I’ve previously written an article describing 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, c. late-13th-century), a seventeen chapter novelette that likely served as a prompt for oral storytellers. It is the oldest printed version of the Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) story cycle. Here, I would like to present an English translation of this tale by Charles S. Wivell (1994).
Detail of Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim from a late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). See here for more ancient depictions of Sun Wukong and his master.
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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.
Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.
1. Northern China
1.1. Oldest known reference
The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen, 遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:
Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts, In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them; Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure, Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra). In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara), the Monkey-disciple  presses on, Through the waters of the river that soak its hair, the horse rushes forward; No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands, Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore. The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might get their heart’s desire, But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on; Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures, Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).
The tribute references elements that would later appear 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, c. late-13th-century), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.
Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).
1.2. Oldest known depictions
The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音).  Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.
Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his hands (which are missing) are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).
Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version). Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.
But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).
Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.
The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra(fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).
Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.
The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.
Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.
Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).
Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.
The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).
Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.
There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.
3. Southern China
3.1. Oldest known reference
Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:
From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama(sūtra), Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛]. To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim]. In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). 
The poem is openly critical of Buddhism,  showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.
And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:
A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”, A face even uglier than [the Monkey Pilgrim], Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).
This shows that even by the mid-13th-century, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.
3.2. Oldest known depiction
The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.
Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.
Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.
Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.
4. First appearance?
To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). 
The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.
1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).
2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:
The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).
3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.
4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).
5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).
Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.
I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.
In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.
This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.
The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).
The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.
So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).
The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).
Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).
His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branchshen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).
His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’sNuminous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).
The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬三千五百斤.
He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!
His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.
Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishingkyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwarkyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).
He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).
He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.
Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.
Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.
Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Campany, R. F. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming in Early Medieval China. In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150), University of Hawaii Press.
Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
I’ve written many articles on the origins of the Monkey King’s staff over the years. Therefore, I’ve decided to combine all of the information in one location for the benefit of people wishing to learn more about the weapon and its history. This will no doubt be interesting to fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592; JTTW hereafter), as well as those of modern franchises like Dragon Ball and Lego Monkie Kid (fig. 1). Citations can be found in the articles linked below.
Fig. 1 – The Lego Monkie Kid character “MK” wielding the Monkey King’s magic staff (larger version). Copyright Lego.
1. The Literary Weapon
1.1. Staff Background
The staff first appears in chapter three of the original novel when the Monkey King goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional weapons offered to him fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun Wukong “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The weapon is said to be a “divine treasure iron” originally used to set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe ding di de shenzhen tie, 天河定底的神珍鐵) by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythic Chinese emperor and demigod.
The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron or bin steel more than 20 feet in height and as wide as a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun notices that the weapon is decorated with a golden ring on each end, as well as an inscription along the body reading: “The ‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff is immensely heavy, weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg).
Apart from the above information, a poem in chapter 75 (see section 2.3 here) highlights another name, “Rod of Numinous Yang” (Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒). In addition, the poem describes the staff being covered in “tracks of planets and stars” (i.e. astronomical charts) and esoteric “dragon and phoenix scripts” (longwen yu fengzhuan, 龍紋與鳳篆).
The novel provides two contradictory origins for the staff. The chapter 75 poem notes that it “[w]as forged in the stove by Laozi himself”. Laozi is of course the high god of Daoism. Chapter 88 instead states that it was “forged at Creation’s dawn / By Yu the Great himself, the god-man of old”.
Contrary to popular images of the Monkey King holding a regular-sized staff, his literary counterpart wields a massive weapon in battle. It is said to be 20 feet long (likely an error for 12),  with the width of a bowl (erzhang changduan, wankou cuxi, 二丈長短，碗口粗細) (fig. 2). I did a cursory search of bowls during the Ming (when the standard edition of JTTW was published) and found that they have a radius of between 4 to 6 inches (10.16 to 15.25 cm).
Size manipulation – This is the weapon’s most well-known ability, growing as big or as small as Monkey wishes.
Controlling the oceans – The aforementioned poem from chapter 88 writes: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. / Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas…”
Astral entanglement – Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in Hell despite the physical weapon being with his body in the world of the living.
Multiplication – He can multiply his staff in the hundreds of thousands.
Lock-Picking – He can open any door just by pointing it at the lock.
Transformation – He can change it into tools like a straight razor or a drill.
Sentience – The weapon glows in anticipation of Monkey’s arrival (fig. 3), responds to his touch, and follows his commands, denoting a certain level of sentience.
The staff found in the standard Ming edition of JTTW is actually based on two weapons from a 17-chapter storytelling prompt called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procured the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century). Sun Wukong’s precursor, an ageless immortal called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), magically transports Tripitaka and his entourage to heaven. There, the supreme god, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王; i.e. Vaiśravana), gives the monk a cap of invisibility, a khakkhara (ringed monk’s staff) (fig. 4), and a begging bowl. Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim take turns using these items throughout the journey. The staff is shown capable of shooting destructive beams of light, as well as transforming into magical creatures like an iron dragon or a giant, club-wielding Yaksha. Later, the Monkey Pilgrim also borrows an iron staff from heaven to fight a dragon.
The two staves from this tale were eventually combined by later storytellers. The rings from the first weapon were added to the ends of the second.
Fig. 4 – A beautiful, modern monk’s staff with six rings (larger version).
2.2. Influence from Religion
The Monkey Pilgrim’s magic ringed staff and begging bowl were directly influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the historical Buddha. One particular 9th to 10th-century story notes that the Saint uses the staff to unlock the gates of hell in order to save his mother (fig. 5). This is where Sun Wukong’s weapon from JTTW gets the power to open locks.
Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.
The ringed and metal staves used by the Monkey Pilgrim are based on those historically carried by Buddhist monks in ancient China. The aforementioned ringed variety, called “tin staves” (xizhang, 錫杖) where used by religious monks and decorated with six to twelve metal rings (see fig. 4). These rings were designed to make a clanging noise to not only scare away animals on the road but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence.
Martial monks charged with protecting monasteries or deployed by the Chinese government against pirates wielded wooden or iron staves (fig. 6). The former were chosen for their diminished capacity for fatal injuries, while the latter were explicitly used for killing during times of war. Sun Wukong wielding the iron variety makes sense as he’s a martial monk charged with protecting Tripitaka from monsters and spirits.
Fig. 6 – A martial monk practicing a drunken staff-fighting form (larger version).
The term “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) from Monkey’s staff (mentioned above) is connected with a scepter used in ancient China as a symbol of religious debate and authority and, to a lesser extent, as a weapon. While it can be traced to a Hindo-Buddhist tradition in India, the scepter came to be associated with the highest gods of Daoism thanks to being decorated with a “numinous mushroom” (lingzhi, 靈芝), a real world fungi believed to bestow immortality. This mushroom scepter was at some point associated with the Buddhist Cintamani (Ruyi zhu, 如意珠), or “As-you-will jewel”. This was believed to grant any wish that one might desire. This explains why Monkey’s As-you-will staff grows or shrinks according to his commands. It’s interesting to note that some religious images of the scepter depict it with a syncretic mix of the Daoist mushroom and the Buddhist jewel (fig. 7).
The weapon’s portrayal in JTTW as an iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom comes from old stories about the immortal Xu Xun (許遜), a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province. Popular tales describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century version titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace Drives Away Evil” (Jingyang gong tieshu zhenyao, 旌陽宮鐵樹鎮妖) describes how he chained the flood dragon patriarch to an iron tree (tieshu, 鐵樹) and submerged it in a well, thus preventing the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm and causing trouble. Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 8). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.
Fig. 8 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting the immortal Xu overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement the well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version).
As previously noted, the staff weighs 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg). This is likely based on an episode from chapter 27 of the Chinese novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block said to weigh 300 to 500 catties (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg) (fig. 9). This scene and the one from JTTW where Monkey lifts the iron pillar are quite similar. Both involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. And given the close historical and cultural ties between the two heroes, I believe the author-compiler of JTTW embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.
1) Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog has suggested that the length is likely an error for 12 feet (zhanger, 丈二) since the staff was already near 20 feet when Monkey first acquired it, and he later asked it to shrink to a more manageable size.
Readers may wonder where I get my inspiration to write articles. Most of the time I seek to answer a question that pops up while reading a book or researching a subject, leading to a subsequent paper on what I learned. Other times, I simply stumble across something online. A prime example of this is the “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人), a rare folk Taoist deity that I recently learned about from Facebook. He is depicted with long hair (sometimes with ear-pressing tufts) and a golden fillet, linking him to Chinese opera depictions of military monks (wuseng, 武僧) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178), thus signaling his position as a martial deity. A headdress with lingzi (翎子) feathers sometimes adorns his crown. His visage ranges from welcoming to fierce and from human to more primate-like. He wears a golden suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with the right knee resting on the seat, exposing the bottom of his foot to the viewer. This armor is sometimes draped in a colorful ritual cape. His left arm is usually bent at the elbow and the hand is clenched in a fist (or two-finger shooting mudra) or holds an immortal peach at the chest, while the other is held high and contains a fly whisk or staff. This iconography is shockingly similar to religious depictions of Sun Wukong as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖). In fact, the two deities are nearly indistinguishable apart from the ape sometimes having white hair and a white face. But this isn’t always a good indicator, though, as one Fujian tradition features a brother of the Monkey King with a white face. And other times, statues of the white ape might be plain wood or even bronze, thereby erasing any signifying color. But the best clue to his identity appears to be the combination of the fist at the chest and a raised foot while in a seated position, what I call the “fist over foot motif” (fig. 1 to 4).
I’ve previously written about magical white apes (gibbons) in relation to Tang-era Chinese literature, primate-based martial arts, and the fictional origin of Sun Wukong. I’ve even archived an entire book on the subject which surveys historical references, poems, folktales, and art spanning over 3,000 years from the Zhou to Qing dynasties. I would like to supplement this material by writing an article about the White Ape Perfected Man and his appearance in vernacular fiction and Taoist scripture. I suggest his iconography was directly influenced by Sun Wukong based on a centuries-long association between the two magic primates in popular literature.
I traveled to the Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple in Yingge District, New Taipei, Taiwan (Yingge Hongde Gong Sun Bin Miao, 鶯歌宏德宮孫臏廟) (fig. 5) to gather material for this article. Unfortunately, the temple’s statue of the White Ape Perfected Man (fig. 6) was out for repairs on the day of my visit. But I collected information about the deity from the temple’s history book (fig. 7). The ape god is associated with Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE) (fig. 8), a deified military strategist of the Warring States period, and is revered as a transmitter of divine knowledge.  A rough translation of his religious story follows:
“The White Ape Steals a Peach and Offers a Heavenly Book” (Baiyuan toutao xian tianshu, 白猿偷桃獻天書)
According to legend, when Sun Bin was studying military arts under Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xiansheng, 鬼谷先生), he opened a plot of uncultivated land on the side of Yunmeng Mountain (Yunmeng shan, 雲夢山) and grew a peach orchard with big, fleshy, and delicious fruits using his teacher’s method. At the foot of the mountain lived a mother and son who depended on each other. The son looked like a monkey because his body was covered with white hair, and so he was known as the “Little White Ape” (Xiao baiyuan, 小白猿). His mother was constantly sick and occasionally dreamed of a transcendent pointing and saying, “Eat the immortal peaches on Yunmeng Mountain and your illness will be cured”.
The white ape was a filial son, and so he went to steal a peach for his mother but lost his way. Sun caught the boy and asked him why he would steal from the orchard. Once he heard of the ape’s sick mother, he gave him the peach. The mother ate the fruit and recovered. In return, the white ape gave Sun a heavenly book of military strategy (bingshu, 兵書) passed down from his ancestors, saying, “Thank you for your life-saving grace”.
Another version of the story states the Yunmeng peach was so famous for its large size, fleshy fruit, and delicious taste that, upon hearing of it, the Queen Mother of the West sent the white ape to steal it for her Peach Banquet.
This last part is a reversal of Sun Wukong stealing the Queen Mother’s peaches in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). 
Fig. 5 – The Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 6 – A detail of the temple’s White Ape Perfected Man’s statue (larger version). See fig. 8 for a full version. Fig. 7 – A page from the temple’s history book (larger version). Note the bronze statue of the White Ape, including the lingzi headdress. Photo by the author. Fig. 8 – The central statue of Sun Bin (larger version). Note the position of the white ape in front of Sun. Photo from Facebook.
Astute readers will notice that the tale does not touch on the white ape’s religious title, the “Perfected Man” (Zhenren, 真人). Perfected individuals rank among the highest transcendents of the celestial hierarchy and even rule over lower immortals residing in various earthly paradises (Miura, 2008). This contrasts with the meager, filial son presented in the story. It also contrasts with the white ape’s iconography as an armor-clad martial deity. Perfected individuals are usually portrayed as lofty immortals wearing robes decorated with Daoist symbols (Stevens & Welch, 1998, for example).
I reached out to the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮齊宮), where the White Ape Perfected Man is worshiped as the main deity (zhu shen, 主神) (fig. 9), to make sense of these disparate strands. However, they did not get back to me by the time this article was ready for publication. I’ll make an update when new information becomes available. But until then, I suggest his martial iconography was directly influenced by depictions of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, whose cult is far more prevalent in Taiwan. This proposed connection to Sun Wukong becomes even more evident when the information below is taken into account.
Fig. 9 – Zhenji Temple’s main White Ape Perfected Man statue (center background) surrounded by various smaller figures (larger version). The statue in the left foreground looks very similar to the Great Sage apart from the fist over foot motif. Image from Facebook.
II. Vernacular Fiction
The White Ape Perfected Man’s religious story can be traced directly to The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (Sun Pang douzhi yanyi, 孫龐鬥智演義, 1636; a.k.a. The Former and Latter Annals of the Seven Kingdoms, Qianhou qiguo zhi, 前後七國志), which tells of the great struggle between Sun Bin and his former friend and classmate Pang Juan (龐涓). The two study supernatural military arts under the Immortal Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xianshi, 鬼谷仙師) in his “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) before their fates take separate paths and they become bitter enemies. Chapter four sees the teacher appoint Sun as guardian of an immortal peach tree on the backside of Yunmeng Mountain. But the young disciple is surprised to discover a talking white ape stealing peaches night after night. When asked how it can speak, the primate reveals his aristocratic family has been soaking up immortal qi energy for three generations northwest of the Master’s cave. His ancestor is the Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯),  his father the Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公),  and his mother the Princess Mountain Blossom (Shanhua gongzhu, 山花公主).  When asked why he’s stealing peaches (fig. 10), the white ape reveals he’s trying to cure his mother of an illness and that she will die unless the treatment is completed. Taking pity on the filial primate, Sun picks the last peach needed and gives it to the white ape, telling him never to return to the orchard. The grateful son repays the favor by stealing three scrolls of heavenly books (tianshu, 天書) from Master Ghost Valley’s secret hiding place to give to his mother’s savior.
But Sun Bin mistakenly incurs the wrath of heaven not only because he acquires the books before he’s fated to but also because he fails to ritually cleanse himself before reading them. Master Ghost Valley is forced to intervene on his student’s behalf by teaching Sun how to hide from heavenly punishment (da zainan, 大災難, lit: “great tribulation”) by meditating in a cave for 49 days (Wumen xiaoke & Yanshui sanren, 1636).
This novel shares many elements with Journey to the West. Both include:
Characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a “Water Curtain Cave”. 
Sun characters studying under an immortal master (Master Ghost Valley VS Master Subodhi). 
Sun characters being directed to guard trees laden with immortal peaches (one tree on earth VS an entire grove in heaven).
Supernatural primates stealing the magic peaches for consumption (the white ape VS the Monkey King). 
Sun characters defying their fate and incurring the wrath of heaven, thereby learning from their masters how to hide from punishment (Sun Bin Vs. Sun Wukong). 
Fig. 10 – A lovely New Years print depicting scenes from the story, including the “White Ape steals peaches” (right) and the “White Ape is filial to mother” (left) (larger version). The right print includes Master Ghost Valley and a young Sun Bin. Print found here.
[The rogue immortal Huaguang (華光)] works to end his mother’s demonic lust for flesh by procuring an immortal peach in chapter 17. He does this by transforming into Sun Wukong and stealing the magic fruit from heaven. The real Monkey King is subsequently accused of his double’s misdeeds, much like the Six-Eared Macaque episode of the original novel. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give Sun a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit.
So we have two magical primate characters (the white ape VS Huaguang-as-Sun Wukong) that steal immortal peaches to help cure their mothers. This association with the rogue immortal might then explain why the statue of the White Ape Perfected Man from figure one has a third eye. Huaguang’s various incarnations are described as having three eyes in Journey to the South (for example) (Yu, n.d.).
Therefore, it seems that these later novels borrowed from Journey to the West, as well as each other. But I will show the theme of a primate stealing fruit actually predates the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West by hundreds of years, suggesting it too borrowed from an earlier source.
III. Taoist Literature
The story of Sun Bin and the white ape actually prefaces the first scroll of the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin (Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing, 太上六壬明鑑符陰經) (a.k.a., the Ape Book, Yuanshu, 猿書),  a Northern Song-era work related to the Taoist doctrine of the Three Sovereigns (Steavu, 2019, p. 195). Instead of peaches, the tale just says “fruit” (guo, 菓). But I imagine the produce is something special like immortal peaches as Sun guards them with a weapon. A rough translation follows (I have skipped over some of the more esoteric parts that escape me):
[Master Ghost Valley] saw the fruit had ripened, so he commanded Sun to watch over it. One night a person jumped the wall into the nine gardens and took some of the fruit. But Sun was hiding with a sword and caught the culprit, a white ape. The primate said: “Don’t hurt my body. I share the same age as heaven and earth and have lived as long as the sun and moon. I have mysterious texts (xuanwen, 玄文). Wait for me the next day and I will give them to you”. The white ape then transformed into white light and left. Sun waited the following day. Suddenly, he saw the white ape fly from the northwest. He was given one scroll of mysterious texts. The primate again transformed into white light and headed towards the southeast. Sun then returned to his room to inspect the text. He didn’t know the name but saw that it was divided into three volumes: initial (shang, 上), middle (zhong, 中) and final (xia, 下). He named it after the white ape (Taishang liuren, n.d.).
The story of a magic monkey stealing peaches was already present in the Journey to the West story cycle by the 13th-century, for the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), Sun Wukong’s predecessor, admits to raiding the Queen Mother’s orchard when he was still a young immortal (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). But the preceding Daoist scripture indicates the motif is even older.  In addition, the scripture shows the idea of a character surnamed Sun (Sun Bin) guarding special fruit predates the motif in the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West. It’s not a stretch then to suggest the Most High Luminous Mirror (or related media) influenced the 13th and later 16th-century versions of the story. Therefore, it’s possible the tales of Sun Bin, the white ape, and Sun Wukong have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years.
This centuries-long association between the magical primates in literature then strengthens my suggestion that the White Ape Perfected Man’s iconography was directly influenced by that of Sun Wukong. Drawing upon a well of preexisting cultural beliefs and imagery likely helped the cult of this relatively recent deity establish itself faster, allowing him to take his place in a rapidly evolving religious landscape where ever newer gods are constantly added to the ranks of their older brethren.
The White Ape Perfected Man is a rare folk Taoist deity associated with revealing heavenly scriptures to the Warring States military strategist Sun Bin (4th-cent.). His statues depict him as a seated, armor-clad primate with a “fist over foot” motif and the long hair and golden fillet of military monks from Chinese opera. This martial iconography conflicts with the deity’s title, “Perfected Man”, a high-ranking immortal usually depicted wearing robes. It also conflicts with his own religious story, which presents him as a meager, filial son who steals immortal peaches to cure his sick mother. I suggested above that his religious imagery was directly influenced by depictions of Sun Wukong as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. Beyond shockingly similar iconography, both primate deities have a long association in Chinese popular literature. The white ape appears in The Battle of Wits Between Sun and Pang (1636), which shares many similarities with Journey to the West (1592). These include characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a Water Curtain Cave, studying under immortal masters (Ghost Valley VS Subodhi), guarding immortal peaches, and hiding from heavenly punishment. It also includes supernatural primates (the white ape VS the Monkey King) stealing the life-prolonging fruit for consumption. The number of similarities suggests The Battle of Wits borrowed from Journey to the West. The theft of immortal peaches is already present in a 13th-century version of Journey to the West, but this is preceded by a tale appearing in a work from Taoist canon, the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin. It describes the white ape stealing fruit from a garden protected by Sun Bin. It’s possible the Monkey King’s early story cycle was influenced by this scripture (or related media), suggesting the stories of Sun Wukong, Sun Bin, and the white ape have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years. This centuries-long connection lends support to the martial iconography of Sun Wukong influencing the religious imagery of the White Ape Perfected Man.
I was under the impression that the White Ape Perfected Man is a deity specific to Taiwan (albeit with a mythos connected to China). But Palmer and Siegler (2017) quote a certain Master Hu, a monk of Mt. Hua in Shaanxi province, China, who claims the immortal taught him a system of primate-based martial arts:
I learned [White Ape Through the Back Boxing] spontaneously; it was transmitted to me by the White [Ape] Immortal (Baiyuan zhenren). When I start, he comes down into me, and I do the forms spontaneously. In the future, perhaps I will arrange it into a method in stages that can be taught to others. The White [Ape] Immortal first transmitted the method to humans in the spring and autumn period (770–476 BC), but owing to the poor moral quality of the inheritors of the method, it was lost. Now, it has been transmitted directly to me by the Immortal (pp. 120-121).
The notion of a white ape revealing knowledge matches with what I have described above. Teaching boxing also aligns with the martial iconography. But northern China is so far removed from the available information that I have to question whether or not this a different figure with the same name. I’ve written the authors to see if I can learn more about this Chinese variant.
Also, Master Ghost Valley’s association with the Water Curtain Cave goes back to at least the Northern Song as his Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) lists him as the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主) (Andersen, 2019). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with the caves of the Master (and Sun Bin) in The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (1636) and Sun Wukong in Journey to the West (1592). But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth. This might suggest, apart from the guarding and theft of immortal peaches, other elements from Sun Bin’s story cycle were borrowed by that of the Monkey King.
I mentioned in the introduction white face and hair are not always the best indicators thata figure is the White Ape Perfected Man. Take, for example, some depictions of Sun Wukong in glove puppetry (fig. 11).
Yesterday I visited the aforementioned Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮齊宮), where the White Ape Perfected Man is venerated. I learned a few things. One, his religious birthday is celebrated on the 27th day of the 5th lunar month (June 25th, 2022), often written as 五月廿七日. Two, his mother, the “Holy Mother of Nine Rivers” (Jiujiang shengmu, 九江聖母), is also worshiped at the temple (her birthday is the 15th day of the 1st lunar month). A temple booklet provided to me tells her story (fig. 12 & 13). I paraphrase the tale below:
Five hundred years before the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, there were three godly brothers named Sun Wuzi (孫武子), Sun Yuanzi (孫圓子), and Sun Huanzi (孫環子). The eldest brother Wuzi and the youngest Huanzi fought for status. But because the latter killed the former with evil magic, Sun Huanzi was sentenced by the Jade Emperor to die on the “Immortal-Beheading Platform” (Zhanxian tai, 斬仙台). The brothers were reborn in the mortal realm five hundred years later during the Warring States period. Sun Wuzi was reborn as Sun Bin in the Yan state, Sun Yuanzi was reborn as (the white ape) Xiaobai (小白) in the Qin state, and Sun Huanzi was reborn as Pang Juan in the Wei State.
The mother of the white ape was the third princess of the Qin state. One day, she became thirsty while touring the imperial garden. But in the absence of tea, she sated her thirst with sweet dew from tree leaves. Three months later, the princess discovered to her surprise that she, an unwed woman, was pregnant. When her father the king learned of this news, he expelled her from the palace. Sometime later, she came by accident to Swallow Lake (Yanzi hu, 燕子湖), a pure, mirror-like body of water surrounded by exotic, fragrant flowers and singing birds and insects. After wandering around this indescribable paradise for sometime, the princess became tired and went to sleep. She dreamed of a golden swallow that told her the child she was carrying was a god reincarnated on earth. It also asked the princess to practice spiritual cultivation beside the lake, promising her that she would one day became an immortal. She realized it was just a dream when she woke up, but she followed through with her training.
Ten days later she gave birth to her son, who was not quite human or demon. His entire body was covered with white hair just like a white ape. The local people claimed that he was a monster, but despite her anger, she raised him patiently. When he was three years old, heaven bestowed on him three divine treasures: an As-You-Will Vajra Staff (Ruyi jingang bang, 如意金剛棒), a golden headband spell (jinquan zhou, 金圈咒), and the steed Red Hare (Chitu ma, 赤兔馬). When the white ape was eight years old, a demon came to threaten the villagers around Swallow Lake. The white ape fought the monster and won, leading the people to believe he was a great celestial immortal (Dalou tianxian, 大羅天仙) come to save the world.
When the white ape was sixteen, his mother’s holy spirit left her body, and the evil Sage Sea Tide (Haichao shengren, 海潮聖人) cast his heavenly treasure around it, thus making her body sick. The Patriarch Reaching Heaven (Tongtian jiaozhu, 通天教主) then appeared to tell the white ape that the only way to cure his mother was to feed her one of the Queen Mother‘s (Wangmu niangniang, 王母娘娘) immortal peaches. After many hardships, he succeeded in his quest and cured her. Upon her recovery, she practiced diligently and eventually achieved immortality.
One day, the immortal princess did divination on her fingers and found that, despite their practice, four other woman around Swallow Lake had yet to achieve the elixir. So, she took them as her servants and continued to guide their practice. After this, she subdued seventeen phoenixes that were the same class of evil spirits as the phoenixes and serpents below the Queen Mother’s gate. Following this, she subdued thirty-six demon dragons as her subordinate generals.
At this time, the god of fire (huoshen, 火神) spread flames everywhere, plunging the world into chaos. The fires killed the surrounding vegetation and created a drought. The immortal princess felt sorry for the people, so she used her powers to defeat the fire god in a great battle. She then transformed nine dragons into nine rivers for the people to drink and to revive the plants and trees. The people were finally able to live in peace. From this point on, they worshiped her as the Holy Mother of Nine Rivers. A temple dedicated to her was built around Swallow Lake in Guangling County, Shanxi Province, China, which is now a first-class protected historic site by the CCP.
It appears that portions of this story were taken from the Qing-era novel Spring and Autumn of Stabbing Swords (Fengjian chunqiu, 鋒劍春秋). The godly Sun brothers, the evil Sage Sea Tide, and even the white ape appear therein.
I’d also like to highlight that the white ape’s staff and headband are modeled on that of Sun Wukong, strengthening my suggestion that the former’s iconography was based on the latter.
1) The idea of a white ape sharing heavenly knowledge goes back centuries. For example, one 4th-century source reveals Zhou Qun (周羣/群, 3rd-cent.) learned the art of divination from a book of bamboo slips given to him by a gibbon-turned-old man in the Min Mountains (Gulik, 1967, p. 50).
2) Sun is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves in chapter four. He starts eating the life-prolonging fruit early in his tenure, and his theft is eventually discovered by attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 160 and 162-163).
3) The Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯) is an ape spirit appearing in a story from the Song-era Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). A retired official from Sichuan is invited to an eerie, drunken party by the Marquis, only to wake up the next morning to find his host was a gibbon and all of the other guests were also animal spirits (Gulik, 1967, pp. 67 and 68-69).
4) The only Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公) that I’m aware of is a human keeper of monkeys from a parable on freedom appearing in The Collected Works of Bowen (Chengyi Bowen ji, 诚意伯文集, 14th-cent.). I’m not sure if the novel is claiming the ape has a human father, or if it’s just a vague reference to a character from Chinese literature with a connection to primates.
5) I can’t find any information on this character. But given the ancestor and father, I’m sure the mother is associated with apes or monkeys in some way.
6) Wukong becomes king of the monkeys in chapter one by discovering a cave, the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), behind a waterfall. His people soon after take residence inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 104-106).
10) Steavu (2019) calls it the “Monkey book” (p. 195), but a gibbon is an ape, so I have adjusted the translation accordingly.
11) I suggest in this article that the supernatural ape stealing peaches motif could be a mixture of a Sinicized version of the Great Monkey jataka tale, in which the Buddha’s reincarnation as a monkey king leads his people to raid an imperial fruit garden, and the theft of immortal peaches by the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), who is subsequently exiled to reincarnate as the Han-era jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔).
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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.