What is the Oldest Known Media of Sun Wukong the Monkey King?

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara),
the Monkey-disciple [1] presses on,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).


The tribute references elements that would later appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.

Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

1.2. Oldest known depictions

The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音). [2] Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.

Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his hands (which are missing) are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version).  Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.

But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).

Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.

The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra (fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).

Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.

The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.

Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.

Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).

Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.

The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).

Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.

There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:

From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra),
Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛].
To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim].
In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival
He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). [3]

The poem is openly critical of Buddhism, [4] showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.

And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).

This shows that even by the mid-13th-century, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.

3.2. Oldest known depiction

The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.

Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.

Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.

This elevation may have something to do with the fact that the Monkey King’s cult began in Fujian. While concrete references to his worship date to the 17th-century (see section III here), this carving may be an indicator that he was revered at an earlier time. The area is known to have worshiped monkeys as far back as the Tang period (see the material below fig. 3 here, as well as the 08-17-2019 update).

Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.

4. First appearance? 

To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). [5]

The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.

Fig. 19 (top) – Detail of an urban storytelling (jie, ; lit: “explanation”) stall from the famed 12th-century painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (larger version). Fig. 20 (bottom) – A detail of the detail showing a close up of the people intently listening to the storyteller (larger version). The images are screenshots taken from this digital version of the painting on Wikimedia. A big thank you to Borrdahl (2002) for pointing out the storytelling stall.

5. Conclusion



1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).

3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).

5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).


Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.

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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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

Wei, W., & Zhang, L. (2019). Xiyouji bihua yu Xuanzang qujing tuxiang [Journey to the West Wall Murals: Images of Xuanzang Procuring the Scriptures]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House.

Archive #17 – PDFs of Creation of the Gods Library of Chinese Classics Chinese-English Bilingual Edition (Vol. 1-4)

Last updated: 11-28-2021 

Here I present a PDF of the Library of Chinese Classics bilingual edition of Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), sometimes translated as Investiture of the Gods or Enfeoffment of the Gods. This 100 chapter Shenmo novel tells of the great struggle between the declining Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and ascending Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties. In the beginning, King Zhou of Shang offends the primordial goddess Nuwa by leaving a lewd poem in her temple, and in response, the devi summons a trio of spirits (a fox, a pheasant, and a lute) to bring about the dynasty’s downfall. The fox spirit takes the place of the king’s concubine Daji and, over the course of nearly 30 years, leads him down a path of imperial neglect, decadence, and sadism. This leads to many of the kingdom’s dukes, marquis, and generals rebelling in favor of King Wu of Zhou, the monarch destined by heaven to rule China. 

The majority of the story follows the countless battles between the forces of Shang and Zhou. Along the way, the latter are aided by immortals of the benevolent Chan (闡) sect (an analogy for Quanzhen Daoism), which favors spiritual cultivation, while the former are aided by the malevolent Jie (截) sect (an analogy for Zhengyi), which favors charms and incantations. [1] Each transcendent wields any number of swords, fans, hooks, staves, axes, halberds, scissors, hammers, rings, sashes, nails, dippers, pennants, pearls, gourds (etc.), each with not only the power to take the lives of thousands of humans but also immobilize other immortals and even kill them. These celestial battles escalate to the point that Laozi and the Buddha must fight side-by-side to defeat a trap designed to kill 10,000 immortals.

A story line present throughout the novel is the fate of Jiang Ziya, a Daoist adept and the military strategist and stalwart commander of the Zhou army. He is destined to deify the souls of the humans and immortals who die in battle using the “List of Creation” (Fengshen bang, 封神榜), an index of preordained names agreed upon at the beginning of time by the heads of the three religions. This list is housed in the “Terrace of Creation”, a reed pavilion in which the souls of the dead are gathered to await their apotheosis. In the end, after defeating the Shang forces, Jiang deifies a total of 365 major gods, along with thousands of lesser gods, ranging from holy mountains, weather, and plagues to constellations, the time cycle, and the five elements.

Nezha from Fengshen zhen xing tu

Fig. 1 – An illustration of Nezha from The True Forms of Invested Gods (Fengshen zhenxing tu, 封神真形圖) (larger version).

Considering the story takes place a millennia prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China, the novel portrays the religion having no presence in the east. There are several times in the narrative when a Buddhist deity travels from the western paradise to halt the execution of a powerful immortal or demon as they are fated to submit to Buddhism. Furthermore, when the Buddha intervenes in the great battle towards the end, he does so to find talented disciples who will help him spread the religion in the east. In fact, Bodhisattvas like Guanyin and Manjusri are depicted as former Chan sect immortals who later become disciples of Buddhism.

For the purposes of this blog, several characters from Journey to the West appear in the novel, including Laozi, the Buddha, Nezha (fig. 1), Muzha, and Li Jing, Ao Guang, Erlang (called Yang Jian, 楊戩) and his hound, etc. Journey to the West also had a number of clear influences on the book, one being the ape spirit Yuan Hong (袁洪) from later chapters who wields a staff and 72 transformations in a fight with Yang Jian. Sound familiar?

This edition of the novel was originally translated by Gu Zhizhong (顾执中, 1898–1995) in 1992. Dr. Barbara Witt notes the translation has its pros and cons:

The positive: It is the only complete translation of Fengshen yanyi into a Western language that I am aware of. The edition I read (from 1992 I think), was also nicely done with interesting woodcut illustrations throughout the novel.

The negative: Firstly, it is not a very faithful translation. Poems are generally left untranslated and sentences often paraphrased. [2] I think, when ever the translator found something difficult, he just skipped it. Secondly, I think Gu Zhizhong was not an English native speaker and not very familiar with Western mythology and some of his translations are really off. For example Taiyi zhenren 太乙真人 (“True Man Primordial”), a powerful Daoist immortal, becomes “Fairy Primordial” in his translation, which conjures up a very different image.

While the translation may not be perfect, I think it is a must read as many of the gods mentioned therein are worshiped in modern temples throughout China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. It is a lens into modern folk religion.

Archive link:

Update: 11-28-2021 

I’ve added Wan (1987), a doctoral thesis analyzing the historical sources and micro/macro structure of the story. It also provides a summary of the tale in the end.

Archive Link:

Click to access Investiture-of-the-gods-Fengshen-yanyi-Sources-narrative-structure-and-mythical-significance.pdf


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


1) Prof. Shi Changyu notes in his preface to this translation that the friction between the fictional Chan and Jie sects serves as an analogy for that of Quanzhen and Zhengyi during the Ming, for the former was marginalized, while the latter was held in high esteem and fell prey to decadence, naturally hindering its ability to contribute anything of value to the development of Daoism at this time (Gu, 2000, pp. 50-53).

2) Those interested in reading some of the poetry from the novel should consult Koss (1979), which compares them with those from Journey to the West.


Gu, Z. (2000). Creation of the gods: Vol. 1-4. Beijing: New World Press.

Koss, N. (1979). The Relationship of Hsi-yu chi and Feng-shen yen-i: An Analysis of Poems Found in Both Novels. T’oung Pao,65(4/5), second series, 143-165. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4528175

Wan, P. (1987). Investiture of the Gods (“Fengshen yanyi”): Sources, Narrative Structure, and Mythical Significance (UMI No. 8810607) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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

Sun Wukong and the Three Heavenly Calamities

Last updated: 11-09-2022

In chapter two, Master Subodhi warns Sun Wukong that he must protect himself from Three Calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) sent by heaven to punish him for achieving immortality and defying his fate (fig. 1). These punishments come every half millenia in the form of destructive elements:

Though your appearance will be preserved and your age lengthened, after five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of thunder [lei zai, 雷災] to strike you. Hence you must be intelligent and wise enough to avoid it ahead of time. If you can escape it, your age will indeed equal that of Heaven; if not, your life will thus be finished. After another five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of fire [huo zai, 火災] to burn you. The fire is neither natural nor common fire; its name is the Fire of Yin [yin huo, 陰火], and it arises from within the soles of your feet to reach even the cavity of your heart, reducing your entrails to ashes and your limbs to utter ruin. The arduous labor of a millennium will then have been made completely superfluous. After another five hundred years the calamity of wind [feng zai, 風災] will be sent to blow at you. It is not the wind from the north, south, east, or west; nor is it one of the winds of four seasons; nor is it the wind of flowers, willows, pines, and bamboos. It is called the Mighty Wind [bi feng, 贔風], and it enters from the top of the skull into the body, passes through the midriff, and penetrates the nine apertures. [1] The bones and the flesh will be dissolved and the body itself will disintegrate. You must therefore avoid all three calamities (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 121-122).

These calamities are important because Monkey subsequently learns the 72 transformations in order to escape punishment by hiding under any one of a myriad number of disguises. Therefore, exploring the origins of the three calamities has merit.

Monkey learning from master - Elements (small)

Fig. 1 – Master Subodhi tells Sun about the Three Calamities (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

I. Origins

The novel likely borrows from a Buddhist cosmological concept called the Three Calamities (sanzai, 三災). We first need some background before continuing. Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 496). The Three Calamities are responsible for the destruction of each Mahakalpa.

Kloetzli (1983) describes the cyclical destruction of each Mahakalpa by an element:

The destructions are of three kinds: those by fire, those by water and those by wind. […] The destructions succeed one another in the following sequence: seven by fire followed by a destruction by water. This cycle of eight destructions is repeated a total of seven times. This is then followed by seven more destructions by fire, followed by a final by wind. Thus there are 7 x 8 or 56 destructions by fire; 7 by water and a final 64th by wind [fig. 2] (p. 75).

Therefore, the Three Calamities from Journey to the West follow a similar cycle of destructive elements appearing at set time intervals: lightning, fire, and wind every 500 years in place of fire, water, and wind at the end of every Mahakalpa. And instead of destroying the universe, the elements are sent to kill those who have achieved immortality.

X57p0473_01 - small

Fig. 2 – A chart mapping the cyclical destructions by fire, water, and wind. A larger version is available on the CBETA page.

The earliest mention of Buddhism’s Three Calamities in Chinese writing that I know of appears in scroll one of the Pearl Forest of the Dharma Garden (Fayuan zhulin, 法苑珠林), a Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia published in 688. So there was plenty of time between this work and the publishing of Journey to the West in 1592.

II. Influence on Xianxia literature

I was interested to learn that Monkey’s calamities made their way into modern Xianxia (仙侠, “Immortal hero”) literature. For example, the author of the Immortal Mountain wordpress writes:

Heavenly Tribulation (天劫 tiānjié) (重劫 zhòngjié) – in some novels, a trial encountered by cultivators at key points in their cultivation, which they must resist and ultimately transcend. Because immortal cultivation (generally) goes against the Will of Heaven, the Heavens will send down tribulations to oppress high-level cultivators who make progress towards Immortality, often right when they enter a new cultivation stage. This typically takes the form of a lightning storm, with extraordinarily powerful bolts of lightning raining down from the Heavens to strike at the cultivator (source).

The trial by lightning is exactly like the calamity of thunder mentioned by Master Subodhi.

III. Conclusion

Subodhi teaches Monkey the 72 transformations with the expressed purpose of hiding from three calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) of celestial lightening, fire, and wind. They are sent by heaven every 500 years to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. Each was likely influenced by the three calamities (sanzai, 三災) of Buddhist cosmology, which states that the universe is alternately destroyed by fire, water, or wind at the end of every Mahakalpa. Both concepts include destructive elemental forces that appear at given times.

The oldest mention of the original Buddhist calamities that I’m aware of appears in a 7th-century religious encyclopedia titled Pearl Forest of the Dharma Garden (Fayuan zhulin, 法苑珠林).

The literary thunder calamity would later come to influence the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) of modern Xianxia literature.

Update: 09-10-2018

The Xianxia translator Deathblade (twitter) was kind enough to direct me to an example of a tribulation from a popular Chinese television show . The scene (video 1) involves a 20,000-year-old child immortal experiencing a trial by lightning. The heavenly bolts tear at his clothing and draw blood, but he survives the ordeal.

Video 1 – Start watching from minute 13:08.

Deathblade also directed me to an example from an online Xianxia novel called I shall Seal the Heavens (Wo yu feng tian, 我欲封天). Chapter 385(!) describes how the anti-hero Meng Hao (孟浩) uses a sentient heavenly treasure to protect himself from powerful bolts of lightning, which instead seek out and kill nearby spiritual cultivators on the cusp of immortality:

The Heavenly Tribulation boomed as one lightning bolt after another shot down onto Meng Hao, who held the meat jelly upraised in his hand to defend himself. The lightning would subsequently disperse into the area around him. Any nearby Cultivators would let out bloodcurdling screams. Soon, the air filled with the sounds of cursing and reviling.

Meng Hao didn’t care. This was something he had learned from Patriarch Reliance. When you con someone and then end up getting cursed by them, you must maintain your cool. It was really a realm unto itself.

Throughout the years, Meng Hao had conned many people, and had refined that skill to the very pinnacle. Therefore, he continued to redirect the descending lightning to the various Cultivators in the three thousand kilometer region.

Wherever he went, he was surrounded by a lake of lightning, along with plaintive cursing. What he left behind was scorched corpses.

To the Cultivators here, it was nothing but a massacre, a slaughter in which no one could do anything to fight back. They couldn’t attack him, nor could they flee as… they were horrified to discover that Meng Hao’ speed was incredible, even if he was being struck by lightning!

(read more here)

The character uses trickery to protect himself from the bolts just like Monkey intended to do with his transformations.

Update: 04-02-2021

As I explained above, Wukong learns the 72 transformations in order to escape the heaven-sent punishments of thunder, fire, and wind. Monkey attains eternal life around his 342nd year when his soul is taken to Hell. He is immortal for over 160 years [2] at the time he’s imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. This means his 500th year of immortality, the year that the calamity of thunder would be scheduled to strike him, takes place during his imprisonment under the celestial mountain. But this is never described in the story. I assume this is just one of many inconsistencies born from oral storytelling. Although, one could argue that, within the fictional universe, the thunder calamity was voided since Wukong was undergoing punishment at the behest of the Buddha.

Update: 03-25-22

My friend Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog was kind enough to give me a time-stamped link to the 1996 TV show containing the above episode. You’ll notice Sun Wukong is depicted as a young child. His reactions are hilarious. 

Update: 08-29-22

It turns out that that punishment by lightning appears in other works of religious vernacular fiction. For example, in The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (Sun Pang douzhi yanyi, 孫龐鬥智演義, 1636; a.k.a. The Former and Latter Annals of the Seven KingdomsQianhou qiguo zhi前後七國志):

Sun Bin [孫臏, d. 316 BCE] was overjoyed when he received the Heavenly Book [from the magic White Ape], and hurriedly went back to light the lamp and read it carefully. But during his reading, he felt an eerie, cold wind and heard the rolling of thunder. The Immortal Master Ghost Valley was meditating on the futon when he heard thunder in the air, so he got up and walked immediately to the door of Sun Bin’s room, only to see him reciting the Heavenly Book. When Ghost Valley heard this, he was taken aback. He pushed the door open and went in and said, “I hid this book in the stone box of the prayer cave. I haven’t passed it onto you because your fate has not yet arrived. Where did you get it?

Sun Bin told the story of the white ape. Ghost Valley said: “It turns out that the evil beast stole it and came to you, but unfortunately it was too early. Besides, when you received the Heavenly Book, you didn’t bathe and burn incense, and you didn’t wash your hands or rinse your mouth, thus blaspheming the gods and provoking a great tribulation [da zainan, 大災難] of 100 days.”

Sun Bin’s continence changed. He asked: “Can master save your disciple?”

Ghost Valley said: “If you want me to save you, you must not disobey my nightmare-suppression method.”

Sun Bin said: “I dare not.”

Ghost Valley said: “Due south behind the mountain is an empty stone tomb. You should sleep in the stone tomb with your head to the south and your feet to the north, with 49 grains of raw rice in your mouth. Cover it with your saliva but don’t swallow the grains. You will feel fully nourished. As long as you hide for forty-nine days, you will escape the great tribulation and protect yourself.”

Sun Bin said, “I sincerely receive your instructions.”

Ghost Valley led Sun Bin to the empty tomb at night. Sun complied with his master’s nightmare-suppression method and followed his instructions. A stele was erected in front of the tomb which read: “The Tomb of Sun Bin of the State of Yan” (Wumen xiaoke & Yanshui sanren, 1636).

Another example comes from the Lady of Linshui Pacifies Demons (Linshui pingyao, 臨水平妖, 17th-century). This time, it involves the immortal Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓; a.k.a. Lu Chunyang, 呂純陽) angering Guanyin, who dispatches thunder deities after him. And just like Sun learns the transformations to hide from the calamities, Lu takes the form of a bug to hide from his punishment:

As we take up our tale anew, Guanyin opened wide her eye of wisdom and saw Pure Yang Lü standing on top of the cloud. She cursed him, saying, “A dumb beast like that has no sense of propriety!” Then she sent the Five Thunders (Wu Lei [五雷]) to strike him. The Immortal Ancestor Lü saw them coming and for an instant was helpless with fright. Unable to escape back to his mountain, he hastily fled to Liang Hao’s study. 

He called to Licentiate Liang, “In a moment of distraction, I offended the Heavenly Court, which has dispatched the Five Thunders to strike me. Save me!” As he spoke, the sound of thunder rolled violently. Liang Hao was so frightened that his hands and feet were like ice, and he was unable to reply. Pure Yang Lü said, “If you are willing to rescue me, then that would give this poor Daoist a place to hide.” Liang Hao agreed with alacrity. Pure Yang Lü then turned himself into a tiny insect, ran under Liang Hao’s fingernails, and hid himself. He waited for an hour and three quarters, until the thunder no longer rolled. There was nothing the Five Thunders could do, so they were obliged to go back to the Purple Bamboo Grove [on Guanyin’s mountain], having failed to carry out the Buddha’s [Guanyin’s] orders. At this time, an hour and three quarters having already elapsed, Pure Yang Lü resumed his original form. He thanked Liang Hao and returned to Zhong Mountain, as he did not dare remain in these harrowing circumstances any longer (Fryklund, Lewis, & Baptandier, 2021, p. 6). 

Update: 11-09-22

An artist known on Tumblr as “AntidoteForTheAwkward” has posted a wonderful comic (fig. 3) giving a reason for why the Patriarch Subhodi teachers Monkey the 72 transformations in order to avoid the heavenly calamities: personal experience.

Fig. 3 – AntidoteForTheAwkward’s comic (larger version). See the original post here.


1) The eyes, ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus.

2) Wukong serves in heaven twice: first “for more than ten years” and second “for over a century” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 166). Then he is punished to 49 days in Laozi’s furnace (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative revels “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). So this means his turn in the furnace lasts close to fifty years.


Fryklund, K. I., Lewis, M. E., & Baptandier, B. (2021). The Lady of Linshui Pacifies Demons: A Seventeenth-Century Novel. University of Washington Press.

Kloetzli, R. (1983). Buddhist Cosmology: From Single World System to Pure Land: Science and Theology in the Images of Motion and Light. Oxford: Motilal Books.

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

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

Wumen xiaoke, & Yanshui sanren (1636). Qianhou qiguo zhi [Annals of the Seven Kingdoms]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=736295#p89