhima, the most powerful of the brothers, in place of the householder’s son and daughter. In the end, the warrior kills Baka with his mighty strength. In Journey to the West, the pilgrims (Buddhist monks) stop for lodging in a village afflicted by the demon Great King of Miraculous Power (Ling gan dawang, 靈感大王), who sends clouds and rain in exchange for offerings of livestock and sacrifices of virgin boys and girls. It is impossible to defy this fate as he has memorized the personal details for every inhabitant. The Buddhist home in which the group stays has been chosen for the sacrifice. Wukong and Bajie instead take the place of the respective son and daughter (fig. 6). In the end, the Great King is defeated with the help of Guanyin (Subbaraman, 2002, pp. 11-18).

Furthermore, my own research shows that the tale of Garuda from the Mahabharata influenced the Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), an ancient demon king and spiritual uncle of the Buddha appearing in chapters 74 to 77 of Journey to the West

Fig. 6 – An 1864 woodblock print by Yoshitoshi depicting the battle between Monkey, Bajie, and the Great King of Miraculous Powers (larger version). From the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

2.3. The Mahabharata in China

Interestingly, the earliest known list of Mahabharata parvas and sub-parvas was discovered in Kizil in what is now Xinjiang, China. This list appears in the Spitzer Manuscript (c. 200-300 CE), a Hindo-Buddhist philosophical palm-leaf manuscript written in Sanskrit. Schlingloff (1969) compares the list with the known books of the completed epic (fig. 7 and 8), noting the absence of some parvas, which indicates that the Mahabharata was still in a state of development at the time the list was compiled. But it’s important to note that the Vana Parva (a.k.a. Aranya Parva/Aranyaka Parva), the book containing the story of King Yuvanasva, is named in the manuscript (Schlingloff, 1969, p. 336). This suggests the story of the monarch’s water-induced pregnancy may have been present in China centuries prior to Journey to the West.

Fig. 7 – Part 1 of a diagram comparing the 100 sub-parvas and 18 parvas of the completed Mahabharata and the Spitzer Manuscript list (larger version). Take note of the highlighted words showing the inclusion of Vana Parva, here called “Aranyakam”. Fig. 8 – Part 2 of the diagram (larger version). From Schlingloff, 1969, pp. 336-337.

3. Conclusion

Chapter 53 tells how Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant after drinking river water used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce. This is similar to a story from Hindu religious literature in which King Yuvanasva becomes pregnant after drinking ritual water meant for his wife. Journey to the West is known to include story elements from the Mahabharata, which means the version of the monarch’s tale from the Varna Parva (3rd book) likely influenced the Chinese novel. The Varna Parva is named in an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas discovered in what is now Xinjiang, China. This suggests the story may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.


1) For example, Wukong tells Bajie: “When the time comes, you may have a gaping hole at your armpit and the baby will crawl out” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 35). This likely references ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, just like Yu the Great and the historical Buddha.

2) I have slightly modified the translation of names in Wu and Yu (2012).

3) See here for the version appearing in the Vishnu Purana. See here for the Bhagavata Purana


Roy, P. C. (1884). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Translated Into English Prose: Vana Parva. Calcutta: Bharata Press. 

Schlingloff, D. (1969). The Oldest Extant Parvan-List of the Mahābhārata. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 89(2), 334-338. doi:10.2307/596517

Subbaraman, R. (2002). Beyond the Question of the Monkey Imposter: Indian Influence on the Chinese Novel The Journey to the West. Sino-Platonic Papers, 114, 1-35. Retrieved from

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 3. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Monkey King Temples of Fujian

Last updated: 02/15/2021

The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Saie Surendra of During the summer of 2019, he was lucky enough to visit several Great Sage Equaling Heaven temples in Fujian, including those dedicated to him and those hosting small shrines in his honor. This entry will serve as a list of such temples. – Jim


Saie admiring a Monkey King statue at the Wong Tai Sin temple in Kowloon, Hong Kong (larger version).

I. My journey

So how did my journey to the various Great Sage Equalling Heaven temples in Fujian begin? I guess I’ll start from the beginning. Growing up, I would often see images or figurines of the Hindu Monkey God Hanuman in fellow Sri Lankan and Indian homes. For those who don’t know, Hanuman is the Indian counterpart of Sun Wukong and potentially the first known Monkey God. I was curious and intrigued and wanted to know more, but I didn’t get many answers from the people I asked. “He protects us and can revive us from bad health” was the most common reply. I researched the many translations of the Ramayana (one of two great Indian epics within which Hanuman appears) and became enchanted by his many amazing feats and achievements. I was a huge film fan growing up, so I became obsessed with the idea of making films based on him. There have been TV adaptations of Hanuman’s story—I wasn’t a fan of the more human-like portrayals—but, sadly, major Indian studios have yet to make a proper movie about him.

Fast-forward to 2008. Jet Li and Jackie Chan star in the kung fu fantasy The Forbidden Kingdom. Looking back now, it isn’t the greatest film ever, but this is when I first met … Sun Wukong (cue the “Dagger House Prelude”). This was a turning point for me, my obsession multiplied tenfold. Since then I have watched tens, if not hundreds, of film and TV adaptations of Sun Wukong. I’ve also read endless articles and books (one example) in an effort to connect the dots between our (Hindu and Buddho-Daoist) ancestors’ worship of monkey deities. I’ve found there are just too many similarities to ignore.

At first, I had never heard of Sun Wukong’s worship. So when I found the one vague article online describing the Monkey King Festival (the 16th day of the 8th lunar month) in Hong Kong, I decided I would go! I didn’t know what to expect when Jim and I met at the Great Sage Treasure Temple (大聖寶廟) in Kowloon in September of 2018, but it was a big moment for me. Crowds of young and old gathered to worship the Great Sage Equalling Heaven; Daoist priests chanted from prayer books; rows of important businesspeople bowed in unison; martial arts schools performed colorful lion dances, each kwoon paying respect to the altar as they passed; giant paper effigies were burnt. It was a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. Through our interviews with the locals, we not only learned that the festival was considered a time for strengthening community bonds and to help those in need, but also that many adherents believed their faith originated in Fujian, more specifically the city of Fuzhou. This of course agrees with what past scholars have written about Sun’s worship in Fujian.

I have a question: If you ever found yourself in heaven, what would you do? You’d take some good videos to show your friends back on Earth, right? So that was the idea; I started making a documentary (video 1) based on the real people I met and the places I visited, saving my film ambitions for later.

Video 1 – Legends of a Monkey God: Episode 1 – Hong Kong

I was restless some months after returning from the Hong Kong Monkey God Festival. It was like experiencing Heaven for a week and then falling back to Earth like a meteor with many unanswered questions. I was unable to sit around in my miserable London life any longer, so I finally decided to travel where Sun’s worship supposedly began … Fuzhou.

Arriving in Fuzhou was like a pilgrimage in itself. Let me say, this was not an easy journey for me, nor for the translator friend I hired due to my poor Mandarin. The Hokkien accent of Fuzhou gave her a hard time. In addition, the many places I had researched and mapped online seemingly didn’t exist. We visited one after another, with the locals appearing clueless about the temples we inquired about. It was almost as if Sun Wukong’s worship was a secret and only initiated members were allowed access to his houses of worship. Now, there is a saying in India that goes: “You can’t just find Him, He has to invite you”. This saying holds true, for when we finally found one of the locations (see temple one below), a person inside told us about a man who could help me on my journey. I thought, “Hang on a minute … was this guy the savior goddess Guanyin? Was he going to introduce me to my … Sun Wukong?”

I was later introduced to Mr. You, the head of several temples, the Pingshan theatre, and the greatest Sun Wukong follower I have ever met. He set aside two whole days to drive us to several Monkey King temples around Fuzhou, during which time I shot video for another documentary (video 2). I wondered whether or not he wanted anything in return. I mean, no one does anything for free, right? It turns out he was more than happy just to share his Sun Wukong with me and invite me into his secret club! He would not accept any gifts from me. I felt like I was the Tang Monk! And here is the thing: Mr. You and his friends didn’t speak a single word of English—in fact, my Mandarin was unbearable to them—yet we somehow managed to communicate and establish a strong friendship between us, “Brothers bound by the love of Monkey”. I promised myself then that I would return with better Mandarin in a Fujian dialect.

Video 2 – Legends of a Monkey God: Episode 3 – Monkey King Temples of Fujian, China

What I took away from this trip was the fact that Sun Wukong is a deity that sits at the intersection of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. I saw effigies of him in temples of all the “Three Religions”, sometimes shared, sometimes strictly one faith. But the idea of religion in the East is not the same as that in the West. In the East, you find your own path, follow it to your goal; you don’t need to be on the same path as everyone else and no one judges you for making your own way. It’s just like the Indians say: “The destination is the same, paths are many. God is one, names and forms are many”. This ties in with the works of famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, who would call this the many “masks of God”.

II. Temple list

Note: This list is not exhaustive and will be updated periodically. Most importantly, the following GPS coordinates should ONLY be used as a general guideline. It is highly recommended that those wishing to visit these places should hire the services of a knowledgeable guide. I recommend contacting Mr. You (WeChat id: you410631621)  


A shrine in Mr. You’s house (larger version).

Temple One: 玉封齐天府屏山祖殿
26°04’45.0″N 119°18’42.6″E
Sanjie Temple, Gulou District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
38H6+MP Gulou District, Fuzhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Two
26°04’10.1″N 119°19’56.1″E
Eastern District Shangquan, Jin’an, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
389J+QW Jin’an, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Three
26°01’46.8″N 119°15’56.1″E
Baihua Zhou Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
27H8+V6 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Four:霞江清泉庵 (齊天大聖殿)
26°02’41.4″N 119°18’34.7″E
28V5+WV Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China


For more pictures, see this article.


Temple Five
26°02’05.1″N 119°21’10.7″E
Houban Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
29M3+W5 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Six
26°06’23.6″N 119°14’30.2″E
Unnamed Road, Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
464R+JM Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Seven: 慈恩寺
26°08’54.4″N 119°08’56.9″E
Junmin Rd, Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
44XX+9M Ganzhezhen, Minhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Eight
26°04’26.2″N 119°11’25.5″E
G316 Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
35FR+H5 Shangjiezhen, Minhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Nine
26°01’49.8″N 119°17’26.7″E
163 Luling Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
27JR+68 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Update: 02/15/2021

Jim here. I have mirrored this article by creating a list of Monkey King temples that I’ve visited in Taiwan.

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 02/06/21

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (larger version). Originally found here.

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.


Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.

Update: 12/28/19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the  108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.

Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


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

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Archive #8 – Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey

I previously posted a paper that explores the evidence connecting Sun Wukong with the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Here, I present a wonderful book that explores Hanuman’s origins, worship, and popular image.


This book offers a comprehensive introduction to one of the most beloved and widely worshiped of Hindu deities: the “monkey-god” Hanuman. It details the historical expansion of Hanuman’s religious status beyond his role as helper to Rama and Sita, the divine hero and heroine of the ancient Ramayana storytelling tradition. Additionally, it surveys contemporary popular literature and folklore through which Hanuman’s mythological biography is celebrated, and describes a range of religious sites and practices that highlight different aspects of his persona. Emphasizing Hanuman’s role as a “liminal” deity who combines animal, human, and divine qualities, and as a “middle-class” god within the Hindu pantheon, the book argues that such mediatory status has made Hanuman especially appealing to upwardly-mobile social groups as well as to Hindus of many sectarian persuasions.

Book link

Hanuman's tale


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


Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Monkey King’s Cosmic Body

Sun Wukong is known for his limitless shape-changing powers, capable of taking the form of anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. But his most powerful transformation, that of a cosmic giant, is displayed only three times in the novel. It is used mostly in defense against other powerful characters, namely the god Erlang and the Bull Demon King. In this paper I will introduce the ancient astral-geographical term used to describe this phenomenon, associate the transformation with a divine giant from Chinese mythology, and explore possible ties to Hindu mythology.

I. Episodes from the Novel

The first instance takes place in chapter three after Monkey returns from the Dragon King’s undersea palace with his new weapon. The form is used to show off his magical abilities for his children (fig. 1).

Grasping the treasure [iron staff] in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be [one hundred] thousand feet tall, [1] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). (emphasis mine)

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey performs the cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

The second takes place in chapter six during his battle with Erlang Shen. The form is used this time in response to the god’s own cosmic transformation.

The Immortal Master [Erlang] fought the Great Sage for more than three hundred rounds, but the result could still not be determined. The Immortal Master, therefore, summoned all of his magic powers; with a shake he made his body a hundred thousand feet tall. Holding with both hands the divine lance of three points and two blades like the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain, this green-faced, sabre-toothed figure with scarlet hair aimed a violent blow at the head of the Great Sage. But the Great Sage also exerted his magical power and changed himself into a figure having the features and height of Erlang. He wielded a compliant golden-hooped rod that resembled the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun to oppose the god Erlang (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 181).


Now we were telling you about the Immortal Master and the Great Sage, who had changed themselves into forms which imitated Heaven and Earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 182). (emphasis mine)

The third takes place in chapter sixty-one during Sun’s battle with the Bull Demon King (fig. 2). Again, the form is used in response to another powerful character’s transformation.

With a loud guffaw, the Bull King then revealed his original form of a gigantic white bull, with a head like a rugged mountain and eyes like bolts of lightning. The two horns were like two iron pagodas, and his teeth were like rows of sharp daggers. From head to toe, he measured more than ten thousand feet, while his height from hoof to neck was about eight [thousand]. [2]

“Wretched ape!” he roared at Pilgrim [Monkey]. “What will you do with me now?” Pilgrim also changed back to his true form; yanking out his golden-hooped rod, he bent his back and then straightened out, crying, “Grow!” At once he grew to a height of one hundred thousand feet, with a head like Mount Tai, eyes like the sun and moon, a mouth like a bloody pound, and teeth like doors (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157).


[After Zhu Bajie returns from exterminating all of the demons in the Bull King’s cave] “You have achieved great merit, Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim. “Congratulations! Old Monkey has waged in vain a contest of transformation with him [the Bull King], for I have not yet achieved victory. He finally changed into the biggest possible white bull, and I therefore assumed the appearance that imitated Heaven and Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 158). (emphasis mine)

monkey vs bull king (cosmic transformations) - 1833

Fig. 2 – Monkey vs the Bull King, both in their cosmic transformations (larger version). An 1833 woodblock print by Yashima Gakutei. Photo by Prof. Vincent Durand-Dastès of the ‏National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. With permission. 

II. Ties to Ancient Chinese Astral-Geography and Mythology

The exact word used each time to describe Sun’s modus for attaining his cosmic form is Fatian Xiangdi (法天像地), or the “method of modeling Heaven on Earth”. This is actually related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The ancient Chinese viewed the heavens as a complex system of seven star units set in four cardinal sections, making up the Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions, all of which enclosed and revolved around a central star ruled by one of two supreme gods, Shangdi or Taiyi. Known as the “Purple Palace Enclosure” (Ziweiyuan, 紫微垣), this bound star system was the heavenly abode from which the supreme god oversaw reality, while the surrounding stars represented his civil and military officials and even outlying areas, such as dwellings and a marketplace. The Chinese emperor, commonly called the Son of Heaven, was considered the earthly counterpart of the great god, serving as the mediator between the will of heaven and the needs of man. Therefore, architects often modeled imperial cities on these celestial patterns, placing the emperor at the center surrounded by outer layers of courts, residential quarters, markets, and streets (Chan, 2008, pp. 8-19).

The arcane-sounding Fatian Xiangdi term was no doubt chosen simply because Monkey’s magic body mirrors the vastness of the cosmos (both heaven and earth), not that it borrowed particular celestial patterns like earthly architects. Interestingly, though, legend states the ancient Yuan capital of Dadu was modeled on the magic body of the child god Prince Nezha, who also appears in Journey to the West. [3]

The novel likens aspects of Sun’s cosmic form to earthly features and celestial bodies. This resembles stories of the ancient god Pangu (盤古) (fig. 3), the first being born into primordial chaos who slaved to separate heaven from earth, cleaving one from the other and forcing them apart. Stevens (1997) writes this monumental task took its toll on the titan:

He died as the task was reaching a climax and his body became features of the Earth. His head became the mountains, his breath the wind and clouds; his voice became thunder, his left eye the sun and his right eye the moon, and his four limbs became the four quarters of the Earth. His blood ran as rivers, his veins and muscles were the strata of the rocks, and his flesh the soil. His skin sprouted and became vegetable patches, forests and paddy fields, while his bones and teeth became the minerals. His sweat became the rain and to complete creation humanity sprang from the parasites on his body (p. 54).

Monkey in a way becomes a living embodiment of the divine giant because he too is described as having a head like a mountain, eyes like the sun and moon, and a mouth like a large body of liquid, which also happens to be blood.

pangu cleaves heaven and earth - 2

Fig. 3 – A modern (metal?) relief simultaneously symbolizing Pangu’s separation of heaven and earth and the decay of his body into earthly features and celestial bodies (larger version). Take note of the eye-like sun. Found on this news article about the god.

Giant characters were obviously not a new concept to Chinese literature by the Ming. An earlier example comes to us from The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Chapter six sees Monkey transform his golden-ringed monk’s staff “into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189) (fig. 4). This line simultaneously predicts Sun’s goliath form and blunt weapon (that touches heaven and earth like the head and feet of the yaksha) and Erlang’s monstrous appearance (i.e. his green skin and red hair).

yaksha guardian, bangkok, thailand

Fig. 4 – A guardian yaksha statue, Bangkok, Thailand (larger version). Take note of the large stature, blue skin, and club. Found on this article.

III. Possible ties to Hindu Mythology

Yakşas or Yakshas (Ch: Yecha, 夜叉) appear in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures as the assistants or protectors of divine beings. They are possessed of great magical powers and can do anything from flying to shape-changing (Dalal, 2014, p. 470; Robert & David, 2013, p. 1018). These nature spirits are often depicted in early religious art as portly dwarves (fig. 5), an element of iconography that they share with Vamana, the fifth avatar of the supreme deva Vishnu. This connection is important because the avatar is celebrated for his ability to eclipse the universe. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu takes the form of the dwarf Brahmin when a benevolent asura named Mahabali wrestles control of the cosmos from the gods. Vamana visits the king during a great sacrifice, during which the asura grants gifts, and humbly requests only as much land as he can cover in three strides. But when his wish is granted, the deceptively small priest grows to cosmic proportions, “mightily waxing, swelling in every limb, with his first stride stepp[ing] beyond the sun and moon, with his second reach[ing] the limits of the universe, and with his third return[ing] to set his foot on the head of the conquered foe” (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132). With his feat (pun intended), Vishnu regains control of heaven (step one) and earth (step two), while simultaneously banishing the asura to the underworld (step three) (Dalal, 2014, p. 442).

yakshas - sanchi stupa, western gateway, 1st c.

Fig. 5 – A detail of chubby Yakshas from the western gateway of Stupa 1 at Sanchi (1st-cent.) (larger version). Found on this article.

The noted art historian Heinrich Zimmer comments sculptures based on this story fall under a category of representationally kinetic art that he calls the “Phenomenon of Expanding Form”. One cited example is the Trivikrama Vishnu (lit: “three steps” Vishnu), a 6th-century Badami cave no. 2 relief (fig. 6) which presents a continuous narrative of the dwarf (fig. 7) growing to become the cosmic giant, the latter’s leg kicking high above his waist (fig. 8), symbolizing his mighty, universe-spanning strides. Though the piece is carved in stone, the dynamic nature of the composition gives it a feeling of swelling energy (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132).

The carving portrays the cosmic giant holding all manner of weapons, including a club, a sword, a bow, and a chakram, all of which are attributes of Vishnu (Dalal, 2014, p. 460).

badami vamana carving (total for blog)

Fig. 6 – The Trivikrama Vishnu relief carving of Vamana’s story, Badami cave no. 2 (6th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of the dwarf Brahmin holding a parasol (larger version). Fig. 8 – A detail of the cosmic giant holding celestial weapons and taking a supernaturally large stride (larger version). Adapted from this wikipedia image.

The close association of the Yaksha and Vamana with a short, chubby body and shape-changing powers no doubt influenced the former to take on the latter’s ability to grow to huge proportions. In addition, after being absorbed into Buddhism, Yakshas are portrayed in scripture as divine warriors wielding clubs in defense of the dharma. Two prominent examples are Kubera (a.k.a. Vaisravana) and Vajrapani, both of whom are touted as the yaksha commander (Lutgendorf, 2007, p. 42; Robert & David, 2013, pp. 449 and 955). This surely influenced the later Chinese image of yakshas as club-wielding titans, such as the cited example from The Story. In turn, this and related material could have easily influenced the cosmic transformations of Monkey and other characters and their weapons from Journey to the West.

IV. Conclusion

The novel describes Monkey taking on a giant cosmic form in chapters three, six, and sixty-one, the first time showing off his magic powers to his children and the second and third in response to the respective titanic transformations of Erlang and the Bull King. The magical spell used to achieve this form, titled Fatian Xiangdi (the “Method of modeling Heaven on Earth”), is based on ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The idea of Sun’s body parts mirroring aspects of heaven and earth recalls the myth of the primordial god Pangu, whose body parts became the very building blocks of the cosmos after his death.

The cited episodes demonstrate that the characters involved transform both their bodies and weapons. Apart from being described as a 100,000-foot-tall juggernaut with a head like Mt. Tai, Monkey’s staff is said to inhabit the upper and lowermost reaches of the universe (“its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell”) or that it resembles “the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun”. Likewise, Erlang’s three-pointed polearm is said to resemble “the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain”. Such transformations are predicted, for example, by an episode in the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West in which Sun changes a monk’s staff into a gigantic Yaksha wielding a club.

While Yakshas are portrayed in early South Asian religious art as chubby dwarves, they most likely gained the ability to grow to enormous sizes thanks to iconographic similarities to Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu famed for traversing the cosmos in three mighty steps. One 6th-century stone carving of the story portrays the dwarf-turned-cosmic giant wielding all sorts of celestial weapons. Additionally, Buddhist scriptures would come to portray yakshas as club-wielding warriors. Therefore, we can see how Monkey’s cosmic transformation could have ultimately been influenced by Hindu and Buddhist religious material.


1) Here, Anthony C. Yu’s English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating ten Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu translates it in chapters six and sixty-one (see above).

2) Yu’s translation reads “eight hundred”. But, again, the original source is different. It reads “八百丈” (ba bai zhang), or 800 x 10 Chinese feet = 8,000. This makes more sense as he is said to be 10,000 feet long.

3) While the city is square, it has eleven gates, which legend states correspond to the three heads, six arms, and two legs of the god. For more information, see Chan, 2008.


Chan, H. (2008). Legends of the building of old Peking. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dalal, R. (2014). Hinduism: An alphabetical guide. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s tale: The messages of a divine monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1992). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)

Archive #1 – Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate

I have finally tracked down a digital version of Victor Mair’s often quoted summary of the scholarly debate on the possible connection between Sun Wukong (fig. 1) and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (fig. 2). This paper is extremely hard to find, so I am archiving it here to aid both amateur and professional scholars who may not yet have access to it.

Sammy Torres Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – Sun Wukong from birth to the Great Sage. This marvelous sequential drawing is by Sammy Torres on twitter. The full drawing can be seen here.


The chief aim of this article is to restore the debate to its original scholarly intent, namely to determine whether H [Hanuman], the redoubtable simian devotee of Prince Rama in his quest to recover Sita from Lanka, had anything to do with the formation of the character of SWK [Sun Wukong], Tripitaka’s formidable Monkey-disciple during his pilgrimage to India to retrieve scriptures. This can only be achieved by remaining as impartial and objective as possible while presenting the pertinent evidence. A clinically dispassionate examination of the widely varying opinions of authorities concerning the apparent affinity between SWK and H is also required if the present impasse is to be broken. Hence, this article is necessarily as much an investigation of scholarly methods and attitudes as it is about the origins of SWK. Accordingly, it is divided into two main divisions, “Evidence” and “Authorities and Interpretations.” These are further subdivided into a number of sections, “Evidence” by geographical area and “Authorities and Interpretations” by a chronological listing of major participants in the debate.

Paper link

Click to access suen-wu-kung-or-hanumat.pdf

Fig. 2 – A religious portrait of Hanuman (larger version). Artist unknown.


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


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.

How the Hindu Bird God Garuda Came to Appear in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2018

Heroes from Chinese military fiction are often cast as reincarnations of celestial beings. For instance, the famous patriot General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103–1141) is portrayed as a reincarnation of the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda (Jialouluo, 伽樓羅; Jialiuluo, 伽留羅) in his folk biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). The bird, called the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王), sits at the head of the Buddha’s throne in the Western Paradise. His fiery temper is aroused when a bat-spirit (the embodiment of the Aquarius constellation) passes gas during the Enlightened One’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. He swoops down from the throne and snatches her up in his beak, killing her instantly. The Buddha admonishes the bird for his transgression of Buddhist law and exiles him to earth. His rebirth in the human world actually serves to counterbalance the actions of a nomadic antagonist, originally a dragon sent from the Eastern Heaven to punish China (Qian, 2016). This storyline was influenced by a previous work, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), which explains how Garuda came to hold such an important position above the Buddha.

Called the “Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), [1] the bird is portrayed as a spiritual uncle of the Buddha and an ancient demon king with unequaled strength, speed, and powers of transformation (fig. 1). He wields two magic weapons, a halberd and a vase capable of trapping and killing even immortals. Garuda is so powerful, in fact, that not even Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is strong enough to pacify the beast. Therefore, the Buddha himself is forced to leave the Western Paradise to confront the demon headon. He casts the illusion of a bloody piece of meat above his head, and when the man-bird pounces on the bait, the Buddha takes away his ability to fly, thus trapping Garuda above his head in the demon’s original form as a golden-winged vulture (Dapeng jinchi diao, 大鵬金翅鵰) (fig. 2). After some struggle, the bird agrees to become a protector of Buddhist law (Sk: dharma; Ch: fa, 法). Thus, Chinese fiction portrays Garuda as a powerful demon king that submits to the Buddha and perches above his throne as a hot-tempered guardian deity. [2]

The fact that this literary motif appears in two famous Chinese classics points to some widely known religious concept circulating during the 16th– and 17th-centuries. In this paper I will trace the origins of the motif from ancient South Asian literature and religious architecture to Esoteric Buddhist art in East Asia. The path we walk is a complicated one spanning centuries, belief systems, and artistic mediums.

Gardua from both novels

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the Roc demon in his humanoid form (artist unknown) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A modern depiction of the roc trapped above the Buddha’s head (artist unknown) (larger version).

1. India – Where our search begins

1.1. Garuda’s appearance in ancient literature

The origin of the Chinese literary motif is over two thousand years old, first appearing in the 4th-century BCE Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The holy work states that Garuda is the son of the creator-sage Kashyapa and his second wife Vinata. After gestating in his egg for one thousand years, the bird bursts forth and his massive, fiery body grows to engulf the entire cosmos. His sun-like splendor is so bright that the devas mistake him for Agni, the god of holy fire. Garuda is forced to reduce his size and illumination when the devas ask him to do so out of fear. Falling prey to an ancient curse, his mother Vinata loses a bet and is enslaved by her sister Kadru, mother of the naga-serpents. Garuda agrees to steal the vessel containing the immortal elixir of amrita from the devas in order to secure his mother’s release. He uses his great strength and speed to defeat the celestial army and kill the serpents guarding the elixir, and he uses his powers of transformation to extinguish the fire surrounding the treasured substance and sneak past the magic discus charged with dismembering thieves. Upon his return trip, Garuda is halted by the supreme deva Vishnu who grants him the boon of immortality for partaking in such a difficult quest. In return, the bird grants him the boon of serving as the carrier of his celestial vehicle (vimana) and positions himself above Vishnu’s head atop the flagpole (dhvaja). Not long after, Indra, king of the devas, strikes the bird with a lightning bolt in an attempt to retrieve the amrita. The bird pays him respect by shedding a single feather and grants him the boon of eternal friendship. After learning the reason for the theft, the devaraja grants Garuda the boon of taking his enemies the nagas as his food. Both of them then orchestrate a plan in which the bird pays the amrita ransom to free his mother, but Indra takes the elixir away before the serpents can drink of it. Finally, Garuda slaughters all of the nagas (Ganguli, 2003, pp. 57-82).

It’s easy to discern several aspects from Chinese fiction in the ancient story: 1) a powerful golden bird with great strength, speed, and powers of transformation; 2) a vessel with magical properties; 3) conflict between the bird and heavenly forces; 4) his subjugation by a higher power; 5) his installment above a deva’s head; and 6) continued conflict between the bird and his serpent foes. This adds to existing literature showing that the Mahabharata influenced Journey to the West (Subbaraman, 2002).

1.2. Garuda’s appearance on religious architecture

Since the Mahabharata was published, Garuda has been depicted on a number of ritual flagpoles (dvaja) in India. The dvaja pillar “is placed opposite the entrance to the main shrine [of a Hindu temple], on axis with the central image…it is an object of great importance and worship” (Dallapiccola, 2002, p. 60). Adherents would have paid reverence to it before entering the temple. People affected by snake bites would often embrace these types of pillars because they believed Garuda’s powers over the nagas (and their serpentine kin) would neutralize the poison (Zimmer, 1946, p. 75). The oldest of the stone dvaja columns still standing is the Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE) erected by a Bactrian-Greek envoy and convert of that name in honor of Vishnu in Vidisha (fig. 3) (Walker, 1968, p. 246). The Garuda is no longer extant, having been eroded by time or destroyed by iconoclasts. It is considered the “first dated monument linked with Vishnu” (Elgood, 2000, p. 56). Clues to what the original capital may have looked like can be drawn from numismatic evidence. The golden dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375 CE) of the Gupta Empire, for example, features a Garuda dvaja (fig. 4) (Mookerji, 1973, p. 52). The capital is depicted as a bird, suggesting the eroded figure on the Heliodorus pillar may have originally taken such a form. This differs from later humanoid depictions of the god (see below).

pillar and coin

Fig. 3 – The Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE), Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda capital is missing. Photo by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Fig. 4 – The gold dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375) of the Gupta Empire (larger version). The Garuda dvaja can be seen to the left. Photo by the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA).

Garuda’s association with Buddhism seems to be quite old. His appearance on a number of standing gateways and carved cave temple entrances, collectively known as toranas, from the 1st-century BCE onward points to him being absorbed into the religion’s pantheon within a few centuries of the historical Buddha’s death. The oldest extant representation of Garuda appears on the eastern gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 5) (Iyer, 1977, p. 52). Dated to the 1st-century BCE, the standing torana has three tiered architraves, the middle of which portrays a bodhi tree, an iconoclastic representation of the Buddha, flanked by real and mythical creatures paying homage to it. The far right side of this stone relief features Garuda standing next to a five-headed king of serpents (nagaraja) (fig. 6). The bird is depicted as a husky parrot with a delicate, forward curling crest, a thick beak, a pierced human ear, small flapping wings, and lacey tail plumage. The relationship between the two is amicable since it is a scene of religious reverence. This “Garuda and serpent” motif appears on the partial remains of a slightly younger stone architrave discovered in Kankali Tila at Mathura (Smith, 1969, p. 28). [3] The circa 1st-century BCE relief depicts him as a large bird of prey with similar iconography, including the curling crest, thick beak, and pierced human ear. But the tail plumage is far more flowery and ornate, indicating that the artist built off of the earlier example. Also, unlike the architrave from the Sanchi stupa, this piece portrays Garuda locked in a tense standoff with a three-headed nagaraja; the bird has a firm grasp of the hissing serpent with his beak, but the foe’s body is wrapped twice around the god’s neck and the tail is anchored at the base of a nearby tree (fig. 7) (Vogal, 1972, p. 172).

Stupa details

Fig. 5 – The reverse side of the East Torana of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (1st-cent. BCE), Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif is visible on the right side of the central architrave. Fig. 6 – Detail of the Garuda and serpent motif (larger version). Photos by the The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (HABRA), The Ohio State University. Fig. 7 – The partial architrave discovered in Kankali Tila (c. 1st-cent. BCE) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India (larger version). Drawing from Smith, 1969, p. 28 .

Later depictions of the motif anthropomorphize Garuda. For instance, he makes an appearance standing over the torana of the carved Bhuta Lena cave shrine number forty (c. 100 CE) in Junnar (fig. 8) (Qureshi, 2010, p. 315). He is coupled with a nagaraja at the apex of the arched doorway; the two are presented as peaceful humanoid companions wearing matching hats and clothing and standing in a similar pose. This could be related to a birth tale (jataka) in which the Buddha, in his previous life as a hermit, reconciles the hatred between Garuda and a naga by “rehears[ing] the blessings of loving kindness until they [are] both at one. Thenceforward they abode together happily in peace and harmony” (Vogal, 1972, p. 142).

Garuda and Nagaraja above the arch of the Chaitya hall (#40) at Maharashtra, stone, 2nd-3rd c

Fig. 8 – Garuda (left) and Nataraja (right) above the torana entrance of the Bhuta Lena cave shrine no. 40 (c. 100 CE) in Junnar, Maharashtra, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA.

Dhar (2009) notes that the standing gateway toranas were replaced in popularity by “the post, lintel, and eave-cornice (kapotapālikā) type entryways” sometime after the 2nd to 3rd-century CE (p. 16). She continues, “From the fifth century, such an entrance gateway became an integral part of temple doorframes…its posts served as pilaster-doorjambs (stamhaśākhās) and the eave-cornice integrated with the lintel” (Dhar, 2009, p. 16). It was around this time that Hindus followed the example of their Buddhist neighbors and began to create carved religious structures (Dehejia, 1997, p. 124). Such temples were considered the home of a given deity when they left their heavenly abode (Dehejia, 1997, p. 141). As such, these temples were profusely decorated with images of the deva, including the entrance way, to aid in their worship. A related root word for torana “suggests its role as an architectural symbol of a rite of passage or liminality” (Dhar, 2009, p. 1). This means whoever steps into the world of the “other” does so under the watchful eye of the deity placed on the torana. In the case of temples devoted to Vishnu and lesser devas associated with him, the image is either Garuda by himself (being a symbol of the god) or bearing the deva on his back, a variation on his portrayal in the Mahabharata that came to dominate his traditional iconography (Zimmer, 1946, p. 76).

1.3. Appearance of the antagonistic Garuda and Serpents motif

Whether alone or coupled with Vishnu, the antagonistic version of the Garuda and serpents motif began to appear on Hindu toranas by at least the 7th to 8th-century. In fact, the only examples that I can find come from this time period. I have seen examples of the “Garuda and Vishnu” motif above entrance ways as late as the 11th-century, but these are missing the serpents. However, later Tibetan art featuring the serpent variation suggests there may be Indian examples that I am not aware of. The 7th-century example appears on the torana of the Gaudar Gudi Temple in Badami (Gupte, 1967, p. 54) (fig. 9). Garuda is portrayed in humanoid form wearing a hat and clothing similar to figure 8. He is squatting over the entrance while grasping the tails of naga-serpents flanking him on both sides. The first c. 700 example appears on the torana of the Durga (Fort) Temple in Aihole (fig. 10) (Tartakov, 1997, p. 192). He is depicted as a smiling human in an erect flying posture with his left leg tucked under his groin and his right trailing behind him. Just like the first piece, he is wearing similar attire and grasping the tails of nagas on his left and right sides. The second c. 700 example appears over the entranceway of the Rajivalocana Temple in Rajim (fig. 11) (Patel, 1992, p. 146). But this version has Garuda transporting a four armed Vishnu. The figure is again depicted in human form and grasping the tails of his serpentine foes.

Early examples

Fig. 9 – The Gaudar Gudi Temple Garuda with serpents (7th-cent.), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by AIIS. Fig. 10 – The Durga (Fort) Temple Garuda with serpents (c. 700), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA. Fig. 11 – The Rajivalocana Temple Garuda and Vishnu with serpents (c. 700), Rajim, Chhattisgarh, India (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

2. Cambodia – The motif achieves perfection

The torana spread to Southeast Asia by the late 6th– or early 7th-century. Next to India, Cambodia has the largest number of and most diverse toranas in all of Asia (Dhar, 2009, p. 214). In fact, I would dare say this is where the Garuda and serpents motif reached the point of perfection. Parul Pandya Dhar’s wonderful monograph The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture (2009) features two beautiful examples from Buddhist temples carved in the unmistakable Khmer style. The first is an exquisitely crafted 9th-century entranceway from the Prasat Kok Po Temple in Siem Reap (pp. 222 and 228) (fig. 12 and 13). It portrays Garuda as a large, stout man-bird with pierced ears and wearing a Cambodian headdress and garment. He is standing on a pedestal and bearing a four-armed Vishnu on his back while grasping the flower garland-like tail of a three-headed nagaraja in each hand. The god is further flanked by two large creatures with gaping mouths known as “Faces of Glory” (Kīrtimukha). [4] Their arms interlock not only with the undulating serpents grasped by the man-bird, but two others located on the outermost left and right portion of the torana—the combination of arms and slithering serpentine bodies form a beautiful horizontal wave pattern with four crests. These larger nagarajas bear images of tiny Garudas standing on the back of their hoods. [5] The author notes that the “Kīrtimukha and makaras seen on Indian and Indonesian toranas are often replaced by the garuḍa-nāgas combination in Cambodia” (Dhar, 2009, p. 228). The second is a mid-10th-century entranceway from the Prasat thom Temple in Koh Ker (fig. 14 and 15). The depiction of Garuda is identical to the first example down to the clothing. But instead of bearing Vishnu and cooperating with the Kirtimukha to conquer nagas, he alone is grasping the long, flowery tails of his enemies who are positioned on pedestals at the same level as his own. Two small Buddhas use the bodies of the tightly drawn serpents as a place to meditate. Both nagarajas bear the Wheel of Buddhist Law (Dharmachakra) on their chests. The composition is therefore symbolic of Garuda and the nagas working together to literal “support” Buddhism.

Cambodian lintel with detail - 1

Fig. 12 – The Prasat Kok Po Temple lintel featuring the Garuda and Vishnu with serpents motif (9th-cent.), Siem Reap, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 13 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Prasat thom Temple lintel with the Garuda and serpents motif (mid-10th-cent.), Preah Vihear, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons.

3. The motif spreads to East Asia

3.1. Tibet – The motif jumps from architecture to art

The Buddhist examples from Cambodia appear to have been influenced by depictions of the Garuda and serpents motif from Hindu temples. This is because they depict Hindu deities like Vishnu and portray the bird and naga as (symbolic) enemies. The same can be said for Buddhist art and architecture in East Asia. For instance, Heather Stoddard (1996) comments that the motif “is in fact present in all the main Tibetan [Buddhist] styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art” (p. 40). She continues, “The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (Stoddard, 1996, p. 40). (It’s obvious that Stoddard was unaware of the architectural origins of the motif at the time of her study.) One of the three pieces that she cites as examples is a 13th-century Nepalese painting of Ratnasambhava (Baosheng rulai, 寶生如來, fig. 16), one of the five Esoteric Buddhas (Stoddard, 1996, p. 42). The painting shows the Buddha sitting on a throne comprised of a lotus flower base and a backrest framed by all sorts of real and mythical creatures. The Garuda and serpents motif crowns the apex of the throne. Art historians call this an “enlightenment torana” or a “gate of glory” (Beer, 1999, p. 88; Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). It’s clear that Buddhist artists came to equate the torana with the fiery halo that signifies a deity’s enlightened or divine nature. Robert Beer (1999) believes that these enlightenment toranas could have appeared as early as the 4th-century, but that it became a common fixture in Buddhist art from the 8th to the 12th-century (p. 90). Two beautiful examples of an enlightenment torana from the mid-6th-century appear in the Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety in Mumbai (Malandra, 1993, p. 110). It depicts two Buddhas standing under their own gates of glory, complete with what appears to be licks of heavenly flame (fig. 17). Though missing the motif, these examples are nearly identical to later Tibetan art, suggesting, as mentioned above, that there could be later Indian examples featuring the Garuda and serpents motif that I am unaware of.

Nepalses Thangka with double gates of glory

Fig. 16 – Ratnasambhava, with Bodhisattvas (13th-cent.), Nepal (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif can be seen at the apex of the throne. Photo by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 17 – Two Buddhas with enlightenment toranas, from Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India (mid-6th-cent.) (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

Nepalese-Tibetan Buddhist art featuring the motif doesn’t appear to predate the 11th-century, so this may have something to do with the second coming of Buddhism in Tibet. The religion became popular among the common folk during the 11th-century after lying dormant for nearly two hundred years. The Tibetan people embraced the Indian Buddhist faith and flocked to India in order to study in various monastic universities. Jan Casey Singer (1999) notes:

Within this international Buddhist community, the Tibetans stood apart by virtue of the particular zeal with which they sought to master the Indian Buddhist tradition. They had both the will and, since Tibet is relatively close to eastern India, the opportunity to observe closely and gradually absorbed the highly sophisticated traditions of Buddhism and Buddhist art that flourished in eastern India at this time” (p. 6).

Tibetans living and traveling in India no doubt came into contact with architecture featuring the Garuda and serpents motif. This is evidenced by their depiction of Garuda as a chubby man-bird (see fig. 22 below, for example). The Vishnudharmottara Purana (7th-century) contains a treatise on prescribed Hindu iconography that mentions the deity “should be made slightly pot-bellied and adorned by all ornaments” (Kramrisch, 1928, p. 80).

3.2. The fiery Garuda halo

Variations of the motif appeared as it spread eastward. For instance, an 11th-century wall mural of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩) in Kashmir features five colored Garudas flying about his flaming halo (fig. 18). Beer explains that these represent the five Buddhas or Buddhist families of Esoteric Buddhism. He adds: “a yellow garuda stands for earth, a white for water, a red for fire, a black for air, and a blue or multicoloured for space” (Beer, 1999, p. 62). This variation changed as it rapidly spread into China. An 11th-century painting from the famous Mogao caves of Dunhuang depicts the Bodhisattva Hayagriva (Matou Guanyin, 馬頭觀音), the “Horse-Headed Guanyin,” with three (of five?) fiery Garudas comprising his halo (Fig. 19). This “Garuda aureola” reached its zenith in Japan. One beautiful 11th-century example shows the Esoteric Buddhist guardian deity Fudō Myōō (Budong mingwang, 不動明王) set against a Garuda halo. The five Garudas are portrayed as flaming roosters encircling the god (fig. 20) (Akiyama, 1961, pp. 53 and 57). Thus, Esoteric Buddhism was the catalyst for the spread of the Garuda aureola motif towards the east.

Tibet, China, Japan

Fig. 18 – Five colored Garudas in the aureola of the the Lha khang Soma Vajrapani (11th-cent.), Kashmir (larger version). Photo by HABRA. Fig. 19 – Hayagriva with flaming Garudas (11th-cent.), Dunhuang, Gansu, China (larver version). The simplistic Garudas are located to the respective left and right of a Face of Glory, as well as in between his legs. Photo by the Musée national des Arts asiatiques. Fig. 20 – The God Fudo-myoo (Acala) and Two Attendants (11th-cent.), Japan (larger version). Photo by the University of California, San Diego.

3.3. China – The Mongols welcome the motif

The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) were largely responsible for bringing the Garuda and serpents motif to China. They were ardent followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and so they invited Buddhist lamas to preach in the Middle Kingdom. The person who first introduced Tibetan Buddhist art to China was the Nepalese artist Anige (阿尼哥, 1245–1306). At the surprisingly young age of eighteen or nineteen years old, he arrived at the Mongol court in 1260 as the leader of twenty-four artisans. His most famous accomplishment is the White Pagoda of the Miaoying temple in Beijing (Stoddard, 2008, pp. 19-20). Anige is the father of a Tibetan Stylistic tradition that carried on long after his death.

For instance, the Mongols commissioned several stupa-arches to be constructed “on strategic roads leading to the capital [of Beijing]” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The only surviving example is the cloud platform of Juyong Pass (Juyong guan, 居庸關), a later addition to the Great Wall of China built in 1354. It originally supported three Buddhist stupas, but these disappeared within a century of their completion. Multilingual inscriptions on the arch indicate that it was built “in order to bring happiness to the people who pass under the stupa and receive thus the Buddha’s blessings” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The apex of the arch contains the Garuda and serpents motif (fig. 21 and 22). The man-bird is depicted as a stout, pot-bellied figure with the face, wings, and talons of a raptor bird and the ears, arms, and torso of a human. He wears a jeweled crown and his body is decorated with serpents on his wrists, arms, and chest. Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the humanoid naga-spirits as smaller in stature and importance. They are trying to run away from him, but their scaly heels are pierced by his talons.

Juyong pass with detail

Fig. 21 – The Gate of Glory from the Cloud Platform of Juyong Pass (1345), Beijing, China (larger version). Photo by Snuffy on Flicker. Fig. 22 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (photographer unknown) (larger version).

The motif continued to appear in Buddhist art into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the Chinese had overthrown the Mongols. This is because some Chinese rulers, such as the Yongle Emperor (永樂帝, r. 1402–1424), upheld the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Ming examples include a painting in the Sotheby’s collection dated to the 15th-century (fig. 23 and 24); a relief carving on a 15th-century pagoda at Zhenjue Temple (真覺寺) in Beijing (fig. 25 and 26); and a stone stele in the Freer Art Gallery collection dated to circa 1500 (fig. 27 and 28). All of these pieces depict a Buddhist deity sitting before an enlightenment torana lorded over by Garuda and his serpentine foes. What’s important here is that the variety of media suggests the motif became a standardized element of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist art at least a century prior to the publishing of Journey to the West (1592). The commonplace nature of the motif might then explain why it was included in the story. There are numerous occasions in the novel when the author-compiler provides folk origins for everyday concepts, such as why rings are put through the noses of buffalos. [6] So a bird attacking serpents above the head of the Buddha would certainly need a fanciful genesis story.

Ming examples

Fig. 23 – The Amitabha Buddha with an enlightenment torana (15th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 24 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (larger version). Photos by Sotheby’s. Fig. 25 – Zhenjue Temple relief carving (15th-cent.), Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 26 – A detail of Garuda (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons. Fig. 27 – A stone stele of a Bodhisattva with an enlightenment torana (c. 1500) (larger version). Fig. 28 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by the Freer Gallery of Art.

4. Garuda’s transformation from a god to a demon

The Ming dynasty examples suggest Garuda was considered a common element of the Buddha’s enlightenment torana. The bird god is in effect a guardian of the faith who watches over the world from an exalted position high atop the Buddha’s throne. So why then did the author-compiler of Journey to the West transform him into a monster who needed conquering? This obviously follows the novel’s theme of powerful demons, such as Sun Wukong, being subjugated and put to good use. This can be traced to the Thunder Ritual (Leifa, 雷法), a Daoist liturgy designed to subjugate powerful gods and demons to be wielded as weapons against evil forces. One such god is Sire Thunder (Leigong, 雷公), a native Chinese weather deity responsible for making dragons produce rain when needed. And since lightning is his weapon, he is also considered a heavenly executioner who kills mortals guilty of unpunished crimes. [7] The god was sometimes portrayed as a human, but it was around the Tang Dynasty (618–907) when he took on a bird-like appearance with a beak, wings, and talons. This avian transformation coincided with the appearance of Garuda and Esoteric Buddhism in China. Upon entering the Middle Kingdom, Garuda served many of the same functions as Sire Thunder. His power over dragons gave him control of rain and his fierce nature enabled him to be a heavenly executioner. Therefore, depictions of Sire Thunder came to absorb features of the bird god. Most importantly, Tang-era stories describe religious masters and certain brave individuals subjugating this demonic figure and using his powers for their own purposes. [8]

Artistic renderings of Sire Thunder after his metamorphosis are strikingly similar to Garuda. A prime example of this comes to us in the form of a 9th-century fresco from Xinjiang originally held in the Berlin Museum of Indian art. The piece depicts numerous beings paying homage to the Four Heavenly Kings (Sida tianwang, 四大天王) (fig. 29). The foreground depicts Sire Thunder caught in a hunter’s snare around his neck, while a hound bites at his leg. A larger figure, presumably a guardian deity of sorts, holds one of the god’s wrists and stands with a club held overhead ready to strike (fig. 30). This scene contrasts with the overall religious nature of the piece, giving the impression that this “demon” is being captured in the name of the heavenly kings. So here we have a bird monster being subjugated by Buddhist forces. Such art could have easily influenced Garuda’s depiction in Journey to the West.

Both hunting pics

Fig. 29 – A fresco showing the adoration of the Heavenly Kings (9th-cent.), Xinjiang, China (larger version). Fig. 30 – A detail of the subjugation of Sire Thunder (larger version).

5. Conclusion

A literary motif appearing in Journey to the West (1592) and The Story of Yue Fei (1684) depicts the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda as a demon-turned-Buddhist guardian who sits above the Buddha’s throne. This is based on the bird’s portrayal in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata (4th-century BCE), where he comes to sit above the deva Vishnu after taking part in a filial quest and agreeing to carry the god’s celestial vehicle (vimana). Beginning around the 2nd-century BCE, Garuda started appearing on Hindu and Buddhist architecture that depicted him on ritual flag poles and above torana doorways. A motif of Garuda gasping the tails of naga-serpents, his eternal foes from Hindu lore, appeared by at least the 7th-century and spread as far away as Cambodia by the 9th– or 10th-century. The motif was adopted by Tibetan Buddhist artists by the 11th-century and incorporated into wall murals, thus making the jump from architecture to paint. It never lost its association with architecture, however, since the torana came to be equated with the halo of Buddhist deities. This “enlightenment torana” or “gate of glory” became a common feature of Tibetan Buddhist art and even made its way to Japan. This feature was depicted as the backrest of a throne, hence the Chinese literary motif of Garuda sitting above the Buddha can be directly tied to this style of art. The Mongols were largely responsible for bringing the motif to China as they were adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. It continued into the Ming dynasty thanks to royal patronage of Esoteric Buddhism. The motif appeared in Ming religious architecture, paintings, and stele, making it commonplace enough for the author-compiler of Journey to the West to provide a folkloric explanation for the phenomenon. But the concept of a demonic bird being subjugated is most likely based on the Tang Dynasty Thunder Ritual and stories of Sire Thunder, a Daoist weather deity with bird-like features, being captured by mortals and compelled to use his powers in their service.

Update: 04-29-2018

Sire Thunder’s avian form has persisted to this day, having become his standard iconography. Here I present a late 19th to early 20th-century wooden altar statue depicting the deity with his counterpart the Mother of Lightening (Dianmu, 電母) (fig. 31). His similarities to Garuda are just as noticeable today.

20180428_171223 - small

Fig. 31 – Sire Thunder and the Mother of Lightning (19th to 20th-cent.), Taipei, Taiwan (larger version). In the author’s personal collection.

Sire Thunder actually appears with the Mother of Lightning (and other weather gods) in Journey to the West. Chapter 45 sees Monkey participating in a competition of transformations and ritual magic with three animal spirits disguised as Daoists. One competition involves making rain, during which time said gods appear. Although the spirit calling on the rain is powerful, Sun Wukong blocks his magic to make him look bad:

Becoming rather agitated, the Daoist loosened his hair, picked up his sword, and recited another spell as he burned a charm. Once more he brought down his tablet with a bang, and immediately the Heavenly Lord Deng arrived from the South Heaven Gate, trailed by the Squire of Thunder and the Mother of Lightning. When they saw Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] in midair, they saluted him, and he gave his explanation as before. “What powerful summons,” he said “brought you all here so quickly?” The Heavenly Lord said, “The proper magic of Five Thunder [Wulei fa, 五雷法] exercised by that Daoist was not faked.

He issued the summons and burned the document, which alerted the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor sent his decree to the residence of the Primordial Celestial Worthy of All-Pervading Thunderclap in the Ninefold Heaven. We in turn received his command to come here and assist with the rainmaking by providing thunder and lightning.” “In that case,” said Pilgrim, “just wait a moment. You can help old Monkey instead.” There was, therefore, neither the sound of thunder nor the flash of lightning (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).

The techniques used by the animal spirit for calling rain refers back to the aforementioned Thunder Ritual, where the powers of Sire Thunder are used in the service of another.


1) This name is a reference to the mythical Peng (鵬) bird mentioned in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi (莊子), a philosophical work of the 3rd-century BCE. The chapter details how the creature starts life as a small Kun (鯤) fish and changes into a bird of unfathomable size with wings that span the sky (Zhuangzi & Watson, 2003, pp. 23-24).

2) See Wu & Yu (2012) chapters 74 to 77.

3) The sources are actually conflicting on which relief is older. For instance, Iyer (1977) claims the first is the “earliest representation of garuda” (p. 52). On the contrary, Dhar (2009) lists the second as being from “c. second-first century BCE” (p. 10), which would make it older than the Sanchi example. I, however, believe the second is younger than the first because it is clearly an embellished version of the first.

4) Although some of its iconographical elements can be similar to the bird god, the Face of Glory shouldn’t be confused with Garuda because it represents the “monster of greed” (Beer, 1999, pp. 69-70). This is why it is constantly in the act of eating.

5) This recalls the story of Krishna defeating the serpent Kaliya by dancing on his head (Leeming, 2006, p. 232).

6) For example, in chapters 50 to 52, Laozi’s buffalo runs amuck on earth as a demon. The monster uses a diamond bracelet that he stole from his master to capture Monkey’s staff. The simian hero enlists the aid of the Daoist patriarch, who subjugates the beast and later puts the bracelet through its nose and uses a sash as a lead. The novel then explains: “Thus the custom of leading the buffalo with a ring in its nose was established, a custom in use even now” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 30).

7) People struck by lightning were thought to have been marked (scarred) with a sign of their guilt much like a convict in ancient China was tattooed (Meulenbeld, 2007).

8) See Meulenbeld (2007) chapter 4. See also section 6.4 for a discussion on Sun Wukong and his relationship to Sire Thunder and the Thunder Ritual.


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Association for Asian Studies., Goodrich, L. C., & Fang, Z. (1976). Dictionary of Ming biography, 1368-1644. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Dehejia, Vidya. 1997. Indian art. London: Phaidon.

Dhar, P. P. (2009). The Toraṇa in Indian and Southeast Asian architecture. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Elgood, H. (2000). Hinduism and the religious arts. London: Cassell.

Ganguli, K. M., and Rāya, P. (2003). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Gupte, R. S. (1967). The art and architecture of Aihole: A study of early Chalukyan art through temple architecture and sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.

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Iyer, K. B. (1977). Animals in Indian sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.

Kramrisch, S. (1928). The Vishnudharmottara (part III): A treatise on Indian painting and image-making. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.

Leeming, D. A. (2006). The Oxford companion to world mythology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Malandra, G. H. (1993). Unfolding a maṇḍala: the Buddhist cave temples at Ellora. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press.

Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

Mookerji, R. (1973). The Gupta Empire. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Patel, S. K. (1992). Hinduism in India: A study of Viṣṇu worship. Delhi (India): Amar Prakashan.

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Singer, J. C. (1999). The cultural roots of early Central Tibetan painting In Kossak, Steven M., and Jane Casey Singer. 1999. Sacred visions: early paintings from Central Tibet (pp. 3-24). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Smith, V. A. (1969). The Jain stûpa and other antiquities of Mathurâ. Varanasi: Indological Book House.

Stoddard, H. (1996). Early Tibetan Paintings: Sources and Styles (Eleventh-Fourteenth Centuries A.D.). Archives of Asian Art 49, pp. 26-50.

Stoddard, H. (2008). Early Sino-Tibetan art. Bangkok: Orchid Press.

Subbaraman, R. (2002). Beyond the question of the Monkey imposter: Indian Influence on the Chinese novel the Journey to the West. Sino-Platonic Papers, (114), 1-35. Retrieved April, 2018, from

Tartakov, G. M. (1997). The Durga temple at Aihole: a historiographical study. Delhi [u.a.]: Oxford University Press.

Vogel, J. P. (1972). Indian serpent-lore: or, the Nāgas in Hindu legend and art. Varanasi [India]: Indological Book House.

Walker, B. (1968). Hindu world: an encyclopedic survey of Hinduism. London: Allen & Unwin.

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

Zhuangzi, & Watson, B. (2003). Zhuangzi: Basic writings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1946). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. [New York]: Pantheon Books.

Flower Fruit Mountain as the Center of the Universe and the Source of Monkey’s Power

Did you know JTTW presents Flower Fruit Mountain as the center of the universe? The end of a poem describing the mountain states, “This is indeed the pillar of Heaven, where a hundred rivers meet—/The Earth’s great axis, in ten thousand kalpas unchanged” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). Eliade (1959) notes that “communication [between heaven, earth, and the underworld in world religions] is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth” (p. 36). Why is this important? Because the novel describes how Monkey was born from a stone that “had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of heaven and earth and by the essences of the sun and moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). As a pillar of heaven, the height of Flower Fruit Mountain positions the boulder where heaven meets earth, allowing there to be a passage of energies between the two plains of existence through the stone, like electricity through a fuse. This ultimately explains why Sun is so powerful.

Click the image to open in full size.
A complex diagram of Mount Sumeru and the associated heavens above and hells below it. If this portrayed Flower Fruit Mountain, Sun Wukong’s boulder would have been located where the summit meets the first heaven (larger version).


As described here, the author of JTTW supplanted traditional Buddhist geography by placing China in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent and moving India to Western Godinyia. So by making Flower Fruit Mountain the axis mundi, it supplants Mount Sumeru as the center of the cosmos (fig. 1). Admittedly, there is a discrepancy between the literary narrative and the religious cosmology since the book states Flower Fruit Mountain is located “at the border of the small Aolai Country [傲來國], which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent [東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). By definition, the mountain can’t be in the center of the world if it’s located to the east of the easternmost continent. But discrepancies are bound to arise when you tell and augment a story cycle for hundreds of years. Flower Fruit Mountain is mentioned in the 13th-century precursor to the JTTW titled The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras (see Wivell, 1994).


Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and the profane: The nature of religion (W. R. Trask, Trans.). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

The Location of Monkey’s Home and the Origin of His Buddho-Daoist Master

I. The location of Monkey’s home

It is commonly assumed that the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) is located in China. A mountain with the same name in Jiangsu province is even touted as the home of the Monkey King. However, this is not the case within the novel’s narrative. The mountain is described as an island that “constitute[s] the chief range of the Ten Islets and form[s] the origin of the Three Islands” [1] and that it is situated “at the border of the small Aolai Country [Aolai guo, 傲來國], which lies to the east of the Eastern Purvavideha Continent [Sk: “Surpassing the body”; Ch: Dong sheng shen zhou, 東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 100 and 102). The distance between the island and Aolai is stated to be two hundred li (62 miles / 100 km) of open water. [2]

The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places Eastern Purvavideha, along with the Western Godaniya Continent (Sk: “Using Cattle”; Ch: Xi niu he zhou, 西牛賀洲), the Northern Uttarakuru Continent (Sk: “Unpleasant Sound”; Ch: Beijuluzhou, 北俱盧洲), and the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (Sk: “Rose-Apple”; Ch: Nan shan bu zhou, 南贍部洲) around the four respective faces of Mt. Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山), a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos, as well as the abode of assorted gods and sages (Robert & David, 2013, p. 869) (fig. 1). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India, or the known world to the ancient people of South Asia (Robert & David, 2013, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” (Dongtu, 東土) within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Most importantly, when Monkey goes in search of a means of escaping death, he sails from Eastern Purvavideha to Southern Jambudvipa (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 108). This means he sails to China.

I suggest the author-compiler of Journey to the West supplanted the traditional geography because Jambudvipa is associated with the “known world” according to Chinese readers and India is located to the west of the Middle Kingdom, which explains why South Asia is placed in Western Godaniya.

II. Wukong studies in India

Failing to find a teacher in Jambudvipa, Monkey sails further onto the Western Godaniya continent where he discovers the sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 須菩提). Upon meeting the primate, the sage asks him, “[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 114). This means Wukong studies elixir arts not in China but India.

#14 - Monkey's Home and Subhuti

Fig. 1 – A diagram showing a bird’s-eye view of sacred Buddhist geography (adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxix) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of Subhuti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock).

III. The origin of Subhuti

The Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti is based on one of the historical disciples of the Buddha. The historical Subhuti (fig. 2) was considered the most accomplished of the Buddha’s students in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pali: Metta; Sk: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 518 and 861-862). Most importantly, he was also famed for contemplating “emptiness(kong, 空), a subject with textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to “the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence” (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 872). Shao (2006) suggests the Buddho-Daoist master was modeled on the historical disciple “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to ’emptiness’ (sunyatā) that the Chan Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:

Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (Shao, 2006, p. 724).


1) These places are famous in Chinese mythology for being the homes of immortals.

2) The original passage says “across two hundred miles of water” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 131). However, the original Chinese uses li (里), which is a roughly one-third of a standard mile. I have changed the information accordingly.


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

Shao, P. (2006). “Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in Xiyou ji,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65 (No. 4), pp. 713-740

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

The Monkey King and Cinderella

Did you know that the Monkey King has a connection to Cinderella? The earliest known version of her story is based on Rhodopis, a tale set in ancient Egypt. It describes how the god Horus sends an eagle (or takes the form of one) to steal the slipper of the titular Greek slave and deliver it to an Egyptian Pharaoh, who launches a search for and eventually marries the woman. The tale was first recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in 7 BCE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 185-188). However, the work is part of a wider story cycle evident throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The earliest version that appears to have many of the familiar elements from the final European version hails from China. Titled “Yexian” (葉限), the story describes the titular heroine working as an imprisoned servant for her evil stepmother, the bestowal of a beautiful dress and slippers by a female ancestor from heaven, her attendance of a local festival, the loss of one of her slippers while fleeing the festivities, the discovery of the shoe by a foreign king, and a search that results in their eventual marriage. The story is based on the oral tales of the Zhuang ethnic people (of the Vietnamese-Chinese border) and was first recorded by Duan Chengshi (段成式) in the 9th-century CE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 191-192; Beauchamp, n.d.).

Click the image to open in full size.

Hanuman giving Sita Rama’s ring (larger version)


Certain elements of the story appear to have been influenced by the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, written by Valmiki around 500 BCE. The story tells how Sita, the wife of Vishnu’s reincarnation Prince Rama, is kidnapped and held prisoner by the demon Ravana (with the intent of making her his wife) on the island of Lanka. It is during her time in captivity that she is visited by Rama’s servant, Hanuman, a monkey demi-god, who brings her the prince’s ring to prove himself a trustworthy ally. The simian character then brings her anklet to Rama to prove she is still alive. Rama’s army assaults Ranava’s fortress, and he is eventually reunited with his wife. This at first may not seem like it matches at all, but you have an imprisoned beauty (Sita vs Yexian), supernatural assistance from heaven (Hanuman vs. the female ancestor), the exchange of personal items to prove one’s identity (the ring and anklet vs the slipper), and a campaign that brings together the woman and a man of royal blood (Sita and Rama vs Yexian and the foreign king) (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Scholars believe that secularized snippets of the Rama story cycle came to China in several waves, one of which was via Southeast Asian Hindu converts who settled in Southern China from the 7th-century onwards (Walker, 1998).

As some of you may know, many scholars believe Monkey was influenced by Hanuman, and this fact is best illustrated in chapters 68 to 71. The episode sees a queen being kidnapped and held prisoner by a demon (with the intent of making her his wife) in a faraway land. Sun Wukong is employed to find her. He brings back a bracelet to her husband as proof of life and identity, and eventually reunites the couple after defeating the demon (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Beauchamp (n.d.) provides a diagram showing the similarities between the stories of Yexian, Sita, and the queen from Journey to the West.


(larger version)


Beauchamp, F. (n.d.). In the Realm of the Dragon King: Sita and Hanuman meet Cinderella and Sun Wukong. Retrieved from [Original link dead. Click on article title to read.]

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

Ripley, D. (2010). The maiden with a thousand slippers: Animal helpers and the hero(ine)’s journey In Patricia Monaghan (Ed.). Goddesses in world culture (pp. 185-200). Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

A Historical Source for Monkey’s Staff?

Note: Since writing this article, I have come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the iron pillar. Please see the entry for 09/26/16 below. I am keeping this article up for posterity so other scholars may see my thought process.

Last updated02/06/21

Much of my recent work has focused on the origins of Monkey’s magic staff. This is because scholars have not attempted to trace the influences of the weapon beyond the earliest version of the story from the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). The most recent blog entry traces the staff to the ringed and metal staves carried by religious and martial Buddhist monks, respectively. The Song-era version sees Monkey using these two kinds of staves in defense of his master Xuanzang (玄奘) (Mair 1994: 1189-1190). Over time these were combined into a single weapon; the rings from the former were fused at the ends of the latter. This could have been the invention of Yuan/Ming storytellers or the author of the final Ming version (the novel was actually published anonymously) (Wu and Yu 2012: 21).

However, this doesn’t explain all aspects of the weapon. Take for example the initial description of the staff as a black iron pillar with an inscription:

[Sun] Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,550 lbs.” (Wu and Yu 2012: 135). [1]

If the weapon is based on historical objects, could it be possible that this description is based on something real? I believe I have found the object that may have influenced Monkey’s treasure: the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – The Iron Pillar of Delhi (4th-cent. CE) (larger version).

This Hindu monument was erected by King Chandragupta II (r. 380–413) of the Gupta Empire and dedicated to the deva Vishnu (Balasubramaniam 2005: 14). It is nearly 24 feet long, 21 feet of which is sticking out of the ground (“an iron rod more than twenty feet long”). The shaft has a very wide diameter, 24 inches at the base and 17 inches at ground level (“as thick as a barrel”) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 30). It has an ornamental bell capital that was originally topped by a chakra disc (“He found a golden hoop at each end”) (fig. 2)(Balasubramaniam 2005: 36-42). [2] And it also carries an inscription describing the military feats of the king (“Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription…”) (fig. 3) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 6-8).

Fig. 2 – (Left) A reconstruction of the chakra disc (larger version) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 42). Fig. 3 – (Right) The inscription (larger version).

What’s most interesting is the fact that the pillar is famous for resisting corrosion over the last 1,600 years. Scientists have analyzed its composition to find that it has a high phosphorous content, which forms a protective barrier against corrosive agents (Balasubramaniam 2005: 3 and 50-51). This means that the metallurgists of ancient India were far more advanced than originally thought. In addition, a local tradition in Delhi associates the pillar with Bhima, a supernaturally strong warrior from the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (4th-cent. BCE). A legend circulating from at least the 19th-century (maybe earlier) claims that he wielded the monument as a club in his ancient war against a rival army (Chunder 1869: 152). Therefore, a black iron rod that defies time and is associated with martial heroes would surely make a fine weapon for an immortal monkey, no?

I unfortunately don’t know of any Chinese sources mentioning the pillar, so connecting it directly to Xiyouji is difficult. However, the pillar was around for 1,200 years prior to the final Ming version, and Buddhist monks such as Faxian and the historical Xuanzang made pilgrimages to northern India were the monument is located. Not to mention there is the possibility that Indian and Chinese merchants traveling back and forth between the two countries could have spread tales about the marvelous iron rod to China. These oral tales could have then reached the ear of the novel’s author during the Ming. I’ve contacted experts in Chinese history, religion, and literature to determine whether or not I’m on the right path. I’ll make a sister entry in the future if I happen upon any more information.

Update: 06/04/14

I recently learned that famed Muslim sojourner Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) referenced the pillar in his travel log:

In the center of the [Mosque of Delhi] is the awe-inspiring column of which [it is said] nobody knows of what metal it is constructed. One of their learned men told me that it is called Haft Jūsh, which means ‘seven metals’, and that it is composed of these seven. A part of this column, of a finger’s length, has been polished, and this polished part gives out a brilliant gleam. Iron makes no impression on it. It is thirty cubits high, and we rolled a turban round it, and the portion which encircled it measured eight cubits (Ibn 2002: 622). [3]

Ibn Battuta traveled to China after his time in India, so this is just an example of how stories of the pillar could have come to the Middle Kingdom.

Update: 12/30/14

I just posted the third and final installment of my investigation on the history of Monkey’s staff. It can be read here.

Update: 09/26/16

Since writing the top entry, I’ve come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the staff’s depiction as an iron pillar. This entry serves as an addendum until I can write a longer blog on the subject…

Update: 12/09/16

I recently learned about the origins of Monkey’s birth from stone, which may have influenced the hero’s connection with Yu’s ruler.

Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


[1] Emphasis added. Anthony Yu’s original translation states ” thirteen thousand five hundred pounds.” However, Chinese versions of the novel use jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin 2004: 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show the more accurate weight.

[2] Balasubramaniam (2005) states that the discus was probably removed during the Muslim era for iconoclastic reasons (43). I’m not sure when (if it all) stories of the pillar made it to China. Whether before or after the Muslim conquest, the ornamental nature of the discus and/or the remaining bell capital could have influenced the fusion of the rings from the religious staff to the ends of the martial iron staff.

[3] A big thanks to Historum member Jinit for bringing the reference to my attention.


Balasubramaniam, R. 2005. Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar. Delhi: Foundation Books.

Chunder, Bholanauth. 1869. The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India (Vol. 2). London: N. Trübner.

Elvin, Mark. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Ibn Batuta, and H. A. R. Gibb. 2000. The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325-1354 (Vol. 3). London: Hakluyt Society.

Wu, Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. 2012. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1). Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.