How Tall is the Monkey King? – A Debate

This was originally posted as a 03-03-2022 update to an existing article, but I decided to make it a standalone piece.

Last updated: 03-08-2022

In “What Does Sun Wukong Look Like?” I highlighted several sentences pointing to the Monkey King’s small stature (fig. 1 & 2). For example, one monster comments:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four Chinese feet [buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m] in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408).

This information was later used in the making of a youtube video called “10 Facts About Sun Wukong the Monkey King“. Fact number seven was that “He’s really short”, and I ended the section by saying: “That’s right! The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the conqueror of the heavenly army … is the size of a child”. A Chinese viewer later left a thought-provoking comment on the video stating that I was wrong about Monkey’s size.

Fig. 1 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Drawn by my friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart). Slightly modified by me to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here. Fig. 2 – A size chart comparing Sun to a six-foot human (larger version).

The Debate

Here, I will present the comment in full but interspersed with my responses:

Hello! I am a Wukong fan from China. I really enjoyed your video! I would like to say that the height of the Monkey King has been very controversial on the internet in China. The data and appearance depictions in classical Chinese novels can be somewhat exaggerated. Journey to the West is a mythological novel is even more so. For example, seventy-two transformations, a somersault that can travel one hundred thousand eight hundred thousand li respectively refer to infinite changes and fly extremely fast. Seventy-two and one hundred and eighty thousand are not exact numbers, so relying solely on data is not reliable. Besides, in addition to four feet, Wukong has also appeared other height data. For example, the earliest version of the Journey to the West, “世德堂本”, Chapter 21. “大圣公然不惧。那怪果打一下来,他把腰躬一躬,足长了三尺,有一丈长短。” “Our Great Sage was not in the least frightened. When the monster struck him once, he stretched his waist and at once grew three chi, attaining the height of one zhang altogether.”

This PDF scan (page 258) shows the original version of the novel did indeed read “grow three chi” (changle sanchi, 長了三尺) and not six like in the modern version (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 408). I was surprised when this was brought to my attention.

One zhang minus three chi equals seven chi. In other words, the height of the Monkey King here was seven chi (Since the height unit in Chinese classical novels is based on the ancient system, 7 chi is around 5.5 feet). But in later versions and translations, “grew three chi” was changed to six chi. This has always been a point of contention. The figure of four feet (four chi) appears twice, both from the perspective of other monsters, such as the Monstrous King, who is three zhangs tall (around 24 feet). It may be possible that Sun Wukong is short in his eyes in comparison.

For those unfamiliar with ancient Chinese measurements, one zhang () equals ten chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese feet”) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). The passage in question does imply that Monkey is seven chi tall. However, there are two problems. First, during the Ming (1368-1644) when the novel was published, one chi equaled approximately 12.52 inches (31.8 cm) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). This would make Sun a whopping 7.3 feet (2.22 m) tall! I must admit that the chi varied at the local level, but I doubt the variations would lead to a nearly two-foot (60.96 cm) difference. Additionally, if we use the measures for the Tang (618-907 CE), when the story is set, a chi was 11.57 inches (29.4 cm), making Monkey 6.75 feet (2.06 m) tall. There was, however, a “small chi” (xiaochi, 小尺) at this time, which was 9.66 inches (24.6 cm) (Nienhauser, 2016, p. 405 n. 40). This would only make him 5.65 feet (1.72 m) tall. But I would question if the common folk reading the novel during the Ming were aware of and still using this truncated measure. Second, as written above, the figure for “not even four chi” (buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m) appears twice. But it’s important to note that this estimate is made by two different characters at two different locations and times. The first is spoken in chapter two by the Monstrous King of Havoc (Hunshi mowang, 混世魔王) in the Water Belly Cave (Shuizang dong, 水臟洞) of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (east of the Eastern Purvavideha Continent) (PDF page 36; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). This takes place over 100 years before Sun’s initial rebellion during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). And the second is spokien in chapter 21  by Great King Yellow Wind (Huangfeng dawang, 黃風大王) in the Yellow Wind Cave (Huangfeng dong, 黃風洞) of Yellow Wind Ridge (Huangfeng ling, 黃風嶺) somewhere in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (PDF page 258; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). This takes place sometime after his release from his 600-plus-year punishment under Five Elements Mountain during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Therefore, this seems like a more reliable measure—given the distance between themthan the ten minus three argument. I suggest the latter was actually a typo that later editions tried to amend by changing three to six. 

Another reason is that the author may be deliberately blurring the height of the Monkey King. Because at least in the story, the author describes Wukong according to the height of normal people. For example: Before Wukong learned Magic skills, when he could not change his height, he had robbed ordinary people’s clothes to wear. If Wukong was the height of a child, the clothes would hardly fit. When Wukong set out on his journey to the west, he once wore the clothes of Tang Monk. Wukong could carry the Taoist priest changed by the Silver Horned King (if he was a child height this would be very difficult).

These are good points, but a 7.3-foot tall Monkey wouldn’t be able to wear the clothing of the aforementioned people either. Conversely, tucking in or rolling up clothing wouldn’t be out of the question. And carrying a priest wouldn’t be a problem for a small-statured hero capable of hoisting the weight of two cosmic mountains while running at meteoric speeds.

In the same chapter, the Tang monk sitting on the horse can pull Wukong’s tiger skin skirt. Wukong can easily grab Eight Rules’ ear. In the Bhikṣu Kingdom, Wukong once exchanged clothes with Tang monk, etc.

Horses are tall animals, so the Tang Monk would’ve probably fallen off before even grabbing the skirt of an adult-sized Sun Wukong. I look at this as something that sounds good on paper until it’s tried in real life.

I think even a 5.5-foot tall Monkey would have problems grabbing the ear of Zhu Bajie, who is likely 10 feet (3.05 m) tall or more given his three chi (3.13 ft / 95.4 cm) snout (PDF page 108; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149) and giant body that “causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (PDF page 367; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Either way, jumping would be involved, making this irrelevant.

And just because Sun might be smaller doesn’t mean he wears child-sized clothing. I believe the first instance of sharing clothes happens in chapter 14: “Pilgrim … noticed that Tripitaka had taken off a [robe] made of white cloth and had not put it on again after his bath. Pilgrim grabbed it and put it on himself” (PDF page 174; Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 313). He seems to wear whatever is available to him.

In China, there is another speculation about Wukong’s height: monkeys are usually hunched over. Wukong is four chi tall when bent over and seven chi tall when standing upright.

I studied primates in college. Monkeys usually walk on their palms (palmigrade) (fig. 3) and only stand when foraging, fighting, or carrying things. But I don’t recall the novel ever mentioning Sun traveling on all fours (please correct me if I’m wrong). Therefore, he likely walks on two legs. In this case, as stated, monkeys have a hunched posture when standing. They can’t stand straight because of mechanical limitations in their skull, spine, hips, legs, and feet (my previous essay on hominids applies to monkeys as well). One could argue that Monkey can overcome these limitations with his immortal body, but this definitely wouldn’t give him three more chi of height. For example, here’s a macaque standing at full height (fig. 4). As can be seen, straightening the head, spine, and legs would only give a handful of inches or centimeters.

Fig. 3 – A macaque skeleton in its natural posture (larger version). Fig. 4 – A young macaque male standing (larger version).

And as stated in this article, Sun shares all of the hallmarks of a macaque, including a “furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears”. This likely includes a smaller stature.

Of course, there is no doubt that he is very thin, and is definitely the shortest one in the scripture takers, but at least, his height is more like that of a shorter adult than a child. The role of Sun Wukong is a combination of human nature, monkey nature, and divinity. The author may be deliberately obscuring his height. Therefore, when describing daily life, Wukong is the same height as normal people, but in the eyes of other demons, he is more prominent in the shape of the monkey. And he has the divine power to change his height at will. Sorry for my bad English, really enjoyed your video!

I will concede that four chi is a rough estimate, so he might be slightly shorter or even taller than this. Either way, he’d be far below average human height.

Update: 03-06-22

Chapter 20 includes a scene where Monkey refers to his stature: “A person like me, old Monkey, may be small but tough, like the skin around a ball of ligaments!” (PDF page 246; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).

Update: 03-08-22

Above, I suggested that the ten minus three argument was a typo. But there might be a numerological explanation. Qing-era scholar Wang Xiangxu (汪象旭, fl.1605-1668) borrowed from the Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?-1082) by applying his “three fives equal one” (sanwuyi, 三五一) five elements concept (fig. 5) to numbers appearing in the novel. As Shao (1997) explains:

One set of five consists of wood (3) and fire (2). Wood in the east produces fire in the south. The second set is that of metal (4) and water (1). Metal in the west produces water in the north. The third is earth in the center whose number is five. The whole business of the “gold elixir” is to integrate all three sets of five to produce one—the gold elixir (pp. 16-17).

Shao (1997) goes on to explain the numeric significance of the dharma vessel constructed from Sha Wujing’s 9-skull necklace and the heavenly gourd in chapter 22: 

Wang Xiangxu shows a keen eye for the “one” gourd and “nine” skulls which make a perfect “ten”—the number for the completion of earth. However, it is not the numbers that attract him, but what they indicate—that the gold elixir is creation—a process that involves the integration of all the five elements—not unlike the creation of the universe (p. 18).

Therefore, three (wood) and seven (fire) may be a reference to the completion of ten (the golden elixir) in Daoist numerology. If this is true, even the later switch from three to six still matches this (refer to fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – A chart explaining the three fives (larger version). From Shao, 1997, p. 17.


Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.

Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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

The Monkey King’s Magic Staff: A Complete Guide

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

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

1. The Literary Weapon

1.1. Staff Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.2. Staff Powers

The staff is shown to have multiple powers.

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

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

2. Origins

2.1. Literary Precursors

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

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

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

2.2. Influence from Religion

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

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.3. Influence from Popular literature

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

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

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

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


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.

Review of DC Comics’ Monkey Prince #0 to #4

Note: For the time being, I’m changing this from a review of issue #0 to a review of the whole series. Until anything of significance takes place in the story (no luck as of issue #4), I’ll confine my thoughts to this page.

Last updated: 05-03-2022

The DC Comics character the Monkey Prince (Ch: Xiao Houwang, 小猴王; a.k.a. “Marcus”), son of Sun Wukong (孫悟空), first appeared in the story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” from the DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021) (Yang, 2021a). In anticipation of the character receiving his own 12-issue series in February 2022, DC released a free digital issue #0 (readable here) (fig. 1) (DC Publicity, 2021). I stated in my previous review of the Monkey Prince that I wasn’t going to evaluate issue #0 due to so many problems with the original, as well as unpromising errors in promotional material for upcoming issue #1. But I changed my mind because I want readers unfamiliar with Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), the Chinese classic on which the comic is based, to have an informed opinion about the quality of the character design and writing through the lens of the original.

Issue #0 is written by Gene Luen Yang, colored by Sebastian Cheng, lettered by Janice Chiang, and edited by Jessica ChenBernard Chang provides art for the opening and closing pages, while Billy Tan draws the “flashback” scenes, or the majority of the issue (Yang, 2021b, p. 3). Readers of my previous review will remember that Editor Chen thought up the Monkey Prince but also worked with Mr. Yang and Mr. Chang to craft “the origin and the essence of [the character] together” (Aguilar, 2021). 

Those who like this subject might fancy learning about Sun Wukong’s children in 17th-century Chinese literature. See also my review of Marvel’s Sun Wukong.

Fig. 1 – The front cover of Monkey Prince #0 (larger version). From Yang, 2021b. Copyright DC Comics.

1. Story overview

Titled “Apokolips in the Heavenly Realm”, the story opens on the Monkey Prince fighting a nest of insect-like parademon soldiers at night in Philadelphia. When asked how he knew about the nest, Shifu Pigsy (a.k.a. Zhu Bajie, 豬八戒) reveals that he and Sun Wukong had fought their kind once before in the past. This took place centuries ago when Darkseid, a despotic New God, sent his army to conquer the heavenly realm. A flashback shows the Bull Demon King (Niu mowang, 牛魔王), his wife Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 鐵扇公主; a.k.a. “Rākṣasi”, Luocha, 羅剎), their son Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), the immortal Erlang (二郎), and the child god Nezha (哪吒) standing against a wave of invading vanguard warriors and a sea of parademons (fig. 2). In the initial clash, Princess Iron Fan uses her famous palm-leaf fan (bajiao shanzi, 芭蕉扇子) to attack Mad Harriet, and the Bull Demon King protects his wife by punching Kalibak. But Big Barda incapacitates Red Boy with a sneak attack from behind. Luckily, the Monkey King swoops in at the last moment to save him from a second, fatal blow. Pigsy thereafter takes Red Boy’s place and strikes at the warrioress with his battle rake.

At the height of battle, Sun and Erlang sense something traveling through time and space. This is revealed to be Darkseid himself when he arrives via boom tube. The evil god then exclaims:

“Hear me denizens of the Heavenly Realm! I am … the sovereign ruler of Apokolips! I’ve come to save you from your own incompetence! You are clearly outnumbered! If you value your lives, you will surrender immediately!” (Yang, 2021b, p. 6, panel #2).

The Bull Demon Family jointly attacks the despot with their magic weapons, but this proves futile against his invulnerable body. Meanwhile, Monkey and Pigsy find and destroy the parademon nest, thereby decimating the invaders’ numerical advantage.

Sun soon after returns to confront Darkseid, comically referring to him as “our most venerable though uninvited guest” (Yang, 2021b, p. 7, panel #3). When the New God claims to have never heard of the famous Monkey King, our hero reveals that he’s destroyed the nest. He goes on to flaunt his power by creating countless hair clones of himself, stating: “It is YOU who are clearly outnumbered” (Yang, 2021b, p. 8, panel #1). Darkseid admits defeat; though, he claims to have a future use for Sun Wukong but not the others. So he unleashes his omega beams and kills the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan. Red Boy is left to mourn over the bodies of his parents.

The issue ends with the Monkey Prince and Shifu Pigsy discussing how the event likely drove Red Boy to a life of villainy (Yang, 2021b).

Fig. 2 – A splash page showing some of the Journey to the West characters fighting Darkseid’s army (larger version). From Yang, 2021b, p. 3. Copyright DC Comics.

2. The art

There’s a noticeable difference in quality throughout the comic. The “flashback” by Mr. Tan has a rough, sketchy style, while the “present day” sections by Mr. Chang, are crisp and dynamic. Mr. Cheng, the colorist, should be congratulated on his amazing work because he helps elevate the mediocre pencils comprising the majority of the comic.

2.1. Character design

The panels of issue #0 are often packed with kinetic figures, making it hard to see detailed, full body images of the characters. I’ve therefore chosen to base my analysis on the character sheets from Blum (2021). I won’t be including Erlang or Nezha in the analysis as their presence is not as out of place as the others.

A major flaw is that the Journey to the West characters are presented as they might have looked during the pilgrimage instead of at the end of the novel. This doesn’t make any sense as the story takes place centuries after the events of the journey. And of course Mr. Chang has taken some artistic license with the designs instead of using descriptions from the book. But, admittedly, some are quite beautiful, such as that for Princess Iron Fan.

The Bull Demon King is depicted as a brown, minotaur-like figure with blue and red armor and matching gauntlets and boots, green pants, and a black battle ax (Blum, 2021) (fig. 3). The problem is that: 1) In the novel, the monster wields his own “cast-iron rod” (huntie gun, 混鐵棍) and a pair of his wife’s treasure swords (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 137 and 147). I’m guessing Mr. Chang got the idea for a black ax from the 2014 Chinese film The Monkey King (fig. 4). Films are obviously not a good source to use when adapting a readily available novel; 2) his armor doesn’t match that described in chapter 60:

He had on a wrought-iron helmet, water polished and silver bright; / He wore a yellow gold cuirass lined with silk brocade; / His feet were shod in a pair of pointed-toe and powdered-sole buckskin boots; / His waist was tied with a lion king belt of triple-braided silk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 137).

And 3) while the novel doesn’t note the color of his anthropomorphic form, the demon’s true form is said to be a “giant white bull” (da bai niu, 大白牛) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157). This is why the faithful 2011 TV show depicts the Bull Demon King with white fur (fig. 5). 

Fig. 3 – The Bull Demon King’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 4 – The Monkey King (2014) movie poster showing Aaron Kwok’s bull demon summoning energy from his black ax (larger version). Fig. 5 – A screenshot of the white Bull Demon King from the 2011 TV show (larger version). Image found here. Take note of his iron staff.

Princess Iron Fan is portrayed with jewelry and makeup, a layered coif, and an elegant, multi-colored dress (fig. 6). A mini version of her palm-leaf fan is shown tucked inside a white belt at her waist (Blum, 2021). The problem is that: 1) Her main weapons in the novel are a pair of “blue-bladed treasure swords” (qingfeng baojian, 青鋒寶劍); [1] 2) the fan is reduced to a small leaf and kept inside her mouth, and when full size, it is 12-feet long (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 145). This obviously differs from the small, handheld weapon shown in the comic (Yang, 2021b, p. 4, panel #1); and 3) most importantly, chapter 61 expressly states that Princess Iron Fan forsakes her lavish clothing to dress as a renunciate upon the defeat of her husband:

When Rākṣasi heard the call [of the Bull Demon King], she took off her jewels and her colored clothing. Tying up her hair like a Daoist priestess [daogu, 道姑] and putting on a plain colored robe like a Buddhist nun [biqiu, 比丘] [fig. 7], she took up with both hands the twelve-foot long palm-leaf fan to walk out of the door (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 161).

She thereafter follows a reclusive life of self-cultivation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). So there is a huge contrast between her comic book design and how she looks at the end of her story arc.

Fig. 6 – Princess Iron Fan’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 7 – A drawing of a Buddhist nun (larger version). Image found here. Just imagine Raksasi with her hair tied into a knot on top and perhaps wearing grey-blue robes.

Red Boy is portrayed as a muscular teenager with a red and black undercut hairstyle, a small, purple cape, a bare chest and shoulders with a red, armored stomacher and matching gauntlets and boots, and purplish-blue, baggy pants. Flaming jewels(?) adorn the armor on his stomach, forearms, and knees (fig. 8). He wields a golden, red-tassled spear with a partitioned blade (Blum, 2021). The problem is that: 1) Red Boy’s weapon is described in chapter 41 as an “eighteen-foot fire-tipped lance” (zhangba chang de huojian qiang, 丈八長的火尖槍) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 222); and 2) he’s depicted as a small child in the novel. He’s said to be huskier than Nezha, with a powder white face, deep red lips, and beautiful, black hair (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 222). In fact, his nickname is the “Great King Holy Infant” (Shengying dawang, 聖嬰大王) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 219). [2] And after his defeat at the hands of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (Guanyin pusa, 觀音菩薩), he becomes her disciple, taking the religious name “The Child Sudhana” (Shancai tongzi, 善財童子; lit: “Child of Goodly Wealth”) (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 354). So he definitely shouldn’t look like a teenager; and 3) Guanyin subdues the fiery demon with gold circlets that squeeze his head, wrists, and ankles (fig. 9) (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 251). This story is used to explain the presence of golden bracelets and anklets on modern religious statues of the deity (fig. 10). So a child-like appearance and golden bands are associated with Red Boy in both literature and religion, and yet we see these are totally absent from Mr. Chang’s design.

Fig. 8 – Red Boy’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 9 – A modern drawing of the literary demon (larger version). Image found here. Take note of the rings on his wrists and ankles. Fig. 10 – A modern day religious statue of Sudhana (larger version). 

Lastly, Sun Wukong is depicted wearing a purple gold cap with lingzi (翎子) feathers, golden armor with a blue cape and gauntlets, a tiger skin kilt, and red pants with black boots (fig. 11) (Blum, 2021). He wields a golden staff with dragon finials spiraling down each tip like a corkscrew. The problem is that: 1) Chapter 3 describes the staff as a bar of black iron banded on each end with a golden ring (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135); 2) while the armor design is similar to early depictions of the Monkey King (minus the blue cape and gauntlets and the tiger skin kilt), the novel implies that it was stripped from his body once he was captured by heaven. I quote from my previous article (see section 2.2.):

Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers in chapter six: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:

Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)

Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace in chapter seven, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One late-Ming woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).

Monkey escaping from Laozi's 8 trigrams furnace - from Mr. Li Zhuowu's Literary Criticism of Xiyouji, later 16th-early 17th-c. - small

Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late-16th to early-17th-c.).

This means he wouldn’t have worn the armor during the entirety of the journey (ch. 14 to 100); and 3) most importantly, the Monkey King is elevated in spiritual rank at the journey’s end, becoming the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛; a.k.a. the “Victorious Fighting Buddha”) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381). Religious depictions of this historical deity portray him wearing the traditional robes of a Buddhist monk and holding a symbolic sword and suit of armor in his hands (fig. 12). So Sun Wukong should be portrayed as a Buddha and not an armored warrior (fig. 13). 

Fig. 11 – Sun Wukong’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 12 – The Buddha Victorious in Strife holding a sword and suit of armor (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 13 – A modern drawing of Monkey as a Buddha by Tianwaitang on deviantart (larger version).

Someone might ask: “Who cares what the characters look like?” Well, the creative team had two choices when they elected to adapt Journey to the West. One, they could have done so in broad strokes and laid the foundation for a fresh, new take that departs greatly from the original. An example of this is the South Korean drama Hwayugi (2017-2018), where the characters are gods disguised as humans living in modern Seoul. Or two, they could be faithful to the novel. The team sort of chose the latter as they created a main character that’s a carbon copy of the Monkey King (complete with the same strengths and weaknesses), designed secondary characters how they might have looked in the original, and Mr. Yang even references specific events from the novel in the comic story (see below). So if they’re going to adhere this much to the literary source, they should have at the very least followed the descriptions provided therein. As the old saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It would be like me adapting Harry Potter despite never having read the books (I’m looking at you Mr. Chang). [3] My designs would no doubt be so wildly different from the original that the characters would be nearly unrecognizable.

3. The writing

Let me begin by saying that I actually like the idea of Darkseid taking a boom tube to the heavenly realm. It’s a smart way of bridging the dimensional gap between modern comics and traditional Chinese literature. But that’s where my favorable comments end for the most part.

Mr. Yang makes some strange choices in the story. For example, making Zhu Bajie and the Bull Demon Family part of the heavenly army’s main force is odd because it overlooks the 72 commanders and 100,000 stellar soldiers from the original. [4] With the exception of Nezha, they are nowhere to be found in the comic, making it look like Sun Wukong, Erlang, Zhu, the Bull Demon King, Princess Iron Fan, and Red Boy are the sole defenders of heaven fighting to hold back the tide of Darkseid’s invasion (maybe this will be explained in a future issue).

Zhu Bajie would not have been involved at all because he was made the “Janitor of the Altars” (Jintan shizhe, 淨壇使者) at the end of the journey. This position allows him to constantly eat any leftover offerings on Buddhist altars (tan, 壇) from all over the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). So Zhu would have been too busy selfishly stuffing his stomach to his heart’s content.

Apart from being strange that earth-dwelling villains like the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan would defend the heavenly realm, their inclusion in the story does not mesh with the way their respective arcs end in Journey to the West. As noted above, the monster king’s true form is a giant white bull. His story ends when he is trapped in this form and taken under guard by Devraja Li Jing (李靖天王) and Nezha to see the Buddha (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 161 and 162). The details of his arc are quite similar to that of Sun Wukong: he’s an iron staff-wielding demon king nicknamed the “Great Sage”, who knows 72 changes, can adopt a titanic form, takes part in a battle of transformations with an enemy, is trapped by a joint effort from heaven and incapacitated by a circular object, and finally faces the Buddha. [5] So it’s not a stretch to suggest the Bull Demon King is also punished in a similar manner. I show in this article (see section 1) that being trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain is a reoccurring sentence for supernatural offenders in Chinese literature. And don’t forget about Monkey’s secondary punishment, a hellish diet of hot iron balls and molten copper. Therefore, the monster king would likely still be imprisoned by the time Darkseid invades heaven.

Before continuing, I should note that Mr. Yang is well aware of the Bull Demon King’s fate, for he references his literary defeat in the comic. During the flashback, the monster asks Sun Wukong: “Would a blood brother have betrayed me to a cosmic net of Buddha’s warrior guardians, Monkey?” (Yang, 2021b, p. 5, panel #3). So this makes the demon’s inclusion in the heavenly army twice as puzzling as he’s still bitter about his defeat.

Princess Iron Fan’s story ends when she “[goes] off somewhere to practice self-cultivation as a recluse” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). The novel continues: “In the end she, too, attained the right fruit [zhenguo, 正果] and a lasting reputation in the sutras” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). This might imply that she compounds Buddhist merit by performing good deeds or perhaps even religious miracles, becoming a sort of Buddhist saint in her own right. So I imagine she too would be unavailable to fight against the sudden invasion of Darkseid’s army.

On the contrary, Red Boy’s inclusion makes more sense because, as Guanyin’s disciple, she might send Sudhana to “test the waters” (so to speak) to see whether or not a given threat merits the intervention of a higher power. She does this, for example, in chapter six when she sends Muzha (木吒) to help fight Sun Wukong during his rebellion (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 175). But just like his senior religious brother, Sudhana surely wouldn’t be able to stand against the threat alone. He would have to work with the aforementioned heavenly commanders and stellar soldiers.

This brings me to Sun Wukong. The story does make a passing reference to his elevation in spiritual rank. When Darkseid fails to recognize Monkey’s name, our hero states: “Enlightenment sure does a number on fame” (Yang, 2021b, p. 7, panel #5). But that’s it. Sun is not presented as a Buddha, just his regular, pre-enlightened self swinging a staff and resorting to the same old tricks. The narrative could’ve been taken to a new level by featuring the Buddha Victorious in Strife.

The thing that bothers me the most about the comic is the anticlimactic confrontation between Sun and Darkseid. Neither takes any overt action against the other. In my opinion, Darkseid, who has never met the Monkey King, gives up way too easily (fig. 14). You’d think there would at least be a brief exchange of fists so they can gauge each other’s strength. And once the invader realizes he’s dealing with a powerhouse, seeing Sun then multiply himself many times over would make him think twice about sticking around. But this only dresses up the story at hand. See below for my suggested changes.

Fig. 14 – Darkseid gives up the invasion upon seeing Monkey duplicate himself (larger version). From Yang, 2021b, p. 8. Copyright DC Comics.

4. My rating

Overall, I would give issue #0 2.5 out of 5 stars. It is marred by mediocre pencils, designs that don’t match the characters’ description from Journey to the West, and a story that doesn’t agree with how the respective characters’ arcs end in the original. I gave extra points for the beautiful coloring of Mr. Cheng, though.

Now, I have to ask the question: Why would the creative team (haphazardly) cram so many recognizable Journey to the West characters into canon? The first answer is clear: DC is likely after that sweet, sweet money from the Asian market. Sure, sales stateside might get a small boost from Asian Americans, but the target demographic is likely the millions of mainland and diasporic Chinese comics readers. The second answer is that the death of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan under Darkseid’s omega beams likely sets up Red Boy’s spiral into villainy and a later battle between him and the Monkey Prince. [6] That’s right ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves some throwaway characters! It honestly would have been better (and more respectful to the original) if the husband and wife had never appeared in the comic.

5. What I would change

(My sugestions for issue #0 build off of the changes I made in the original review (section 5). Read it first to better understand my choices here.)

I would do away with the Bull Demon King, Princess Iron Fan, and Zhu Bajie. Instead, the original heavenly army would meet the brunt of Darkseid’s forces upon their arrival. Playing off of the comic story, and acknowledging my own changes, Guanyin would send her disciples Muzha and Sudhana to take part in the battle. And taking more inspiration from the comic story, I would also have Erlang arrive but instead go toe-to-toe with Darkseid. The “Small Sage” (Xiaosheng, 小聖) is after all the only god to truly defeat the Monkey King, so he would be a worthy opponent. But lets say the invader somehow gets the upper hand, and so I would pay homage to the original novel by having the Jade Emperor call on Gautama Buddha to intervene. But he instead sends the Buddha Victorious in Strife, who obviously has experience with causing havoc in heaven. The Monkey Buddha shows off his power by easily nullifying the attacks of Darkseid’s army and even negating the omega beams by turning them into a shower of flowers, reminiscent of ancient biographies of Gautama Buddha:

The host of Mara hastening, as arranged, each one exerting his utmost force, taking each other’s place in turns, threatening every moment to destroy [the Buddha, but] … Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, pp. 152 and 153).

I could borrow still more from the novel and have the Buddha Victorious in Strife make Darkseid a wager, recalling Gautama Buddha’s bet with Sun Wukong involving his cloud somersault. But instead of betting that he can’t leap from his palm, the Monkey Buddha makes a wager involving the boom tube.

This is where I run into trouble, though. I don’t know enough about the cosmic hierarchy of the DC universe to go past this point. I say this because Darkseid is considered a “conceptual being” that lives outside of time and is capable of creating avatars of himself (Darkseid (New Earth), n.d.). I’m not sure how this stacks up against DC’s concept of an enlightened being. But from a Buddhist cosmological perspective, I believe the Buddha would be more powerful because he has achieved “nirvāṇa” (Ch: niepan, 涅槃) and broken free of the wheel of rebirth (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 589-590). However, the New God, even as a deva capable of creating avatars, would still be subject to the “Desire realm” (Sk: kāmadhātu; Ch: yujie, 欲界) of Saṃsāra (Ch: lunhui, 輪迴; shengsi lunhui, 生死輪迴) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233 and 411). Therefore, I imagine the Buddha Victorious in Strife plays a trick on Darkseid and is able to trap or even destroy his avatar. As mentioned above, this would make the real villain (in his home dimension) think twice before tangling with Monkey again. 

I’m now obligated to insert my concept of the Monkey Prince into the story. Since he’s born during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), he would be alive during the attack on heaven. But as a young, inexperienced disciple, he wouldn’t take part in the battle, just hear news of it from Guanyin during the event and stories of what happened from his half-brother Sudhana after the fact. This way, the Monkey Prince would remember the invasion and yearn to do his part when Darkseid reappears in the present.

Lastly, I feel it’s necessary to give the character a name. The comic calls him the “Monkey Prince” in his hero form and “Marcus” in his human form. I think Sun Taizi (孫太子), or “Prince Sun”, is a great name as it plays off of San Taizi (三太子), the “Third Prince” (fig. 15), one of Nezha’s titles in Chinese folk religion. (Fun fact: This deity serves as a heavenly vanguard in Sun Wukong’s own religion.) Borrowing from existing religious beliefs sparks the titillating idea that Sun Taizi’s heroic deeds would earn him devotees. Beyond his own continuing spiritual cultivation, he would grow in strength as more and more believers pray to and leave him offerings! This wouldn’t be the first time a monkey god is worshiped in America.

Fig. 15 – A religious statue of San Taizi, the “Third Prince”, from the Nine Dragons Prince Temple (Jiulong taizi gong, 九龍太子宮) in Tainan, Taiwan (larger version). Photo taken by the author. 

Update: 12-24-21

I noted in my original review that promotional material for upcoming issue #1 shows Marcus living in Gotham City prior to the events in Philadelphia. The story is said to include Batman, and a sneak peek shows the Caped Crusader accosting Marcus’ criminal foster parents (fig. 16). I predict that future suggested changes to issue #1 and beyond are going to become harder and harder as the comic story is fleshed out. My original changes portray the character as a young demigod who grows up in Guanyin’s earthly paradise and only later becomes acquainted with modern superheroes through happenstance. So I will have to bypass all of these flashbacks and only suggest changes to the broader story.  

Fig. 16 – The Batman panel from issue #1 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

Update: 01-26-22

In the above post, I noted that I didn’t know enough about the comic book hierarchy to say whether or not DC’s version of a Buddha would be strong enough to defeat Darkseid. But I subsequently argued in favor of this outcome based on Buddhist cosmology (i.e. the New God is still subject to Samsara and the wheel of rebirth, while a buddha is free). 

I recently read more about said comics hierarchy. The informative answers from this Quora question show that beings like Mr. Mxyzptlk are more powerful than Darkseid because they reside in higher plains of existence. The New God is 4th-dimensional, while the imp is 5th-dimensional. This means beings who reside beyond existence, like a Buddha, would hold infinitely more sway over reality. 

Thanks to a friend’s facebook post, I learned the story for the upcoming Monkey Prince #3 (available 04-05-22). Blum (2022) provides an analysis, as well as a copy of the promotional blurb, which reads: 

The bat’s out of the bag as Monkey Prince and Pigsy both realize what all the demon spirits around the world are after—eating specific superheroes in order to gain their powers! And this penguin demon has his eyes on…Batman! Uh-oh, Monkey Prince, it’s bad enough you have to keep hiding your tail when you’re Marcus, and how your circlet keeps returning latched onto your body as something else every time you try to get rid of it—but now cannibalism is also on the menu? YEOW! (see here)

While I like that there will be an ongoing reference to Tripitaka’s immortality-bestowing flesh (as noted in the original review), a penguin demon just sounds…well…really bad. There’s not one single menacing thing that comes to mind when I think of a penguin. At least the deer demon was big and had antlers. I’m wondering if this creature has any connection to the Batman villain

Update: 02-02-22

Monkey Prince #1 (fig. 17) was just published, and just as I predicted, there’s nothing to build off of regarding suggested changes.

The story takes place in Gotham City, home of the Batman. Marcus is traumatized as a young child when the Dark Knight beats up his adoptive father looking for information about the pair’s criminal activity. This event leads to Marcus developing a phobia around just about everything, including bats, black curtains, water, etc. After briefly living elsewhere, a now teenaged Marcus returns to attend high school in the city. But he’s singled out by bullies for his apparent weakness. Apart from his parents, his only positive role model is a husky, Chinese janitor name Mr. Zhu (i.e. Shifu Pigsy in disguise). Zhu encourages the boy to overcome his fear of water by jumping into a pool. Marcus refuses at first, but after miraculously sprouting a monkey tail in class and subsequently getting beaten up and his shoes stolen by bullies, he takes the plunge. He finds himself magically transported to the “Water Curtain Cave”, [7] home of the Monkey King. He even catches a brief glimpse of his father. Most importantly, he’s transformed into the Monkey Prince, only to reemerge into the present and use his new found powers to beat up his bullies. Damian Wayne, Batman’s son and sidekick, alerts his father to the disturbance. The issue ends when the Dark Knight misjudges his throw and accidentally beheads the Monkey Prince with a batarang. No joke!

Some new information comes to light:

  1. Marcus’ adopted parents are named Laura and Winston Shugel-Shen.
  2. Both are PhD tech scientists who have worked for the Riddler, Intergang, and Captain Cold.

Their new boss, the Penguin, has procured their services to use a large ray to possess an accountant with an ancient Chinese demon. The ray shatters a metal hu-gourd, revealing the Great King Golden Horn (Jinjiao dawang, 金角大王) demon from chapters 33 to 35 of the original. The experiment seemingly fails, causing the Penguin to shoot the victim in a rage. However, the aforementioned promotional material for issue #3 describes a “penguin demon” that wants to eat superheroes to gain their powers. This suggests the demon actually takes hold of the Penguin (Yang, 2022a).

Lastly, the ongoing criminal career of Marcus’ adoptive parents really bothers me. Everyone, even celestials, appears to be oblivious to their illegal activities. Shifu Pigsy either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Either way, it’s shitty writing. Also, in the beginning, when Batman discovers Marcus watching him accost his father, the Dark Knight simply leaves. He doesn’t attempt to arrest the parents or take the child into protective custody. Again, shitty writing. Ugh.

Fig. 17 – The front cover of issue #1 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

Update: 03-13-22

Issue #2 (fig. 18) was recently released, and it’s the same bad writing. Batman, Robin, and Shifu Pigsy play a game of hot potato with the Monkey Prince’s head, while the latter nearly dies of asphyxiation before escaping. Marcus subsequently denounces Pigsy and throws away the golden headband, only for it to return with the quaint ability to move about his body. Meanwhile, as predicted, the golden horn demon takes over Penguin’s body, and this monstrous hybrid soon goes about draining the qi energy from countless victims. A shadowy figure with two demon attendants then convinces Penguin to go after the life force of superheroes, thus leading into the aforementioned events of issue #3 (Yang, 2022b).

Above, I suggested Darkseid is still subject to the wheel of reincarnation despite being long-lived. As an inhabitant of the Desire Realm, he too will eventually die. I just came across a fitting line from Buddhist scripture, something that the Monkey Buddha could say to the New God as a warning: “Despite your millions of kalpas of life / It comes to emptiness and annihilation in the end” (Zhang, 1977, as cited in Shao, 1997, p. 110).

Also, this Quora answer features another powerful character, one who lives outside the multiverse, capable of easily defeating even true form Darkseid. 

Fig. 18 – The front cover of issue #2 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

Update: 04-06-22

Issue #3 (fig. 19) came out yesterday, and I have to say it was extremely bland. Nothing of substance happened at all. It honestly just feels like stuffing to pad out the series. The length of the comic sort of proves this point. Only 24 of the total 31 pages of the digital version comprise the story. The rest is a teaser for a new Batman storyline (Yang, 2022c).

The issue opens on Shifu Pigsy reciting the band-tightening spell as he and the Monkey Prince soar through the clouds. This teaches the young hero that he needs to concentrate in times of stress, or he’ll lose mental control over his cloud-somersault and fall to his death. At the same time, Marcus attempts to snatch a red envelope from his teacher’s hand. This is subsequently revealed to be a magically disguised gift, a vigilante-type superhero mask to hide his true identity.

The Monkey Prince is later hailed by a young girl (one who unknowingly witnessed his first transformation in issue #1) and tasked with finding her brother: Marcus’ bully. He finds him strung upside down in a stadium and being interrogated by Robin, Batman’s son and sidekick. After a brief fight in which the hero’s forearm is accidentally separated at the elbow, the Monkey Prince successfully returns his former bully to the sister. She kisses him as a reward.

Meanwhile, Shifu Pigsy locates and kills the two demons who were present when the shadowy figure suggested (in issue #2) that the demon-possessed Penguin should drain the life energy of superheroes. This drives the Penguin to kidnap the Shugel-Shens and hold them hostage, noting in a broadcasted message to the Caped Crusader that he’ll eat them if Batman doesn’t meet with him. The issue ends with a shocked Marcus learning of his adoptive parents’ predicament (Yang, 2022c).  

One thing of interest is that Shifu Pigsy hints Marcus has brothers: “Do you know how difficult it was to locate just one of the Monkey King’s sons? Sure, there are others but…” (Yang, 2022c, p. 8, panel #3). I’ll be interested to see if they ever explain why Sun Wukong knocked up random human women and then left them to solely raise or adopt-out the child. It honestly doesn’t reflect positively on the Monkey King.

Also, I’m still not sold on the Penguin being a demon. Mr. Yang could have gone with other rogues. Killer Croc, for example, is known to eat people. Even the Joker seems like a better choice. A demon-possessed psychopath is far more scary than a penguin.

Another thing that bothers me is the description of the demon itself. Shifu Pigsy claims: “Among your [Marcus’] father’s deadliest enemies was the Golden Horn King. He and his brother Silver Horn King wreaked such havoc across China!” (Yang, 2022c, p. 23, panel #2). But this isn’t the case in the original novel. While they were difficult to handle, Laozi explains: “These youths were requested by the Bodhisattva from the sea three times; they were to be sent here and transformed into demons, to test all of you and see whether master and disciples are sincere in going to the West” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). This means that they were never actual demons, and they certainly weren’t among the deadliest, nor did they wreak havoc across China. This is yet another example showing that the creative team doesn’t actually care about the novel.  

Fig. 19 – The front cover of issue #3 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

Update: 05-03-22

Issue #4 (fig. 20) is more of the same fluff. The story opens on the Monkey Prince transforming his cloud into an R-shaped signal (a play on the Bat-Signal) to get Robin’s attention. And when the Boy Wonder arrives, they agree to a brief partnership to find the Shugel-Shens in exchange for the simian hero later answering pertinent questions. Robin then deduces that the hostages are being held in an old auction house where Batman first fought the Penguin.

After briefly bonding over the strictness of their respective masters, the young heroes travel to the auction house, where they are ambushed by the Penguin demon. He attempts to crush them with a large, metal vault door but misses. Batman subsequently appears and retaliates with bat-shaped knuckledusters. But the sight of the Caped Crusader (who cut off the Monkey Prince’s head in issue #1) causes Marcus to lose focus, making him fall through his cloud and explode into several pieces upon hitting the ground. It’s only with the reassuring words of Pigsy that he’s able to collect everything back together. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin work as a team to take down the Penguin, much to Shifu Pigy’s delight. 

The Monkey Prince attempts to untie his adoptive parents, but Batman stops him, revealing that all past victims were found to have worked for the Penguin, suggesting that the Shugel-Shens are fellow hench people. Marcus has little time to process this unsettling information before low-ranking spirits appear to assist the fallen demon. They overwhelm Batman, allowing the Penguin to start absorbing his powerful, heroic qi energy. The Monkey Prince takes this opportunity to free his parents, but he’s called back into battle by Shifu Pigsy before having a chance to fly them to safety. Torn between helping Batman or his parents, Marcus asks Robin to throw a batarang at his midsection, cutting him in half. His torso then helps the Caped Crusader by tackling the Penguin, while his legs release the Shugel-Shens on the street outside.

Upon rejoining both halves, the Monkey Prince takes a can of magic soda previously given to him by Pigsy and throws it at the demon. This somehow disrupts the monster’s hold on the Penguin, allowing Robin to separate the two with a well-placed staff strike. Batman and his ward thereafter question and attempt to apprehend Marcus and Shifu Pigsy, but the latter tricks them into chasing decoys, while the two hide using a magic disguise. Meanwhile, the spirits help the weakened Golden Horn demon escape. They worry that their master will punish them for failing, but one of them states it was a partial success as the monster was able to absorb enough qi to remain in solid form. They’re last seen taking a boom tube back to the “Flame Planet”. The issue closes with Marcus’ bully apologizing to him at the behest of his sister, the young woman who kissed the Monkey Prince at the end of the last issue (Yang, 2022d).

Beyond the lovely art and coloring by Mr. Chang and Chris Sotomayor, respectively, there’s nothing positive that I can say about this issue. The author, Mr. Yang, continues to make odd choices. His characterization of Batman throughout the series has completely missed the mark. The Cape Crusader is overly dramatic and extremely dense. For example, the Monkey Prince tricks him into looking down at his crotch by saying, “You left the house with your fly down!” (Yang, 2022d, p. 18, panel #2). I remind the reader that Batman’s design includes the classic dark gray trunks over light gray pants. So why would he even look down? Ugh.  

The Monkey King’s whereabouts are finally revealed, but the location makes no sense. When the low-ranking spirits first see the “magic monkey” (Marcus), one exclaims: “Impossible! He was lossst [sic] in the Phantom Zone!” (Yang, 2022d, p. 18, panel #4). The Phantom Zone is a timeless pocket dimension that serves as a penal colony for the worst villains in the universe. But it’s not impossible to escape from, for even Superman has done this. So how can a Buddha, a being beyond reality, be trapped in this cosmic Alcatraz? I’m assuming Sun Wukong’s exile there was the work of Darkseid. I guess we’ll find out in later issues how he accomplished this feat.

And lastly, Marcus is shown capable of easily transporting people, Robin and later his parents, on his cloud (Yang, 2022d, p. 6, panel #3, for example; p. 14, panel #4, for example). But Journey to the West is clear that this is not feasible, for Zhu Bajie states: “The mortal nature and worldly bones of Master [Tripitaka] are as heavy as the Tai Mountain…How could my cloud soaring bear him up? It has to be your cloud somersault” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Sun Wukong counters:

If you can’t carry him, what makes you think I can? There’s an old proverb that says:

Move Mount Tai: it’s light as mustard seeds.
Lift a man and you won’t leave the red dust! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427).

I show in this article that Mt. Tai is considered the heaviest thing in Chinese culture. Therefore, Monkey and Zhu Bajie are arguing that it’s impossible to lift mortals on celestial clouds.

Fig. 20 – The front cover of issue #4 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.


1) The novel doesn’t name the swords upon their first appearance (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 124). They are named slightly later when the Bull Demon King wields them (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 147).

2) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as “Great King Holy Child” (vol. 2, p. 219). 

3) Mr. Chang admits that he only heard a few Journey to the West stories as a child and doesn’t know how the novel ends (Ching, 2021)

4) This is based on a passage from chapter five:

[The Jade Emperor] at once commanded the Four Great Devarājas to assist Devarāja Li and Prince [Nezha]. Together, they called up the Twenty-Eight Constellations, the Nine Luminaries, the Twelve Horary Branches, the Fearless Guards of Five Quarters, the Four Temporal Guardians, the Stars of East and West, the Gods of North and South, the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the Star Spirits of the entire Heaven, and a hundred thousand celestial soldiers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 169).

Koss (1981) counts 72 commanders from the names listed in the beginning (pp. 83-84).

5) I’ve already mentioned the iron staff above (compare this to Monkey’s weapon). The Bull Demon King takes the title “Great Sage, Parallel with Heaven” (Pingtian dasheng, 平天大聖) in chapter four (compare this to Sun’s title, the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 156-157). Most of the similarities that I mentioned happen in chapter 61. His skill with the 72 changes is referenced when he takes on Zhu’s appearance (compare this to Monkey’s ability) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 148). The battle of transformations against Sun takes place shortly after he’s overwhelmed by our hero and Zhu in combat (compare this to Monkey’s battle of changes with Erlang in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157; vol. 1, pp. 182-183). He takes on his cosmic form, a giant white bull, in a last ditch effort to defeat Sun (compare this to Monkey’s skill) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157). He is trapped on all sides by Buddho-Daoist deities (compare this to Sun’s troubles with heaven in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 159-160; vol. 1, pp. 185-186). Nezha uses his fire wheel to stop him from regrowing his severed heads (compare this to the diamond bracelet that Laozi (老子) uses to knock the Monkey King off his feet in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 160; vol. 1, p. 186); and he is taken to see the Buddha at the end of his story arc (compare this to Sun’s meeting with the Buddha) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 162).

6) This spiral is implied during the discussion between the Monkey Prince and Shifu Pigsy at the end of the issue (Yang, 2021b, p. 10). 

7) The Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) is a grotto-heaven located somewhere within the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The stone monkey becomes the Monkey King by jumping through a waterfall and discovering the cave in chapter one. His people soon after take residence inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 104-106).


Aguilar, M. (2021). Jessica Chen Talks Returning Favorites and the Monkey Prince’s Debut in Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration. Comic Book.

Beal, S. (Trans.). (1883). The Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king: A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from

Blum, J. (2021). DC Festival of Heroes’ Monkey Prince Gets Solo Series. CBR. Retrieved from

Blum, J. (2022). DC’s New Bad Guys Eat Superheroes to Steal Their Powers. CBR. Retrieved from

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

Ching, B. A. (2021). Meet the Monkey Prince: Yang and Chang Introduce DC’s Newest Hero. DC.

Darkseid (New Earth). (n.d.). DC Database. Retrieved from

DC Publicity. (2021, October 15). DC’s Monkey Prince: New Series to Debut on Lunar New Year 2022. DC Comics. Retrieved from’s-monkey-prince-new-series-to-debut-on-lunar-new-year-2022.

Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (vol. 1 and 2). (UMI No. 8112445) [Doctoral dissertation]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. 

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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

Yang, G. L. (2021a). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

Yang, G. L. (2021b). Monkey Prince, (0) [Digital]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

Yang, G. L. (2022a). Monkey Prince, (1) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

Yang, G. L. (2022b). Monkey Prince, (2) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

Yang, G. L. (2022c). Monkey Prince, (3) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

Yang, G. L. (2022d). Monkey Prince, (4) [Kindle]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double

Last updated: 03-20-2022

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.

Fig. 1 – One of the first pictures I ever saw of the White Ape Perfected Man (larger version). Photo from Facebook. Fig. 2 – A statue from an unknown temple (larger version). Photo found here. Fig. 3 – One of several statues from the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮濟宮) (larger version). Screenshot from this Facebook video. Fig. 4 – A statue belonging to Jishen Temple of Tainan, Taiwan (Tainan Jishen gong, 台南濟申宮) (larger version). Photo from Facebook.

I. Religious Story

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. [1] 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). [2]

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), [3] his father the Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公), [4] and his mother the Princess Mountain Blossom (Shanhua gongzhu, 山花公主). [5] 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:

  1. Characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a “Water Curtain Cave”. [6]
  2. Sun characters studying under an immortal master (Master Ghost Valley VS Master Subodhi). [7]
  3. Sun characters being directed to guard trees laden with immortal peaches (one tree on earth VS an entire grove in heaven). 
  4. Supernatural primates stealing the magic peaches for consumption (the white ape VS the Monkey King). [8]
  5. 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). [9]

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.

It’s important to note that there is also some overlap between The Battle of Wits and Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). I quote from my previous article:

[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), [10] 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. [11] 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.

IV. Conclusion

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.

Update: 12-11-21

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.

Update: 12-12-21

I mentioned in the introduction white face and hair are not always the best indicators that a figure is the White Ape Perfected Man. Take, for example, some depictions of Sun Wukong in glove puppetry (fig. 11).

Fig. 11 – A Taiwanese glove puppet of the Monkey King (larger version). Photo found here.

Update: 03-20-22

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.

Fig. 12 – The first page of the Holy Mother of Nine River’s story (larger version). Fig. 13 – The second page (larger version).

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).

7) See my article on Master Subodhi’s curriculum.

8) See note #2.

9) Monkey learns the 72 transformations in order to escape heavenly punishments of lightning, fire, and wind sent to kill him for defying his fate by attaining immortality.

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).


Andersen, P. (2019). Guigu zi tiansui lingwen 鬼谷子天隨靈文. In K. Schipper and F. Verellen (Eds.), The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang (p. 1239). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Miura, K. (2008). Zhenren. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol. 1 & 2 (pp. 1265-1266). Longdon: Routledge.

Palmer, D. A., & Siegler, E. (2017). Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Steavu, D. (2019). The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Stevens, K., & Welch, J. (1998). XU, The Daoist Perfected Lord Xu Zhenjun 許真君 The Protective Deity of Jiangxi Province. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3, 137-146.

Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing juan yi (n.d.). [Book of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin: First Scroll]. 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.

Wumen xiaoke, & Yanshui sanren (1636). Qianhou qiguo zhi [Annals of the Seven Kingdoms]. Retrieved from

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

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from

Archive #26 – Bimawen, Heavenly Horses, and Dragon Horses in Chinese Literature and History

In chapter four of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), Sun Wukong is invited to heaven to serve as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the imperial horse stables (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 148). He takes the position seriously, caring for nearly 1,000 horses day and night, making sure they are all well-fed, exercised, and rested (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149) (fig. 1). But these are no ordinary horses. A poem associates them with the most famous steeds in Chinese history (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149), and most importantly, the last line states: “They tread the mist and mount the clouds with unflagging strength” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149). This suggests that they have the supernatural ability to gallop through the skies (fig. 2). Additionally, the novel refers to them as “dragon horses” (long ma, 龍馬) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 309), which brings to mind the White Dragon Horse (Bai long ma, 白龍馬) that serves as Tripitaka‘s mount throughout the journey (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328).

Monkey’s position gives him power over all horses, especially those of mortal stock.

When the horse saw [Pilgrim], its torso slackened and its legs stiffened. In fear and trembling, it could hardly stand up. For you see, that monkey had been a [Bimawen], who used to look after dragon horses in the celestial stables. His authority was such that horses of this world inevitably would fear him when they saw him (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 309). [1]

The heavenly post is a homophonous pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”), an ancient superstition where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness. For example, Essential Techniques for the Common People (Qimin yaoshu, 齊民要術, c. 544) states: 

[Horses] are often associated with macaques [mihou, 猕猴] in the horse stable. This is in order to calm the horses, repel evil, and eliminate all diseases.


The later Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu, 本草綱目, 1596) mentions this concept twice. The first reads:

The Shuowen says: The characters (for macaque) look like “mother monkey” (muhou), but it’s “bathing monkey” (muhou, i.e. macaque), not a female. Since a macaque resembles a hu-barbarian, he is also called hu-sun “grandson of a barbarian”. The Zhuangzi calls him ju. People who raise horses keep a macaque in the stables, which will ward off horse-diseases. The Hu barbarians call a macaque maliu, in Sanskrit books he is called Mosizha (makaṭa). [2]


The second explains how monkeys are believed to help the horses:

The Classic of Horses states: Domesticated macaques used in horse stables help avoid horse diseases [lit: bimawen]. Their monthly menstruation runs onto the grass, and once the horses eat it, they will never be sick.


This is insanely comical as it directly links Sun Wukong, a powerful cosmic warrior, to menstruation! This then might explain why Monkey is so enraged when enemies call him a Bimawen. As noted by my friend Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog, it challenges the Great Sage’s masculinity.


The following essay by Arthur Waley (1955), famed translator of the Journey to the West abridgement Monkey (1942), links heavenly horses to a historical breed from Central Asia, the Ferghana horse. He describes China invading the region to procure these horses by force, suggesting Emperor Wu of Han directed this action because the ruler believed the equines were dragon horses capable of transporting him to heaven. This is linked to stories of ancient Chinese rulers attaining immortality by riding horses or dragons to the celestial realm. Waley (1955) notes both the Chinese and Indians believed supernatural steeds hailed from the water, showing a link between horses and dragons.

But Creel (1982) refutes the claim that the heavenly horses were procured for purely religious reasons. He shows they were indeed used in military battles. 

Fig. 1 – A 2014 stamp featuring a scene from the classic 1960s animation Havoc in Heaven in which Sun Wukong serves as the keeper of the heavenly horses (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 2 – A photo of the famous circa 2nd-century BCE Flying Horse of Gansu (larger version). Image found here.

I. The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana

Individuals are not happy in proportion to the amount of space their persons occupy. Yet certain nations, at certain periods of their history, seem to take it for granted that the wider they spread themselves the happier they will be. China is a case in point. Why did this enormous country in the second century BC, in the first century AD and again at various later periods ruin itself by gratuitous westward expansion? Were her aims commercial or strategic? Was she defending her silk trade, or guarding against possible wars on two fronts? What part was played by the individual ambition of Emperors or generals, or by mere restlessness and love of adventure?

To answer these questions we should have to take the campaigns one by one. In doing so we should not be reduced to mere guesses. In Imperial edicts and addresses about military campaigns certain traditional pretences are, of course, kept up: ‘everything under Heaven’ belongs by right to the Chinese Emperor, and any peoples who do not think so must be chastised. Concrete and material motives for war are not always mentioned in these regal utterances, any more than an Address from the Throne (or its equivalent) in modern countries usually mentions petrol or rubber. But statesmen and officials were often quite frank about material motives for conquest: more so, I think, than is the case with us today. Thus, as justifying a proposal to secure from the Huns a strip of territory that projected into the Kansu corridor in north-western China the following reasons are given by a statesman in 8 BC: first, that it was a good source of supply for the sort of wood and feathers used in making arrows; secondly, that it would mean a large increase of Chinese territory, and lastly that it would give the general in command of the campaign a chance to win a big reputation. It is interesting to find that extension of territory is here regarded as an end in itself. Possibly supporters of the proposal might, if pressed, have pointed out as an afterthought that Chinese farmers could be settled in the new territory and that the taxes they paid would be a help to the exchequer.

The tendency of modern historians, and not only in Marxist countries, is to stress material and particularly economic motives for war, and to regard the profession of other motives as mere propaganda. In dealing with early Chinese history I do not think this view would generally lead us far astray, so long as we bear in mind the additional factor of personal ambition and the almost axiomatic belief that extension of territory was an end in itself. But I am going to deal with a case that seems to me to be exceptional. Oddly enough the early Chinese military adventure that modern scholars have most unanimously explained solely on materialist lines, seems, on closer examination, to have been to a large extent a religious quest

In 102. BC the Chinese Emperor Wu sent a huge military expedition (there had been a small and abortive one two years before) to Ta Yüan, corresponding roughly to the modern Ferghana in Russian Turkestan, to capture Heavenly Horses. Modern scholars, both Far Eastern and European, have usually assumed that the real object of the expedition was a purely practical one; namely, to secure a better type of cavalry horse. It is certain that by the middle of the second century AD the Chinese did possess two kinds of horse: a steppe-pony, with a large clumsy head, and a western type of horse, similar to that shown on Greek coins of the fourth to the second century BC, with small graceful head. It may well be that one of the results of the Ferghana expedition was the introduction of a western type of horse into China; and in the eyes of the generals and the horse-experts who accompanied them this may have been the main object as well as the result of the expeditions. But modern historians, intent on the very interesting material aspects of the episode, have tended to overlook its place (amply attested by contemporary texts) in the history of Chinese religion. Incidentally, by examining these texts more closely, I think one gets fresh light on what concretely and zoologically (as opposed to mythologically) the Heavenly Horses really were. I should mention that as a result of the expedition thirty or so ‘superior horses’ and 3,000 horses and mares of ‘middling or lower quality’ were handed over to the Chinese. How many of these survived the journey of 2,500 miles back to the Chinese capital we do not know. A few years later the king of Ferghana agreed to send two Heavenly Horses to China every year. I shall here be concerned only with the thirty ‘superior’ Or ‘Heavenly’ horses. There is no reason to suppose that the 3,000 inferior horses were of a type different from the usual Chinese horse. They may merely have been needed as remounts.

In studying what was said about the horses in contemporary Chinese literature the best point of departure is the hymn made in 101 B.C. when the horses were about to arrive at the Chinese capital :

The Heavenly Horses are coming,
Coming from the Far West.
They crossed the Flowing sands,
For the barbarians are conquered.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
That issued from the waters of a pool.
Two of them have tiger backs.
They can transform themselves like spirits.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
Across the pastureless wilds
A thousand leagues at a stretch,
Following the eastern road.
The Heavenly horses are coming.
Jupiter is in the Dragon.
Should they choose to soar aloft,
Who could keep pace with them?
The Heavenly Horses are coming;
Open the gates while there is time.
They will draw me up and carry me
To the Holy Mountain of K’un-lun.
The Heavenly Horses have come
And the Dragon will follow in their wake
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven,
I shall see the Palace of God.

This song has often been spoken of by western historians as though it were a purely secular literary poem. It is in reality one of a series of hymns written (possibly by the Emperor Wu himself, but the authorship is very uncertain) for use at the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth-sacred rituals performed by the Emperor in person. One or two of the phrases in it obviously need further explanation. Whether the people of Ferghana believed that their sacred horses ‘issued from a pool’ we do not know. But there are, apart from other instances of this belief elsewhere in Central Asia, many Chinese stories of horses coming up out of the water, the implication being that they are dragon-horses, that is to say, water-dragons who have changed themselves into horses, often retaining their dragon wings. As we shall see, the Emperor had been on the look-out for a water-born horse for some time. What is meant by ‘the Dragon will follow in their wake,’ more literally ‘they will be introducers of the Dragon’ ? The idea underlying these words is best illustrated by the following story, dating perhaps from some forty years earlier than the hymn: Recently a man who lived on the frontier lost his horse which ran away into the land of the barbarians. He was very much upset, and everyone condoled with him, except his father who remarked cheerfully, ‘This may be a blessing in disguise.’ And sure enough the lost horse came back bringing with it a ‘fine horse,’ that is to say, a horse of superior value and breed. The Emperor in this hymn hopes that the Ferghana horses would one day bring along a Dragon, a being even more magical than a Heavenly Horse.

The general implication of the hymn therefore is that the Heavenly Horses will carry the Emperor to the abode of the Immortals on the magical mountain K’un-lun. He imagines himself, I think, driving in a chariot drawn by horses rather than riding on horseback. Riding did not become common in China till the fourth century BC and was in the second century still felt ‘to be a utilitarian, unlegendary form of transport. More than this, the Ferghana horses being, as another hymn in the series says, ‘friends of the Dragon ‘ who is master of the clouds, will eventually carry him to Heaven, to the Abode of God-on-High-(Shang Ti).

The preceding hymn (No. 9 in the series), which is about the fleeting and uncertain nature of man’s life, ends with the words, ‘Why does not Tzu-huang come down to me?’ Tzu-huang was the horse with dragonwings that carried up the mythical Yellow Emperor to Heaven. There are many Chinese stories of legendary monarchs being carried up to Heaven by magic steeds; but it would be difficult to prove that any of them is older than the fourth century BC. It is interesting to compare these Chinese myths with Indian ideas about the relation of monarchs to magic steeds. In Indian legends the magic horse Valaha (‘Cloud’), is one of the ‘seven treasures’ of a great monarch. Valaha came up out of the sea, just as the Ferghana horse and others in which the Chinese were interested came up out of the water, and carried Simhala, the legendary founder of the Kingdom of Ceylon, back to India when he was on the verge of being eaten by female cannibals.

The Emperor Wu had, as I have mentioned, for some time past been on the look-out for a magic horse, ‘born from’ a stream. In 121 BC someone thought it worthwhile to report to the Court that a horse had come up out of a river to the north of the Ordos, the great square-shaped northern bend of the Yellow River. We have no details about this horse ; but in 113 BC another strange horse was not only seen but captured and sent to Court. A Chinese who in consequence of some misdemeanour had been sent to do service at the military colony near Tun-huang, on the northwest frontier, frequently saw a horse of strange appearance drinking in the river along with a number of wild horses. He tamed the strange horse by putting at the water-side a dummy figure of a man whose hands were bridle and halter. When the horse was used to this sight he substituted himself for the dummy, captured the horse and sent it to Court. In order to prove that the horse was ‘divine’ he pretended that it had come up from under the water. His story was evidently believed at the time, for this horse, too (like the Ferghana horses twelve years later), was made the subject of a hymn to be used in the Imperial sacrifices :

The Heavenly Horse comes down
A present from the Grand Unity,
Bedewed with red sweat
That foams in an ochre stream
Impatient of all restraint
And of abounding energy.
He treads the fleeting clouds,
Dim in his upward flight;
With smooth and easy gait
Covers a thousand leagues.

Historians of religion, particularly those of the Vienna school, regard as ‘the beginning of religion’ the belief in a supreme celestial deity who later becomes merely a vague memory and ultimately fades away or becomes merged in other, more concrete cults. The ‘Grand Unity‘ (or ‘Great Unique,” as one might also translate it) of this hymn has therefore particular interest as a religious phenomenon, being a supreme celestial deity whose origin (at any rate as a national cult), whose heydey and disappearance all take place before our eyes within a limited historical period. So far from belonging to a remote, ‘archaic’ past he begins, officially at any rate, in 133 B.C. Up till then the Grand Unity was a philosophic conception denoting the primal unity out of which grew the plurality of the universe as we know it. Sometimes the phrase is a synonym of Tao, the underlying principle of the Universe in Taoist philosophy. But in the second century BC a cult sprang up in which the Grand Unity figures not as a philosophic conception but as a personal divinity, the highest of all gods, worshipped with an elaborate ritual. About 133 BC a member of the Grand Unity sect prevailed on the Emperor Wu to make the whole Imperial cult centre round this deity. The Grand Unity maintained this position during several reigns and the cult was only brought to an end (along with many other religious innovations of Wu’s reign) in 32 BC.

I will leave aside for the moment the other points of interest in the Heavenly Horse hymn of 113 BC and note here that the Emperor’s search for immortality did not begin with his interest in divine horses. He had, as is well known, for long past been pursuing this quest on other lines. He had sent numerous and costly expeditions to the East in the hope of discovering islands inhabited by Immortals who might be persuaded to yield their secrets to him. He had dabbled in alchemy, in the belief that if he ate out of vessels made of alchemic gold he would live forever, or at any rate for a prodigiously long time. The expedition to fetch magic horses from the West was, it seems to me, merely a continuation of his earlier quests in the East. ‘The Emperor Wu,’ says Wen Ying in about AD 200, ‘had set his heart on immortality. He was always hoping that a Heavenly Horse would come and carry him to K’un-lun,’ the western Abode of the Immortals. At last when all his guests in the East had failed and when the Horse did not come of its own accord (as it had come to legendary Emperors in the past, both in India and in China) he determined, having known for long that the king of Ferghana had such horses, to wrest some from him by diplomacy or, if need be, by force.

We have seen, then, how the horses were regarded by the Chinese Emperor. Other people, less obsessed by magico-religious ideas, may have viewed them differently; but there is nothing in the Chinese sources to suggest that they were needed or used for military purposes. Naturally, the normal political excuses were made for the expedition. In a public proclamation the Emperor accused Ferghana of having killed two Chinese envoys on their way to the west and an Indian envoy who was on his way to China. The excuse has a familiar ring. One is reminded, for example, of the German seizure of Tsingtao in 1897, alleged to be a reprisal for the murder of the German missionaries Nies and Henle.

Another question clearly arises. How were the Heavenly Horses regarded by the king of Ferghana and what role did they play at his Court? It is generally assumed that they were battle-chargers. But I wonder whether their function was not perhaps something like that of the ten Nesaean horses ‘most gorgeously caparisoned,’ who in the procession of the Persian king Xerxes, as described in the seventh book of Herodotus, walked immediately in front of the sacred chariot of ‘Zeus’ ? ‘And it occurs to one that to this same category of ceremonial horse may very well belong the ten yellow mares of the Pazaryk grave mound, in the eastern Altai, preserved in a solid ice block. They form part of the burial gear of a semi-nomad chieftain who lived perhaps somewhere about the 5th century B.C. ‘They are,’ says the Swedish archaeologist Karl Jettmar, ‘certainly of the noblest breed. They resemble the best strains of Turkmenistan or Ferghana.’ Two of them have masks. One mask represents a deer or reindeer; the other, a composite mythological creature. They may well have been special horses used by a ruler for ritual purposes, and perhaps (as Jettmar suggests) they took part in the funeral procession, which like the Scythian funeral processions described’ by Herodotus may have travelled an immense way. Their mythological function may well have been to carry the dead Khan to Immortality, just as the horse Tzu-huang carried the legendary Chinese Yellow Emperor and as in historic times the Emperor Wu hoped to be carried by the Ferghana horses. One is reminded, again, of the ‘treasure-horses,’ blue-grey in colouring and with black heads (that is to say, descendants of the magic horse Valaha) and gorgeously caparisoned, who took part in the procession that brought the infant Buddha back from Lumbini to his father’s palace. If the function of the Heavenly Horses at the Ferghana Court was a ritual rather than a practical one it would well explain why the king was so anxious not to part with them and at one point even threatened to kill them all rather than let them fall into the hands of the Chinese.

Though the main subject of this essay is the relation between the Ferghana expeditions and the religious pre-occupations of the Chinesr Emperor, the texts we have studied do also tell us something about the physical characteristics of the Ferghana horses, and it may be worth while to close with a few remarks on this subject. The first of the two hymns mentions that two Heavenly Horses had stripy backs. Lydekker in The Horse and Its Relatives says : ‘It has been noticed that dun-coloured domesticated horses frequently show a tendency to develop … one or two transverse dark stripes across the shoulder, and another along the middle line.’ Such presumably were the two Ferghana horses, and the Chinese regarded them as ‘marked’ by heaven and consequently particularly sacred. The other physical characteristic commonly attributed to Ferghana horses is that they ‘sweated blood.’ This, as we have seen, was also said of the horse sent from near Tun-huang in 113 BC. Professor Dubs, in his valuable translation of the Han History, has suggested that the flow of blood was caused by lesions inflicted on the horses by a parasite with the intimidating name Parafilaria multipapillosa. There is in any case no question of this characteristic being merely legendary. In AD 78 the Emperor Chang gave one of his uncles ‘a Ferghana horse which bled from a small hole above its front upper leg.’ In the letter that accompanied this gift he said, ‘I had often heard the line in Emperor Wu’s song about the Heavenly Horse in which it is said that it is ‘ bedewed with red sweat,’ and I have now seen with my own eyes that this is actually the case.’ Presumably the ‘hole’ looked more like a pore in the skin than a wound, and therefore what came out of it was regarded as sweat rather than blood.

Nowhere, I think, is it said that they were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers. The only horses that the Chinese at this period call big (ta) were to be found not in Ferghana but in Parthia. ‘They have the big horse and the big bird (ostrich),’ says the Han History. But there is no record of those huge Parthian steeds (no doubt the Parthikoi of Strabo, which he says were of the same build as the huge Nesaean horses) being brought to China.

To sum up: the accepted idea about the Ferghana expeditions is that the Emperor Wu sent them in order to obtain ‘horses larger and fleeter than the small steppe breed.” It is assumed that in this he was successful and that the ‘western’ type of horse seen in some of the second century A.D. grave-reliefs corresponds to the type of horse brought back from Ferghana in 101 BC. I would re-formulate this view as follows: The Emperor sent the expeditions in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven. There is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or China: If they had been they would hardly have remained long, as it were, ‘on the secret list.’ I’m inclined, to think that their function was a ritual one, both in Central Asia and in China. About the breed of the horses that the Emperor secured we know nothing. But it is reasonable to suppose that the existence of the ‘Western’ horse in China, in the second century AD was due to Chinese intercourse with the West from the second century BC onwards and that the Ferghana expedition, as an episode in this intercourse, may well have played its part in what was perhaps a gradual process. There is no justification for saying as Tam does that ‘the origin of the Ferghana horses must have been one of the great Parthian war-horses’ or that the Ferghana horses were ‘of the great Nesaean-Parthian breed.’.

Thus though my main object was to show that this episode cannot be properly understood without taking into account more than has hitherto been done its magico-religious aspects, my conclusions about its secular, concrete aspects are also somewhat different from those of my predecessors (Waley, 1955).

II. The Role of the Horse in Chinese History

Creel (1982) successfully refutes the former’s claim that the horses were procured for only religious reasons:

Waley, “Heavenly Horses of Ferghana,” 102, takes the position that the horses of Fergana were sought by the Han Emperor Wu “in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven.” He says that “there is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or in China.” (Ibid., 102.) But in fact, as we have seen, the use of Fergana horses in fighting is mentioned in Hou-Han-shu, 110A.4b. By speaking here of “Heavenly Horses” Waley is evading the real question: were horses obtained from Fergana used in battle in Han times? The answer is that they were. Waley also says: “Nowhere, I think, is it said that they [i.e., “Heavenly Horses”] were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers.” (Ibid.) The evidence cited above certainly indicates that the Fergana horses were extremely large and that there is every reason to feel assured that they were much larger than most of the horses in China both in Han times and later. Further evidence against Waley’s view is the nature of the titles of the two men sent by the Emperor to Fergana “to select good horses.” (Shih-chi, 123.37.) These would appear to be ordinary official titles and refer to “managing horses” and “driving horses.” If the purpose had been primarily to select horses having special religious virtues, why did the Emperor not send men with religious qualifications? Certainly there was some religious aspect to this curious affair, and Waley has performed a service by emphasizing it. But in doing so he has given undue attention to a part of the evidence and neglected other parts of it entirely (p. 176 n. 66).

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1) This power was given to Monkey by the Jade Emperor, who gives him the Bimawen post. This was pointed out to me by Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog.

2) The translation is partly based on Gulik, 1967, p. 35. I changed the Wade-Giles to pinyin.


Creel, H. G. (1982). What is Taoism?: And other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago Press.

Waley, A. (1955, February). The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana. History Today, 5, 95-103.

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