I’ve written several articles on the worship of the Monkey King. I’ve decided to post a succinct overview for those not familiar with the subject.
Warning: Self-mortification and blood below!
Sun Wukong is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, and areas of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, and even Thailand, as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (fig. 1). Variations of this title often include “Lord” (ye, 爺) or “Buddha” (fozu, 佛祖). He is very rarely addressed as the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛), which is taken from the end of Journey to the West (1592) when our hero is bestowed Buddhahood for protecting the monk Tripitaka. This is the name of a real world deity that was only later associated with Monkey in literature. I’ve even seen one temple that mixed such titles to call him the “Fighting Sage Buddha” (Dou zhan sheng fo, 鬥戰聖佛).
An awesome gourd-bearing Great Sage statue from Taiwan (larger version). It is one of a trinity. Photo by the author.
Much like Sun Wukong can multiple his body, his religion recognizes multiple Great Sages, each with their own holy and/or administrative function. Although, temples apparently believe each Great Sage is an emanation of the singular deity. This multiplicity of usually 3 to 5 figures (with dozens of soldier monkeys) may be traced to different sources. For instance, an early 15th-century play predating the novel describes Monkey as one of three brothers and two sisters. It surprisingly refers to Wukong, the middle brother, as the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖), while the older brother is called the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. The youngest, the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎/爽爽三郎), appears as a white-faced figure among a color-coded trinity in one Fujian tradition (fig. 2). The Great Sage Reaching Heaven graces the trinity with a black face. Rounding out the group with a red face, the Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage (Danxia dasheng, 丹霞大聖) appears in a 17th to 18th-century pious novel which describes his evil deeds, punishment, and rehabilitation by a Fujian goddess.
As mentioned, various soldier monkeys serve in the Great Sage’s spiritual army. He leads five heavenly generals, representing the Chinese cardinal directions, each with their own armies. The demon queller, the “Third Prince” (San taizi, 三太子; a.k.a. Nezha), serves as his vanguard. The Third Prince can often be seen positioned on a table in front of the main altar, or riding a palanquin and leading the way during religious processions. At least in Taiwan, the power of this spiritual army needs to be replenished during a yearly trip south to the island’s oldest monkey god house of worship, Wanfu Temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵), which is considered a fount of pure energy. This is done by retrieving scoops of holy incense ashes from the main incense pot and bringing them back to the home temple pot. I saw one temple protect the ashes in a small, metal, building-shaped altar sealed with blood-consecrated paper talismans (fig. 3). It was then shaded with two processional flags and an eight trigrams umbrella (fig. 4). I was told exposing the ashes/soldiers to sunlight was considered highly disrespectful.
Fig. 3. – The metal altar housing the Great Sage’s spirit soldier incense ashes (larger version). Fig. 4 – Protecting the incense ashes from sunlight (larger version). Photos by the author.
While considered a full-fledged god or even Buddha, the Great Sage is not a supreme deity. In fact, Buddho-Daoist folk religion considers him to be an intermediary for higher-ranking figures. For example, in some traditions he is a subordinate of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. One temple in Taiwan even believes he answers to the martial god Guan Yu. Either way, he is considered the exorcist par excellence and a protector of children. The little ones whom he takes as his godchildren are known in Singapore as “dedicated children” (khoe-kia). Those under his protection are believed to grow up to become well-behaved adults.
Spirit-mediums (Taiwanese Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; literally: “Divining Child”) play a large part in the Great Sage’s religion. They are believed to channel his spirit to interact with believers, generally answering their questions, blessing them or their belongings with paper talismans, or prescribing medicine. On special occasions, they also perform a complex self-mortification ceremony (fig. 5); for instance, the mediums of one Taiwanese temple walk in a pattern while flogging themselves with a sword, an ax, a spiked club, a saw fish nose sword, and a spiked ball in front of five respective ritual fires representing heavenly generals of the five directions. However, I’ve found that self-mortification tends to be more extreme in Southeast Asia, with mediums piercing their cheeks and bodies with lances, swords, hooks, and even bicycles! The ritual serves several purposes. First, hacking, skewering, and poking the body with various weapons is considered a form of self-sacrifice. Second, the weapons that pierce the flesh are believed to imbue the mediums with spiritual power needed in their battle with demonic forces that pervade every corner of daily life. Third, the resulting blood is believed to have demonifugic properties, hence the reason it is smeared on paper talismans and clothing. Overall, the ritual is performed to exorcize evil spirits that cause bad luck and mental and physical illnesses.
Fig. 5 – A spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage. He smiles in defiance after flogging his head with a spiked ball (larger version). Original photo by Cai Zhizhong (蔡志忠) (used with permission).
Mediums wear ritual bibs normally associated with babies in Asian culture. As noted above, the Hokkien/Chinese word for spirit-medium means “Divining Child”. This refers to the centuries-old belief that children were the mouthpieces of gods. In fact, the mediums are known to speak in a shrill voice known as “shen (神, god) language”. The fact that their back is bare refers to ancient Shang–Zhou period rituals in which a sacrificial victim was exposed to the elements. 
When not consulting a spirit-medium, the presence of the Great Sage can be determined by a glass vessel called the “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶). It comprises a normal glass container (sometimes a soda bottle or something more elegant) filled with “noon water” (wushi shui, 午時水) and topped with a special bulbous glass stem. The bottle is believed to make a characteristic “ping-pong” (乒乓) chime upon the deity’s arrival in a temple or home, usually around 12 noon but also other times. I’ve heard of the vessel’s use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
The Great Sage’s religious birthday is celebrated on different dates according to the location. It is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore, the 23rd (Fuzhou) or 25th day (Putian) of the 2nd lunar month in Fujian (sources vary), and the 12th day of the 10th lunar month in Taiwan. The celebration usually involves gifts of fruit, sweets, and liquor; self-mortification rituals by spirit-mediums; chanting performances by Daoist associations (see this video by me, for example); the burning of effigies and spirit money; group prayer; and sometimes lion/dragon dance performances by local martial arts clubs. Regarding this last note, martial artists have revered Wukong for centuries. He was even channeled by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion during the 19th-century.
Fig. 6 – Drawings of the japsang effigies of Korea. The first four figures are commonly associated with Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing (larger version). However, contemporary sources sometimes named the first figure Wukong. This would make since as he’s wearing armor.
I should point out that Great Sage worship is not unique to people of Chinese descent. He was at some point absorbed into the religion of the Qiang ethnic group. The Qiang people revere a golden, stone-born monkey that is believed to have both stolen fire from the celestial realm and helped recover lost religious knowledge by creating a skin drum from the body of a goat that had eaten their sacred scriptures. Wukong is sometimes equated with the monkey deity given the similarities in their respective lithic origins and penchant for stealing from heaven. The Great Sage is particularly worshiped by the red shamans as their patron deity, or “father god” (abba mula), for his skills in exorcizing evil. He is also sometimes equated with the ancestor from Qiang myth, who is believed to be a monkey-turned-man who married a heavenly goddess and fathered the human race.
Interestingly, Sun Wukong is even revered in Korea. While not officially worshiped as a deity (at least not by people of non-Chinese descent), he appears with a host of other mythological animals on the roof-hips of royal palaces to guard such important structures against fires and evil spirits (fig. 6). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). 
1) For more info on Asian spirit-mediums, see Chan (2006)
2) I’m currently writing an article on the japsang. I will post it in the coming weeks.
Chan, M. (2006). Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki – Chinese Spirit Medium Worship. Singapore: Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University.
The novels Journey to the West(1592) and Investiture of the Gods (1620) are good representations of the syncretic pantheon from Chinese Folk Religion. The number of Buddhas, sages, gods, immortals, spirits, guardians (etc.) revered by people of Chinese descent is enormous, and new figures are being added to the list even to this day. Needless to say, laymen and researchers who visit temples and wish to correctly identify a particular deity need a resource with images, names, and listed attributes. Luckily there is one such source. Keith Stevens (1926-2015), a veteran of the British Army and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, traveled East and Southeast Asia for 40 years collecting information on the folk pantheon. He produced an invaluable monograph titled Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons (1997). The book is unfortunately out of print and available copies are expensive to buy. So I am pleased to host a PDF of this wonderful work on my site.
The scan was produced with an overhead document camera. The glossy pages made scanning somewhat difficult. I had to use a soft, indirect light source. Therefore, not all pages are crisp due to the low light levels. The original file was quite large at 520 mb. I compressed it to a smaller file. I can provide the larger file upon request.
Dust Jacket Description
China is a land full of gods and goddesses, ranging from the Creators of the World to Worthies local to only one or two villages.
This book introduces the reader to the most important figures of Chinese folk history, and those of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Intensely pragmatic in their religion, Chinese people hold all gods in reverence, but it is only the ones who answer prayers with concrete results that are exceptionally praised. Many gods have particular specialities, for instance, there are different Wealth Gods for success in business and for gambling. There are also individual gods for each trade, from those for removal men in Hong Kong to students at Beijing University.
In addition, there are the City Gods and Kitchen Gods, the Earth Gods who protect a specific piece of land, and myriad spirits who protect wells, mountains or bridges, distribute rain or snow, control flooding or protect humanity from disease and epidemics.
Keith Stevens has spent a lifetime researching the subject, travelling extensively in China, Taiwan and throughout South-East Asia. He has gathered information from hundreds of temple keepers, god-carvers and religious specialists and collected details of images and their stories – providing glimpses into the sometimes little-known folk history of China. The author also provides pointers on how to identify images, together with invaluable background information including chronology of Chinese history, a map of the area covered, a glossary and detailed index with the names of deities in Chinese characters.
This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you like the digital version, please support the official release.
Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.
I recently learned about an interesting website called the Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), which catalogs information and pictures for Chinese gods from all over the world. There are currently 2,000 listings and counting.
It is based on the work of religious scholar Keith Stevens (d. 2016), who wrote the amazing Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons (Collins & Brown, 1997) (fig. 1). I recently volunteered to help the project. So far, I’ve written two articles (see reference no. W1001 and W1011) and updated two other existing listings with information and pictures (see the bottom of W8620 and W9305).
Due to the great number of listings, there are no direct links. Instead, the site has adopted a somewhat confusing (but necessary) cataloging system based around reference numbers, pinyin, Mandarin, and Wade-Giles. However, it’s easy to use once you get used to it. For example, if you were going to search for Sanqing, the “Three Pure Ones“, using, say, Pinyin, I recommend first getting the reference number (RefNo).
Deities —> Tabular Listing of Xian Shen Deities —> Field: Pinyin —> Type: Contains —> Value: San qing (you may have to play around with the spacing like I did here) —> Filter —> Then look for the correct listing (since other listings mentioning them might appear in the list) —> ☰ —> copy the “RefNo”, in this case W5540 (fig. 2) —> Deities —> Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar —> Field: RefNo —> Type: Contains —> Value: W5540 —> Filter (fig. 3) —> The listing (fig. 4)
If you know the Mandarin or Wade-Giles for the deity you are looking for, the process would be similar. You would just need to change the field to “Mandarin” or “Wade-Giles”. You could just jump to “Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar” to search using pinyin, mandarin, and Wade-Giles, but it’s been my experience that a different listing will pop up first based on a higher RefNo or Romanized spelling. First finding the reference number seems to be the easiest method for me.
I can’t recommend this website enough. New gods, as well as new stories or beliefs associated with more established deities, are appearing all the time, so it is very important to catalog everything as soon as new information becomes available. If you would like to volunteer in some way, please contact Ronni Pinsler using the “contact” form on the BOXS website.
“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife [Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).
It’s interesting to note that the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Skt: aka Yuddhajaya), also commonly translated as “Victorious Fighting Buddha”, is not a creation of the novel’s author-compiler but one of the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas  appearing in “The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Moral Downfalls” from the Three Heaps Sutra (Skt: Triskhandha Sutra). These Buddhas are individually called upon by name during a confessional prayer. For example, the end of one translation of the Confession reads:
[…] To Tathagata Glorious One Totally Subduing, I prostrate. To Tathagata Utterly Victorious in Battle, I prostrate. To Tathagata Glorious Transcendence Through Subduing, I prostrate. To Tathagata Glorious Manifestations Illuminating All, I prostrate (emphasis mine) (Lama Zopa Rinpoche & Mullin, 2000, p. 5).
This is nearly identical to the end of Journey to the West when the names of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats are called upon. One section reads:
[…] I submit to the Buddha of the Gift of Light. I submit to the Buddha of Candana Merit. I submit to the Buddha Victorious in Strife. I submit to the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin. I submit to the Bodhisattva, Great Power-Coming […] (emphasis mine) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).
The Buddha Victorious in Strife is depicted in Buddhist art with the traditional features of a Buddha (i.e., urna, usnisa, long ear lobes, robes, etc.), but he is also shown holding a suit of armor and a sword (fig. 1):
Yuddhajaya Buddha — (Skt.: aka Yuddhajaya) (Chin.: Tou-chan-sheng fo; Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba, rGyal-ba-gYul-lasr-Gyal-ba) A Sanskrit variant for the Jina Yuddhajaya. One of the Buddha images found in the Pao Hsiang Lou [寶相樓] temple of the Forbidden City, Beijing, and one of the thirty-five “Buddhas of Confession.” Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: holding a cuirass up to his chest; body: monastic robes; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; vahana: lotus throne.
— (2) — (Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba) One of the Buddhas of Confession pictured in the Mongolian Kanjur (Mon.: Monggol ganjur-un)(1717-1720) Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: two, right hand holds sword (khadga, ral-gri), left hand holds coat of mail (khrab); body: monastic robes, right shoulder uncovered; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; attributes: 32 major and 80 minor signs; vahana: lotus throne (Bunce, 1994, p. 629). 
The name Buddha Victorious in Strife is not a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess. According to Lai (2016), the Buddha “defeat[s] the inner enemies of afflictive emotions and negative actions of sentient beings. He is victorious over cyclic existence and thus able to lead all sentient beings to liberation. He purifies the negative karma of actions committed out of pride”.
Fig. 1 – The Buddha Victorious in Strife (aka Yuddhajaya) holding a sword and suit of armor (larger version). Image found here.
II. The Worship of Sun Wukong
The Monkey King is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore as a great exorcist and protector of children. But readers may be surprised to learn that he is not worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife. Instead, Wukong is exclusively revered as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖), and even when he is called a Buddha, the name includes some reference to the rebellious title. For example, when I attended the Monkey King Festival (sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month) in Hong Kong in 2018, I saw an incense pot labeled “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) (fig. 2).
So why isn’t Sun worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife? I think the most obvious answer is that the Buddha had a long-established following and therefore couldn’t be subsumed under the late-blooming cult of a cultural hero, even one as popular as the Monkey King.
Fig. 2 – An incense pot reading “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (larger version). Taken by the author in Kowloon, Hongkong (Sept. 24, 2018).
II. Precedence for spiritual promotion
The author-compiler likely connected Sun Wukong to the Buddha Victorious in Strife because of the deity’s martial iconography. After all, Monkey is a martial deity in his own right, wielding his magic staff and boxing skills to protect Tripitaka from the demons and spirits who constantly hound the monk.
But the choice to elevate Monkey in rank was likely influenced by previous media. For example, Wukong’s literary antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), receives a promotion at the end of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a late 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. The story ends thus: “Tang Taizong later enfeoffed Monkey Pilgrim as ‘Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones'” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207).
If you type “Buddha Victorious in Strife”, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”, “鬥戰勝佛” or “斗战胜佛” into google images, you’ll notice that these terms are almost exclusively associated with Sun Wukong. Most results are fan-made drawings of Monkey wearing his armor. Very few depict him as a Buddha. The only appearance of the latter in popular media that I’m aware is the Victorious Fighting Buddha from the manga / anime High School DxD.
The character is depicted as a jovial old dwarf with long, shaggy brown hair, bushy eyebrows that fall over a cyberpunk-style black visor, no mustache, a long beard, a floor-length, dark gray coat over a red robe, and monkey feet. He wears his famous golden fillet and a set of chunky brown and red prayer beads. In his left hand he holds a smoking pipe, while the right holds his magic staff, which is depicted as red and gold (fig. 6).
Fig. 6 – The Victorious Fighting Buddha from High School DxD (larger version).
The Victorious Fighting Buddha inhabits a universe where various factions of Western and Eastern gods, devils, and heroes battle one another. According to the story, upon ascending to Buddhahood, he steps down as the Monkey King, handing the title to a young descendant, and serves as the vanguard of the Hindu god Indra, during which time he protects the cosmos from a faction of devils and fallen angels. He later takes on the role of sub-leader and mentor to a new faction of young heroes whom he trains to battle god-tier opponents.
High School DxD portrays the Victorious Fighting Buddha as very powerful. For example, season four, episode six (minute 13:35) of the anime shows him effortlessly blocking the “True Longinus” spear with his index finger. This is quite a feat as this weapon is the same one used to pierce the side of Christ, thereby giving it the power to kill other gods.
I visited “Sage Buddha Hall” (Shengfo Tang, 聖佛堂), a Great Sage temple in Beigang, Yunlin, Taiwan and saw a few items labeled the “Fighting Sage Buddha” (Dou zhan sheng fo, 鬥戰聖佛) in place of the Buddha Victorious in Strife/Victorious Fighting Buddha. One such item was a paper fan (fig. 7). As noted above, Buddha Victorious in Strife/Victorious Fighting Buddha is not a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess, but his ability to “defeat the inner enemies of afflictive emotions and negative actions of sentient beings”. So it appears that this temple takes his martial skill at face value.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche, & Mullin, G. H. (Trans.). (2000). The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Moral Downfalls: from The Exalted Mahayana Three Heaps Sutra. Ven. Thubten Dondrub and Ven. George Churinoff (Ed.). New Mexico: Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition Education Services. Retrieved from https://fpmt.org/wp-content/uploads/hope!/a4/booklet/confessiona4bklt.pdf
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Did you know Monkey’s early spiritual training in chapter one is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? After becoming a student of the great immortal Subhuti in India, Sun receives a private lesson in which his master recites an instructional poem, part of which reads:
This bold, secret saying that’s wondrous and true: Spare, nurse nature and life—there’s nothing else. All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit; Store these securely lest there be a leak. Lest there be a leak! Keep within the body! Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive. Hold fast oral formulas so useful and keen To purge concupiscence, to reach pure cool; To pure cool Where the light is bright. You’ll face the elixir platform, enjoying the moon. The moon holds the jade rabbit, the sun, the crow; The tortoise and snake are now tightly entwined. Tightly entwined, Nature and life are strong. You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth— When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).
The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subhuti warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak”, he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178). “You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace. The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal spirit embryo (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179). The third stage involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.
Fig. 1 – (Left) A diagram of the organs and energy pathways in the human body (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Right) A Daoist sage subduing a tiger with his magic powers (larger version). Photos from Kohn (2008).
Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180) (fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.
Various facets of the aforementioned Song-era practices, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Wu and after the hour of Zi” (before noon and after midnight).  This time-based practice is described in the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄): “always practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84).  So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to forge his immortal spirit body.
1) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). I’ve changed the quote because this is most likely an error. See below.
2) There is a glaring contradiction between what the novel says (before Zi and after Wu) and what Daoist practice prescribes (before Wu and after Zi). I think this is a transcription error in the original text.
Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
It is commonly assumed that the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) is located in China. A mountain with the same name in Jiangsu province is even touted as the home of the Monkey King. However, this is not the case within the novel’s narrative. The mountain is described as an island that “constitute[s] the chief range of the Ten Islets and form[s] the origin of the Three Islands”  and that it is situated “at the border of the small Aolai Country [Aolai guo, 傲來國], which lies to the east of the Eastern Purvavideha Continent [Sk: “Surpassing the body”; Ch: Dong sheng shen zhou, 東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 100 and 102). The distance between the island and Aolai is stated to be two hundred li (62 miles / 100 km) of open water. 
The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places Eastern Purvavideha, along with the Western Godaniya Continent (Sk: “Using Cattle”; Ch:Xi niu he zhou, 西牛賀洲), the Northern Uttarakuru Continent (Sk: “Unpleasant Sound”; Ch: Beijuluzhou, 北俱盧洲), and the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (Sk: “Rose-Apple”; Ch: Nan shan bu zhou, 南贍部洲) around the four respective faces of Mt. Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山), a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos, as well as the abode of assorted gods and sages (Robert & David, 2013, p. 869) (fig. 1). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India, or the known world to the ancient people of South Asia (Robert & David, 2013, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” (Dongtu, 東土) within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Most importantly, when Monkey goes in search of a means of escaping death, he sails from Eastern Purvavideha to Southern Jambudvipa (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 108). This means he sails to China.
I suggest the author-compiler of Journey to the West supplanted the traditional geography because Jambudvipa is associated with the “known world” according to Chinese readers and India is located to the west of the Middle Kingdom, which explains why South Asia is placed in Western Godaniya.
II. Wukong studies in India
Failing to find a teacher in Jambudvipa, Monkey sails further onto the Western Godaniya continent where he discovers the sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 須菩提). Upon meeting the primate, the sage asks him, “[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 114). This means Wukong studies elixir arts not in China but India.
Fig. 1 – A diagram showing a bird’s-eye view of sacred Buddhist geography (adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxix) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of Subhuti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock).
III. The origin of Subhuti
The Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti is based on one of the historical disciples of the Buddha. The historical Subhuti (fig. 2) was considered the most accomplished of the Buddha’s students in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pali: Metta; Sk: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 518 and 861-862). Most importantly, he was also famed for contemplating “emptiness” (kong, 空), a subject with textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to “the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence” (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 872). Shao (2006) suggests the Buddho-Daoist master was modeled on the historical disciple “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to ’emptiness’ (sunyatā) that the Chan Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:
Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (Shao, 2006, p. 724).
1) These places are famous in Chinese mythology for being the homes of immortals.
2) The original passage says “across two hundred miles of water” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 131). However, the original Chinese uses li (里), which is a roughly one-third of a standard mile. I have changed the information accordingly.
Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Shao, P. (2006). “Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in Xiyou ji,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65 (No. 4), pp. 713-740
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Sun Wukong (孫悟空) the Monkey King (fig. 1) is one of the most enduring characters of East Asian literature and folklore. Much ink has been spilled in the analysis of the novel in which he appears, the highly popular Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) (1592). For instance, Anthony C. Yu’s updated translation includes an almost 100 page introduction highlighting the historical background and religious and literary influences of the novel. The origins of Monkey has also been discussed at great length. However, no scholars have attempted to trace the origins of his magical iron staff, the most recognizable part of his iconography. In this paper, I propose that the weapon is an amalgam of ringed staves carried by religious monks and iron staves carried by martial monks. Both are featured in Chinese fiction and religious-inspired martial arts legends. My hope is that this information will be both useful to researchers and interesting to fans of Ol’ Monkey.
Fig. 1 – A 19th-century woodblock print of Sun Wukong and his staff (larger version).
1. Literary description
The staff first appears in the third chapter when Monkey 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 magic weapons—a scimitar, a fork, and a halberd weighing thousands of pounds each—fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims that the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The novel never explains how the pillar was made, only that it was originally used by Yu the Great (大禹), a semi-historical Chinese emperor, to measure the depths of the world flood during times immemorial.
The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron twenty feet in height and the width of a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests that a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff comply with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun sees that the weapon is banded with a gold ring on each end, as well as the inscription along the body reading: “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: thirteen thousand five hundred catties” (如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff follows the commands of its owner, shrinking or growing to their whim, and that it is immensely heavy, weighing 17,550 lbs. One particular passage from the novel best summarizes the abilities of Monkey’s staff:
[Sun Wukong] held the treasure [the staff] in his hands and called out, “Smaller, smaller, smaller!” and at once it shrank to the size of a tiny embroidery needle, small enough to be hidden inside the ear. Awestruck, the monkeys cried, “Great King! Take it out and play with it some more.” The Monkey King took it out from his ear and placed it on his palm. “Bigger, bigger, bigger!” he shouted, and again it grew to the thickness of a barrel and more than twenty feet long. He became so delighted playing with it that he jumped onto the bridge and walked out of the cave. Grasping the treasure in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. He bent over and cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be ten thousand feet tall, with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The staff in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell. Tigers, leopards, wolves, and crawling creatures, all of the monsters of the mountain and the demon kings of the seventy-two caves, were so terrified that they kowtowed and paid homage to the Monkey King in fear and trembling. Presently he revoked his magical appearance and changed the treasure back into a tiny embroidery needle stored in his ear.
Sun later uses this powerful weapon in his war against heaven when they don’t recognize him as a full-fledged god. He is so powerful that the Jade Emperor (Yuhuangdi, 玉皇帝) of heaven has to ask the Buddha to intervene. After being imprisoned beneath a mountain range for 500 years, Monkey is eventually released and takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. He is charged with the protection of the monk Xuanzang (玄奘) on a journey to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from India. He uses his staff to battle all sorts of monsters, spirits, and rogue gods along the way.
The earliest depiction of the staff appears in the oldest edition of Journey to the West, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). In the second chapter, Sun takes Xuanzang to heaven to meet Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma Deva. After the monk impresses the heavenly retinue with his lecture on the Lotus Sutra, Monkey is given a cap of invisibility, an alms bowl, and a golden ringed monk’s staff (khakkhara) (fig. 2) as magical weapons against the evils they will face on their journey to India. Sun later uses the staff in a battle with a white-clad woman who transforms into a tiger demon. He changes the staff into a titanic, red-haired, blue-skinned yaksha with a club, showing that the predecessor of the Compliant Rod has more magical abilities in comparison.
A weapon that predicts the Compliant Rod is mentioned early on in The Story. Monkey describes how the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), a demon-like goddess originally worshiped in ancient China, had him flogged with an “iron cudgel” (tiebang, 鐵棒) for stealing ten peaches from her heavenly orchard. He later borrows the cudgel to use in tandem with the monk’s staff to punish nine dragons. The golden rings (jinhuan, 金環) on the monk’s staff most likely influenced the golden hoops (jingu, 金箍) on the weapon from the Ming version. Therefore, both staffs from the Song version were combined to create the Compliant Rod.
Many scholars believe that Sun Wukong was influenced by the monkey god Hanuman from the Indian epic the Ramayana (3rd-century BCE). The two have many textual similarities, but weapons are not among them. Despite his traditional iconography, the Ramayana doesn’t mention Hanuman wielding a mace. His later association with this weapon may have been influenced by two sources. First, the novel portrays him as using his great strength to wield heavy objects, both natural and man-made, as blunt weapons. Second, he was closely associated with yaksha demons in other great Hindu classics like the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE). Early Buddhist sutras mention yakshas wielding maces. One such individual is the Yaksha King Kubera-turned-Buddhist deity Vaisravana, who later makes appearances in the The Story and Journey to the West. The mace was a fixture of Hanuman’s iconography by at least the 12th-century since dynastic coins from this time feature him holding the weapon. However, the association between the two surely took place well before this if the iconography was common enough to stamp on coins. Yet, I am not inclined to speculate that stories of his mace eventually made it to China. Monkey’s weapon may have just been influenced by Buddhist yakshas as well.
As previously mentioned, Sun becomes a Buddhist monk after being released from imprisonment. Meir Shahar explains that the staff was the emblem of the monk. It was a part of the eighteen items that Indian Buddhist monastic law required that they carry with them on the road. In China, there were two different kinds of monks (with some overlap), the lesser known martial type charged with protecting the religious community (sangha) and the more widely known religious type living in cloisters and proselytizing on the road. Both groups carried different kinds of staves. The martial monks wielded the wooden or iron kind. The former was chosen for its diminished capacity to kill unlike edged weapons, while the latter was used for killing during times of war. The religious monks carried the aforementioned ringed kind.
The martial monks of the Shaolin Monastery, for example, are famous for their skill with the staff. It’s interesting to note that they venerate the yaksha-turned-Buddhist protector deity Vajrapani as the progenitor of their staff method. A stele erected in 1517 tells the story of how the deity, disguised as a lowly kitchen worker, grew to titanic proportions and wielded a fire poker as a makeshift staff to defend the monastery against rebels during the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (fig. 3). Buddhist iconography traditionally depicts Vajrapani wielding a mace in defense of the Buddha and his teachings (the dharma).  The Shaolin monks may have changed his mace to a staff because this was the blunt weapon with which they wielded in defense of the religious community and, by extension, the Buddha and his Word, as well as in defense of China against rebels and foreign invaders. Shahar suggests that “martial deities such as Vajrapani exonerated the monks from their responsibility for the creation of military techniques.” He continues, “In this respect their legends could be read as Buddhist apologies for the monastic exercise of violence.” Therefore, I suggest that Monkey’s iron staff from the The Story is based on the staves used by martial monks. After all, Sun is a Buddhist warrior just like the monks of Shaolin, and he uses his iron staff to meter out punishment and death just like Vajrapani and his mace.
The ringed staves were known as “xi staves” (xizhang, 錫杖; Sk: khakkhara), which early medieval Chinese documents describe as being decorated with six to twelve metal rings. These rings were designed to make a clanging noise (xi, 錫) to not only scare away any poisonous animals on the road, but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence. Noted Buddhist personages and deities were often portrayed as having the same ringed staff and alms bowl given to Monkey in The Story. For instance, a popular story circulating during the Song involves Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a close disciple of the Buddha, using the magic power of the aforementioned objects to free his deceased mother from the torments of the underworld.
The Compliant Rod from Journey to the West is based on two staves from an earlier Song-era edition of the story. The first is a golden ringed monk’s staff given to Monkey by the deva Vaisravana (among other objects) as a magical weapon to protect the monk Xuanzang. The second is an iron staff procured by Monkey from the Queen Mother of the West in order to punish nine dragons. The former is based on ringed staves historically carried by religious monks while proselytizing on the road. The ringed staff is among the magic items used by Buddhist personages and deities in Song-era stories. The latter is based on wooden and iron staves historically used by martial monks to defend both the Buddhist community and China from rebels and foreign invaders. Martial monks, such as those from Shaolin, attributed their staff skills to mace-wielding yaksha demons-turned-Buddhist protector deities as way of excusing their use of violence. Likewise, Monkey’s use of violence is excused because he wields his staff in protection of his master Xuanzang. In the end, both staves were combined in the Ming version. The golden rings of the ringed staff were transposed onto the iron staff. The Compliant Rod therefore inhabits the worlds of heaven and hell, religion and combat, salvation and punishment.
The staff influenced the weapon used by the humanoid alien Son Goku (himself based on Sun Wukong), the main character of the Dragon Ball franchise. It is named Nyoi Bo, the Japanese transliteration of Ruyi bang (如意棒, “Compliant Rod”), and is commonly called “Power Pole” in English language media. The staff is given to him as a child by his grandfather Gohan, a human who adopts and teaches him martial arts.
I was mistaken when I stated that the novel doesn’t explain how the staff was made. The 75th chapter has a long poem describing the history of the weapon. The first few lines read:
The rod of steel nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,”
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men
However, instead of reflecting the actual history of the staff (within the novel’s fictional universe), I think this is an example of how character’s boast about their weapons in a bid to “one-up” their opponents. It’s like saying, “My weapon is more prestigious than yours, so you have no chance of beating me.”
I wrote a sister blog to this entry a few days ago that describes additional influences of the staff. It can be read here:
I noted in a previous entry (06-4-14) that a poem in the 75th chapter states the staff was created by Laozi in his oven. A later poem in the 88th chapter notes that it was made by Yu the Great:
An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.
 Wu Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1-96.
 See, for instance, Ibid, 8-15 and the sources therein.
 Yu the Great is believed to have ruled during the 22nd century BCE. The novel, however, does not follow a historical chronology. Yu is just portrayed as inhabiting a mystical time in the distant past.
 Wu and Yu, The Journey to the West, 135. Anthony Yu’s original translation uses the word “pounds.” However, Chinese versions of the novel use jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this.
 The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press, 2004), 491 n. 133).
 Meir Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), 93.
 This is also known as the “Kōzanji Version” (高山寺) because a 17th-century document mentioning the work was discovered in a Japanese temple of that name (Victor H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1181).
 These are actually two different deities, but the Chinese author of the tale seems to have confused them (Ibid, 1182 n. 4 and 1183 n. 6.)
 Dudbridge, The Hsi-Yu Chi, 32 and 35.
 Ibid, 37-38.
 Ibid, 38. For a comparison between the Chinese names of the Song and Ming weapons, see Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 107-108.
 These similarities include being monkey protagonists and having births associated with wind, episodes of upsetting cosmic order in their youths, and comparable powers of transformation and flight. Bits and pieces of the Ramayana arrived in China in the form of Buddhist sutras from the north via the Silk Road and word of mouth from Southeast Asian merchants via the southern sea route. It then mixed with indigenous Chinese stories concerning water spirits and ape demons to influence the creation of Sun Wukong. For more details, see Hera S. Walker, “Indigenous or Foreign? A Look at the Origins of the Monkey Hero Sun Wukong”, Sino-Platonic Papers 81 (September 1998): 1-110, accessed February 20, 2014, http://sino-platonic.org/complete/sp…sun_wukong.pdf.
 Philip Lutgendorf, Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 41 n. 9.
 Ibid, 41-42.
 He appears as the heavenly general Li Jing (李靖) in the Ming version.
 Ibid, 61.
 Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 102.
 Ibid, 101.
 Shahar mentions a Shaolin monk who used his iron staff to kill the wife of a rebel during the Ming dynasty (Ibid, 69).
 Ibid, 83-85.
 Ibid, 37. For a story of Vajrapani defending the Buddha, see Vessantara, Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities (Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998), 162.
 The Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma are known as the “Three Jewels of Buddhism.”
 Ibid, 91.
 For instance, one story tells how Vajrapani kills a Hindu deity in order to revive him as a Buddhist deity. This is connected to the concept of skill in means in which an evil being is killed in order to save them from karmic punishment in the next life (Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael K. Jerryson, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 55).
 Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 103.
 Dudbridge, The Hsy-Yu Chi, 32 n. 6. For a full version of the story, see Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 1093-1127.
 Mark I. West, The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 203.
 Brian Camp and Julie Davis Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces (Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2007), 112.
 Akira Toriyama and Gerard Jones, Dragon Ball (Vol. 2) (San Francisco, Calif: Viz LLC, 2003), 4.
 Wu and Yu, Journey to the West (Vol. 3), 375.
 Ibid (Vol. 4), 201.
Camp, Brian, and Julie Davis. Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces. Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.
Dudbridge, Glen. The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970
Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press, 2004
Juergensmeyer, Mark, Margo Kitts, and Michael K. Jerryson. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Lutgendorf, Philip. Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994
Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.
Toriyama, Akira, and Gerard Jones. Dragon Ball (Vol. 2). San Francisco, Calif: Viz LLC, 2003.
Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998.
One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.
In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), an island that lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches a stone egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.
The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for nearly four centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisers notes that only Daoist immortals and Buddhist saints can avoid death, and so he suggests the king find a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life. Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years, adopting human dress and language along way. His quest takes him to the Western Aparagodāniya continent where he is finally accepted as a student by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey who realizes sunyata“. The sage teaches him the seventy-two methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.
Sun eventually returns to his island home and faces a demon whom had taken control of it during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he needs a weapon to match his celestial power, and so his adviser suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, to find such a weapon. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythical king of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), to set the depths of the fabled world flood, as well as to calm the seas. Named the “‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim—as small as a needle or as tall as the sky—thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.
Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he shows off his new weapon by turning into a frightful cosmic giant and commanding the staff to grow, with the top touching the highest heaven and the bottom the lowest hell. This display of power prompts demon kings of the seventy-two caves to submit to his rule and host a drunken party in his honor. Soon after falling asleep, Sun is visited by two psychopomps who drag his soul to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he is no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.
Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).
Both the Eastern Dragon King and King Yama submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court adviser, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the August Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial position of “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” (Bimawen, 弼馬温) in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey accepts and steadfastly performs his duties, that is until he learns from an assistant that he’s not a full-fledged god but a glorified stable boy. He immediately storms out of the heavenly gates and returns home to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) in rebellion. Heaven mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Prince Nezha (哪吒), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the August Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s wishes, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to be the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”.
Sun tours the heavenly orchard housing the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years. The sweet aroma of his charge is too much for him to resist, and so he eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits. His theft is soon discovered when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), an ancient primordial goddess, arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. It is from these fairies that Monkey learns he has not been invited due to his rough nature. Enraged, Sun then incapacitates the fair maidens with magic and crashes the party before the guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), the supreme god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived pills of immortality, thus increasing his level of invincibility.
Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up seventy-two heavenly generals, comprising the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods, and 100,000 celestial soldiers. In response, Monkey mobilizes his own army comprising the demon kings of the seventy-two caves and all manner of animal spirits, including his own monkey soldiers. But soon after the battle commences, the demon kings fall to the heavenly forces, forcing Sun to take on three heads and six arms and multiply his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical steel bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.
Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his rendered remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, having found protection in the wind element (xun, 巽). But intense smoke inside the furnace had greatly irritated his eyes, refining his pupils the color of gold and giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles, as well as to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, Sun demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain, yet the Enlightened One explains that the baneful spirit had never left his palm. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.
Fig. 2 – (Left) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong”, October 10, 1889 (larger version). Fig 3. – (Right) Son Goku (孫悟空) from the Dragonball Franchise (larger version).
Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.
A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.
Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.
Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.
Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball(Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).