Review of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong

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. [1] 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. [2] 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). [3] 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). [4]

Fig. 3 – Sun stops the dragon with a single hand (larger version). Art by Raffaele Ienco (lines) and Andres Mossa (color). From Spencer, 2014/2019c, p. 274. Copyright Marvel Comics.

1.4. Captain America: Steve Rogers #18 (2017)

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).

Fig. 4 – Sun standing on the glowing hover disc alongside the Ascendants (larger version). Art by Javier Pina/Andres Guinaldo (lines) and Rachelle Rosenberg (color). Copyright Marvel Comics.

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).

Fig. 5 – Sun’s death scene (larger version). Art by Gang Huk Lim/Moy R./Pop Mhan (lines) and Federico Blee/Andres Mossa (colors). From Pak, 2019b, p. 14. Copyright Marvel Comics.

2. References to Journey to the West

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, [5] 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).

The Buddha’s wager with the Monkey King recalls the exact event from chapter seven. But instead of trapping the imp in his hand, the Enlightened One transforms the appendage into Five Elements Mountain and imprisons Sun Wukong beneath it.

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 [6] and a cowering California Grizzly. The serpent’s queue whips in the air overhead, spelling “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 [7] 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 17,550 lbs. (7,960 kg) in the novel? [8] 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, so this 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 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 (Pak, 2019b, p. 18). 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, [9] 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”, suggesting the hero relies solely on the mystical arts (Pak, 2019a, p. 20). 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. 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 3 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 eight-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—he could even empower himself further by taking damage from an opponent’s weapon—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. [10] 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 17,550 lbs. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this.

[9] 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).

10) 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).


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Review of DC Comics’ The Monkey Prince

Last updated: 06/16/21

Warning: This post contains spoilers

A follower on social media asked me to write an article about DC Comics’ new character the Monkey Prince, appearing in the story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” (Yang, 2021). He is part of a lineup of new and existing Asian characters in their DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021). I was aware of the Monkey Prince prior to the request, and while I wasn’t a fan of his costume (more on this later), I was optimistic about the story as I’m a big fan of writer Gene Luen Yang’s masterful graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006). This new comic is 100 pages [1] and features art ranging from dark and gritty to bright and cute. It includes short episodes for many characters, including Batgirl (Cassandra Cain), Green Lantern (Tai Pham), Green Arrow (Connor Hawke), Super-Man (Kong Kenan), Robin (Damian Wayne), Cheshire Cat (Lian Harper), Grace Choi (an Asian Amazon), Red Arrow (Emiko Queen), Katana (Tatsu Toro), Atom (Ryan Choi), and of course the Monkey Prince. What’s interesting is that, while he doesn’t appear among the heroes on the front cover of the standard edition, our supernatural simian is given top billing: “Featuring the first appearance of the Monkey Prince!” (fig. 1) (Chen, 2021, p. 1). There’s even a variant cover featuring the character (fig. 2).

DC editor Jessica Chen states the character was her idea, but that she worked with Gene Yang and artist Bernard Chang to craft “the origin and the essence of Monkey Prince together” (Aguilar, 2021). She also explains her close connection to Sun Wukong and her yearning to make a comic book based on him: “Monkey King was kind of my first superhero, and after being at DC Comics, I’ve always wanted to somehow introduce Monkey King as a superhero because his origin story just kind of writes itself” (Aguilar, 2021). She was finally given the go ahead for this “passion project” last year by DC Editor-in-Chief Marie Javins (Aguilar, 2021).

Fig. 1 – The front cover of the standard edition of DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021) (larger version). Fig. 2 – The variant cover with the Monkey Prince (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

I. Story description

The story opens in an abandoned warehouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, where the evil Dr. Sivana has captured Shazam (a.k.a. Captain Marvel) and plans to slice him open with a laser a la Goldfinger (1964). However, unlike the Bond villain, Sivana uncharacteristically boasts about the prospect of cooking and eating the demigod’s heart, much to the disgust of his henchman and woman standing nearby. A broken, blue on white, Yuan-era vase in the foreground foreshadows Shazam’s deduction that the doctor has in fact been possessed by an ancient Chinese spirit hell-bent on eating the hero’s heart to gain immortality. While Sivana is visibly disturbed by this inference, Shazam is kind enough to tear open his own chest with an object retrieved from his ear. But instead of a warm, beating heart gushing blood, loads of large, multi-colored Valentine’s Day heart candies stamped “You suck” comically fall from the cavity. And with the added revelation of a wayward tail, the reader learns the demigod is actually the transformed Monkey Prince and the item is his magic staff. The young hero then flies into action to save the hench people from a large explosion caused from their careless shooting. The blast separates the spirit from Sivana.

“Shifu Pigsy”, a master of magic and martial arts, arrives by cloud to chastise his young disciple’s sloppy work. We learn through subsequent conversations that the Monkey Prince is bitter towards his estranged father, the original Monkey King, leading him to quickly correct anyone who confuses him for his pater. With the help of a magic powder blown into his eyes by Shifu Pigsy, the Prince discovers the invisible, disembodied spirit is a large, armored deer demon. The latter tries to justify his lust for immortality by stating the need to rule humanity for the damage they’ve caused to the earthly realm. But when the real Shazam shows up and the spirit tries to attack him, the Monkey Prince is caught off guard and punched to the ground. This causes him to revert back to his human form, showing that his magical transformation is connected to his mental state. Shifu Pigsy calms his mind with sage advice, allowing the Prince to spring back into action.

Having survived the explosion, Dr. Sivana shoots Shazam with a ray gun but to no effect. The demigod attempts to apprehend his foe, but the spirit sneaks up behind him and bites down on his head. Luckily, the adamantine nature of Shazam’s magic body protects him from the attack long enough for the Monkey Prince to land a devastating blow with his staff, thus vanquishing the deer demon. Shazam, however, threatens to arrest the Prince because, unaware of the invisible spirit, he confused the simian character for his attacker. But the Monkey Prince preemptively strikes the demigod so hard that the impact destroys public property. This causes Shifu Pigsy to activate the golden headband on the young hero’s mask, which painfully constricts to tame his rage. Once again, the Monkey Prince reverts to his human form and we learn the mask is used to protect his true identity.

Upon returning home to a Philadelphia suburb, we learn the Prince’s adopted parents are actually the two hench people whom he had saved earlier that night (they are seemingly unaware of his magic heritage). Later at school, we not only learn that his human name is “Marcus”, but that also one of his few friends just so happens to be Billy Batson, the kid alter-ego of Shazam. Billy tries to interest Marcus in a video of Shazam’s latest battle, but the latter refuses on the grounds that “superheroes suck” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). The Monkey Prince’s problem with superpowered beings is illustrated earlier during his confrontation with the demigod:

You superheroes think you’re better than everyone else! You think your powers and fancy capes make you the sole arbiters of right and wrong! Well, you know what? I am the mother-flipping Monkey Prince! And I actually am better than everyone else! I can beat you or any of your doofy superhero friends from here to next Sunday! (Yang, 2021, p. 80).

The story ends with a note suggesting that our hero will be getting his own comic: “The adventures of the Monkey Prince continue later this year!” (Yang, 2021, p. 82).

2. References to Journey to the West

There are several things from the story that call back to elements from the classic novel. The need to eat holy flesh to gain immortality refers to the many demons who attempt to cheat the cosmic hierarchy by trying to eat the monk Tripitaka. The Prince keeping his extending staff in his ear refers to the same thing his father does throughout the novel. Him tearing open his chest to reveal multiple hearts refers to one of the Monkey King’s tricks from ch. 79:

“In that case,” said the spurious Tang Monk [a transformed Monkey King], “bring me the knife quickly, so that I may cut open my chest. If I have a black heart, I’ll be pleased to present it to you.” Delighted, the befuddled king thanked him and asked the attendant to the throne to hand the spurious monk a curved dagger. Taking the dagger, the monk untied his robe and stuck out his chest. As he rubbed his belly with his left hand, he plunged the dagger into himself with his right hand and, with a loud ripping noise, tore open his own chest. A mass of hearts rolled out, so terrifying the onlookers that the civil officials paled in fright and the military officers turned numb. When he saw that, the royal father-in-law said in the hall, “This is a monk of many hearts!”

The spurious monk took those bloody hearts and manipulated them one by one for all to see: a red heart, a white heart, a yellow heart, an avaricious heart, a greedy heart, an envious heart, a petty heart, a competitive heart, an ambitious heart, a scornful heart, a murderous heart, a vicious heart, a fearful heart, a cautious heart, a perverse heart, a nameless obscure heart, and all kinds of wicked hearts. There was, however, not one single black heart! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 49-50).

The Monkey Prince’s inability to transform his tail refers to his father’s weakness from the novel. This is best illustrated during his fight with Lord Erlang:

Rolling down the mountain slope, he [Sun Wukong] squatted there to change again—this time into a little temple for the local spirit. His wide-open mouth became the entrance, his teeth the doors, his tongue the Bodhisattva, and his eyes the windows. Only his tail he found to be troublesome, so he stuck it up in the back and changed it into a flagpole (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 183).

Of course Pigsy, or Zhu Bajie/Wuneng (豬八戒/悟能), is a main character from the original novel. Like his comic book counterpart, he knows martial arts and magic. The name Pigsy is a nickname used in place of the original Chinese name from Arthur Waley’s famed abridgement, Monkey (1942). The golden headband is exactly like the one used by Tripitaka to rein in the Monkey King’s unruly nature. In the case of the Monkey Prince, his band is activated when his master recites the name of the Amitabha Buddha (Yang, 2021, p. 80). And the Prince’s angry, egotistical nature and boastful statements of superiority are just like his father. This is what leads to Sun Wukong’s rebellion against heaven and subsequent imprisonment by the Buddha.

3. Problems with the story and character design

One problem any adaptation of Journey to the West is going to face is lack of originality. It’s all been rehashed before endless times. An adaptation has to be super accurate or just different enough for me to find it fresh and interesting. An example of the former is the 2011 TV show, while the latter is the Korean drama Hwayugi (2017-2018). For me, this story falls in the perilous middle ground. The Monkey Prince’s power set/weaknesses are just carbon copies of his father, and yet an effort has been made to differentiate both characters. Marcus is not an immortal monkey protecting a holy monk en route to the Western Paradise of ancient India, but a brooding, teenaged, half-human-half-monkey spirit demigod navigating a normal life in the modern United States, while also attempting to master heavenly arts and fight evil. Mr. Yang explains in an interview why he made the character a teenager:

Pretty early on, we knew we wanted the Monkey Prince to be a teenager. I think there’s something about the American conception of adolescence that ties very well with the character of the Monkey King from the original stories. He’s trying to figure himself out, he’s trying to gather power to himself, he’s really arrogant, but then he also has these moments of self-doubt. Even in the original, 500 years ago (Ching, 2021).

But this portrayal of the Monkey Prince is the first of several problems that I have with the present narrative. While I’m willing to keep an open mind for future comic issues, the current story structure is not original. It seemingly draws upon formulaic tropes from other young adult literature with teenaged demigods angry at their estranged fathers (e.g. Percy Jackson). And the fact that the Monkey Prince was transplanted onto this formula and has been so heavily marketed over other Asian heroes, reads less like a bid at expanding diversity in comics and more like a ploy to drum up business in East Asia, where the Monkey King is insanely popular.

Second, the Monkey Prince’s addition to existing canon doesn’t feel natural. Mr. Yang claims making Marcus a teenager with a mystical background made it easier to connect him to Billy Batson, who’s also “a teenager with mythological ties” (Ching, 2021). But this connection is just way, way too forced. To recap, the young hero’s adopted parents just so happen to be the hench people of Dr. Sivana. This isn’t even acknowledged by Marcus, even after saving them. He just notes: “Because of my parents’ jobs, we move around a lot” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). The Prince also just so happens to go to the same school and is friends with Billy Batson. The story even mentions Billy is one of his few friends: “Not many kids here are nice to me. Heck, not many know I even Exist. Billy Batson is one of the few who do” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). So the Monkey Prince wasn’t just shoe-horned into canon, he was hammered in whether it made sense or not.

Third, the comic doesn’t explain why Sun Wukong would take a human Chinese wife after becoming a Buddha in the Western Paradise of India at the end of the novel. I hope this gaping plot hole will be addressed in later issues.

Fourth, making Zhu Bajie a sagely teacher to the Monkey Prince is not a well-thought-out idea. Zhu is the very symbol of gluttony and sloth throughout the novel. After reaching the Western Paradise, the Buddha tells him: “Although you protected the sage monk on his way, you were still quite mischievous, for greed and lust were never wholly extinguished in you” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). When Zhu asks why he’s only promoted to an altar cleaner while the rest of his companions became Buddhas and arhats, the Enlightened One replies: “Because you are still talkative and lazy, … and you retain an enormous appetite” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). So he’s definitely not teacher material. [2]

Fifth, the term “Shifu Pigsy” is just grating to my inner reading voice. Why mix two languages when you could just call him “Zhu Shifu” or “Master Pig”? [3]

Sixth, Pigsy’s design, while similar to some Chinese depictions, is too cutesy. His description in the novel is far more grotesque: “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). The first drawing of Pigsy in the comic does portray him with large ears, but this is said to be a magic transformation that allows for better control when flying (Yang, 2021, p. 76).

Seventh, the golden fillet disappears when Marcus is in his everyday human attire. This goes against the point of the band. In the novel, it can’t be removed and thus serves as an ever-present reminder of self-restraint (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 319-320). Maybe this will be addressed later.

The eighth and biggest problem is the Monkey Prince’s design (refer back to fig. 2). His golden headband is bent into a subtle “M” (for Monkey), which likely borrows from the double “W” motif on Wonder Woman‘s chest. He even wears a vigilante-type mask and sports a large “M” logo on his chest. And the most egregious of all, he wears basketball sneakers! Mr. Yang explains this costume and the Monkey Prince’s secret identity tie him to other heroes in the DC Universe. He also states the logo is “not really an ‘M’ [but] a graphic presentation of Flower Fruit Mountain” where the monkey king was born (Ching, 2021). But this symbology doesn’t agree with the internal story details. Marcus is adamant in his hatred for superheroes, so why dress him like one? It just doesn’t make any sense.

The character designer Mr. Chang explains his reasoning for the final look:

Monkey Prince Is all about attitude and character. My initial reaction to the original Monkey King character is that he’s a rebel, a mischievous figure who defied the gods and wanted to do things his way. So, bringing that element into the design was a key factor. There are already a ton of previous adaptations of this great story, so I wanted to find a balance between the traditional uniform elements (in reflection for previous fans of the mythological hero) and our modern-day superhero elements you would find in heroes in the DC Universe and form that into a new, authentic variation for our times and story.

I was also initially drawn towards the curlicue motif, with it also representing clouds or wind, which the monkey would fly around on, and you can see that throughout his armor. I balanced the traditional deep red, for blood and family, with an old gold, for history and flashiness, and teal, a more modern and hip variation of traditional green or jade (Ching, 2021).

While I like some of the golden armor elements and the use of ruyi (如意) / lingzhi (靈芝) mushrooms (the “curlicue motif“), the red undershirt, striped teal paints, and, especially, the sneakers just look tacky. Moreover, the design appears to be recycled from previous characters. Several people have commented online that the Monkey Prince is just a combination of Beast Boy‘s hair and body (fig. 3) and an altered version of Tim Drake‘s red and green Robin costume (fig. 4). I also see touches of Damian Wayne’s costume, specifically the red tri-panels with yellow borders at his waist (fig. 5).

Now, I have to address the sneakers. Why, why, why would a Chinese monkey demigod wear basketball sneakers? Well, according to Mr. Chang, it’s because a high school teenager like Marcus is bound to wear something with “some hotness to it” (Ching, 2021). Additionally, the designer admits it’s also because he’s trying to (shamelessly) plug his own brand of shoes (Ching, 2021).

Fig. 3 – Detail of an advertisement featuring the design for Beast Boy in Fortnite (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 4 – Tim Drake’s costume (larger version). Take note of the staff. Image found on Wikimedia commons. Fig. 5 – Damian Wayne’s costume (larger version). Take note of the waist panels. Image found here. Copyright DC Comics.

4. My rating

Overall, I would give “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” 2 out of 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars (see the 06/16/21 update below). [4] I gave extra points for comical story elements and the technical proficiency of the art. But I just can’t overlook problems with the writing and character design. This is a weak showing for the creative team involved. I think part of the problem is that not all parties had an intimate familiarity with Journey to the West. Mr. Chang admits that he only heard a few stories as a child and doesn’t know how the novel ends (Ching, 2021). Editor Chen says her parents also told her stories (Aguilar, 2021), but I don’t know if she has ever read the novel. As for Mr. Yang, I’m sure he knows the story forwards and backwards. So I’d like to think he was forced to sacrifice authenticity while working within certain constraints set by DC Comics.

Having said that, I’m honestly interested to see where the Monkey Prince story goes in future issues of his comic book. I will update this article as the narrative progresses.

5. What I would change

I would do away with the Monkey King taking a human Chinese wife centuries after he became a Buddha. Instead, the son could be born during the Tang Dynasty to Princess Iron Fan, the rakshasi wife of the Bull Demon King. Though seemingly impossible, there is precedent for this idea. An early 15th-century zaju play predating the novel describes Sun Wukong’s delight upon learning that the Princess is unmarried (Ning, 1986, pp. 139-140). He then resorts to seduction in an attempt to gain the iron fan needed to extinguish Flaming Mountain. For example, he recites a poem to her chocked full of sexual innuendo: “The disciple’s not too shallow. / the woman’s not too deep. / You and I, let’s each put forth an item, / and make a little demon” (Ning, 1986, p. 141). In addition, a 17th-century sequel to Journey to the West even describes the Monkey King having a number of sons with Princess Iron Fan. He faces one of his offspring, King Paramita (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王), during a final battle between all the armies of the world (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, pp. 123-124). In our story, the son could have been conceived during ch. 60 of the original novel when Monkey shares a tender moment with the Princess while disguised as the Bull Demon King (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 144).

Being a half-monkey spirit-half-rakshasa demigod, [5] I’d like to think the Prince’s base form would be more monkey-like. This would mean any lapse in concentration would cause him to revert to this state instead of a human form like in the original comic story.

I can already hear someone ask: “How can the Monkey Prince still be a teenager by the start of the story if he was born hundreds of years ago?” Well, this leads me to my next change. Instead of Zhu Bajie, it would make much more sense for his teacher to be the Bodhisattva Guanyin. After all, she tutors the children of several characters from the novel, including Muzha (木吒), 2nd son of Heavenly King Li Jing, and Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), son of the Princess Iron Fan and Bull Demon King. [6] Already having a son under the goddess’ tutelage would make it easier for the Princess to send another child to learn from her. Also, Guanyin helped subdue both Monkey and Red Boy with golden fillets (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 316-320; vol. 2, pp. 251-252). Perhaps the Monkey Prince has a temper like his father and half-brother, so the goddess would make him wear Wukong’s fillet as it’s no longer needed once the latter attains Buddhahood (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 383). Most importantly, the bodhisattva lives on the earthly paradise of Potalaka Mountain. The novel explains one day in heaven equals one year on earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). A similar constricting of time would no doubt happen in Guanyin’s holy land. Therefore, the Monkey Prince would still be a teenager even after hundreds of years have passed on earth.

Next, I would completely do away with the tacky superhero costume. As a disciple of Guanyin, he would just wear a monk’s robe, the golden fillet, and possibly even sport a tiger skin skirt (like his father) since he would technically be a heavenly guardian. There’d be no unnecessary logos, recycled costumes, or cursed sneakers. And the best part, this attire wouldn’t contradict the Monkey Prince’s hatred for superheroes, provided that was still a necessary plot element. Perhaps this hatred could be born from the fact that heroes like Shazam are given their powers (or happen upon them by accident), while the Prince’s abilities are the hard-won product of long years of spiritual cultivation.

My changes are less confident, however, when it comes to naturally fitting the Monkey Prince into existing canon. The first thing that comes to mind would involve the Shazam villain Sabbac, a hellish demon, causing havoc in Philidephlia’s Chinatown. Perhaps his assault could be related to the deplorable reports of Covid-related violence against Asians. A devotee of the goddess could pray to her in their time of need, and then the Monkey Prince is sent in her stead to exorcize the evil. But Shazam arrives while the Prince is battling the demon, and not knowing one from the other, he attacks them both. This might add fuel to the Monkey Prince’s dislike for Shazam.

I personally think the secret teen identity is a bit much. But if it is a necessary plot element, Guanyin could assign the Monkey Prince to watch over her flock in Philadelphia (and the rest of America?), [7] and at the same time allow him to experience a slice of modern teen life. And, again, if necessary, we can borrow from the original story and have the Prince attend high school, where he feels drawn to Billy Batson because of his godly aura. A local earth god (tudi gong, 土地公) and his wife (tudi po, 土地婆) (fig. 6) could be tasked by heaven to act like his grandparents to keep up the appearance of a normal human family.

Fig. 6 – A colossal Taiwanese statue of the earth god (larger version on Wikimedia commons).

Update: 05/21/21

Last time I suggested changes to the Monkey Prince’s costume. One thing I forgot to mention was his hair. In order to be more authentic, there are two choices: 1) he can be bald (like his father in the original novel) since he’d be a Buddhist monk; or 2) he can have long hair since he’d be a martial monk (wuseng, 武僧). It’s interesting to note that religious statues of Sun Wukong sometimes depict him as a martial monk, complete with the golden fillet and long hair (fig. 7). This is heavily influenced by Chinese opera (fig. 8) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178).

Fig. 7 – Detail of a religious statue of Sun Wukong as a martial monk (larger version). See the full version here. Photo taken by the author at one of the many temples in Taiwan dedicated to the Monkey King. Fig. 8. – A detail of the literary hero and martial monk Wu Song from a Chinese opera about his adventures (larger version). Full version available on Wikimedia Commons.

Update: 06/16/21

I’ve just posted my review of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong character. Reading the comic book equivalent of a train wreck has allowed me to view the Monkey Prince in a new, more positive light. I have therefore decided to increase my previous review score.


1) Though, the online version I bought through Google Play only has 84 pages.

2) Zhu Bajie and his brothers do briefly take students in ch. 88, but they only teach them how to wield weapons (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 198-203). This is not the same as the sagely teacher of magic presented in the comic.

3) Admittedly Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) does use “Master Zhu” (vol. 4, p. 199), but that is far more accurate than mixing “Shifu” with “Pigsy”, a nickname used in place of the proper Chinese from the English abridgement Monkey (1942).

4) I’m willing to revise this in the future as the narrative progresses.

5) Muzha (a.k.a. Hui’an, 惠岸) is already Guanyin’s disciple by the start of Monkey’s rebellion. In ch. 6, the goddess sends him to help in case his skills are needed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 175). Red Boy is taken in by her at the end of ch. 42 and beginning of ch. 43 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 251-252).

6) Though a rakshasi, the Princess Iron Fan has attained human form through self-cultivation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 162).

7) I’ll have to wait and see how far the Monkey Prince’s adventures take him in his ongoing comic.


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

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

Chen, J. (Ed.). (2021). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

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

Dong, Y., Lin, S., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8612591)

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

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

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subhuti:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.


Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).


Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subhuti observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 5). One passage from the tale reads: 

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subhuti. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subhuti teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.


1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

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.

Mair, V. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307

Archive # 11 – The Origin of Sun Wukong’s 72 Transformations

Upon Sun Wukong achieving immortality, his Buddho-Daoist master Subhuti warns him of three calamities sent by heaven to kill those who defy their fate and attain eternal life. The Sage then offers to teach Monkey one of two forms of transformation in order to avoid this outcome by living in hiding. [1] The first form, called the “Multitude of the Heavenly Ladle” (Tiangang shu, 天罡數), contains thirty-six changes, while the second, the “Multitude of Earthly Fiends” (Disha shu, 地煞數), contains seventy-two. [2] Our hero chooses the latter and quickly masters a set of secret oral formulas (koujue, 口訣). This becomes one of his signature abilities used throughout the narrative. Monkey’s most famous use of the skill appears in chapter six when he battles Lord Erlang, a divine demon queller and fellow master of transformations (video 1).

Video 1 – Sun’s battle with Lord Erlang. From the great animated Classic Havoc in Heaven (1965).

I. Connection to Chinese astrology and literature

The names of the two forms of transformation that Subhuti offers to teach Monkey can be traced to Chinese astrology. The “Heavenly Ladle” (Tiangang, 天罡; i.e. the Big Dipper) is associated in some traditions with thirty-six stars (fig. 1). Regarding the origin of these stellar bodies, Werner (1932/1969) explains: “The gods of these stars (all stars of good omen) are all heroes who fell on the field of battle in the epic combat known as Wan Xian Zhen 萬仙陣, “The Battle of the Myriad Genii [or Immortals]” (p. 506). [3]

Sun Wukong Transformation - 36 Heavenly Ladle Stars - small

Fig. 1 – A list of the thirty-six Heavenly Ladle stars (larger version). Photograph of Werner, 1932/1969, p. 506. Apologies for not having access to a scanner at this time. 

Furthermore, he writes that the “Earthly Fiends” (Disha, 地煞) are:

[S]eventy-two stars [fig. 2] of evil influence, opposed to the Tiangang. The wicked genii of these stars are cast out and slain by tongzi 童子 magicians [i.e. spirit mediums], who impale them on forks and shut them up in earthen jars, then take them to waste lands, throw them into fires, and surround the spot with a circle of lime, which is supposed to prevent any spirit which may have survived the burning from getting out of it (Werner, 1932/1969, p. 496). [4]

Sun Wukong Transformation - 72 Earthly Fiend Stars - small

Fig. 2 – A list of the seventy-two Earthly Fiend stars (larger version). Photographs of Werner, 1932/1969, pp. 496-497.

Additionally, the Earthly Fiends are considered the “enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments” (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii). Several Buddho-Daoist folk talismans exist to ward afflictions caused by the Fiends. One such Buddhist talisman said to cure the “one hundred ailments” even invokes the thirty-six Heavenly Ladle stars to aid in the conquering of the seventy-two demons:

An order is hereby made by the “Ministry of the Thunderbolt”, commanding in the name of the “three religions” that the auspicious stellar gods, Tiangang 天罡, reduce to order the maleficent demons, Disha 地煞, who have caused this disease. The charm must also repress these malignant beings and expel them forthwith (fig.3) (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. 312).

Di-sha talisman spell #2- small

Fig. 3 – A reproduction of the illness-curing Buddhist Talisman (larger version).

It’s interesting that Sun Wukong chooses the transformation method centered around stars of evil influence and later becomes a demon who challenges heaven. [5] Good fodder for fan fiction, no?

When these dichotomous stellar bodies were first acknowledged isn’t exactly clear. [6] But the Heavenly Ladle stars go back to at least the mid-13th-century as they are mentioned in the Old Incidents in the Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事) (Anonymous, n.d.), a storytelling prompt of the late-Song to early-Yuan. It contains the earliest stories associated with the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400), a Chinese classic that predates Journey to the West. The one hundred and eight heroes of this novel are famous for being reincarnations of the Heavenly Ladle and Earthly Fiend stars, a fact revealed in chapter seventy-one when a heaven-sent stone slab is found to list their human names along with the corresponding stellar titles. The long association of the stars with the hugely popular Water Margin novel therefore may have inspired the names for the techniques taught by the sage Subhuti in Journey to the West.

II. Ties to Daoist practices

Robinet (1979) expertly explains that transformation (bianhua, 變化), or “metamorphosis” as she calls it, is central to Daoism. Gods and Saints are portrayed in Daoist literature as being in constant flux, changing with the seasons, taking on different guises and titles, disappearing and reappearing, never remaining the same, thereby living eternally. Daoists and magicians achieve metamorphosis through external and internal alchemical processes, the former involving the ingestion of drugs and talismans and the latter via mental exercises. Those who succeed in their practice can divide themselves endlessly; create rivers, mountains, and forests from meager samples of water, earth, and seeds; and, most importantly, change their form into anything (fig. 4), including the five elements, dragons, clouds, rays of light, or even celestial bodies like the sun and moon. 

72 Transformations Childrens Book - small

Fig. 4 – The cover of a vintage children’s flip book about Monkey’s transformations (larger version). Here he is seen changing into a fish.

Interestingly, transformations could be used to live in hiding, much like originally intended by Subhuti in Journey to the West. Adepts still questing for immortality could magically transform a sword, staff, or slipper into their deceased body, thereby faking death and escaping elsewhere to find a method leading to eternal life. (Often times, those who took this route assumed a new identity to avoid heaven’s gaze (Campany, 2005)). Additionally, sages are said to use their powers to hide in the earth or in the light of the sun, moon, and stars. One source mentions adepts hiding by scattering their shadow and transforming it into seventy-two types of light. In a related book chapter, Robinet (1993) notes this number “alludes to [Laozi’s] seventy-two supernatural marks” (clearly borrowing from the Buddhist Mahapurusa laksana) (p. 166). This is fascinating as it shows there is precedent for seventy-two transformations in Daoism.

III. Archive link

I have archived Robinet’s (1979) wonderful paper on metamorphosis. It can be read here:

Click to access robinet-metamorphosis.pdf


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


1) It should be noted that the calamities are sent every five hundred years. Sun never has to live in hiding, though, as he is trapped under Five Elements Mountain upon the five hundredth anniversary of his immortality (he lived to be roughly four hundred prior to taking up spiritual cultivation). And he achieves Buddhahood prior to reaching the one thousandth year of his immortality, so he never has to guard against subsequent calamities.

2) The translation of these names are loosely based on Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122). I have provided more accurate names based on related Chinese literature (see section one above).

3) Source changed slightly. I updated the Wade-Giles to Pinyin. This refers to a military trap appearing in the Chinese classic Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, 16th-century), which was published around the same time as Journey to the West

4) I’ve previously mentioned a similar ritual in the first section of this article.

5) Conversely, Zhu Bajie is shown capable of thirty-six transformations (for example, Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 2, p. 328), meaning he studied the method associated with the stars of good omens. And of course we know his sordid story…

6) Though, in my opinion, the thirty-six stars are likely based on the thirty-six generals led by the stellar exorcist, Marshal Tianpeng (天蓬, i.e. Zhu Bajie’s former incarnation), who is himself one of the nine stars of the Big Dipper. The Marshal and his generals appear in the liturgy of the Song-era “Correct Method of the Celestial Heart” (Tianxin zhengfa, 天心正法) exorcist tradition (Anderson, 2008).


Anderson, P. (2008) Tianxin zhengfa In F. Pregadio (ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 989-993). Longdon: Routledge.

Anonymous. (n.d.). Da Song Xuanhe Yishi [Old incidents in the Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty]. Retrieved from

Campany, R. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming 命 [Preallotted Lifespan] in Early Medieval China In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150). University of Hawaii Press.

Doré, H., & Kennelly, M. (1916). Researches into Chinese superstitions: Vol. 3 – Superstitious practices. Shanghai: T’usewei Printing Press. Retrieved from

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Robinet, I. (1993). Taoist meditation: The Mao-shan tradition of Great Purity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

E. T. C. Werner (1969). A dictionary of Chinese mythology. New York: The Julian Press. (Original work published 1932)

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

Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of tens of thousands of arms. [1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

I. Explanation

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this pattern to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the Big Dipper pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping, three pace-style walking pattern. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.

(Note 06/15/19: Feng Dajian of Nankai University notified me via Twitter that he disagrees with Anthony C. Yu’s 2012 revised translation (cited above) associating the “True Sayings” with the Buddhist Dharani. This is because he feels the ritual is overtly Daoist, noting that the religion also has its own True Sayings.)


Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hard-won “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of hours or minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008).

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few hours or minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.

II. Similarities to Comic Book Heroes

Despite the ritual’s relationship to internal cultivation and the attainment of immortality, the process only bestows the princes with new, adamantine bodies capable of superhuman strength. They in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. The princes gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods and sages through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known colloquially as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.

III. Conclusion

This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few hours or minutes.


1) The original English translation says “a thousand arms”, but the Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation has been corrected

2) Andersen (2008) notes the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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. 4). Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Master Subhuti’s Curriculum II: Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some fun Fanfiction Speculation

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Shaolin map

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).


Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.


Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

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

My Sun Wukong Art – “The Buddha has Awakened”

At the end of chapter 100, Tripitaka and his disciples are elevated in spiritual rank as a reward for their hardwon quest to retrieve scriptures from India. Pigsy becomes an altar cleaner, Sandy becomes a Luohan (Buddhist saint), and the priest and Sun both become Buddhas. This paragraph describes what the Buddha says to Monkey upon his ascension:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife” [Dou zhangsheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

Despite this promotion, Sun still dreads the magic golden headband might be used on him. But he soon learns the heaven-sent punishment has disappeared once he became an enlightened being, denoting the internalization of self-restraint:

As the various Buddhas gave praise to the great dharma of Tathagata, Pilgrim Sun said also to the Tang Monk, “Master, I’ve become a Buddha now, just like you. It can’t be that I still must wear a golden fillet! And you wouldn’t want to clamp my head still by reciting that so-called Tight-Fillet Spell, would you? Recite the Loose-Fillet Spell quickly and get it off my head. I’m going to smash it to pieces, so that that so-called Bodhisattva can’t use it anymore to play tricks on other people.”

“Because you were difficult to control previously,” said the Tang Monk, “this method had to be used to restrain you. Now that you have become a Buddha, naturally it will be gone. How could it be still on your head? Try touching your head and see.” Pilgrim raised his hand and felt along his head, and indeed the fillet had vanished (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 382-383).


Fig. 1 – Wooden sculpture of the monk Baozhi, 12th-century, Saiho Temple, Kyoto, Japan.

I’ve always wanted to create a piece of digital art portraying Monkey’s ascension and loss of his headband but never knew how to depict both events in the same picture. That is until a few days ago when I came across a beautiful 12th-century Japanese wooden sculpture of the Chan Buddhist monk Baozhi (Jp: Hoshi; K: Poji, 保志/寶志, 418–514) (fig. 1). The piece depicts “the monk’s face in supernatural corporeal transformation, splitting open to reveal the face of the numinous Eleven-Headed Kannon [Guanyin],” symbolizing his enlightenment (Levine, 2005, p. 72). I felt the statue was the best expression of enlightenment that I’ve ever seen. I later discovered the historical Baozhi was known for his ever youthful appearance, carrying a fanciful staff, and working magical miracles (Robert & David, 2013, p. 98; Ebrey, 1993, pp. 100-102), much like our hero. I therefore knew this piece would be the model from which I’d create my art.

This is the final product created in Photoshop CS6 (fig. 2). The piece is comprised of 15 layers using eight different pictures. It took roughly two days working on and off during free time. The screaming face of the angry immortal splits open, giving way to the serene Buddha beneath. The sparks at the top represent the headband violently snapping open since it is no longer needed. Rays of spiritual light shine from the urna on Monkey’s forehead.

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – The Buddha has Awakened (larger version). By the author.


Ebrey, P. B. (1993). Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd Ed. New York: Free Press.

Levine, G. P. A. (2005). Daitokuji: The visual cultures of a Zen monastery. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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: Volume 4. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.