From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen here, here, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
“The Epidemic Prevention Conference” (防疫大會) is a humorous COVID-19-related short story that has been circulating in Taiwan. It gets longer and longer as people add new details. I wanted to share it because it mentions many figures from Journey to the West, including Xuanzang and Sun Wukong. I’ve added notes at the bottom to explain the cultural context of particular statements.
The Anti-Epidemic Conference was held in the celestial court. The Jade Emperor was worried when he discovered many seats were vacant, and so he asked the gods:
The gods replied: “He and King Kṣitigarbha are looking for land with good fengshui,  so he has no time to come!
The original Chinese:
眾神回答: 他有旅遊史, 被居家檢疫，不能來…
為何地藏王菩薩也沒來？ 眾神回答 ：死亡人數超飆 無暇前來！
1) At the time this story first started circulating, the Taiwanese government was providing each citizen with three masks a week. This number has since then increased to nine (at least the last time I picked up mine).
At the end of chapter seven, the Monkey King is crushed under Five Elements Mountain for 600-plus-years as punishment for attempting to usurp the throne of heaven. I’ve previously written that this sentence is based on Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasty tales of the Sage King and demigod Yu the Great subduing an aquatic monkey demon under a mountain. Sun Wukong’s time pinned by the mountain has been portrayed numerous times in movies and television. But modern media often forgets that this was only part of his punishment, the other half being a hellish diet:
Moved by compassion, he [the Buddha] recited a divine spell and called together a local spirit and the Fearless Guards of Five Quarters to stand watch over the Five-Phases Mountain [fig. 1]. They were told to feed the prisoner [Monkey] with iron pellets [tie wanzi, 鐵丸子] when he was hungry and to give him melted copper [ronghua de tong zhi, 溶化的銅汁] to drink when he was thirsty. When the time of his chastisement was fulfilled, they were told, someone would be coming to deliver him (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 199).
Fig. 1 – One of the guards charged with watching over Monkey (larger version). From the children’s book Son Goku (1939).
I. The Origin
This punishment comes directly from Buddhist doctrine describing the torture of sinners in hell (Sk: Naraka; Ch: Diyu, 地獄). For example, the Dirghagama (Ch: Chang Ahun Jing, 長阿含經; “The Collection of Long Scriptures”), which survived thanks to a Chinese translation from the original Sanskrit in 413 CE (Robert & David, 2013, p. 246), describes two realms in hell in which the damned are fed such a horrific diet:
[…] Terrified they run out, seeking safety and refuge, but they arrive at the Hell of Hunger [Ji, 飢].
The wardens come to ask them: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are hungry”. The wardens then seize them and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with iron hooks the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open; they put iron pellets into them [fig. 2]. The pellets burn their lips and tongues, from the throats down to their stomachs. The pellets penetrate through the sinners; there is nothing but burning. The horrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since their punishment is not yet completed, the sinners do not perish. After having suffered for a long time, they leave the Hell of Hunger. Frightened they run away, looking for relief and safety, until they arrive to the Hell of Thirst [Ke, 渴].
The wardens come to them and ask: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are thirsty.” The wardens thereupon seize the sinners and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with hot iron hooks, the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open. They pour down molten copper [fig. 3]. It burns their mouth, lips and tongue; from their throats it reaches their stomachs. It penetrates down and goes through them; there is nothing but burning. The terrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since the remaining transgressions have not yet been atoned, they do not perish. After having been subjected to this punishment for a long time, they leave the Hell of Thirst (Howard, 1986, p. 131).
Fig. 2 – A damned soul being force-fed red hot iron pellets (larger version); Fig. 3 – Souls being forced to drink molten copper (larger version). Images from the 20th-century.
The same source explains the hells of hunger and thirst are the respective fourth and fifth of sixteen minor hells (xiao yu, 小獄) making up one of the eight greater purgatories (Da diyu, 大地獄) called the hell of Consciousness (xiang, 想). Sinners reborn into this labyrinth of pain are full of anger and lash out at each other with scythe-like claws and swords and daggers. They remain conscious through endless rounds of dismemberment and resurrection via a magical wind. They then wander into each successive minor hell, enduring everything from grinding by hot millstones to their flesh and bones being shattered by blistering cold. Again, each sinner remains conscious and resurrects between each purgatory (Howard, 1986, pp. 129-134).
Another name for the greater hell of Consciousness is the Sanskrit term Samjiva (Ch: deng huo, 等活), meaning “revival” or “repetition”. These might refer to the cyclical resurrection of the sinner, or to their karmic punishment mirroring what they did to others in life (Robert & David, 2013, p. 754).
It should be noted that, unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, rebirth in the Buddhist hell is not forever. For some it may last eons, but the torture serves to cleanse the spirit of past sins gained in life. Once the karmic debt has been repaid, the soul will be reborn into one of the other six realms of existence (hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, asura, and deva). Sometimes souls have to work their way back up to human status if they have particularly heavy karmic baggage.
Monkey’s punishment is essentially hell on earth. The Five Elements mountain pins him down so the chosen guards can torture him with hot iron pellets and molten copper just like those in the subterranean hells of hunger and thirst. He is not capable of dying, so his immortality serves a similar function to the magic wind that continually resurrects the damned. The finite length of his sentence (600-plus-years) is similar to the way a soul will only stay in the hell realm until they have repaid their karmic debt. And Tripitaka delivering him from his torments is like a soul being reborn into a new life. After all, Monkey’s life drastically changes after his release; he goes from being a rebellious, power-hungry demon, to a Buddhist monk devoted to the protection of his master.
II. Other Damned Celestials
Sun Wukong is not the only celestial to be damned to drink molten copper. Readers may be surprised to learn that this same heavenly punishment also afflicts King Yama (Yanluo Wang, 閻羅王), the greatest of the Ten Judges of Hell. The aforementioned Dirghagama reads:
Buddha said to the bhiksus: “South of Jambudvipa, in the interior of the great Diamond Mountain, lies the palace of King Yama. The realm he governs extends for six thousand yojanas in both directions. His city has seven rows of ramparts, with seven nets and seven rows of trees … Day and night, three times a day, a huge copper cauldron automatically places itself in front of him. If the huge cauldron emerges in the interior of the palace, the king, upon seeing it, rushes out of the palace stricken by horror and fright. But then, if the cauldron emerges outside the palace, the king, upon seeing it, reenters the palace stricken by horror and fright. Giant hell wardens grab King Yama and have him lie down on hot irons. With iron hooks, they split his mouth open and force molten copper down. It burns his lips and tongue; from the throat, it reaches his stomach. It spreads down below and passes through [his body] so that no place is left unburnt. The punishment continues [in this fashion] until its completion. Afterwards, King Yama returns to seek amusement with all his ladies. Many great state[s]men, who possessed riches, are also punished in this way” (Howard, 1986, p. 141).
So Yama inhabits an odd position where he is both a member of the heavenly hierarchy working to judge the fate of the dead and a damned soul repaying a karmic debt through torture.
Howard, A. F. (1986). The Imagery of the Cosmological Buddha. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Did you know that the underworld presented in Journey to the West is actually an amalgam of native Chinese and foreign Hindu-Buddhist beliefs? As far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), hell was considered an otherworldly bureaucracy where souls were kept en masse. With the coming of Buddhism from India, a different view of the underworld evolved wherein souls would be reborn in one of six paths (deva, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell) and burn off any bad karma via suffering in life until they were pure enough to be reborn in a Buddha realm. But starting around the 7th-century, the idea of purgatory appeared and brought with it the concept of the Ten Judges or Kings (shi wang, 十王). This is where the two previous views were combined. Souls would be brought before a magistrate and suffer punishment for a given sin before being sent onto the next court and so forth. After suffering for a three year period, the soul would finally be sent onto their next life (Teiser, 2003, pp. 4-7).
Two of the Ten Judges stand as perfect examples of the intermixing of the two belief systems. The seventh judge, King of Mount Tai (Taishan Wang, 泰山王), is an allusion to a famous Chinese holy mountain. The fifth judge, King Yama (Yanluo Wang, 閻羅王), is a Buddhist holdover from Hinduism who originally ruled as the god of the underworld (Teiser, 2003, pp. 2-3).
Not everyone living in medieval China could read Buddhist scriptures, so the purgatories were eventually illustrated as a powerful teaching tool. Nothing says behave like seeing a demon eviscerating someone in full bloody color. Such “Hell Scrolls” (Diyu tu, 地獄圖) remain quite popular even to this day. Charles D. Orzech (1994) suggests that one of the reasons why they remained popular through the end of dynastic China was because they served as not so subtle reminders to be a law abiding citizen. Otherworldly judges doling out painful punishments mirrored the actions of their earthbound counterparts. Real-world magistrates were known for using torture to gain confessions. One such device was used to slowly fracture the ankles and shins.
Those interested can see full color versions of hell scrolls here:
One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.
In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), an island that lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches a stone egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.
The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for nearly four centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisers notes that only Daoist immortals and Buddhist saints can avoid death, and so he suggests the king find a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life. Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years, adopting human dress and language along way. His quest takes him to the Western Aparagodāniya continent where he is finally accepted as a student by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subodhi (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey who realizes sunyata“. The sage teaches him the seventy-two methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.
Sun eventually returns to his island home and faces a demon whom had taken control of it during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he needs a weapon to match his celestial power, and so his adviser suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, to find such a weapon. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythical king of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), to set the depths of the fabled world flood, as well as to calm the seas. Named the “‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim—as small as a needle or as tall as the sky—thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.
Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he shows off his new weapon by turning into a frightful cosmic giant and commanding the staff to grow, with the top touching the highest heaven and the bottom the lowest hell. This display of power prompts demon kings of the seventy-two caves to submit to his rule and host a drunken party in his honor. Soon after falling asleep, Sun is visited by two psychopomps who drag his soul to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he is no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.
Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).
Both the Eastern Dragon King and King Yama submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court adviser, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the August Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial position of “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” (Bimawen, 弼馬温) in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey accepts and steadfastly performs his duties, that is until he learns from an assistant that he’s not a full-fledged god but a glorified stable boy. He immediately storms out of the heavenly gates and returns home to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) in rebellion. Heaven mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Prince Nezha (哪吒), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the August Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s wishes, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to be the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”.
Sun tours the heavenly orchard housing the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years. The sweet aroma of his charge is too much for him to resist, and so he eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits. His theft is soon discovered when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), an ancient primordial goddess, arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. It is from these fairies that Monkey learns he has not been invited due to his rough nature. Enraged, Sun then incapacitates the fair maidens with magic and crashes the party before the guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), the supreme god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived pills of immortality, thus increasing his level of invincibility.
Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up seventy-two heavenly generals, comprising the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods, and 100,000 celestial soldiers. In response, Monkey mobilizes his own army comprising the demon kings of the seventy-two caves and all manner of animal spirits, including his own monkey soldiers. But soon after the battle commences, the demon kings fall to the heavenly forces, forcing Sun to take on three heads and six arms and multiply his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical steel bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.
Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his rendered remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, having found protection in the wind element (xun, 巽). But intense smoke inside the furnace had greatly irritated his eyes, refining his pupils the color of gold and giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles, as well as to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, Sun demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain, yet the Enlightened One explains that the baneful spirit had never left his palm. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.
Fig. 2 – (Left) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong”, October 10, 1889 (larger version). Fig 3. – (Right) Son Goku (孫悟空) from the Dragonball Franchise (larger version).
Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to rein in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.
A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.
Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.
Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.
Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball(Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).