Type “Zhu Bajie” (豬八戒) into Google images and you will generally see a cute or friendly-looking pig-man with pink skin, big ears, a short snout, and a large stomach, and he will inevitably be holding some form of metal rake. Most iterations will likely be based on the character’s iconic look from the classic 1986 TV show, which portrays him wearing a Ji Gong-style Buddhist hat (Ji Gong mao, 濟公帽) with a golden fillet (à la Sun Wukong), a handkerchief tied around his neck and a sash at his waist, and black monk’s robes open at the chest (fig. 1). You might even see a few images depicting Zhu as a hulking warrior, but rarely will you see him portrayed with dark skin. So how do these representations compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present Zhu’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.
I should note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive survey, just a general overview.
Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie from the 1986 TV show (larger version).
1. Ancient Depictions
Zhu’s earliest depictions hail from the 14th-century as he is a latecomer to the story cycle, postdating the appearance of Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing by centuries. He is featured on a ceramic pillow and an incense burner from late Yuan China, as well as a series of carvings on a stone pagoda from late Goryeo Korea. Each piece draws on the same motif, depicting Zhu as a pig-headed monk taking large strides as he shoulders his rake and/or leads the horse. Even in instances where the weapon and equine are not present, he’s depicted in the same general posture (fig. 2-4).
Fig. 2 – Detail of Zhu from a Cizhou ware ceramic pillow. See here for the full image. Fig. 3 – Detail from the incense burner. See here for the full image. Fig. 4 – Detail from panel two of the Korean pagoda. Note the figure’s matching posture. See here for the full line drawing.
2. What the novel says
2.1. Physical appearance
A poem in chapter 8 contains the earliest reference to Zhu’s appearance:
Lips curled and twisted like dried lotus leaves; Ears like rush-leaf fans [pushan, 蒲扇] and hard, gleaming eyes; Gaping teeth as sharp as a fine steel file’s; A long mouth wide open like a fire pot [huopen, 火盆]. […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211).
Chapter 18 provides more detail about his bristly neck and dark skin:
“Well,” said old Mr. Gao, “when he first came, he was a stout, swarthy [hei, 黑; lit: “black”] fellow, but afterwards he turned into an idiot with huge ears and a long snout, with a great tuft of bristles [zongmao, 鬃毛; lit: “mane”] behind his head. His body became horribly coarse and hulking. In short, his whole appearance was that of a hog!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 372).
When the violent gust of wind had gone by, there appeared in midair a monster who was ugly indeed. With his black face [hei lian, 黑臉] covered with short, stubby hair, his long snout and huge ears, he wore a cotton shirt that was neither quite green nor quite blue. A sort of spotted cotton handkerchief was tied round his head (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).
The mane on the back of Zhu’s head is such a prominent feature that he took it as his personal name: “[M]y surname is based on my appearance. Hence I am called Zhu ([豬] Hog), and my official name is Ganglie ([剛鬣] Stiff Bristles)” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 376).
Chapter 19 shows he has hands and feet like a man:
The monster did indeed raise his rake high and bring it down with all his might; with a loud bang, the rake made sparks as it bounced back up. But the blow did not make so much as a scratch on Pilgrim’s head. The monster was so astounded that his hands [shou, 手] turned numb and his feet [jiao, 腳] grew weak (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 383-384).
Compare this to the mention of hooves (ti, 蹄) when he transforms into a giant boar in chapter 67 (see section 2.2 below).
Chapter 29 gives the fullest description:
My elder disciple has the surname of Zhu, and his given names are Wuneng [悟能] and Eight Rules [Bajie, 八戒]. He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge, fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).
Chapter 85 reveals the shocking size of his snout:
A snout, pestlelike, over three Chinese feet long [san chi, 三尺, 3.15 feet/96 cm]  And teeth protruding like silver prongs. Bright like lightning a pair of eyeballs round, Two ears that whip the wind in hu-hu [唿唿] sound. Arrowlike hairs behind his head are seen; His whole body’s skin is both coarse and black [qing, 青].  […] (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149).
Chapter 90 notes Zhu has a tail: “Seizing him by the bristles and the tail [wei, 尾], the two spirits hauled Eight Rules away to show him to the nine-headed lion, saying, “Grandmaster, we’ve caught one” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 219).
We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, an overly long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin. He is also said to have human hands and feet and a pig tail. This grotesque description greatly differs from his cutesy appearance in modern media. It’s important to note that, just like Sun Wukong, Zhu was modeled on a real life animal. In this case, he shares many of his monstrous qualities with the wild boar (yezhu, 野豬) (fig. 5 & 6).
While the novel doesn’t give an exact height for our hero, the cited attributes do provide clues as to his general size. First and foremost is Tripitaka‘s statement: “[H]e causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Obviously something capable of stirring the wind just from moving is going to be really big. Then there is Zhu’s 3.15 foot (96 cm) snout, which is over half the height of an average person. This suggests he’s several feet taller than a human. Furthermore, the novel states Sha Wujing is a whopping twelve Chinese feet (zhang er, 丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) tall (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).  Zhu is likely shorter than Sha as the latter’s height is specifically mentioned. So I would guess that he is at least 10 feet (roughly 3 m) tall. Zhu’s size is highlighted in some lovely online art (fig. 7 & 8).
Zhu provides two contradictory origins for himself, which have implications for what his true form may be and why he looks the way he does in the novel.  A biographical poem in chapter 19 explains he was once a wayward, lazy youth who took up Daoist cultivation and later rose on clouds to receive celestial rank in heaven. But his immortal spirit was eventually exiled for drunkenly forcing himself on the moon goddess and mistakenly regained corporeal form in the womb of a sow, becoming the pig spirit that we know today (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 378-379).  However, a poem in chapter 85 implies he was already a powerful pig monster who was given celestial rank but later exiled for drunkenly mocking the moon goddess, destroying Laozi‘s palace, and eating the Queen Mother‘s magic herbs (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). The latter origin might be represented in chapter 67 when Zhu transforms into a gigantic boar (fig. 9):
A long snout and short hair—all rather plump. He fed on herbs of the mountain since his youth. A black face with round eyes like the sun and moon; A round head with huge ears like plantain leaves. His bones were made lasting as Heaven’s age; Tougher than iron was his thick skin refined. In deep nasal tones he made his oink-oink cry. What gutteral grunts when he puffed and huffed! Four white hoofs [ti, 蹄] standing a thousand feet tall; Swordlike bristles topped a thousand-foot frame.  Mankind had long seen fatted pigs and swine, But never till today this old hog elf [lao zhu xiao, 老豬魈]. The Tang Monk and the people all gave praise; At such high magic pow’r they were amazed (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253).
Zhu is not associated in popular culture with any specialized clothing or adornments like Sun Wukong, who’s very name brings to mind the golden fillet, a tiger skin kilt, and golden armor with a feather cap. But several later chapters do mention our pig hero wearing a “black brocade zhiduo robe” (zao jin zhiduo, 皂錦直裰) (ch. 55, 61, 72, & 86) or just a “black zhiduo robe” (zao zhiduo, 皂直裰) (ch. 63, 67, & 84).  The zhiduo robe is known colloquially in English as “Buddhist monk” or “Taoist monk” robes. Also called haiqing (海青), such garments reach almost to the ground and have long, broad sleeves. The robe is closed by a tie on the right side of the torso (fig. 10; also refer back to fig. 7).
Zhu’s signature weapon is first mentioned in chapter 8. A line from his introductory poem reads: “He holds a rake—a dragon’s outstretched claws” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211). The most detailed description appears in chapter 19:
This is divine bin steel greatly refined,  Polished so highly that it glows and shines. Laozi wielded the large hammer and tong; Mars himself added charcoals piece by piece. Five Kings of Five Quarters applied their schemes; The Six Ding and Six Jia Spirits expended all their skills.  They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade, And double rings were cast with dropping gold leaves. Decked with Five Stars and Six Celestial Bodies,  Its frame conformed to eight spans and four climes. Its whole length set to match the cosmic scheme Accorded with yin yang, with the sun and moon: Hexagram Spirit Generals etched as Heaven ruled; Eight-Trigram Stars stood in ranks and files. They named this the High Treasure Golden Rake, [Shang bao qin jin pa, 上寶沁金鈀] […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382).
So we see the rake has nine jade-like teeth and a bin steel body decorated with two golden rings and inscriptions of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. The exact position of the rings is not specified, but one online drawing shows them at each end of the rake head (refer back to fig. 8). This might be a reference to the rings capping the ends of Sun’s weapon. While the weight is not listed on the rake like the Monkey King’s staff, chapter 88 states it is 5,048 catties (wuqian ling sishiba jin, 五千零四十八斤; 6,566 lbs. / 2,978.28 kg),  or the weight of the Buddhist canon (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). 
Since the rake’s literary description is more vague than that of Wukong’s staff, my normally strict views on the accuracy of the disciples’ weapons in various media don’t really apply in this case. This is especially true as even historical depictions are all over the place (fig. 11-13). I think the monstrous pig face on the rake from the 1986 TV show-inspired action figure is really neat (refer back to fig. 1). Another favorite of mine is the spiky rake from the ongoing manhuaThe Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) (fig. 13).
1) The Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) – This is perhaps the closest to his literary description (but his body and hair should be darker) (fig. 17). Admittedly, this is not the character’s original form. The manhua portrays Zhu as a small, pink pig-man who needs to absorb energy from the surrounding environment in order to achieve this monstrous transformation.
2) Journey to the West (2011) – This is how Zhu is portrayed when he’s still a monster (fig. 18). He has the dark skin, fangs, and mane. But he later changes to a friendly, pink pig-man once subjugated.
3) The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) – While missing his bristly mane, Zhu is portrayed with a long snout, big ears, and, most importantly, black skin (fig. 19). He is also wearing a black zhiduo robe. Thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting this entry.
Fig. 19 – Zhou Hongquan (周鴻泉) as Zhu in The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) (larger version).
While modern media often depicts Zhu as a friendly-looking, pink pig-man, the novel describes him as a giant pig monster with a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, a three-foot-long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin, human hands and feet, and a pig tail. He wears a black zhiduo robe. His 3.28 ton bin steel rake has nine jade-like teeth, two golden rings (possibly adorning the ends of the head), and a body inscribed with the sun, moon, and planets and hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. Needless to say, the literary Zhu is far more imposing than his modern, family friendly persona.
1) The Chinese foot (chi, 尺) was slightly longer than the modern western foot (12 in/30.48 cm). The Board of Works (Yingzao, 營造) of the Ming and Qing standardized the measurement at 32 cm (12.59 in), though it varied at the local level and at different times (Ruitenbeek, 1996, Chinese Dynasties and Chinese Measurements section). I’m basing the length given in the novel on that from the Board of Works as the novel was published during the Ming dynasty.
2) The original English translation says “green” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). However, there are times when it refers to black. For example, the phrase “The black ox goes west” (qing niu xi qu, 青牛西去) references Laozi and the Daodejing (Ma & van Brakel, 2016, p. 328 n. 71). In addition, the novel previously refers to Zhu having a “black face” (hei lian, 黑臉) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).
3) This recalls the origin of the immortal Iron Crutch Li (Li tieguai, 李鐵拐), whose body was prematurely burnt by a disciple while his celestial spirit traveled to heaven. Upon his return, Li was forced to take corporeal form in the body of a recently deceased cripple.
4) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the garment as “black cloth shirt” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253, for example).
5) Thank you to Irwen Wong and Anthony “Antz” Chong for bringing this to my attention.
6) See note #1 for how this measurement is calculated.
7) The original English translation says “hundred-yard” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253). However, the Chinese states 百丈 (bai zhang), or 100 x 10 Chinese feet, which of course equals 1,000 feet.
8) The original English translation/Chinese text states “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382). However, this is likely an error for “divine bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) was a high quality metal originally imported from Persia before the secret of its manufacture reached China in the 12th-century. It is mentioned a few times in the novel, including being associated with Monkey’s staff in one instance (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).
I’ve made several changes to the translation from this point forward to better accord with the original Chinese.
9) The “Six Ding and Six Jia” (六丁六甲, Liuding liujia) are protector spirits of Daoism (Mugitani, 2008).
10) The “Five Stars” (wuxing, 五星) refer to Mercury (shuixing, 水星), Venus (jinxing, 金星), Jupiter (muxing, 木星), Mars (huoxing, 火星), and Saturn (tuxing, 土星). The Six Celestial Bodies (liuyao, 六曜) refer to the sun (taiyang/ri, 太陽/日) and moon (taiyin/yue, 太陰/月) and the four hidden pseudo-planets Yuebei (月孛), Ziqi (紫氣), Luohou (羅睺), and Jidu (計都). Combined, they are called the “Eleven Luminaries” (shiyi yao, 十一 曜), and these are sometimes broken into the “Seven Governors and Four Hidden Luminaries” (qizheng siyu, 七政四余) (Wang, 2020, pp. 169-170; Hart, 2010, p. 145 n. 43).
11) The original English translation says “five thousand and forty-eight pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The 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 (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 5,048 catties would equal 6,566 lbs. or 2,978.28 kg.
12) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) notes popular belief held that the Buddhist canon was comprised of 5,048 scrolls (vol. 4, p. 396 n. 7). I’m not sure if the rake’s weight was purely based on the number of scrolls, or if each scroll was believed to weigh one catty.
Hart, R. (2010). The Chinese Roots of Linear Algebra. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ma, L., & van Brakel, J. (2016). Fundamentals of Comparative and Intercultural Philosophy. United States: State University of New York Press.
Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (vol. 1-2) (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.
Ruitenbeek, K. (1996). Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-century Carpenter’s Manual, Lu Ban Jing. Germany: E.J. Brill.
Wang, X. (2020). Physiognomy in Ming China: Fortune and the Body. Netherlands: Brill.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
There have been a number of Monkey King adaptations in mainstream and indie Western comic books over the decades. I’ve been aware of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong for a number of years now, but I feel compelled to finally write something after having reviewed DC Comics’ Monkey Prince. Sun’s tale is laid out in several publications, including four tie-ins from the “Fear Itself” (2011) crossover event, four issues of Avengers World (2014-2015), one tie-in from the “Secret Empire” (2017) crossover, and two tie-ins from the “War of the Realms” (2019) event. Sun’s story arc follows him from a greedy crime lord to a heroic demigod who sacrifices his life in an attempt to help save the world. He is comparable to Shazam (a.k.a. Captain Marvel) as he gains his abilities via divine empowerment.
Sun appears as a minor character in several disparate storylines. It would take way too long to summarize each narrative here, so I will only be discussing the events in which he appears. However, the linked articles and notes below should help the uninitiated get up to speed.
A more accurate, cartoonish version of Sun Wukong appears in two issues of Tarot: Avengers/Defenders (2020) (Davis, 2020a; 2020b). But I won’t be covering that depiction here as it is separate from the aforementioned superhero.
1. Character arc
1.1. Iron Man 2.0 #5-7 (2011)
Sun’s story opens in the Eighth City, a hellish dimension that serves as a prison for the evils of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.  He is first seen enjoying a meal meant for the winner of a demonic fighting tournament. When challenged by the intended recipient and his henchmen, Sun leaps from a tall rampart and soundly beats the monstrous gang, all while touting his superiority based on the pedigree of his magic staff (which can separate into three sections) and past deeds as the historical Monkey King (fig. 1). But this triumphant moment is disturbed when one of the “Seven Hammers of the Worthy” punches through the heart of Beijing, China and breaches the dimensional barrier separating hell from earth, thus allowing demons to spill into the human world.  Sun attempts to retrieve the weapon but can’t lift it (similar to the enchantment on Thor’s hammer) as he isn’t the intended wielder (Spencer, 2011a).
The third Worthy, “Skirn: Breaker of Men” (Titania), leads the Absorbing Man to hell so he can become the next Worthy. But Sun greedily boasts that the hammer is his property, along with everything else he sees, much to her annoyance. Skirn then attacks the “little thief” and incapacitates him with a blow of her hammer (Spencer, 2011b, p. 14). Moments later, the Immortal Weapons and War Machine happen upon the scene while attempting to close the dimensional rift. However, despite a brief struggle, they too fall to Skirn’s mighty power, allowing the Absorbing Man to become the sixth Worthy, “Greithoth: Breaker of Wills” (Spencer, 2011b).
When the earthly heroes recover from the attack, they awaken to find Sun standing over them with his staff. The Monkey King bemoans the loss of his hammer and claims that the two Worthies have run away from his martial might. But before turning to leave, he acknowledges the Immortal Weapons as heroes, while also noting a dark aura surrounding one of them, the Immortal Iron Fist (Spencer, 2011c).
Fig. 1 – Sun beating up the winner of the demonic fighting tournament (larger version). Art by Ariel Olivetti. From Spencer, 2011a, p. 8. Copyright Marvel Comics.
1.2. Fear Itself: The Monkey King (2011)
Sun’s eponymous tie-in issue opens on the story of the Buddha‘s wager that the historical Monkey King cannot leap clear of his palm. The imp takes up the challenge by flying a thousand miles across the sky until he reaches a set of five stone pillars. But when Sun returns to gloat, he soon realizes it was all an illusion and that he had never actually left the Enlightened One’s palm. The Buddha then clamps his hand shut, trapping Monkey inside (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 3-4).
Flashforward to present day Beijing, the modern Monkey King reminisces about his origins while fighting his way through a villain’s army of henchmen and women. Fifteen years ago, our hero was a greedy crime lord who referred to himself as and affected the persona of the Monkey King. After a brief fight over poker, the rival crime lord “Lion” attempts to appease Sun by bringing him to a cave in the Wudang Mountains. Sun initially shows no interest, but after his companion reveals it to be the “final resting place of the REAL Monkey King” and his magic staff (Fialkov, 2011, p. 10), the crime lord immediately stakes his claim on the cavern like a selfish child. Lion then plays on his ego by saying that he’s probably not skilled enough to bypass the booby traps protecting the weapon, which lies just inside the cave mouth. Sun answers the challenge by leaping in headfirst, deftly avoiding projectiles with gymnastic grace, and taking possession of the polearm. But this was all a part of Lion’s plan; the rival crime lord activates a button hidden in the rock face, causing the ground beneath Sun to literally engulf him like an octopus attacking prey (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 4-14).
He falls into a deep chasm where he’s confronted by a titanic apparition of the historical Monkey King. The simian god admonishes Sun for stealing the staff but grudgingly admits his abilities: “Only the greatest thief who walks the earth could actually hold onto my dearest Ruyi Jingu Bang” (Fialkov, 2011, p. 14). So the Monkey King presents him with a wager: If he has a clean soul, he’ll receive freedom and the deity’s staff and powers to do with however he wishes; but if he has an unclean soul, he’ll be damned to an eternity in the Eighth City. After agreeing to the bet, the crime lord naturally finds himself banished to the hellish realm, but (for some reason) he still gets the powers and staff, as well as (for some reason) a heroic costume. The narrative then briefly recaps his confrontation with Skirn and the Absorbing Man and eventual escape via the dimensional rift, before circling back to present day (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 14-15).
Sun finally confronts the sought-after villain, who turns out to be Lion. He magically transports him to the same cave mouth and reveals how he survived by gaining the Monkey King’s powers and memories, as well as how his time in the Eighth City led him to repent his criminal past. Sun ultimately punishes Lion to a similar fate by tossing him into the hell realm (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 16-22). The issue ends with Sun standing in a heroic pose and exclaiming: “From this day forth, I will fight for good and truth and peace and honesty … and, uh … all that stuff! With the powers of Sun Wukong, I will bring honor to my country and peace to my city, for I am… the handsome Monkey King!” (fig. 2) (Fialkov, 2011, p. 22).
Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong’s heroic pose (larger version). Art by Juan Doe. From Fialkov, 2011, p. 22.Copyright Marvel Comics.
1.3. Avengers World #7, 10, 13, and 14 (2014)
Sun next appears as a member of the newly-minted Chinese superhero team, the Ascendants, led by the Weather Witch. S.P.E.A.R. deploys the team to reinforce the Avengers as they fight to protect Hong Kong against the attack of an island-sized dragon controlled by the villain Gorgon (Spencer, 2014/2019a).  Instead of being a lone wolf, Sun is shown working in tandem with the team (Spencer, 2014/2019a, pp. 156 and 159; 2014/2019b, p. 211; 2019c, pp. 277-278). During their battle, he single-handedly stops one of many vehicle-sized dragons, thrashes it to the left and right, and finally throws it into a building (fig. 3) (Spencer, 2014/2019c, pp. 274-275). A flashback reveals the Weather Witch had hand-picked Sun, who joined the superhero team only on the promise of adventure (Spencer, 2014/2019c, p. 276). 
A flashback shows Sun (for some reason) crouching on a glowing hover disc while he and the Ascendants prepare themselves to repel an on-coming attack of their airborne base by Hydra ships in southern China (fig. 4) (Spencer & Cates, 2017, p. 15). This happens during a worldwide pushback against Hydra’s attempt at global domination (Spencer & Cates, 2017).
1.5. War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas #3 and 4 (2019)
Sun appears as one of three Asian superheroes giving updates to Amadeus Cho about their respective efforts in Tokyo, Manila, and Beijing to battle the armies of the fire giantess Sindr, who has claimed Asia as her new empire. He reports the Ascendants will protect Beijing, while he plans to attack her fire soldiers in northern China (Pak, 2019a, pp. 5-6). But when Cho asks him to wait for his team, the New Agents of Atlas, Sun snaps at him, noting the situation requires godly powers. Cho then assures him that he has a plan involving their resident goddess Pele (Pak, 2019a, pp. 6).
Sun next appears (for some reason) on horseback in northern China where he meets with the New Agents of Atlas. The head of Atlas asks Shang Chi to give the group a crash course in martial arts ahead of their battle. But when Sun scoffs at the idea of taking directions from a mortal, Shang Chi proves his skill by effortlessly disarming him of his staff and knocking him back with a punch to the chest (Pak, 2019a, pp. 20-21). Thus humbled, the Monkey King accepts this as a learning opportunity: “The Great Sun Wukong is always up for learning something new” (Pak, 2019a, pp. 21).
Sun is among the vanguards who lead the charge against Sindr when she arrives in northern China, but even he is beaten back by her power (Pak, 2019a, pp. 8-9). However, after a brief confrontation with Pele, who turns out to be a robot designed to battle magic beings, a large portion of Sindr’s mystical energy is drained, leaving her open to attack. Sun takes this as an opportunity to sacrifice his life so the New Agents of Atlas have a better chance of defeating her. He leaps into the air and stabs her in the back with his staff before succumbing to the intense heat of her flames (Pak, 2019b, pp. 13-15). His last words are: “Behold, the Great Monkey King, Sun Wukong! I’ll save this word … And I’ll see you in the next! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!” (fig. 5) (Pak, 2019b, p. 14).
During Sun’s battle with the demonic gladiators in the Eighth City, he refers to his staff as an ocean-calming pillar and recalls his past adventures, including stealing immortal peaches and wine from heaven, stealing his name from the books of life and death, and acquiring a feathered cap from the Dragon Kings of the four oceans (Spencer, 2011a, pp. 7-8). All of these are mentioned in one form or another in the novel,  but I must make a few corrections. Instead of Sun stealing his name from the infernal legers, he crosses it out with ink (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 141). And instead of “defeat[ing] the Four Dragon Kings” to acquire the feather cap (Spencer, 2011a, p. 8), he simply threatens to beat one of them up (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 136). Also, the cap is only one part of a set of golden armor and boots that he strong-arms from the royal brothers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 136-137).
Sun transforms into a hawk (Spencer, 2011a, p. 5; Fialkov, 2011, p. 18), a gecko (Fialkov, 2011, p. 6), and a lion (Fialkov, 2011, p. 17) in the early part of his story. This recalls Monkey’s famous 72 transformations, which are best exhibited during his battle with Erlang in chapter six (video 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 182-184).
Video 1 – The magic battle of transformations between Sun and Erlang. From the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.
3. Problems with the writing and art
As I previously stated in my review of DC Comics’ Monkey Prince, an adaptation of Journey to the West, or in this case the Monkey King, has to be super accurate or just different enough for me to find it fresh and interesting. This adaptation is neither accurate nor uniquely different. Sun Wukong has simply been grafted onto a modern, human superhero and in the worst possible way. He is depicted as a Chinese man wearing the queue (bianzi, 辮子) hairstyle, a cleanly shaven scalp adorned with a long braid hanging from the crown (refer back to fig. 3). I get the distinct feeling that Sun’s creators, (writer) Nick Spencer and (artist) Ariel Olivetti, were influenced by Hong Kong wire-fu media of the 1990s in which heroic martial artists, played by the likes of Jet Li and Donnie Yen, sported the queue while fighting injustice. So in that sense, the character could be considered an homage to cinematic folk heroes like Wong Fei-hung and Hung Hei-gun. But the problem is that the creators clearly didn’t take note of the hairstyle’s historical context. Such films are set during the foreign-ruled Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
Historically the Manchu forced their traditional hairstyle on the Chinese as a sign of subjugation after conquering the Middle Kingdom in the mid-17th-century. The Chinese resisted, not because of the braid—long hair was after all a Chinese fashion—but because of the requirement to shave the scalp. Those who refused were put to death (Godley, 2011). The disgust for this style was perfectly summed up by leaders of the Taiping Rebellion in 1853:
The Chinese have Chinese characteristics; but now the Manchus have ordered us to shave the hair around the head leaving a long tail behind, thus making the Chinese appear to be brute animals … You are all Chinese people; how can you be so stupid as to cut your hair and follow the demons? (Godley, 2011).
Students and laborers who traveled abroad were still required to wear the queue up into the early 20th-century. But by then the hairstyle had already become antiquated on the world stage (Godley, 2011). For example, writing in 1903, the nationalist Zou Rong lamented:
When a man with a queue and wearing Manchu clothes loiters about in London, why do all the passers-by say “Pig-tail” or “savage”? And if he loiters about in Tokyo, why do all the passers-by say “Chanchanbotsu” [slave with a tail]? (Tsou & Lust, 1968, p. 79; cf Godley, 2011).
This antipathy for braid-wearing Chinese had already for decades been mirrored in Western “Yellow Peril” propaganda of the late 19th-century. For instance, “Immigration East and West” (1881) (fig. 6), a two-page political cartoon by George Frederick Keller, depicts the concept of “Chinese Immigration” as a monstrous serpent arriving in the “West” (western US) with fangs bared and large, clawed hands threatening to attack a defeated-looking Lady Liberty  and a cowering California Grizzly. The serpent’s queue whips in the air overhead next to the word “Asia”, and spots on its body are labeled with afflictions such as “immorality”, “smallpox”, and “ruin to white labor” (Bierce, 1881, p. 173), symbolizing the then prominent fear that the Chinese would overrun the United States with cheap labor and diseases (Lyman, 2000). This is in contrast to the adjoining image, which depicts Lady Liberty  welcoming throngs of bustling European immigrants to the “East” (eastern US), who bring with them virtues such as “art”, “labor”, and “agriculture” (Bierce, 1881, p. 172).
So the hairstyle was originally a sign of subjugation forced on the Chinese by foreign rulers under penalty of death. And it later served as a symbol for racist, economic-based fears of Chinese immigration in the West. Therefore, I feel confident in saying that depicting Sun Wukong with a queue was not a well-thought-out idea. In fact, this lack of forethought is indicative of the lazy writing that plagues the rest of the Monkey King’s character arc.
Fig. 6 – “Immigration East and West” (1881) (larger version). It first appeared in volume seven of The Wasp (Bierce, 1881, pp. 172-173), a satirical magazine from San Francisco, California, USA.
Fear Itself: The Monkey King (2011) is the worst perpetrator of this lackadaisical approach. For starters, how did Lion and Sun travel to the Wudang Mountains, and why are they still wearing their everyday street clothes instead of thick coats and hiking boots? How does Lion even know the location of this ancient cave, and why does he alone know it’s the final resting place of the historical Monkey King? Shouldn’t this be a well-guarded secret only known to a select few? This is even more puzzling considering that, in Journey to the West, Sun Wukong retires to the Buddha’s Western Paradise in India (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, pp. 381-383), so why would he resettle in China? How does Lion know about the trigger hidden in the rock face, and why does he know the ground will engulf Sun? Why is the Monkey King’s magic staff just sitting out in the open, and how does Sun effortlessly pick it up despite weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg) in the novel?  Sure, the historical Monkey King says, “Only the greatest thief who walks the earth” can hold the weapon (Fialkov, 2011, p. 14). But why is that even a requirement, especially when he ends up sentencing the crime lord to hell for having an unclean soul? Why does Monkey give him the powers and the staff even after judging him to be unworthy? Why does he give him a superhero costume upon sending him to hell? Where does the modern Monkey King get the different superhero costume upon escaping from hell? None of this is answered. This is just frustratingly lazy writing by Joshua Hale Fialkov.
Oh, and the lazy streak continues. Sun Wukong’s ability to fly on clouds from the novel is briefly alluded to in Fear Itself: The Monkey King (Fialkov, 2011, p. 4). But this power is completely forgotten in the very same issue, for the modern hero has to magically transform into a hawk in order to fly (Fialkov, 2011, p. 18; see also Spencer, 2011a, p. 5). In addition, this avian transformation is also forgotten in later appearances, for Sun is shown standing on a glowing hover disc in Captain America: Steve Rogers #18 (2017) (Spencer & Cates, 2017, p. 15). And War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas #3 (2019) depicts him traveling northern China on horseback (Pak, 2019a, pp. 19). Furthermore, the storyline seems to forget that the character has super strength. In Avengers World #13 (2014) he’s capable of stopping a dragon with a single hand (refer back to fig. 3) (Spencer, 2014/2019c, pp. 274-275), but in War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas #3 Shangi Chi, who does not have super strength, easily snatches away his staff (fig. 7 & 8) (Pak, 2019a, pp. 20-21). Ugh.
Fig. 7 – Shang Chi grabs Sun’s staff (larger version). Fig. 8 – Shang simultaneously disarms Sun and punches him (larger version). Art by Gang Huk Lim (lines) and Federico Blee/Andres Mossa/Erick Arciniega (colors). Copyright Marvel Comics.
Beyond the laziness, another problem with the writing is Sun’s negative characterization. He comes off as a boastful, greedy, and thoroughly unlikable person. For example, upon learning the cave is the final resting place of the historical Monkey King, the crime lord says: “First off, this cave is totally mine now. Second off, I’m going to kill you [Lion] at least six times for wasting my time” (Fialkov, 2011, p. 10). This sour attitude leads me to believe that he was never intended to be a top-tier superhero. In fact, I dare say that he was designed as a throwaway character. His quick, pointless death is the “smoking gun”. Sun isn’t given a chance to evolve as a character—i.e. a series of stories following him as the main protagonist in which he reflects on his flaws and strives to be a better person—and there’s no prolonged battle with a running internal monologue in which he deems his sacrifice a necessary outcome. He just blindly rushes to an empty death that serves no purpose as the fire giantess Sindr continues to fight even after the hero goes up in smoke.  And in the end, even the act of sacrificing himself is tainted by greed. Before leaping onto the fire giantess’ back, Sun exclaims: “[I]f a real goddess were around [referring to the destruction of the Pele robot], I might not get my chance at glory” (Pak, 2019b, p. 14). So he doesn’t give his life for the welfare of the team or to save the Earth but to steal the spotlight.
Next, there are several instances where Sun touts his abilities or fame and subsequently gets knocked off his pedestal, making him the butt of a joke. First, he boasts of his fighting skill but is easily defeated by Skirn, and after she and her companion leave, he claims: “They … ran away like cowardly, lying dogs. I begged them to stay and fight, but they knew better” (Spencer, 2011c, p. 4). This reads less like Sun Wukong and more like a delusional person. Second, he trumpets his fame as the Monkey King, stating everyone knows his name, but Iron Fist comically shrugs his shoulders in confusion (Spencer, 2011c, p. 4). However, given Iron Fist’s training in K’un-lun (a magic city in China) and Sun Wukong’s centuries-long popularity throughout Asia,  this makes as much sense as someone in Metropolis saying they’ve never heard of Superman. Third, Sun continually flaunts his godly powers and looks down on mortals, but, as noted before, Shang Chi takes away his weapon (Pak, 2019a, pp. 20-21). This slap to his ego is preceded by the head of S.P.E.A.R. telling Sun, “[A]ll your magic won’t be enough … without training” (Pak, 2019a, p. 20), suggesting the hero relies solely on the mystical arts. But this doesn’t make any sense considering that he’s shown to be a capable fighter in previous issues (refer back to fig. 1) (Spencer, 2011a, pp. 6-9, for example), not to mention the fact that, in Journey to the West, the Monkey King is depicted as a master of unarmed boxing.
The art throughout Sun’s character arc ranges from the divine (Ariel Olivetti) to the demonic (Juan Doe). But here I’d like to focus on the Character design. Beyond the problematic queue, the costume first appearing in Iron Man 2.0 #5 (2011) isn’t bad, it just doesn’t suit the character. Nothing about it says “Monkey King”. Sun is depicted wearing a form-fitting red top with black accent lines on his chest, back, and arms; grey gauntlets with three golden stripes; a black sash belt; a gray apron and baggy pants; and black boots (refer back to fig. 1). The lower half of his costume was likely influenced by period clothing from the aforementioned wire-fu films of the 90s. However, I do have a problem with Sun’s shirt. It is almost exactly the same as the upper half of Shang Chi’s body suit, which is also red with black accent lines on the chest, back, and arms. Shang also has gauntlets with three sections. The similarities are apparent when the characters share the same scene (fig. 9). The only difference is that Shang’s black accents don’t go all the way down his chest, and those on his arms break up into stacked arrows. I think it would have been a smarter move to differentiate the two.
The only other critique I have for Olivetti’s design is the Monkey King’s staff. It is depicted as a gray metal bar with a strange finial. The tip features a cutesy, grinning monkey with half moon-shaped ears on a spherical head. A tail spirals down from the top like a corkscrew (fig. 10). It looks like something straight out of Hello Kitty, which obviously doesn’t fit the tone of the character or the comics he appears in. This simian ornament next appears in Fear Itself: The Monkey King but only on the cover (fig. 11). The finial within the issue looks more like the gnarled end of a red and black walking stick (Fialkov, 2011, p. 16, for example). Interestingly, the monkey isn’t present in Sun’s later comic book appearances.
Lastly, the superhero costume appearing in Fear Itself: The Monkey King is terrible. It’s so bad in fact that it never appears again in another comic. The overall suit is black with red trim on the chest, arms, apron, and legs. The top features layered shoulder pads, a silver monkey symbol on the chest, and wrapped forearms. It totally looks like something a villain from the Mad Max franchise would wear. And to top it all off, Sun sports a black mask with a molded monkey nose on the front and a hole in the back to accommodate his queue braid (refer to fig. 11). This is another example where the costume just doesn’t suit the Monkey King concept. Juan Doe should have at least tried to mirror some of the elements from Sun Wukong’s literary armor.
Fig. 9 – The similarities between the costumes of Shang Chi and Sun (larger version). From Pak, 2019a, p. 20, panel #4. Fig. 10 – A detail of the monkey finial on Sun’s staff (larger version). From Spencer, 2011a, p. 8. Fig. 11 – The Cover of Fear Itself: The Monkey King (2011) (larger version). Art by Juan Doe. Copyright Marvel Comics.
4. My rating
There are aspects of this character that differ wildly in quality, so I feel like I have to rate them separately. As I stated above, the costume designed by Olivetti isn’t bad, just not suitable for the character. I would give it 2.5 out of 5 stars. Having said that, everything else, especially Fialkov’s writing and Doe’s art, gets a hard 0 out of 5 stars. It’s painfully clear that no actual thought or research went into the Monkey King’s development or story beyond a lazy read of the Wikipedia article.
Before continuing, I feel I must apologize to Editor Jessica Chen, writer Gene Luen Yang, and artist Bernard Chang for being overly harsh in my previous review of DC’s Monkey Prince. They obviously put more effort into one 12-page story than went into all 11 comics from Marvel’s failed attempt.
5. What I would change
I would completely do away with the queue-wearing crime lord and replace him with a modern spirit-medium (Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; literally: “divining child”) from Chinese folk religion. Such individuals are believed to channel the spirit of the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖), the celestial title of Sun Wukong. While inhabited by the monkey god, the spirit of the human host is believed to reside in heaven or some temple-based holy object (Chan, 2006, pp. 59-60; Graham, 2013, p. 330). Therefore, the person would be for all intents and purposes the Monkey King for the duration of the story. As a medium, the character wouldn’t wear a superhero costume. Instead, he would be bare-chested apart from a ritual stomacher (dudou, 肚兜) and a tri-panel dragon-tiger apron (longhu qun, 龍虎裙) over everyday pants and shoes (or no shoes). Such ritual attire is usually decorated with auspicious symbols and, sometimes, the Chinese name of the deity, in this case the Great Sage (fig. 12).
I would also like to make some changes that might seem weird for an adaptation of Sun Wukong. But I’m torn between pandering to the wants of comic book fans and my desire to portray an authentic East and Southeast Asian spirit-medium. The former would involve the character wielding the magic staff, but in the case of the latter, I’ve noticed that few mediums involve the polearm in their public performances. Those who do only use it to enhance the theater of their portrayal of the Great Sage. The weapon serves no ritual function. The latter would involve the character wielding the “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (jitong wubao, 乩童五寶), a set of ritual weapons consisting of a spiked ball on a rope, a spiked club, a sawfish nose sword, a crescent moon ax, and a double-edged sword engraved with seven stars (fig. 13) (Chan, 2006, p. 73). Mediums use these weapons during a ritual dance in which they inflict wounds on their body. This self-mortification is believed to serve two purposes. One, holy energy from the weapons help the medium prepare “for a particularly difficult battle” by “supercharg[ing] him with spirit power” (Chan, 2006, pp. 108-109). And two, the resulting holy blood—for it is considered the blood of the god, not the host—is believed to have demonifugic properties. It can be used to write paper sigils commanding heavenly forces to attack demonic spirits (Chan, 2006, p. 108). Now, I’ll admit that this would no doubt be off-putting to the average comic book reader. So herein lies the dilemma. The only compromise that I can think of would be to use them both but more so in one case and sparingly in the other. An enchanted brass pole, like those used by Great Sage mediums during performances (fig. 14 & 15), would be the character’s main weapon. But when he runs into trouble, he could summon the aforementioned treasures to “supercharge” himself, and, if needed, he could draw blood in order to call on heavenly forces. This leads me to my next change.
Fig. 12 – An entranced spirit-medium wearing the stomacher and apron (larger version). Picture taken by the author in Tainan, Taiwan. Fig. 13 – The “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (larger version). Found on Facebook and slightly modified. Here, the original biological sawfish nose sword (photo by author) has been replaced by two modern, metal, single and double-edged versions. Fig. 14 – An example of a brass pole used by Great Sage mediums (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of joss paper and joss sticks attached to the pole (larger version). Pictures taken by the author in Jiayi, Taiwan.
Despite the Monkey King’s immeasurable strength in Journey to the West, I wouldn’t want to make the character an unstoppable powerhouse like, say, the Sentry. I would instead make him moderately powerful for a few reasons. First, there’s no fun in an invincible hero who one-shots all his foes; there has to be some struggle in order to make the character more interesting and relatable. Second, spirit-mediums only protect their local community and, therefore, not an entire country or planet like more powerful characters. And third, there are many Great Sage spirit-mediums across East and Southeast Asia. What’s interesting about this concept is that each medium is believed by their respective communities to be the Great Sage. For example, one very small temple I visited in Taiwan has an astounding seven Great Sage mediums. This means that, if a particularly nasty evil befalls the earth, an entire army of Great Sages, who in turn command their own heavenly forces, can be called on to deal with the villain! This would not only be authentic, but also reference Sun Wukong’s magic power of creating endless doubles of himself.  And the best part? The story could follow a series of different spirit-mediums in different countries. So the “character” wouldn’t be limited to a single person. The medium could be Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Singaporean, basically any person of Chinese descent who practices spirit-mediumship. And they can be young, old, and even female, too. That’s right, there are female Great Sage mediums! (video 2).
Video 2 – A female Great Sage medium in Chinese opera-inspired attire.
1) A portal leading to this hell realm was first discovered centuries ago by inhabitants of the hidden city of K’un-lun. The Immortal Weapons of old were tasked with rounding up the world’s evils and forcing them inside (Swierczynski, 2009).
2) These hammers are mystical uru weapons called forth by Serpent (a.k.a. Cul Borson), the Asgardian god of fear and the deposed brother of Odin. Once rained across the earth, superpowered beings who come into contact with the weapons are immediately transformed into the “Worthy”, apocalyptic generals who lay waste to everything around them, thus enabling Serpent to regain his youth by feeding on the resulting fear and discord.
3) Sun is introduced in Spencer, 2014/2019a, p. 155.
4) Sun only appears at the end of Avengers World #14 on a splash page just above Black Widow (top right) (Spencer, 2014/2019d, p. 300).
5) For example, regarding Sun’s weapon, a poem in chapter 88 states: “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” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 201). In addition, the Monkey King steals immortal peaches and wine in chapter five (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162, 165, and 167).
6) As Liberty’s crown shows, she symbolizes the “Pacific States” (Bierce, 1881, p. 173).
7) Here, Liberty’s crown says “NY” (New York), symbolizing the eastern states (Bierce, 1881, p. 172).
8) Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,560 lbs. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this.
9) Following Sun’s sacrifice, the New Agents of Atlas are able to ward off Sindr by performing a simultaneous group punch (Pak, 2019b, p. 15). However, the story never explains how the Monkey King’s kamikaze attack helps weaken her further, nor does it explain how the punch works or why it has any effect on a powerful fire giantess. After escaping northern China through a fire portal, Sindr is depicted knocking out the superherione Carol Danvers (Pak, 2019b, pp. 17-18), thus showing her ability to continue fighting powerful characters despite Sun’s sacrifice.
10) Sun’s story cycle has existed since at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Stories of his adventures were celebrated in Korea during the 14th-century. Journey to the West was translated into Japanese during the 19th-century and became so wildly popular that it influenced the creation of Son Goku from the Dragon Ball franchise (Chien, 2017, pp. 2 and 21-22).
11) For example, chapter two reads:
Plucking a handful of hairs from his [the Monkey King’s] own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces and then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).
Graham. F. (2013). Vessels for the Gods: Tang-ki Spirit Mediumship in Singapore and Taiwan. In J. Hunter & D. Luke (Eds.)., Talking With Spirits: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Spirit Mediumship (pp. 327-348). Brisbane: Daily Grail Press.
Lyman, S. (2000). The “Yellow Peril” Mystique: Origins and Vicissitudes of a Racist Discourse. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society,13(4), 683-747. Retrieved June 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20020056
Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.
1. Ancient Depictions
Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century.  But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling,  records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.
Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains an 11th-century (Xixia dynasty) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.
Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.
Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains an 11th to 12th-century wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).
Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the 11th to 12th-century Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).
Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 11th-century. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.
A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.
Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).
Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:
A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”, A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim], Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)
Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.
I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is theThe Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures(c. late 13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).
The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted this size could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.
2. What the novel says
2.1. Physical appearance
The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subodhi, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].”  After he returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).
In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [the Rhesus macaque]” (fig. 6) (p. 148).
Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.
In chapter 20, the reader learns that Monkey’s head is bald (fig. 7). An old man asks him: “…why did you shave your hair to become a monk?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).
In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:
The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, 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). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)
His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)
Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).
Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).
In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:
A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing; A round head and a hairy face jowl-less; Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly; He looks more strange than [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).
In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).
In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:
A hairy face, a thunder god beak, An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s; Two forked ears on a big, broad head, And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:
“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).
In chapter 77, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:
You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).
We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).
Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.
2.2 Clothing and accessories
The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.
The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:
“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).
Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with “mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).
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).
The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 17). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:
[Slit] the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece … He cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
Fig. 17 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.
Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 11th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 18). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 19). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.
Fig. 18 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 19 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237) (larger version).
As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:
His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.
There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.
2.3. The staff
Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:
Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [wutie, 烏鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,560 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). 
A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:
The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.  King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍] 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 [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒], Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)
So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.
Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 20 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.
Fig. 20 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).
As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.
3. Popular depictions
The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.
3.1. The least accurate
1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 21). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.
1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 20).
3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 26).
Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).
The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.
I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.
My friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information (fig. 27). As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.
As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact”. I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.
I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes Sun Wukong’s golden headband to tighten. Similar to the above article, I had artists and fanfiction authors in mind when I wrote it.
1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.
2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.
3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).
4) Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The 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 (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,560 lbs.
5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).
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Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Elvin, M. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.
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.
Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of how the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.