Archive #18 – Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018)


An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.

Book link


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Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Monkey Fist: The Connection Between Primates and Martial Arts in Ancient China

Look up the terms “monkey” or “ape” in the dictionary and you’ll find that they serve as verbs meaning to mimic the movements or actions of another. This is because monkeys and apes have a propensity for observation and mimicry. Being primates ourselves, humans are no different. But interestingly this mimicry sometimes mirrors our primate cousins. Chinese martial arts, for example, has developed several primate-based fighting arts, including White Ape Connected Arms boxing (Baiyuan tongbei quan, 白猿通背拳) and several flavors of Monkey boxing (Houquan, 猴拳), and other styles have even adopted primate techniques, such as the monkey footwork of Praying Mantis boxing (Tanglang quan, 螳螂拳). Humans have long marveled at the physical prowess and acrobatic mastery of apes and monkeys. So it’s only natural that boxers would want to incorporate the powerful arm movements and awe-inspiring leaps and flips of primates into various fighting arts. But how long have our cousins been associated with martial arts in Chinese culture, and when and how did primate-based martial arts develop?

Two approaches can be used in an attempt to answer both questions. The first method involves charting similarities in techniques shared between modern regional primate-based Chinese martial arts styles and relying on folk lineages, ethnographic data, and (when possible) historical manuals to discover the earliest vestiges of primate boxing in China. A second method is to search for references to primate-based martial arts in the historical record. A benefit of the first approach would be pinpointing the areas in China where these styles likely first emerged in recent history. The downside is that martial arts are passed from teacher to student via embodied practices (e.g. fist and weapons forms and sparring), often without the material being recorded in a manual. This means such styles can’t be reliably traced beyond a certain time period. A benefit of the second approach is that it provides a deeper view of history, giving the researcher license to record not only the odd mention of historical boxing styles but also associations between primates and weapons and other forms of physical exercise in ancient folklore, literature, medicine, and religion. Obviously, the best approach would be a combination of the two. However, I lack the necessary encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese martial arts techniques. Such a grand project will have to wait for a more qualified researcher. I have instead decided to adopt the second approach.

This article is divided into five sections. The first presents a folk history for Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern form of Monkey boxing, to serve as an example of how such styles can be created. The second provides three references to premodern Monkey boxing appearing in military and travel writings of the 16th-century during late Ming (1368-1644), pointing to the commonplace nature of the style. Here I suggest the lack of evidence for pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing points to the style emerging during this time. This section also gives examples of armed techniques associated with apes in military literature of the 16th and 17th-century. The third discusses the story of the noted literary monkey hero Sun Wukong (孫悟空), his portrayal as a master of armed and unarmed fighting, and how he bridges the gap between the aforementioned lack of pre-Ming boxing references and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. The fourth presents ancient stories pitting a magic white ape against the martial skills of legendary Chinese heroes, including the archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) and the swordswoman the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 5th-c. BCE). And the fifth discusses ancient animal mimicry and suggests primate-based boxing is tied to war-like shamanic totemic dances and yoga-like daoyin calisthenics (8th-c. to 2nd-c. BCE). [1]

I. Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey boxing

There are three main styles of monkey boxing:

  • Shaolin Monkey – This combative style is said to have developed among various animal styles at the famed Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) in Henan province, China. Matsuda (2013) claims this particular style to be thousands of years old (p. 50); however, this has no basis in history, as will be explained below.
  • Wushu Monkey – This modern, non-combative style focuses on gymnastic leaps and flips for entertainment purposes. It is used in both Chinese opera and the floor routines of form competitions (video 1) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 54-56).
  • Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey – This is the Cantonese variant of the Mandarin Dasheng Pigua men (大聖劈掛門), or the “Great Sage Ax School” of boxing. This combative style is said to be quite young, being a little over 100 years old (Matsuda, 2013, p. 56).

To this I add one more:

Video 1 – The first half of this video shows a youth performing Wushu Monkey for a form competition.

Tai Shing Pek Kwar is a combination of two different styles. The first, which I will only describe briefly, is Pek Kwar kyun (Pigua quan, 劈掛拳), a style that mimics the swinging of an ax, relying on the lively arm movements to generate power much like the Choy Li Fut style of southern China. It is said to have been created over two hundred years ago in Shandong (northern China) by a woodcutter named Ma Chi Ho (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 64-68). The weapons practiced by this style include the double-edged sword (jian, 劍), the single-edged saber (dao, 刀), and the staff (gun, 棍) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 70-75).

The Tai Shing kyun (Dasheng quan, 大聖拳) style is said to have been founded in northern China around the year 1911 (the end of the Qing dynasty) by a prisoner named Kou Si (寇四). [2] After being sent to jail for murder, Kou discovered his cell faced a forest where he could observe the day-to-day lives of a troupe of monkeys. He noted five distinct behaviors among them that, when combined with his knowledge of Great Earth boxing (Di tang quan, 地趟拳), a type of ground combat, could be adapted for fighting.

  1. Lost Monkey (Mi Hou, 迷猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a frightened monkey, comprising periods of attack and retreat, with lots of rolling, low kicks, and quick, frantic running low to the ground (video 2).
  2. Stone Monkey (Shi Hou, 石猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an enraged alpha male, comprising slower but drastically more powerful fist, elbow, and knee strikes, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  3. Tall Monkey (Qi Hou, 企猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a tall monkey, comprising longer, quicker swinging arm strikes and higher-level kicks.
  4. Drunken Monkey (Zui Hou, 醉猴) – This form mimics the behavior of intoxicated monkeys, comprising falls, swaying motions with broken footwork, and circular punches, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  5. Wooden Monkey (Mu Hou, 木猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an intelligent, deceptive monkey, comprising quick, low attacks and rolls similar to the Lost Monkey, but feigning retreat only to turn and unleash strikes upon the pursuing opponent.

After perfecting the style, Kou Si is said to have named it “Great Sage boxing” in honor of the monkey hero Sun Wukong (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-116). This is a reference to the title taken by the character during his rebellion against heaven (see section III below). The weapons practiced by this style include the staff and the metal ring (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 118-131).

Video 2 – The Lost Monkey form.

II. Primates and martial arts during the Ming

Textural evidence for Monkey boxing actually predates Kou Si’s lineage, appearing in late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) records. The first reference appears in the eighteen volume edition of famed general Qi Jiguang‘s (戚繼光, 1528-1588) (fig. 1) New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shiba juan ben, 紀效新書十八卷本), a military training manual completed in 1561 or 1562. The fourteenth chapter, titled “Chapter on the Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness” (Quanjing Jieyao Pian, 拳經捷要篇), reads:

Among the past and present fist specialists, the Song Great Founder had the Long Fist system with thirty-two positions. Moreover there are six pace and fist techniques, the Monkey Fist, and the Feinting Fist. The famous positions each have their own names, but in reality they are quite similar and scarcely differ from one another (Gyves, 1993, p. 34).

While Qi believed boxing had no place in armed conflict, he thought such training was useful as it strengthened soldiers’ bodies, coordinated their limbs, improved their weapons skills, and bolstered their courage (Gyves, 1993, pp. 33-37). Qi gathered what he considered the most efficient techniques to achieve this goal, meaning he consulted with many martial artists in the process. The fact that he mentions Monkey boxing suggests it was a common style among fighters of this time.

Qi Jiguang statue (Fuzhou) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern statue of General Qi Jiguang (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The second reference appears in Zheng Ruozeng’s (郑若曾, 1505-1580) Strategic Situation in Jiangnan (Jiangnan jinglue, 江南經略, 1564), which was written in response to the ever-present threat of the Woukou (倭寇), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits, invading China’s coastline. In the eighth volume, Zheng provides a long list of armed and unarmed martial arts, including the “thirty-six roads (forms) of Monkey boxing” (Houquan sanshiliu lu, 猴拳三十六路) (Zheng, 1564). Again, this suggests Monkey boxing was quite common.

The third appears in scholar Wang Shixing’s (王士性, 1547-1598) A Journey to Mt. Song (Song you ji, 嵩遊記), a travel log of the mountain on which the famed Shaolin monastery is located:

Martial monks again each came to present skills. With fists and staves contending, they struck as if flying. Their teacher with folded hands looked on. Among them was a monkey striker, spinning and leaping, just like a monkey… (Wells & Chang, 2004, p. 23).

This shows a single Shaolin warrior monk practiced Monkey boxing. But does this mean the style was part of the monastery’s official curriculum at this time? The answer is no. According to Shahar (2008), textual evidence suggests Shaolin officially took up boxing in the proceeding 17th-century, and the first styles practiced were Drunken Eight Immortals boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳) and Lost Track boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), possibly followed by Plum Flower boxing (Meihua quan, 梅花拳) in the 18th-century. The monks adopted pugilism as a form of calisthenic exercise, later combining it with Daoyin (導引) calisthenics and spirituality to create a new form of self-cultivation. [3] Prior to this, the Shaolin monks were only known for their proficiency with the staff. Therefore, given the seeming commonplace nature of Monkey boxing during the late Ming, the monk could have learned the style from an outside source.

Modern folklore associated with one primate-based style, White Ape Connected Arms Boxing (Baiyuan tongbei / bi quan, 白猿通背 / 臂拳), traces its origins to religious and military figures of the Song dynasty (960-1279), centuries prior to the Ming (Lu, 2006, pp. 103-105, for example). However, it should be said that having a Song-era foundation is a reoccurring theme in many martial arts legends. For instance, the famed Song general Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142) is commonly attributed Eagle Claw boxing (Yingzhao quan, 鷹爪拳) and Form-Intent boxing (Xingyi quan, 形意拳) (Liang & Yang, 2002, pp. 15-16, for example). But textual evidence for these styles don’t appear until the Ming and Qing, respectively. [4] Most importantly, the oldest source associated with White Ape Connected Arms Boxing, titled the Connected Arms Boxing Manual (Tongbi quan pu, 通臂拳谱), was written during the late Ming and finally published in 1665 during the early Qing (List of surviving Ming period martial arts, 2017). Likewise, concrete references to primate-based boxing do not predate the Ming. This might suggest such styles arose during this time when there was an explosion in the popularity of pugilism. But this tells us nothing about how primate-based boxing may have developed. The history of animal mimicry in Chinese martial arts can be traced to much older concepts based in medicine and religion. This is discussed in section V below.

Japanese and ape sword-fighting combination - small

Fig. 2 – A compilation of images of the sword-fighting apes from the Collection of Military Works (c. 1621) (larger version). By the author. Fig. 3 – A compilation of the original stick figures and Japanese calligraphy from the fourteen volume edition of the New Treatise on Military Efficiency (1584) (larger version). From Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. Note the similarities in stance and the position of the blades. 

As for the association between primates and armed combat during the Ming, the animals are occasionally referenced in the named fighting techniques of military literature. For example, the tenth volume of Qi Jiguang’s aforementioned manual includes a feinting lance technique titled “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance” (Baiyuan tuo dao shi, 白猿拖刀勢) (Yang & Xie, 1995, p. 336). The 35th volume of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques compiled by Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀, 1594-1640), includes “White ape exits cave” (Baiyuan chudong shi, 白猿出洞勢), a stance appearing in the sequence for an overhead sword guard. [5] (Incidentally, this is also the name of a fist set practiced in some lineages of Praying Mantis boxing). Additionally, the same volume includes a two-section sword manual, the first section of which portrays fanciful images of apes practicing with the “Sprout saber” (miaodao, 苗刀) (Mao, 1621), a long, two-handed blade similar to the Japanese Katana (fig. 2). These strange images differ from the human-based figures in the rest of the source. It’s important to note that the original sword manual, called Saber Techniques of the Xinyou-era (i.e. 1561) (Xinyou daofa, 辛酉刀法), is taken directly from the fourth volume of the revised fourteen volume edition of Qi’s New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shisi juan ben, 紀效新書十四卷本, 1584). The first of the aforementioned two sections reproduces a series of sword-wielding stick figures taken from a Shadow School (Kage-ryu, 影流 / 陰流) manual of Japanese sword fighting. The section is prefaced by lively Japanese calligraphy, and the few words recognizable to readers of Chinese include “ape flying” (yuanfei, 猿飛) and “ape returning” (yuanhui, 猿回) (fig. 3), both of which are Kenjutsu techniques still practiced today (video 3). [6] This then might explain why the stick figures were changed to apes when the material was reproduced in the Collection of Military Works decades later. But I would also like to suggest that the change (as well as the allusion to the sword-wielding white ape from the lance technique mentioned earlier) was influenced by a famous first-century Chinese story about a talented swordswoman who has her skills tested by a magic white ape. This is discussed in section IV below.

Video 3 – A modern demonstration of the “ape-flying” technique.

III. Sun Wukong the Monkey King

By far, the most famous weapon-bearing primate of the late Ming-period is Sun Wukong (a.k.a. “Monkey”), the simian protagonist of the highly popular Chinese novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). According to the tale, the stone-born monkey rules a mountain utopia before learning magic, martial arts, and the secret of immortality under a Buddho-Daoist sage. He soon thereafter acquires a magic, size-changing iron staff, which he uses to wage war against the celestial realm (fig. 4), proclaiming himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖, hence the name for Kou Si’s Monkey boxing). But his rebellion is eventually quelled by the Buddha, who imprisons the indestructible monkey demon beneath a mountain for his crimes. Five hundred years later, the repentant immortal is called upon to use his great strength, martial arts, and powers of transformation to protect the monk Tripitaka on a journey to procure scriptures from India.

Mr. Li's Criticism - Detail of Monkey fighting Heaven (small)

Fig. 4 – A woodblock print of Sun Wukong fighting the heavenly army with his magic staff (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhouwu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West, late 16th-century. 

The narrative portrays Sun as a well-rounded martial artist proficient in both weapons and boxing. For example, during his rebellion with heaven, he trains his monkey children as soldiers, teaching them troop movement and weapons, including swords, spears, axes, and bows and arrows. But he is best known for his skill with the staff (fig. 5). One episode sees Monkey give a display of his martial prowess while he and his master travel through a spooky mountain. His skill is so great that the story likens it to the strategy taught in two of the Seven Military Classics of China: 

“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat.” Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as he walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the Six Secret Teachings and Three Strategies [Liu Tao San Lue, 六韜三略)]. [7] What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 5 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

Furthermore, Monkey displays a mastery of unarmed fighting (fig. 6) in two episodes. A poem in chapter 51, for example, is important because it describes a battle between Sun and a rhinoceros demon in which they use real boxing techniques, many of which are still known and practiced to this day:

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13).

While the techniques are not Monkey boxing, the narrative certainly helped solidify the connection between primates and martial arts during the late Ming when references to the style were recorded.


Fig. 6 – Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).

Sun Wukong’s image as a master of armed and unarmed combat led to his veneration among northern Chinese martial artists at the end of the Qing. As noted in this article, fighters of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) were known to channel the spirit of the Monkey King (among other deities) in order to gain his martial prowess. A German catholic missionary active in Shandong in the late-19th and early-20th-century recorded how four boxer youths were chosen as possible vessels, and after a ritual enticed the deity to earth, the “possessed” individual performed a frightening saber dance, indicating the Great Sage had taken control. Additionally, Dudbridge (1970) cites one 17th-century source that describes Sun’s veneration in the southern Chinese province of Fujian for “appear[ing] in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates” (p. 158). This refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by the aforementioned Wokou pirates. Interestingly, Sun Wukong fighting pirates puts him in the same company as the Shaolin warrior monks, who used their martial arts skills to rout the same bandits during the 1550s (Shahar, 2008, pp. 68-70).

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 7 – The Monkey Pilgrim stone relief carving, 1237, from the Kaiyuan Temple Western Pagoda, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China (larger version).

Monkey is important to this study because he bridges the gap between the lack of pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. Sun first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. The narrative presents our hero wielding two staves, one a golden-ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron staff, in defense of his Buddhist master. These two staves would later be combined by storytellers to create his signature weapon.

Older still, the Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺) of Fujian is home to a nearly life-sized carving of the hero (fig. 7), who is presented as a saber-wielding guardian deity. He appears alongside other such wrathful gods, as well as bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, and eminent monks, on a stone pagoda that was erected in the year 1237. So Monkey was associated with various weapons as far back as the 13th-century.

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 8 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88.

Apart from possible Indian influences, Sun Wukong’s origins can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty tales in which a magical white ape or gibbon (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnaps human woman and spoils their innocence (fig. 8). For example, the unnamed primate antagonist of “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong baiyuan zhuang, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-c.) is described as a 1,000-year-old hermit who lives in a mountain utopia, practices Daoist longevity arts, wields the power to fly and change his shape, and has supernatural strength and an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm him. Most importantly, he is depicted as a master of armed combat, one displaying a fondness for sword dancing. His blade is said to “circl[e] his body as fast as lightning and as round as a full moon”. [8] As noted above, this is not the first story involving a magic white ape who is fond of swordplay. 

IV. Magic apes and ancient Chinese heroes

The Chinese classic the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) describes the literary heroes Hou Jian (侯健), Lin Chong (林沖), and Zhang Qing (張清) (fig. 9) each having ape-like arms, denoting their great strength and agility. This same nickname was applied to powerful archers of the past. Ma (2010) writes:

[I]t is said that the Xiongnu warrior Liu Chong ‘had arms like an ape, was skilled at archery (yuanbei shanshe 猿臂善射), and could pull a bow of three hundred jin’ 斤(Book of Wei《魏書》). Similarly, History of Ming describes General Chang Yuchun 常遇春 as ‘distinguished looking, with peerless courage and strength, had arms like those of an ape and was skilled at archery’; and in the same vein, Tang poet Cui Daorong 崔道融 wrote that ‘the ape-armed general runs as if on wings, sparing no one with his bow from a hundred paces’ (General Li’s Biography [Ti Li jianjun zhuan 題李將軍傳]) (p. 24).

Zhang Qing (Water Margin hero) with Sun Wukong tattoo - small

Fig. 9 – A woodblock print of the hero Zhang Qing by Kuniyoshi produced between 1827 and 1830 (larger version). It is part of the artist’s “One of the 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin” series (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, 通俗水滸傳濠傑百八人一個). Original image found here. Look closely and you’ll notice that the tattoo on Zhang’s back portrays Sun Wukong producing magical clones of himself from his mouth.

Oddly enough, the earliest tales mentioning archers and magic white apes do not liken one to the other. In fact, they are diametrically opposed. For example, a third-century BCE tale about the famed archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) portrays the creature as an elusive target for his arrow:

Once in the palace of Jing 荊 there was a supernatural white ape. Even the skillful archers of Jing could not hit it. Then the king of Jing asked … Yang Youji to shoot it. Yang straightened his bow and went to the palace with arrows in his hands. Before shooting he aimed at a place where the [moving] ape had not yet arrived. When he let the arrow fly, the ape fell immediately. Thus Yang Youji could be called the archer who could hit a target before it was there (Wu, 1987, p. 103; see also Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

A similar version of the tale states the ape recognizes Yang’s supernatural skill, anticipating the arrow and crying out in pain moments before actually being struck (Wu, 1987, p. 103; Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

Perhaps the most famous story associating the magic white ape with martial arts is the “Maiden of Yue” (Yuenu, 越女, 1st-c. BCE), named after its protagonist, a peerless swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE. The story describes how she participates in a sparring match with the shape-changing ape:

The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king [Goujian of Yue]. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was “Old Mr. Yuan” [Yuan Gong, 袁公].

He said to the young woman, “I hear you fight well with a [sword]. I’d like to see a demonstration.”

She replied, “I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.”

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but [she] parried straight back, thrust three times, and finally raised her end of bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan [fig. 10]. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape [baiyuan, 白猿, hence the surname]. Then each went their own way, and she went on to meet with the king. [9]

Upon meeting the king, the Maiden reveals the secret to her fighting ability is the application of yin and yang energy, which are metaphorically described as the opening and closing of large and small swinging doors. This is “[t]he earliest extant published exposition of [the] theory applied directly to the martial arts” (Henning, 2001, p. 746), predating the artificial categorization of Chinese boxing into “internal” (neijia, 内家) and “external” (waijia, 外家) styles during the 17th-century (Henning, 2007, p. 26). Therefore, the importance of the story in the annals of Chinese martial arts history can’t be overstated. Nor can the inclusion of the white ape. His supernatural challenge and subsequent defeat respectively tests and confirms the effectiveness of the theory.

This tale likely influenced the association between white apes and swordplay in later sources, such as the sword-dancing antagonist of the Tang-era “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (section III) and the sword-wielding primates of military literature (section II). For example, “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance”, the aforementioned feinting lance technique from New Treatise on Military Efficiency (c. 1561/1562), may refer to Old Mr. Yuan’s defeat.

Maiden of Yue vs Old Man Yuan (the white ape) - small

Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the Maiden of Yue fighting Old Mr. Yuan by martial historian Stan Henning (larger version). From Henning, 2007, p. 24.

Our heroes’ respective stories make no reference to animal mimicry, the cornerstone of primate-based boxing. In fact, it’s the reverse in the second narrative: an ape mimics man. [10] The tales instead promote the idea of trained human skill conquering the raw, often magical, power of nature. In the case of the Maiden of Yue, her mastery of yin and yang energy enabled her to best the magic white ape. Yang Youji is more of a mythic figure capable of miraculous feats, such as sinking an arrow into a boulder simply because he mistook it for a rhino (i.e. mind over matter) (Selby, 2000, p. 131). But he succeeded in falling a white ape when many archers failed. These tales are therefore the antithesis of primate-based boxing, representing what might have been considered more “civilized” or “noble” forms of martial arts, namely the armed disciplines of archery and swordplay.

V. Animal mimicry in Chinese medicine and religion

I suggested above that primate-based styles may have arisen during the Ming. But how the styles developed is likely tied to the long history of animal mimicry in China. For example, around the year 60 BCE (during the Han), the courtier Tan Changqing (檀長卿) is said to have been reprimanded for violating ritual norms by performing the dance of the “dog and macaque combat” (wu wei mu hou yu gou dou, 舞為沐猴與狗鬭) while at a drunken party (Harper, 2001, p. 18). This dance may have some connection to a funerary motif appearing in Han-era stone tombs in which dogs are shown intimidating apes, the motif representing the conquering of evil influences. [11] Tan’s display can’t be assigned a martial role, however, because it was likely a comical pantomime. [12] But this shows mimicking primates served a variety of purposes in Chinese culture.

Primate-based movements figure in a number of ancient therapeutic exercises. For instance, the monkey appears in the Five Animals’ Frolic (Wuqin xi, 五禽戲), a 3rd-century system of daoyin calisthenics, which mimics the movements or behaviors of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird (in that order), each animal set strengthening a particular area of the body (Kohn, 2008, pp. 163-169). Movements mimicking the bear, monkey, and bird actually predate this system, appearing among forty-four exercises listed in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (Daoyin tu, 導引圖, 168 BCE), the oldest known diagram of daoyin exercises, discovered in Mawangdui (馬王堆) (fig. 11 and 12). Primate-based exercises include the “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (muhou guan yinling zhong, 沐猴灌引靈中) (#35) and “Gibbon Shouting” (yuanhu, 猿謼) (#40) (fig. 13 and 14) (Harper, 1998, pp. 315 and 316). [13]

The Masters of Huainan (Huananzi, 淮南子, 139 BCE), a compendium of Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist thought, references another primate-based daoyin set in a section criticizing such exercises as inferior to spiritual cultivation:

If you huff and puff,
exhale and inhale,
blow out the old and pull in the new,
practice the Bear Hang [xiongjing, 熊經], the Bird Stretch [niaoshen, 鳥伸],
the Duck Splash [fuyu, 鳧浴], the Ape leap [yuanjue, 蝯躩],
the Owl Gaze [chishi, 鴟視], and the Tiger Stare [hugu, 虎顧]:

This is what is practiced by those who nurture the body. They are not the practices of those who polish the mind (Liu & Major, 2010, p. 236).

Daoyin tu - Original, reconstruction, monkey and gibbon - 35 and 40

Fig 11 – (Top left) The Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling, 2nd-c. BCE, paint on silk, 142 x 70 cm (55.9 x 27.5 in) (larger version). Image originally found here. Fig. 12 – (Top right) A modern reconstruction (larger version). Image originally found on Wikipedia. Harper (1998) warns such reconstructions “should be regarded as conjectural in many details” since the original is in such poor condition (p. 191). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) The reconstruction of “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (larger version). Fig. 14 – (Bottom right) The reconstruction of “Gibbon Shouting” (larger version).

These therapeutic exercises likely find their origin in ancient Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences (Harper, 1985, pp. 487-488). One such dance was the seasonal Da Nuo (大儺 / 難; Jp: Tsuina, 追儺) ritual in which a bearskin-clad exorcist (Ch: fangxiangshi; Jp: hōsōshi, 方相氏) and his army of fur, feather, and horn-clad youths, representing twelve animal deities, expelled evil spirits from human dwellings. Evidence suggests it may have been performed as early as the Shang (17th to 11th-c. BCE), but the earliest concrete references come from the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE) (Poo, 2009, p. 286). What’s interesting for our purposes is that the exorcism has a martial aspect; not only does the exorcist bear a lance and shield for ritual combat (fig. 15), but also the group travels throughout the given location dancing and shouting, with the youths beating drums and commanding twelve spirits by name to devour or eviscerate anthropomorphic representations of malevolent influences (Poo, 2009, pp. 287-288). So by wearing animal products, the exorcist and his ritual army gained the strength of animal deities to combat dark forces.

Nuo exorcist expelling demon (Hayaike Yu Okami and Oni Yarai) - small

Fig. 15 – A Japanese woodblock print portraying the Da Nuo exorcist expelling a “pestilence” spirit with his lance and shield (larger version). Originally found here. Note the four-eyed mask. This is based on the four golden-eyed bear skin worn by the exorcist in ancient Chinese records (Poo, 2009, p. 287).

It’s possible that the “twelve animals” of the Da Nuo exorcism refer to some precursor of the Chinese zodiacal animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig). If true, monkey fur could have been among the animal products worn by the ritual army. After all, monkeys have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. [14] A modern example of exorcists who don monkey fur are the shamans of the Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan. The Qiang worship monkeys as the source and savior of their sacred knowledge, as well as the progenitor of their people, the latter being a myth cycle common among ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China.

Henning (2001) highlights the connection between animal totemism and animal boxing:

Another view is that at least some animal forms may hark back to a distant totemic past that still occupies a place in the Chinese psyche. This totemic influence is difficult if not impossible to trace in majority Han Chinese boxing styles; however, it can be seen in the combination of martial arts and dance practiced by some of China’s many national minorities. Cheng Dali, in his Chinese Martial Arts: History and Culture, points to Frog Boxing, practiced by the Zhuang Nationality of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as an example, the frog being considered their protector against both natural and man-made disasters (p. 16).

Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming could descend from totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices. The development could have gone something like this:

  1. Early shamanic dances drawing on the totemic power of primate deities (via their fur) to exorcise evil influences through ritual combat, including the bearing of weapons, drumming, dancing, and the shouting of spells.
  2. The animal fur and martial dancing give way to calisthenics drawing on primate mimicry to expel sickness and strengthen the body.
  3. These calisthenic movements are adapted for fighting.

It’s even possible that the war-like shamanic dancing gave way directly to boxing. Martiality (wu, 武) and dance (wu, 舞) have long been associated in Chinese history, for drums and gongs were used to direct the movements of both troops and dancers (Lorge, 2012, p. 26-27). Musical accompaniment remains a staple of folk martial arts performances. A modern example of totemic mimicry, dancing, and martial arts is the Lion Dance (wushi, 舞獅) popular in Asian communities throughout the world (video 4).

Video 4 – Five lion dancing teams performing before a crowd. 

VI. Conclusion

Apes and monkeys have been associated with armed and unarmed martial arts in Chinese culture for over two thousand years. Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern combat style of Monkey boxing created in the early 20th-century, is predated by even older instances of Monkey boxing alluded to in military and travel writings of the 16th-century, suggesting it was a common form of pugilism. Additionally, military literature of the 16th and 17th-century associates white apes with swordplay. The lack of historical references to primate-based boxing prior to the Ming (1368-1644) suggests such styles developed during the explosion in popularity of pugilism at this time. The image of the highly popular late Ming literary monkey hero Sun Wukong as a master of armed and unarmed martial arts, as well as his association with staff and sword fighting in 13th-century oral literature and Buddhist art, respectively, helps bridge this gap between the lack of historical boxing references and older material associating primates with armed combat. He can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty stories about magic white apes who, due to their supernatural abilities, were portrayed as the ultimate test of a warrior’s martial skills. The most famous of these tells how the Maiden of Yue, a talented swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE, vets her yin-yang theory-based sword style by defeating a white ape-turned-old man in a sparring match. This story is important because it’s the first recorded association of yin-yang theory and martial arts in Chinese history. This tale and another involving the mythic archer Yang Youji are the antitheses of primate-based boxing because each touts the superiority of trained human skill over the raw, magical power of nature. Despite this, animal mimicry played a large role in early therapeutic yoga-like Daoyin calisthenics, such as the Five Animals Frolic (3rd-c. CE) and those appearing in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (168 BCE), which copied the movements of monkeys and apes (among other animals) to strengthen given areas of the body. These exercises likely find their origin in ancient war-like Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences, one example being the seasonal Da Nuo exorcism of the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE). The Da Nuo exorcist and his ritual army wore animal products (fur, horns, feathers, etc.) to invoke the power of animal deities capable of driving away malevolent forces. Monkey fur may have been worn by members of the ritual army because the animal and its products have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. Shamans among the modern Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan worship monkeys and draw on the power of their fur to perform exorcisms. Animal totemism plays a part in some animal-based martial arts, such as the Frog boxing of the Zhuang ethnic group. Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming may have been influenced by the ancient totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices, those that formed the basis of later animal-based therapeutic exercises. This is where the historical study would benefit from modern ethnographic field research. A follow-up study might bridge the gap between the historical data and modern practice.


1) A shorter paper with a similar focus is Ma (2010). The editor of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies was gracious enough to provide me with a PDF copy of the article when I was nearing completion of this paper.

2) Regarding the name of the creator of Monkey boxing, Kou Si (寇四), kou (寇) means “bandit, foe, or enemy”. I find this especially interesting given he was imprisoned for murder, the reasons for which range from accidentally killing a villager in a fight to purposely killing a military official to avoid service (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-87). It’s possibly this name is simply a folk title given to an unknown creator, or one known to have been active in crime.

3) See chapters three and four.

4) The earliest mention of Eagle Claw appears in Qi Jiguang’s training manual. It refers to “Eagle Claw Wang’s grappling methods” (Yingzhao Wang zhi na, 鷹爪王之拿) (Gyves, 1993, p. 35). Qing-era manuals and family histories suggest Xingyi was created by a certain Ji Jike (姬際可, fl. 1650) (Shahar, 2008, pp. 134-135).

5) For an English translation of the sword technique mentioning the stance, see Chen, 2018, pp. 73-75.

6) Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. I’m indebted to the operator of the Great Ming Military blog for explaining the connection between the ape images and the visible characters from the Japanese calligraphy, as well as providing me with a digital copy of the fourteen volume edition of Qi’s training manual.

7) The original English translation omits the two named books from the Chinese version. It reads, “…the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

8) Chen, 1998, p. 84. Some readers may have noticed the sword is a reoccurring theme in Sun Wukong’s history: 1) The Qing-era boxers are said to have performed a saber dance under his possession; 2) he is depicted with a saber on the Kaiyuan temple pagoda in Fujian; and 3) the magic white ape on whom he is likely based loves performing sword dances. In addition, two other sources mention Monkey’s association with the sword. First, a 15th-century Zaju play describes Guanyin giving Sun Wukong a Buddhist saber (jiedao, 戒刀) (apart from other magic items) to protect his master on the eve of their journey. Second, a 17th-century tale set in Fujian describes the Great Sage magically afflicting a merchant with painful leg sores using a “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

I don’t think these have any unifying significance, however. For example, the saber requires less training and is cheaper than other implements of war. So it was often the go to weapon for soldiers and bodyguards. Monkey’s association with the saber on the pagoda is likely tied to this same concept. As a guardian deity, he is portrayed with the same weapon used by mortals to protect others in times of need. The magic white ape is portrayed as a Daoist gentleman, one in possession of a pair of treasure swords (baojian, 寶劍), the kind used in Daoist ritual. His fancy for the sword may be based on Old Mr. Yuan from the Maiden of Yue (see section IV). Another literary character with Buddhist sabers is Wu Song from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). I explain in this article (footnote #2) that his sabers are based on real world Buddhist knives issued to monks. The same concept is no doubt tied to Monkey’s weapon from the play. Having said that, I will admit, though, that the saber from the pagoda may have had some influence on that mentioned in the 17th-century story. After all, the pagoda example is portrayed with a lick of heavenly flame, just like one would expect from a celestial sword. Also, both the story and the pagoda take place/are located in Fujian, home to the Great Sage’s cult.

9) Selby, 2000, pp. 155-156. The famous Tang poet Li Bai (李白) referenced Mr. Yuan’s defeat in one of his poems. A line reads “The White Ape was ashamed of his fencing” (Ma, 2010, p. 24). This is fascinating as Li Bai was also known to have been a proficient swordsmen in his youth (Liu, 1967, pp. 46-47).

10) This is based on an old concept in which primates were thought to progress through a type of magical evolution, similar to modern day Pokémon. The Baopuzi (抱朴子, 2nd-c. CE) states a monkey will transform into a gibbon after 800 years of life. It will then change into several legendary apes over some 3,500 years, before evolving into an old man (Ball, 1927, p. 117). Gulik (1967) cites a tale in which the soothsayer Zhou Qun (周羣 / 周群) learns the secrets of divination from a gibbon-turned-old man (p. 50).

11) As noted in this article, Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s hound is tied to the Han-era tomb motif of dogs intimidating apes.

12) Ma (2010) translates the historical passage, noting those at the party were “drinking wine and making merry, then Tan Changqing, the high official of Changxin Palace, starts to dance, to imitate a monkey fighting with a dog, bringing laughter to all present” (p. 25).

13) Harper (1998) suggests an alternate reading for “Gibbon shout” (yuanhu謼) is “Gibbon Jump” (yuanjue, 蝯躩) based on graphical similarities to an exercise from the Huainanzi. (淮南子, 139 BCE) (p. 316, n. 1).

14) This is tied to a Song-era (and likely older) superstition from Sichuan where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness (Eberhard, 1969, p. 52). This is why heaven appoints Sun Wukong the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “Keeper of the (Heavenly) Horses”), which is a pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, “Avoid the horse plague”). Due to his former exalted position, earthly horses are shown to fear the Monkey King throughout the narrative (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309, for example).

In Japan, monkeys were also associated with horses and healing via the warding of evil. Apart from monkeys being kept in stables like their Chinese counterparts, their fur was applied to the harnesses and quivers of Samurai because the warriors believed it gave them more control over their mounts. Furthermore, monkey body parts have been consumed for centuries as curative medicines, and their hides have even been stuffed to make protective amulets (kukurizaru) to ward off illness. Likewise, a genre of painting depicts divine monkeys (saru gami), messengers of the mountain deity, performing Da Nuo-like dances to ensure a good rice harvest (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1987, pp. 43-50)


Ball, K. M. (1927). Decorative motives of oriental art. London, John Lane; New York, Dodd, Mead and Co.

Chen, J. (1998). A supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape. Renditions 49, pp. 76-85.

Chen, J. (2018). Ancient art of Chinese long straight sword. (n.p.): Chen Jiayi.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Eberhard, W. (1969). The local cultures of south and east China. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gyves, C. M. (1993). An English Translation of General Qi Jiguang’s “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” (Master’s thesis). The University of Arizona, Arizona, USA.

Harper, D. (1985). A Chinese demonography of the Third Century B.C. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 45 (2), pp. 459-498.

Harper, D. (1998). Early Chinese medical literature: The Mawangdui medical manuscripts. London: Wellcome Asian Medical Monographs.

Harper, D. (2001). Poets and Primates: Wang Yanshou’s Poem on the Macaque, Asia Major 14(2), pp. 1-25.

Henning, S. (2001). Written Texts: China In T. A. Green (Ed.), Martial arts of the world: An encyclopedia, volume two: r–z (pp. 745-748). Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

Henning, S. (2007). The maiden of Yue: Fount of Chinese martial arts theory. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 16(3), pp. 24-27.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese healing exercises: The tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Liang, S. Y., and Yang, J. M. (2002). Xingyiquan: Theory, applications, fighting tactics and spirit. Boston: YMAA Publication Center.

List of surviving Ming period martial arts. (2017, December 3). Retrieved from

Liu, J. Y. (1967). The Chinese knight-errant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Liu, A., and Major, J. S. (2010). The Huainanzi: A guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lu, S. (2006). Combat techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua: Principles and practices of internal martial arts. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books.

Ma, L. (2010). From ape worship in ancient China to monkey imitation in modern competition wu shu. Journal of Chinese Martial Studies 2, pp. 20-28.

Mao, Y. (1621). Wubei zhi: juan sanshiwu  [Collection of Military Works: Volume 35]. Retrieved from

Matsuda, M. (2013). Monkey kung fu: History & tradition. (n.p.): Michael Matsuda.

Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1987). The monkey as mirror: Symbolic transformations in Japanese history and ritual. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Poo, M. (2009). Ritual and ritual texts in early China In J. Lagerwey and M. Kalinowski (Ed.). Early Chinese religion, part one: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (pp. 281-313). Leiden: Brill.

Qi, J. (2001). Jixiao xinshu shisi juan ben [New Treatise on Military Efficiency: Fourteen volume edition]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1584)

Selby, S. (2000). Chinese archery. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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

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

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yang, J., and Xie, G. (Ed.) (1995). Zhongguo bingshu jicheng [Collection of Chinese Military Literature]. Beijing: Liaoshen shushe.

Zheng, R. Z. (1564). Jiangnan jinglue: juan ba shang [Strategic Situation in Jiangnan: vol. 8]. Retrieved from江南經畧_(四庫全書本)/卷8上

The Worship of Sun Wukong in 19th-century America

I by chance happened upon an old magazine article that mentions the worship of Sun Wukong in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1892. The piece is written by one Frederic J. Masters, D.D., a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about the area’s Chinese community. Not surprisingly, the article is dripping with condescension towards Chinese religion, condemning the Great Sage’s worship as “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness.” Below is the section discussing the Monkey King.

In the Spofford-alley temple are found the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses, the principal being the Grand Duke of Peace, the God of Medicine, and Pan Kung, a celebrated Prime Minister of the Sung Dynasty. The funniest discovery in this temple was that of Tsai Tin Tai Shing [Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖]. He is a beatified monkey in the image of a man. Hatched from a bowlder [sic], this animal is said to have proclaimed himself king of the monkeys. At last he learned the language of men, and finding himself possessed of supernatural powers, he obtained a place among the gods. Such is the legend. Chinese idolatry thus reaches the acme of absurdity and sinfulness in the canonization of a monkey. Thoughts of Darwin’s descent of man at once flashed across our mind as we looked at this image. It was disappointing at one’s curiosity to find that the old temple keeper who cared more for a pipe of opium than for speculations in theology and anthropology could not tell us what part natural selection played in the evolution of Chinese deities, or whether monkey worship was the newest phase of Chinese ancestral worship. Finding him lamentably ignorant upon the great question of the descent of man, we astonished with him with a complete history of his monkey god.

There was an ape in the days that were earlier;
Centuries passed and his hair became curlier;
Centuries more and his tail disappeared,
Then he was man and a god to be feared (Masters, 1892, pp. 736-737).

So what can we learn from this brief entry? Given the time, place, and use of Cantonese, the worshipers were most likely immigrants from Guangdong province. Refo Mason (1994) explains, “When news of the discovery of gold in California reached South China in 1849, thousands of labourers in Guangdong and Fujian provinces left their villages to seek work in the gum shan ([金山] ‘Gold Mountain’) … Emigration from South China to California…peaked in 1852, when 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco” (p. 200). Monkey‘s adherents may have counted among these men or their descendants (or possibly among those from later periods of immigration). Either way, belief in the Great Sage came with those who traveled from southern China to America.

Monkey King Bust - American Gods - Instagram 1 - small

Fig. 1 – A photomanipulation of Sun Wukong above the title logo from the ongoing American Gods television show (larger version). By the author. The program is based on the 2001 novel of the same name.

Somebody please get Neil Gaimon on the phone and tell him that he can now include Monkey in American Gods (fig. 1). What do you think the character would look like? Maybe a short old man with a cane?

Spofford Alley, home to 19th-century temple with Monkey King shrine - small

Fig 2 – A modern Google satellite image of Spofford Alley (larger version). It is only a few hundred feet long.

During the 19th-century, Spofford Alley (fig. 2), where the temple housing the Great Sage shrine was located, was home to the Chee Kong Tong (Zhigongdang, 致公堂, “Chamber of High Justice Society,” a.k.a. the “Chinese Freemasons”), the secret Chinese society-turned-criminal organization running Chinatown’s illicit opium, gambling, and prostitution trade (Risse, 2012, p. 37). The Chee Kong Tong were originally an offshoot of anti-Manchu rebels who wanted to overthrow the foreign-ruled Qing dynasty (Cassel, 2002, pp. 218-219). [1] Therefore, Sun Wukong’s worshipers may have included gangsters and rebels. As mentioned in this article, the Great Sage was venerated by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). This makes sense as the divine primate is famous for his rebellion against heaven in Journey to the West.


1) Sun Yatsen, the “Father of modern China,” made contact with the Chee Kong Tong several times and even used their no. 36 Spofford Alley office as his own while raising money for his revolution in China (United States, 1993, pp. 45-46; Lum & Lum, 1999, p. 57).


Cassel, S. L. (2002). The Chinese in America: A history from Gold Mountain to the new millennium. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Masters. F. J. (1892). Pagan Temples in San Francisco In C.F. Holder (Ed.). The Californian illustrated magazine: June to November, 1892, vol. 2 (pp. 727-741). San Francisco, Calif.: Californian Pub. Co.

Lum, Y. M., & Lum, R. M. K. (1999). Sun Yat-sen in Hawaii: Activities and supporters. Honolulu: Hawaii Chinese History Center.

Refo Mason, S. (1994). Social Christianity, American feminism, and Chinese prostitutes: The history of the Presbyterian mission home, San Francisco, 1874-1935 In M. Jaschok and S. Miers (Ed.) Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude, and Escape (pp. 198-220). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Risse, G. B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

United States. (1993). An introduction to organized crime in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Organized Crime/Drug Branch, Criminal Investigative Division.

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.

Archive #4 – All Woodblock Prints from Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West

Here I present all of the woodblock prints from Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (Li Zhuowu Xiansheng piping Xiyouji, 李卓吾先生批評西遊記, late 16th-century) by the Ming scholar Li Zhi (李贄, 1527-1602). It’s important to remember that the original novel was published in 1592, which means the images therein are some of the earliest depictions of the characters and episodes based on that freshly published version. The PDF linked below has nearly 200 prints, illustrating everything from Sun Wukong’s discovery of the Water Curtain Cave to the pilgrims’ final attainment of Buddhahood or Sainthood. Here is a sample.

Mr. Li's Criticism - Detail of Monkey fighting Heaven (small)

Sun Wukong fighting the heavenly army (larger version). Enhanced slightly for clarity.

PDF link

Click to access mr-li-zhuowus-literary-criticism-of-journey-to-the-west-late-16th-c-pictures-only.pdf


The entirety of Mr. Li’s criticism is FAR too large to host on my meager site. The original files are hosted on and are free to download.

The Later Journey to the West: Part 3 – The Journey Comes to an End

The main body of Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century) follows a similar trajectory as the parent novel, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) is tasked with traveling from China to India to retrieve spiritual knowledge from the Buddha, and just like Tripitaka, he is protected by three demonic disciples, namely Sun Luzhen (孫履真), the descendant of Sun Wukong, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), the son of Zhu Bajie, and Sha Zhihe (沙致和), the disciple of Sha Wujing. Along the way the group travels through many lands, battles numerous evils, and they eventually become enlightened Buddhas like their predecessors two hundred years prior. As noted in part oneLater Journey to the West may appear like a carbon copy of the original, but the similarities are only skin deep since the novel is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning. Below, I present the last of a three-part summary of the novel (part 2), which focuses on the end of the journey. I rely very heavily on Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

Readers will notice letters of the alphabet at the end of particular sentences in the first two sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the third section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The latter half of the journey

(The novel has a total of 40 chapters. Liu (1994) only covers certain chapters since they contain the most allegorical meaning.)

The pilgrims travel towards String and Song village (Xiange cun, 弦歌村) when they learn the Confucian society there hates Buddhism and spreads lies about its demonic nature. [A] Enraged, Monkey creates an army of warrior Skanda Bodhisattvas (Ch: Weituo, 韋馱) from his magic hair, each of which visits every family in the village and threatens them with punishment if they don’t receive the “living Buddhas” (the pilgrims) with much respect and fanfare. Luzhen also creates likenesses of the Four Heavenly Kings, who lead the monks into the village. The celestial spectacle causes the entire population to convert to Buddhism on the spot. This angers the demon ruler of the region, the Heavenly King of Civilization (Wenming tianwang, 文明天王), the reincarnation of a Qilin unicorn (fig. 1) who favors Confucianism over Buddhism. In their first battle, Monkey proves impervious to the demon’s weaponized coin scales, but is crushed under the weight of his writing brush-turned-spear. [B] The monster explains:

I don’t need knives or swords to kill you. With the writing brush, I can easily describe you as a heretic monk and write the words “Foreign religion,” which will crush you down, so you will never be able to stand up (Liu, 1994, p. 89).

The demon then kidnaps Dadian and subdues him under the weight of the brush and a golden ingot. Monkey consults the god of literature in heaven and learns the monster’s brush is so powerful because it was originally used by Confucius to write the Analects. The group is finally able to defeat the demon and release Dadian with the god’s help.


Fig. 1 – A Qilin unicorn. This beast is often depicted with coin scales (larger version).

After many more adventures, the group comes to the Temple of Sudden Realization (Mengxing an, 猛省庵) on Division Ridge (Zhongfen ling, 中分嶺). There, the head monk tells them the ridge is an extension of the Western paradise installed by the Buddha to weed out corrupt Chinese monks heading to India. Only those who pass the test of the Bodhisattva of Great Eloquence (Da biancai pusa, 大辯才菩薩) in the Temple of Division (Zhongfen si, 中分寺) on top of the ridge will be allowed to continue their pilgrimage. [C] The pilgrims pass their respective tests and are allowed to enter the Pass of Obstruction (Gua’ai guan, 挂礙關), where they face a blizzard and a road covered in brambles. [D] Dadian, Luzhen, and Shihe pay the obstacles no attention, but Yijie continues to fall further and further behind. The monks are surprised when they circle back around to find the same temple. A young monk gives them a note from the bodhisattva:

The temple which you have seen twice is the same temple;
The pass which appears and disappears is not a pass;
The true cultivation is without obstacles,
And the enlightened nature will eliminate delusions;
Only for those who are greedy and deceitful;
The road will be rugged and full of brambles;
One must cleanse himself of desires,
Before he can pay homage to the Buddha at the Spirit Mountain (Liu, 1994, p. 93)

Yijie arrives late covered with scratches and bruises from his rough journey. He questions how his companions traveled so easily, but realizes the error of his ways when shown the note.

The pilgrims arrive at the Mountain of Cloud-Crossing (Yundu shan, 雲度山) located on the outskirts of India. They meet a young cowherd riding an ox (fig. 2) who tells them the mountain is a gateway to the Buddha’s paradise and that two paths to heaven exist. The easiest is located on the three small peaks of the mountain and measures a mere square inch. [E] This path is often taken by Buddhas, immortals, and other celestials. The other is a long, winding road located on the ground. He describes the latter as being a quick and pleasant route, but one fraught with danger if traveled with the wrong mindset:

If the Monkey of the Mind is still and the Horse of the Will is tame, and your speed is neither fast nor slow, the road will be smooth and steady, and you will be able to reach your destination in an instant. But if the Fire of the Liver flares up, the plank road will be burned down; if the Wind of the Spleen blows, the platform bridge will be destroyed; if the Water of the Kidneys is dried up, the boat will be stranded; and if the Air of the Lungs is weak, the chariot cannot be driven. In that case you will be traveling all your life, groping in the Skin Bag, and never be able to get out (Liu, 1994, pp. 94-95) [F].

Oxherding_pictures,_No._6 - small

Fig. 2 – The cowherd and his ox, a traditional symbol of enlightenment (larger version). Painting by Tenshō Shūbun (天章周文) (1414-1463).

Dadian chooses the long path, but his disciples goad him into taking a boat, a forbidden shortcut, which initiates the chain of events foretold by the cowherd (actually a sage in disguise). The vessel eventually runs aground on the riverbed because the water dries up. The priest then mounts his horse once more, but Yijie slaps its behind to speed up, leading to a wild, uncontrolled ride that knocks the wind out of Dadian and dampens his will to continue. Angry, the master admonishes the pig, causing the group’s path to be blocked by a monstrous fire. Seeing the road to paradise blocked, Dadian is beset with anxiety, causing a terrible wind that forces the group to take shelter in the forest. [G] The pilgrims soon realize the obstacles arise from the monk’s mental state. When Dadian centers himself, the wind subsides. The path before them then becomes an easy one.

The group arrives at Spirit Mountain and meets the Laughing Monk (Xiao heshang, 笑和尚) who informs Dadian that he will meet the Buddha the following day and asks if he wants to see his material appearance (Semian, 色面) or immaterial appearance (Kongmian, 空面). The master, however, fails to answer out of confusion. The next day the pilgrims climb to Thunderclap Monastery, home of the Buddha, and find it devoid of any people. Monkey explains this represents “emptiness” and coincides with the Buddha’s aforementioned immaterial appearance. He goes on to not only claim himself the Buddha, but also superior to him:

Listen to what I have to say: The Buddha is merciful. Am I not merciful? The Buddha is wise. Am I not wise? The Buddha is vast. Am I not vast? The Buddha is divine. Am I not divine? The Buddha is void of the five qualities and I don’t have an inch of thread hanging on my body. [1]  The cultivation of the Buddha took ten thousand kalpas of time. But it only takes me an instant. In the most profound sense, I can exist without the Buddha, but the Buddha can’t exist without me. You should think carefully. In what respect am I inferior to the Buddha (Liu, 1994, pp. 104-105).

When Yijie scoffs at his words, Luzhen enters a neighboring chamber and transforms into the Enlightened One, using his magic hairs to create a large retinue of lesser buddhas, saints, and guardian spirits (fig. 3). The pig is called before the false Buddha and sentenced to torture in hell, but Monkey is forced to revert to his true form when Dadian begs for lenience. The Laughing Monk later explains Luzhen’s stunt is not disrespectful but a demonstration of “The Mind is the Buddha” (Liu, 1994, p. 106). [H]

Pure Land of Bliss (Large)

Fig. 3 – The Buddha surrounded by a celestial retinue (larger version).

II. Returning with the interpretations and becoming Buddhas

The Laughing Monk escorts the pilgrims to see the Buddha, who is reluctant to release the true interpretation:

The divine scripture can only relieve people for a moment. Even with the transmission of the true interpretation, it is difficult to deliver many people. It would be better to get rid of all the words and interpretations and thus make people forget knowledge and perception. This is the wonderful principle of returning to the origin (Liu, 1994, p. 106). [I]

But he releases the interpretations anyway. The group, having become enlightened beings, fly on clouds back to the Chinese capital of Chang’an, returning five years after the journey started. Emperor Muzong (唐穆宗, r. 820-824) welcomes the pilgrims and builds for Dadian a prayer platform from which he can read the scriptures. [2] On the 18th day of the second (lunar) month of 824, the priest orders Luzhen to open the sutras that had been magically sealed by Tripitaka years prior. The Small Sage sends out a legion of monkeys all across the Middle Kingdom to complete this task. The resulting sermon enlightens the whole of China. The monk intends to finish reading the entire interpretation, but his lecture is stopped by the Laughing Monk who reveals himself to be the Buddha. Dadian and his disciples return to the Western Paradise with the Enlightened One and are bestowed with Buddhahood for their efforts. In the end, the Buddha shines light from his third eye onto China, transforming it into a paradise on earth.

III. Allegory explained

A) The name of the village refers to the classic method of teaching Confucian values through song (Xiange, 弦歌) in ancient China.

B) The money and brush refer to the power and wealth belonging to the Confucian social elite. Monkey is impervious to the weaponized coins because, as a monk, he has no desire for money, but falls to the brush-spear because Confucians can sway public opinion about Buddhism simply with a few strokes of the brush.

C) Division Ridge and the Temple of Division both serve as filters that separate (or divide) true believers from those still plagued with desires or negative emotions.

D) The pass and Yijie’s troubles therein are metaphors for the negative mental states (or obstacles) that block someone’s path to enlightenment.

E) The three peaks and the square inch are references to the Chinese character for heart or mind (xin, 心) (take note of the three dots on top of the character). This means the mountain is a metaphor for the mind. Those who master the mind and achieve enlightenment can take this quick path to paradise since they have already done the heard work of cleansing themselves of desires. This path is essentially located in the clouds, hence the name of the mountain.

F) The skin bag is the human body. Each of the body parts and elements refers to a particular human emotion. Therefore, if a person doesn’t tame the emotions, they will forever be a slave to their bodily desires.

G) Pilgrims on the journey to enlightenment create their own obstacles.

H) This refers back to the riddle that opens the novel (see part one):

I have a statue of Buddha, which nobody knows;
He needs no molding or carving;
Nor does he have any clay or color;
No human can draw him; no thief can steal him;
His appearance is originally natural,
And his clarity and purity are not the result of cleaning;
Though only one body,
He is capable of transforming himself into myriad forms (Liu, 1994, p. 22)

The answer to this riddle is “the Buddha is in the mind”. Liu (1994) considers Monkey’s above statement about being equal and even superior to the Buddha to be the most important passage in the entire book because it demonstrates “Buddhahood is inherent in everybody’s nature and everyone is capable of becoming the Buddha through self-cultivation” (Liu, 1994, p. 105).

[I] This refers to over reliance on the written word and spoken interpretations, a concept revisited many times throughout the novel.


1) These five qualities, or “Wuyun 五蘊 are the five mental and physical qualities or constituents (Sanskrit: skandhas), i.e. the components of an intelligent being, especially a human being” (Liu, 1994, p. 116, n. 47). This means the Buddha and Monkey are not human.

2) Emperor Muzong’s father, Xianzong, dies during the course of the journey.


Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

The Later Journey to the West: Part 2 – The Journey to India Begins

The main body of Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century) follows a similar trajectory as the parent novel, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (fig. 1) is tasked with traveling from China to India to retrieve spiritual knowledge from the Buddha, and just like Tripitaka, he is protected by three demonic disciples, namely Sun Luzhen (孫履真), the descendant of Sun Wukong, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), the son of Zhu Bajie, and Sha Zhihe (沙致和), the disciple of Sha Wujing. Along the way the group travels through many lands, battles numerous evils, and they eventually become enlightened Buddhas like their predecessors two hundred years prior. As noted in part one, Later Journey to the West may appear like a carbon copy of the original, but the similarities are only skin deep since the novel is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning. Below, I present the second of a three-part summary of the novel (part 3), which focuses on the journey proper. I rely very heavily on Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

Readers will notice letters of the alphabet at the end of particular sentences in the first two sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the third section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The Interpretation Pilgrim is chosen

After quelling his descendant’s rebellion, Sun Wukong travels eastward by cloud with Tripitaka to see how China has benefited from the scriptures delivered by them some two centuries in the past. However, they find that the monks of the Famen temple (Famen si, 法門寺) are not only falsely claiming to have holy relics from Tripitaka’s deceased human body, [1] but also that their leader is his sixth generation disciple and a master of the sutras. This influences Tang Emperor Xianzong (唐憲宗, r. 806-820) to donate heavily to the temple because he believes the dynasty will prosper once the pagoda containing the supposed relics is opened. The two lesser Buddhas return to the Western Paradise and report their findings to Gautama, who tells them that the Chinese will continue to misunderstand and misuse the teachings until they receive the “true interpretation”. The Enlightened One then charges Tripitaka with locating a pilgrim who will make the journey to India to retrieve this interpretation. [2]

In the meantime, the scholar-official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824) openly criticizes the emperor for his worship of the relics and his spendthrift support of the temple. For this he is exiled from Shaanxi province in the north to Guangdong province in the south, where he meets the Chan Buddhist Master Dadian. [3] Upon hearing of the decadent, misguided state of Buddhism near the capital, Dadian goes north and memorializes the emperor to give up his extravagant patronage of the religion. This show of integrity cements Tripitaka’s decision to choose the monk as his pilgrim. The lesser Buddha then magically seals away the scriptures, forcing the Emperor to send Dadian to India to retrieve the true interpretation.


Fig. 1 – A woodblock print of the monk Dadian.

II. The journey to India begins

(The novel has a total of 40 chapters. Liu (1994) only covers certain chapters from this point on since they contain the most allegorical meaning.)

Dadian acquires his demonic disciples during the early stage of his journey. First, he recites a magic spell taught to him by Tripitaka which calls Sun Luzhen to his side. Second, he recruits Zhu Yijie on the road after the pig is subdued by Monkey and made to follow the priest west. Third, Dadian accepts Sha Shihe as his last disciple after the water spirit saves him from a monster that had dragged him to the bottom of the Flowing Sands River.

Prior to Sha Shihe joining the group, Monkey, Dadian, and Yijie travel through the sister villages of Ge (葛, Creepers) and Teng (籐, Clinging Vines) which are both plagued by bottomless pits that appear and swallow untold numbers of people. [A] The elders of these respective villages tell the pilgrims that the source of this calamity is a demon known as King Defect (Quexian wang, 缺陷王) who lives on the Mountain of Imperfection (Buman, 不滿, lit: “not full”). The monster feeds on the negativity of people whom he curses with poverty, divorce, disease, etc., and those who don’t worship him are swallowed by the ground to be imprisoned forever. Luzhen retrieves a magic golden treasure from heaven that stops the demon from burrowing underground; however, when he flees into a cave, the pilgrims’ path is blocked by seemingly indestructible vines that regrow as soon as they are cut. But Monkey discovers the vines fail to grow if he cuts them while not talking. [B] The group follows suit and they are able to capture and kill the demon, who is revealed to be a badger spirit.

After passing the Flowing Sands River and bringing Sha Shihe into their fold, the group travels to the Mountain of Deliverance lorded over by King Deliverance (Jietuo wang, 解脫王). He and his demon generals maintain 72 chasms where humans fall prey to their desires (sex, money, alcohol, anger, etc.) and 36 pits where sinners are tortured. [C] During a battle with the demon army, Zhu Yijie resists promises of sex, food, and treasures offered by the generals, but lets his guard down due to flattery and is captured. [D] Tripitaka is captured by seven demons displaying a range of emotions from joy to hatred. [E] The monk clears his mind and falls into a deep meditative state undisturbed by the outside world. It is only when Monkey comes to his rescue that Tripitaka regains consciousness. [F] In the end, Luzhen manages to kill King Deliverance by crushing him under the weight of a huge boulder that he had transformed into an exact likeness of himself. This causes all of the generals and the chasms and pits to disappear. The author provides an explanatory couplet.

When the heart (mind) is active,
All kinds of demons come into existence;
When the heart (mind) is extinguished,
All kinds of demons disappear (Liu, 1994, p. 77).


Fig. 2 – The immortal Zhenyuanzi as depicted in the famous 1986 television series.

The pilgrims travel to the Temple of Five Villages (Wuzhuang guan, 五莊觀) in the Mountain of Longevity (Wanshou shan, 萬壽山), where they are met by the supreme immortal Zhenyuanzi (鎮元子) (fig. 2), the patriarch of all earthly immortals and a temporary adversary in chapters 24 to 26 of the original. Sensing that Monkey relies too heavily on his physical strength and not his spiritual strength, the immortal only allows Dadian to enter, leaving the others to sit outside for hours. To add further insult to injury, a young immortal page tells Luzhen that his master has decided to forsake the journey in order to study Daoism. This so enrages him that he bursts inside to confront Zhenyuanzi and is challenged to retrieve Dadian from the Mansion of Fiery Clouds (Huo yun lou, 火雲樓) in which the monk is drinking tea. But Monkey’s way is suddenly blocked by a supernatural flame, known as the “fire of the mind” (Xinhuo, 心火), that not even the rain of the Dragon Kings can extinguish. [G] He finally manages to extinguish the fire with the sweet dew from Guanyin’s holy willow sprig and retrieve his master. [H]

The group comes to an endless, ocean-like river and question how they will ever reach the “other side”. [I] They eventually take a derelict boat, but infighting between Dadian and the disciples coincides with a monstrous black storm that erupts overhead, producing powerful winds that blow them thousands of miles off course to the Rakshasa Kingdom (羅剎國). This land of monsters is ruled over by the Bull Demon King and Lady Iron Fan (fig. 3), adversaries from chapters 59 to 61 of the original. After learning of the pilgrims’ arrival, Lady Iron Fan sends an army of demon soldiers to capture them so she can exact revenge for perceived misdeeds by their predecessors. [4] Dadian once again enters meditation to avoid evil influences and is quickly rescued by Monkey. Luzhen attempts to save Yijie, who once again falls prey to temptation and is captured, but is stopped by a black whirlwind created by Black Boy (黑孩兒), the second son of the demonic couple. [J] Monkey is forced to retrieve a sutra from the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in the underworld. Upon reading the sutra, a magic red cloud appears and shines light on the kingdom, destroying all of the demons and leading the monks to freedom. [K]


Fig. 3 – An artist’s depiction of Lady Iron Fan and the Bull Demon King.

III. Allegory explained

A) These names refer to Geteng (葛籐, Creepers and Clinging Vines), a term used in Buddhist literature to refer to the net of desire that ensnares humans. Liu (1994) notes the Avadanas Scripture (Chuyao jing, 出曜經, late 5th to early 6th-cent.) contains two mentions of the term, one of which reads: “Entrapped in the net of desires, common people are bound to undermine the right (orthodoxy) way … like the creepers and vines which twine round a tree and eventually cause its death” (p. 70).

B) The aforementioned creepers and clinging vines also refer to Geteng Chan (葛籐禪, Wordy Chan/Zen), a term often applied “to people who resort to long-winded words or writings, rather than to their intuitive perceptions to grasp the essence of Buddhist principles” (Liu, 1994, p. 71). This love for speaking/writing is believed to hinder the path to enlightenment. This explains why the vines stop growing when Monkey stops talking. The group, in essence, frees themselves from Wordy Chan and relies more on intuition. This puts them one step closer to enlightenment.

C) The demon king and generals are physical embodiments of desires that keep people from attaining enlightenment.

D) This represents the consequence of temptation, no matter how small.

E) These demons represent the seven emotions of joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hate, and desire.

F) Dadian’s capture represents those who erroneously think meditation is simply sitting quietly instead of inner reflection and the examination of truths. His inability to focus his mind is the real reason for his capture. Monkey represents the mind, so his arrival allows the monk to regain consciousness. Therefore, this episode teaches one to focus the mind and thereby not fall prey to desires. This is yet another step closer to enlightenment.

G) This fire represents Sun Luzhen and Zhenyuanzi’s anger, which ignites when both enter into an argument. Anger is one of the emotions thought to inhibit enlightenment.

H) This liquid is referred to in Buddhist literature as being able to extinguish everything from desires to negative emotions. For example, Liu (1994) comments: “In a parable in Za baozang jing 雜寶藏經 (Sutra of Miscellaneous Treasures [5th-cent.]), the Buddha was said to use the Water of Wisdom to extinguish the Three Fires of Desire, Anger and Delusion” (Liu, 1994, p. 81). Therefore, the dew/water represents wisdom, or the ability to use reason and not become angry. The use of the dew causes Monkey to switch from knee jerk reaction to reason, as exemplified by this statement:

It was my mistake in the first place. I should not have quarreled with him to stir up his fire. Once his fire is stirred up [donghuo, 動火], my fire is stirred up too. I don’t know how long the fire will burn. This surely would cause delay in our master’s proper business (Liu, 1994, p. 80).

I) This ocean/river is a common metaphor in Buddhist literature referring to desire, and the “other side” refers to a life free from desire (Paramita), or achieving enlightenment. For example, Huineng (惠能, 638-713), the sixth Chan patriarch, says: “The perverted mind is the great sea and the passions are the waves … if the perverted mind is cast aside the ocean will dry up, and when the passions are gone the waves will subside” (Liu, 1994, p. 81).

J) The black whirlwind represents ignorance, or the Buddhist concept of Wuming (無明, darkness without illumination), and the demon kingdom represents the unenlightened mind that falls prey to its own demons (desire, ignorance, anger, etc.). The metaphors of the black whirlwind and demon kingdom are mentioned in the Collected Essentials of the Five Lamplight Histories (Wudeng huiyuan, 五燈會元, c. 1252), one of several accepted histories of Chan Buddhist orthodoxy in China (Liu, 1994, pp. 84-85).

K) The illuminated red cloud represents sudden enlightenment that sweeps away all ignorance and desire.


1) This is false within the novel’s fictional universe because Tripitaka attained living Buddhahood in chapter 100 of the original.

2) Tripitaka serves as Guanyin’s successor in this respect, for it was the Bodhisattva who recruited the “scripture pilgrim” in chapter 12.

3) Liu (1994) notes that this is based on actual history. Han Yu, who was a Confucian scholar and the Vice Minister of the Justice Department, “presented a memorial to the throne, denouncing Buddhism as an alien doctrine and criticizing the emperor for receiving and showing reverence for the ‘decayed and rotten bone’ of the Buddha” (pp. 63-64). So in this case it was a relic belonging to the Buddha and not Tripitaka. Han was actually sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to exile thanks to parties arguing on his behalf.

4) She wishes to exact her revenge because their predecessors, Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, were instrumental in the subjugation and reformation of her first son Red Boy by Guanyin.


Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

The Origin of Monkey’s Battle with Lord Erlang and its Ties to Han Dynasty Funerary Rites and Folklore

Did you know the battle between Monkey and Lord Erlang is tied to Han Dynasty funerary rights and folklore? Wu (1987) notes that, during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), the people of Sichuan often buried their dead in stone tombs decorated with brave heroes, such as archers and crossbowmen, and fierce animals, such as tigers and hounds. Regarding the latter, the canines are sometimes depicted attacking or intimidating apes, which were considered emblems of disease or bad luck (fig. 1). Therefore, by portraying the subjugation of such evil forces, the carvings are thought to have served the ritual function of protecting deceased loved ones from dark influences on their wayward journey to the afterlife (pp. 100-101).

The idea of dogs overcoming apes should bring to mind Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s loyal hound at the end of chapter six.

One recurring motif depicts an archer drawing his bow to fall an ape in a tree (fig. 2). This is based on a third-century BCE tale about the legendary Chu archer Yang Youji (養由基) shooting an elusive white ape held in the palace of the King of Jing. This in turn is based on an even older tale about the archer Yi (羿) bringing order to the primordial earth by killing nine of ten suns that took the form of monstrous crows. Han era tombs are known to portray Yi drawing a bow to shoot said birds flying around a tree, so it most likely influenced the motif of Yang shooting the ape in a tree (Wu, 1987, pp. 102-106). Despite his later connection with the three-pointed polearm, Erlang was also portrayed as an archer in early media.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Top left) A Han Dynasty tomb rubbing of oversized dogs intimidating apes (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Bottom left) A Han tomb decoration depicting an archer shooting at an ape (larger version). Fig. 3 – (Center bottom) The 13th-century painting depicting Erlang and his soldiers rounding up and executing ape demons. A captive ape can be seen on the bottom left between the two soldiers (larger version). Fig. 4 (Center right) A detail from the 15th-century painting showing the ape, his humanoid wives, and their gibbon-like children being rounded up (larger version). This section is located in the last four-fifths of the scroll. Fig. 5 – (Right) A detail showing Erlang near the front of the same scroll (larger version). His armor differs slightly from that of the 13th-century version. Also take note of how a young page holds his bow, while a spirit soldier bears his (slightly obscured) three-pointed polearm.


Lord Erlang was originally worshiped during the Han as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. His cult grew and absorbed other deities and heroes under his mantle. For instance, Wu (1987) writes:

The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country.

When the Er-lang cult became increasingly popular in Sichuan, the previous divine archers such as Yang Youji and Yi, (like many other legendary demon-quellers), were mologized into this new cult, and their defeat of an ape demon became an important part of the Er-lang legend. Er-lang’s traits in later stories and art works clearly disclose this transformation (pp. 107-108).

It should also be noted that Erlang was at some point associated with the historical engineer Li Bing (李冰, c. 3rd-cent. BCE) and the official Zhao Yu (趙昱, c. 6th/7th-cent CE), both of whom were worshipped for defeating flood demons (Wu, 1987, p. 107). I suggest this may have led to his cult being connected to that of Yu the Great (大禹), the flood-queller par excellence in Chinese folklore. This is important because Tang Dynasty legends state Yu battled a simian water demon and eventually imprisoned it under a mountain (see Andersen, 2001). Sound familiar? This may have been another avenue in which Erlang was associated with quelling ape demons.

One anonymous 13th-century album leaf ink painting portrays Erlang seated in a kingly fashion and watching as his spirit soldiers round up and execute ape demons (fig. 3). One anonymous 15th-century scroll painting reproduces the scene in color, along with other animal spirits (fig. 4 and 5). The image of the deity as a queller of ape monsters culminated in an anonymous Yuan-Ming Dynasty play called The God Er-lang Locks up the Ape-Demon “Great Sage-Equal to Heaven” (二郎神鎻齊天大聖, Er-lang Shen suo Qitian Dasheng). Much like JTTW, the god is sent to capture a magical primate, in this case an ape, who has stolen immortal food and wine from heaven. (Wu, 1987, pp. 108-109). This no doubt influenced Monkeys mischief in heaven and subsequent battle with the deity.

See also:


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under turtle mountain: The history and mythology of the Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Monkey’s Connection to Sex

“Monkey of the Mind” (xinyuan, 心猿) is a title often associated with Sun Wukong. It is one half of the common phrase “Monkey of the Mind, Horse of the Will” (xinyuan yima, 心猿意馬), which refers to the disquieted mind and uncontrollable wants that plague humankind. Allusions to the monkey of the mind appeared in Indian Buddhist sutras as far back as circa 30 BCE. The double metaphor of the monkey and horse appeared in religious and lay Chinese Buddhist writings by the sixth-century CE (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 168-169).

But did you know that by the 16th-century, when JTTW was written, the phrase had become a popular euphemism for sexual desire? Dudbridge (1970) provides an example from the famous novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen Yanyi, 封神演義):

In the lamplight [Zhou Wang] saw Ximei two or three times part her red lips—a little dot of cherry—and breathe a lovely cloud of sweet air; she turned her liquid eyes—two pools of moving water—and gave him all kinds of wanton glances, till Zhou Wang could not suppress the Monkey of the Mind, and the Horse of the Will strained at the leash… (p. 175).

Given Monkey’s connection to the phrase, Liu (1994) suggests the primate and his staff have a sexual dimension:

In the novel both Sun Wukong and his ‘Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod’ represent the human mind and desires, especially sexual desires, which must be under control, as indicated by the tightening fillet on Monkey King’s head and the two hoops on the magic weapon. Specifically, the rod is a symbol of the male sex organ… (pp. 142-143).

I’m not sure if I accept this agument given that Monkey doesn’t show any interest in sex even before attaining immortality. It is Zhu Bajie who suffers from sexual addiction in the novel. Nonetheless, I find Liu’s comparison hilarious, especially if you think about the growing of Monkey’s magic pole! Pardon me while I giggle like a teenage boy.


Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the west. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

The Later Journey to the West: Part 1 – Sun Luzhen’s Early Adventures

The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) spawned numerous unofficial sequels years after its publishing in 1592. One such sequel, titled Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記) by an anonymous author of the 17th-century, is set two hundred years after the original and follows the adventures of Sun Wukong’s spiritual descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真). He too learns the secrets of immortality and causes havoc in heaven, before being tasked to protect the historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) on a similar journey to India. The two are accompanied by the son of Zhu Bajie, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), and the disciple of Sha Wujing, Sha Zhihe (沙致和). This may at first seem like a cookie cutter retelling of the story, but it is so much more. Unlike the original, which only used allegorical terms for given characters, Later Journey to the West is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning, from the names of characters and the words they speak to the places they visit and the villains they face. Below, I present the first of a three-part overview (part 2 and part 3), which covers Sun Luzhen’s early adventures. I rely very heavily on the engaging work of Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

Readers will notice letters of the alphabet at the end of particular sentences in the first three sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the fourth section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The riddle

The novel begins with the following riddle:

I have a statue of Buddha, which nobody knows;
He needs no molding or carving;
Nor does he have any clay or color;
No human can draw him; no thief can steal him;
His appearance is originally natural,
And his clarity and purity are not the result of cleaning;
Though only one body,
He is capable of transforming himself into myriad forms (Liu, 1994, p. 22)

Liu notes that the answer is: “The Mind is none other than the Buddha” (ji xin ji fo, 即心即佛), a common Chan (Zen) Buddhist saying referring to self-enlightenment (Liu, 1994, p. 22). He continues:

The author uses the verse to announce the theme of his book and to prepare the reader for the mental or spiritual journey he is going to undertake through the experience of reading it […] [T]he novelist wants to make sure that the readers is aware of the allegorical nature of his various episodes and is ready to apply the same technique he would employ in solving a riddle to the reading of the novel, i.e. to go beyond the literal level of the text in order to find the solution or to decipher the intended message (Liu, 1994, p. 24).

II. Sun Luzhen’s early adventures

The story opens on the Flower Fruit Mountain (fig. 1), home of the original Monkey King and the axis mundi, or center of the cosmos through which all creative energies flow freely between heaven and earth. Our hero Sun Luzhen is born from a stone and, upon hearing of the adventures of Sun Wukong, takes the title “Small Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian xiaosheng, 齊天小聖). [A][1] He follows in his ancestor’s footsteps by sailing to the Aparagodaniya continent in a quest for immortality. There, he finds an immortal’s temple but is barred from meeting the patriarch by a Daoist monk until he has completed a number of tasks, including purifying himself in the Hall of Calming the Mind and the Hall of Nourishing the Breath, [B] taming a dragon and a tiger, [C] and visiting several locations, such as the Cinnabar Field and the Divine Mansion. [D] Monkey completes the purification rituals, but soon leaves the temple when he discovers the immortal cavorting with an old woman and two young maidens. [E]

Monkey leaves the temple and continues his search the world over for a worthy master, finding only false immortals and hypocritical monks along the way. [F] He returns to Flower Fruit Mountain determined to bring about his own immortality, and there the small stone monkey finds the “No-Leak” Cave (wulou dong, 無漏洞) on the backside of the mountain, making it his hermitage. [G] He meditates for forty-nine days before Sun Wukong appears in spirit, sharing with him magical formulas and eventually merging with him. This causes Monkey Jr. to realize: “The true master is after all in one’s own mind, but people don’t know where to look for him” (Liu, 1994, p. 38). [H]

Having achieved immortality, Sun Luzhen discovers his ancestor’s “as-you-wish” gold-banded cudgel in the cave and sets out to find additional ways of increasing his spiritual attainment. [2] First, he forces the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea and the Old Tiger King of the Western Mountains to respectively submit to his power. [I] Next, Monkey travels to the underworld below and uses his wits to prove the other worldly judgements of the ten magistrates of hell are unjust, making their rulings listed in the ledgers of life and death null and void. [J][3] Finally, the small stone monkey travels to the celestial realm above to visit the Jasper Pool, the abode of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母) (fig. 2). [K] He gets drunk on immortal wine and soon creates such a disturbance that the August Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, calls up the celestial army to deal with the menace. The Small Sage is too powerful, and so the emperor enlists the help of the Great Sage, now an enlightened Buddha (fig. 3), [4] to halt his descendant’s onslaught. [L][5]

Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A depiction of Flower Fruit Mountain from a modern video game (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Center) A Ming Dynasty painting of the Queen Mother of the West riding a stone lion (larger version). Fig. 3 – (right) A live action depiction of Sun Wukong after attaining Buddhahood (larger version).


III. Sun Luzhen’s enlightenment

Sun Wukong arrives and soon deprives the small stone monkey of the magic iron staff, and when the latter complains that he won’t be able to defend himself, Monkey Sr. tells him: “It is already in your ear [where he used to hide the magically reduced weapon]. How can I give it back to you?” (Liu, 1994, p. 50). [M] This Chan gong’an (Zen koan) instantly brings about Sun Luzhen’s enlightenment. Before returning to the Western Paradise, the Great Sage places the golden fillet on his head and instructs him:

There is a limit to brute force,
But Wisdom and courage are boundless;
If you fail to achieve the right fruition,
You will forever be a wild immortal. (Liu, 1994, p. 49)

Liu explains the significance of the verse:

In the poem Sun Wukong tells his descendant to resort to wisdom and courage, rather than brute force, to achieve this goal. This teaching is borne out by the fact that it is not the celestial army but Sun Wukong who subdues Monkey with his enlightening words. But more important is the message conveyed in the last two lines. Though Monkey has obtained physical immortality, he is still a yexian 野仙 (wild immortal), because he is unable to quench his desires and emotions […] According to Chan Buddhist doctrine of wunian 無念 (no-thought), man’s original nature is pure and free from all thoughts and passions. In the first section of the novel, Monkey tries a Taoist approach in his effort to seek immortality. Though he succeeds through Taoist meditation in calming his mind and in realizing his self-nature, his desire for immortality and his practice of internal alchemy, symbolized by his celestial adventures, violate the Chan Buddhist principle of non-attachment, and are therefore considered “wild” and “unorthodox” by Buddhist ontological non-dualism. The completion of the Taoist physiological alchemy is only the beginning of a self-cultivation process for the hero whose ultimate goal … is to accomplish zhenguo 正果 (right or orthodox fruition), i.e. to achieve the Buddhahood inherent in one’s own nature, through the journey proper to the Holy Mountain in the Western Paradise. (Liu, 1994, p. 49)

IV. Allegory explained

A) Just like Sun Wukong in JTTW, Sun Luzhen represents the “Monkey of the Mind” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddhist metaphor for the restlessness of the human mind/heart (the character of xin (心) can mean both) (Liu, 1994, pp. 27-28).

B) These represent the early stages of spiritual cultivation, namely meditation and the regulation of breathing. The latter involves absorption of yang energy during prescribed times of the day.

C) These animals represent yin and yang energy, respectively. So taming said animals refers to a mastery of said energies.

D) These represent areas of the body, namely a region just below the navel and the upper region of the head, respectively. See J below.

E) These people represent Daoist terms associated with sexual cultivation, a type of internal cultivation popular during the Han dynasty but fell out of favor by the Ming when the novel was written (Liu, 1994, pp. 35-37).

F) These people represent the wrong path to enlightenment, including non-Chan Buddhist sects and even Daoism.

G) The name represents the Buddhist concept of Anasrava and the Daoist concept of Wulou (無漏)/Loujin (漏盡), or the cessation of emotional outpouring (or leaking) upon achieving enlightenment (Liu, 1994, p. 38).

H) This represents self-realization.

I) This follows the Daoist monk’s instructions to tame a dragon and a tiger. This again represents his mastery of yin and yang energies.

J) This represents Monkey’s status as an immortal who is beyond the reach of death. I believe the downward journey symbolically follows the Daoist monk’s instructions to visit the Cinnabar Field, an area of the body below the navel normally associated with the storage of spiritual and sexual energy. Although Liu does not say this explicitly, he does comment: “According to the Taoist microcosmic view, the human body [has] features corresponding to the cosmic universe […] For example, the Celestial Palace … and the Jasper Pool are not only the heavenly residence of the Jade Emperor and the Mother Queen [of the west], but also terms referring to the upper regions of the head” (Liu, 1994, p. 45). See K below.

K) Going to heaven represents the upward propulsion of energy to the head, the last step in achieving immortality.

L) As the ruler of heaven, the August Jade Emperor represents the Primary Spirit (yuanshen, 元神), or the original pure spirit that everyone is born with. This is also known as the “Heavenly Mind/Heart” (tianxin, 天心). Therefore, Monkey’s rebellion represents the attempt of the “Conscious Spirit or the Heart of Blood and Flesh” at usurping the spiritual mind before all attachments are extinguished upon enlightenment (Liu, 1994, pp. 47-48).

M) This represents one’s own internal or spiritual strength.


1) This mirrors the title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) taken by Sun Wukong in chapter 4 of JTTW.
2) Daoism recognizes up to five categories of immortality, each increasing in spiritual attainment from the last: 1. Ghost; 2. Human; 3. Earthly; 4. Divine; and 5. Heavenly (Liu, 1994, p. 55, n. 36).
3) This contrasts with Sun Wukong who used force to erase his name (and those of all other monkeys living at that time) from the ledgers of life and death (see chapter 3 of JTTW).
4) Monkey Sr. is granted Buddhahood, along with the title “Buddha Victorious in Strife” in chapter 100 of JTTW.
5) Sun Luzhen’s drunken episode, havoc in heaven, and subjugation by a Buddha recalls the adventures of his ancestor from chapters 4 to 7 of JTTW.


Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

Modern Depictions of Sha Wujing’s Weapon and its Origins

Last updated: 05/15/2018

Sha Wujing (沙悟淨), or “Sandy” for short, is commonly portrayed in modern media wielding a Crescent Moon Spade (Yueya chan, 月牙鏟, a.k.a. “Monk’s Spade“), a wooden polearm capped with a sharpened spade on one end and a crescent-shaped blade on the other (fig. 1). But did you know that the character never wields such a weapon in the novel? Chapter 22 contains a poem that describes his actual weapon and its pedigree. A section of it reads:

For years my staff has enjoyed great fame,
At first an evergreen tree in the moon.
Wu Gang [1] cut down from it one huge limb:
Lu Ban [2] then made it, using all his skills.
Within the hub [is] one solid piece of gold:
Outside it’s wrapped by countless pearly threads.
It’s called the treasure staff for crushing fiends
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, Vol. 1, p. 428)

As you can see it is described as a wooden staff devoid of any metal blades. So how did Sandy become associated with the Monk’s spade? It can be traced to a common motif appearing in late Ming Dynasty woodblock prints. Sha Wujing is just one of a number of famous literary staff-wielding monks to be portrayed brandishing a polearm topped with a small crescent shape (fig. 2). Others include Huiming (惠明) from the Story of the Western Wing (Xixiangji, 西廂記, c. 1300) (fig. 3) and Lu Zhishen (魯智深) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (fig. 4) (Shahar, 2008, p. 97).

#12 - Sha Wujing pics for blog entry

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sandy wielding a Monk’s Spade (larger version). Fig. 2 – A late Ming Dynasty print of Sha Wujing with the crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 3 – A 1614 woodblock print of Monk Huiming with a crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 4 – A late Ming woodblock of Lu Zhishen with a crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 5 – Sha Wujing from Ehon Saiyuki (circa 1806) (larger version). Fig. 6 – Sha from Xiyou yuanzhi (1819) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail from a Long Corridor painting (circa 1890) (larger version).

The exact origin or purpose of the blade is unknown, however. Martial historian Meir Shahar (2008) comments:

Future research may determine the origins of the crescent shape, which is visible in some Ming period illustrations of the staff. Here I will mention only that an identical design is common in a wide variety of twentieth-century martial arts weapons, whether or not they are wielded by Buddhist clerics. The crescent’s significance in contemporary weaponry can be gauged by its appearance in the names of such instruments as the “Crescent-Shaped (Yueya) [Monk’s] Spade,” “Crescent-Shaped Spear,” “Crescent-Shaped Battle-ax,” and “Crescent-Shaped Rake” (pp. 97-98).

A woodblock print appearing in the first section of Journey to the West Illustrated (Ehon Saiyuki, 画本西遊記), published in 1806, depicts Sandy holding a staff with a large crescent blade (fig. 5), showing how the once small accent had been enlarged by this time to become a more prominent feature of the polearm. This same weapon is echoed in a print from The Original Intent of The Journey to the West (Xiyou yuanzhi, 西遊原旨, 1819) (fig. 6), as well as in multiple circa 1890 JTTW-related paintings from the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace in Beijing (fig. 7, for example). So Ming depictions of Sha Wujing wielding a crescent-tipped staff were most likely associated with the Monk’s Spade due to their physical similarities, and this probably took place no earlier than the early 20th-century.

Update: 02-25-2018

Unlike Sha Wujing, there is a monster in the novel who wields a Crescent Moon spade. Chapter 63 describes the Nine-Headed Beast (Jiutou chong, 九頭蟲), [3] the son-in-law of a dragon king, using such a bladed polearm in a battle against Monkey:

Enraged, Pilgrim shouted, “You brazen thievish fiend! What power do you have that you dare mouth such big words? Come up here and have a taste of your father’s rod!” Not in the least intimidated, the son-in-law parried the blow with his crescent-tooth spade; a marvelous battle thus broke out on top of that Scattered-Rock Mountain (Wu & Yu, 2012, Vol. 3, p. 183).

There existed during the Ming Dynasty a military spade with a crescent blade on the top and a dagger-like blade on the bottom (武備志 (四十三) , n.d.) (fig. 8). This is most likely the weapon used by the monster. Notice the similarities with figures five to seven. It’s easy to see how the crescent-tipped staff from the Ming woodblock prints could have later been associated with this military weapon. The difference is one of degree and not kind. This polearm was later modified into the modern Monk’s Spade, leading to depictions of Sha Wujing wielding the weapon.

Ming Era Crescent Moon Spade

Fig. 8 – A Crescent Moon Spade from the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (larger version).


Update: 05-15-2018

Feng Dajian of Nankai University was kind enough to direct me to this Ming-era woodblock print (fig. 9) by Shide tang (世德堂本), the original publisher of Journey to the West. Sandy’s staff is more evident in the piece. It even lacks the aforementioned crescent shape.

Shide tang print (Sandy vs Pigsy) - Small

Fig. 9 – Ming-era Shide tang print of Sandy vs Pigsy (larger version).


1) An Immortal of the Han Dynasty.

2) The god of builders.

3) Anthony Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the name as “Nine-Headed Insect”, but the creature’s true form is that of a monstrous reptilian bird (vol. 3, p. 184). While chong (蟲) usually means “insect, worm, or pest”, it can also mean “tiger”. Da chong (大蟲, “great beast”) is the name of the tiger killed by Wu Song in the Water Margin (c. 1400) (Børdahl, 2007). So a better name for our villain would be “Nine-Headed Beast”.


Børdahl, V. (2007). The Man-Hunting Tiger: From “Wu Song Fights the Tiger” in Chinese Traditions. Asian Folklore Studies, 66(1/2), 141-163. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press.

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

武備志 (四十三) . (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2018, from

The Connection Between Monkey’s Staff, Yu the Great, and Flood Control

Last updated: 02/06/21

Have you ever wondered why Monkey’s staff was stored in the underwater palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, or why it was associated with Yu the Great? The weapon is most likely based on a number of native Chinese mythic and historical iron objects.

First and foremost is a famous Chinese story concerning the immortal Xu Xun (a.k.a. Xu Jingyang, 239-374) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Xu was a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province considered a paragon of filial piety. Popular stories describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century story titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace” describes how the immortal chained the patriarch of the flood dragons to an iron tree that he had constructed and submerged it into a well, thus blocking the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm (Feng, 2005, pp. 673-744). Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 1) (Little, Eichman, & Ebrey, 2000, pp. 314-317). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

There are numerous historical examples of iron objects from the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-13th cent.) being used to control water. Tang official Li Deyu (787-848) erected the great Iron Pagoda on Mt. Beigu in Jiangsu “in order to subdue the tidal waves of the [Yangzi] river” (Andersen, 2001, p. 72). Iron oxen, such as the one by Pujin Bridge in southern Shanxi, were cast during the Tang and Song dynasties and placed along river banks, some serving as bridge anchors or possibly Daoist altar pieces. The thought was that the oxen would ward off flood waters. The first iron oxen is said, according to legend, to have been created by Yu the Great to ward off future floods. Yu is connected to other iron figures placed in or near flowing bodies of water (Andersen, 2001, pp. 73-75; Cast Iron Recumbent Ox, n.d.). Small statues of the monkey-like river spirit Wuzhiqi (無支祁) were submerged in rivers in southern China during the Song (fig. 2). The spirit is mentioned in Tang-Song records as being a fiery-eyed beast known to cause devastating floods, so Yu trapped the creature under Turtle Mountain (Andersen, 2001). This story has obvious parallels with Monkey’s fiery eyes and imprisonment under the Five Elements mountain.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting Xu the immortal overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement in a well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version). Fig. 2 – A Song Dynasty iron figurine of the monkey river spirit Wuzhiqi (larger version).


The 88th chapter of JTTW notes that the staff was created by Yu the Great to aid in his legendary quest to quell the fabled world flood:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 201)

As previously noted, Five Elements Theory dictates that metal has dominion over water. Therefore, an iron pillar would have been the best tool for controlling vast bodies of water, including the Eastern Ocean. This explains why the pillar was in the dragon treasury. The connection between Yu and Monkey comes in the form of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi tale.

The pillar has ties to two literary precursors of Sun’s staff appearing in the earliest known edition of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 13th-century). Our hero uses an iron staff borrowed from the Queen Mother of the West and a Golden Ringed Monk’s staff given to him by the Mahabramha Deva, king of the gods. One chapter sees the latter being changed into a “gigantic yaksha whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth” in order to fight a demon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). The transformative powers of the monk’s staff was eventually grafted onto the iron staff to create the current incarnation of Monkey’s staff. These powers were, in effect, transferred to the pillar, giving it the ability to grow or shrink to any size. This is why the novel states Yu used the pillar as a ruler to set the depths of the rivers and oceans.

Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

Cast Iron Recumbent Ox – X.0518. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2016, from…ntOxX0518.html

Feng, M. (2005). Stories to caution the world: A Ming dynasty collection. (S. Yang & Y. Yang Trans.). University of Washington Press (Original work published 1624)

Little, S., Eichman, S., & Ebrey, P. B. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Deciphering the Inscription on the Monkey King’s Staff

Last updated: 02/06/21

This is the third and final installment in my investigation of the history of the Monkey King’s staff from the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The previous two articles discussed historical staves and an imperial monument that may have influenced the weapon. The current piece will focus on the name of the staff, the “As-you-wish gold-banded cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒). This title comes from an inscription appearing on the pole. As the novel states: “There was a line of inlaid writing near the end which said that it was ‘The As-you-wish Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 13,500 Catties’” (17,550 lbs / 7,960 kg) (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). [1] The significance of the gold bands (jinggu, 金箍) was discussed in the first article, so it will not be covered here. This leaves “As-you-wish” (ruyi, 如意) and “Weight: 13,500 catties” (zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 重一萬三千五百斤). In this paper, I will trace the origin of each concept and tie them back to Chinese literature, history, and religion. As always, I hope this will be of interest to layman and researchers.

Stating the weight of a weapon follows a tradition in Chinese Military Romance literature in which great heroes brandish heavy polearms and blades. For example, in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi, 三國演義, 14th-century), General Guan Yu (關羽) is said to have a glaive weighing 82 catties (107 lbs. / 48.5 kg). [2] This is referenced in a subsequent novel set hundreds of years later entitled the Water Margin (Shuihu Zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). In the story, the bandit-turned-Buddhist monk Lu Zhishen (魯智深) asks a blacksmith to make him a monk’s staff (chanzhang, 禪杖, lit: Chan staff) weighing 100 catties (130 lbs. / 59 kg). But when the latter refuses on the grounds that not even the legendary general would be able to lift it, Lu asks for a staff weighing just as much as Guan’s polearm (here stated as 81 catties) to prove his equal. After some minor bickering, the two finally settle on a more reasonable 62 catties (81 lbs. / 37 kg). [3] The ability of these heroes to efficiently wield such weapons sets them apart from normal humans. Likewise, the extraordinary weight of Monkey’s staff sets him apart from his lowly human counterparts. He is after all a transcendent immortal capable of supernatural feats of strength. This then might explain the number appearing on the staff. Thirteen thousand five hundred is divisible by nine, which Chinese numerology considers to represent “infinity”. [4] So it’s possible the number (infinity multiplied) was meant to convey that the staff was heavy beyond comprehension, something that only a divine hero such as Monkey would be able to wield.

Fig. 1 – Ruyi scepter from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) (larger version). Image found here.

“As-you-wish” (ruyi如意), originates with a ritual scepter of that name shaped like an arching snake with a head in the form of a lingzhi mushroom (靈芝, a.k.a., “fungus of immortality”) (fig. 1). They are often seen carried by emperors and Buddhist and Daoist deities in Chinese art. Prior to the 10th-century, the scepter was closely associated with the Bodhisattva Manjusri (Wenshu, 文殊) and his famous debate with the householder Vimalakirti (Weimojie, 維摩詰). [5] Engravings of the event show him holding the object in the form of a tanbing (談柄), or “discussion stick”, an elongated, shoe horn-shaped wand historically used by religious and secular groups to designate the right to speak before an assembly (similar in function to the Native American “talking stick”) (fig. 2). [6] This implement was sometimes portrayed with vegetal features. For instance, a Chinese stele from the 6th-century shows Manjusri debating while holding a sprig (fig. 3). [7] J. Leroy Davidson suggests that this type of scepter has its origin in an Indian Buddhist Jataka tale in which a group of royal sisters use branches to initiate debates with suitors and Buddhist priests. [8] The term ruyi comes from the “wish-fulfilling” Kalpavriksha tree of Hindu mythology. [9] This is suggested by a Chinese source from the 7th-century which notes that, during the celebration of Upavasatha, [10] lay hosts often gifted “ruyi shu” (如意樹), or “As-you-wish trees” (no doubt saplings or branches), to Indian Buddhist priests [11]. It’s possible that these gifts served as unofficial symbols of the priests’ authority and combined with the aforesaid tradition of debating with branches. This would explain why an instrument of debate would carry the ruyi title.

Upon entering China with Buddhism, this symbol of authority was adopted by the upper echelons of society. [12] Early records describe emperors, generals, and ministers wielding the object as a means to assert or signify their power. For instance, during the Jin Dynasty (265–420), the court official Shi Chong (石崇, 249–300) used a metal ruyi to smash a coral tree, an imperial gift belonging to a rival aristocrat. [13] Jin General Xie Wan (謝萬, 320–361) used the object to point at his captains and direct his orders to them. [14]. General Wei Rui (韋叡, 442–520) of the Liang Dynasty (502–557) took this one step further and directed his troops in battle with a bamboo scepter. [15] Legend states that Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535) Emperor Xiaowen (孝文, 467–499) placed a bone ruyi (among other items) before his sons; the boy who chose it became his heir because it signified the right to rule. [16] During a time of war, Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝, 464–549) gave one of his generals a ruyi because, as one scholar suggests, it was sure to bring him victory in battle. [17]

Fig. 2 – Examples of tanbing-style ruyi from 8th-century Japan (larger version). Due to slow culture transmission, these could be reminiscent of early Chinese scepters. Fig. 3 – Manjusri holding a sprig while debating Vimalakirti. Detail from a Chinese Buddhist stele dated 533–543 (larger version).

Due to its historical association with military command, Literati ignorant of the scepter’s original function as an instrument of religious debate and authority came to consider the ruyi a type of weapon. For example, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) archaeologist Zhao Xigu (趙希鵠, c. 1195–post 1242) described the object as an iron club used for self-defense: “The men of old used the Ruyi for pointing or indicating the way, and also for guarding themselves against the unforeseen. It was made of wrought iron, and was over two feet in length…” [18] Zhao’s words were later echoed by the art collector Wen Zhenheng (文震亨, 1585–1645) during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). [19] The concept of an “As-you-wish” iron club used for self-defense no doubt influenced monkey’s staff. This is especially true since Wen shows the idea was current during the time that the Ming version of the novel was published.

So how did the scepter come to have its signature serpentine curve and ornate head? J. Leroy Davidson believes this is a simple case of misidentification. He cites material from the Song Dynasty concerning people digging up a “a bronze box in which was a white ruyi decorated with motives of a dragon and tiger”. [20] Davidson suggests this archaeological artifact was actually a belt hook commonly worn during the Zhou and Han Dynasties (11th-c. BCE to 3rd-c. CE). Said hooks have an S-shaped curve and the accompanying buckles are often decorated with real and imagined creatures like those mentioned above (fig. 4 and 5). [21] It’s easy to see then how ancient belt buckles—perhaps the features weathered by time—could have been confused with a mushroom.

Fig. 4 – A profile comparison of a Han-era belt hook (top) and a ruyi (bottom) (larger version). Fig. 5 – A Han belt buckle featuring a dragon (larger version).

Just like the Vedic Soma and the Greek Ambrosia, the Chinese also had a magical, life-prolonging substance which they called Zhi (芝). [22] The Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji, 史記, c. 90 BCE) mentions that the emperors Qin Shihuangdi (秦始皇帝, 260–210 BCE) and Han Wudi (漢武帝, 156–87 BCE) sent thousands of men over many years in search of magical islands housing this immortal herb. [23] It was during the time of the latter that the substance was equated with lingzhi (靈芝, Ganoderma), a genus of spade-shaped mushroom with a lacquered appearance (fig. 6). [24] This fungus became the subject of esoteric texts starting from the Han Dynasty, many of which are now lost. Drawing on these extinct texts, the Daoist adept Ge Hong (葛洪, 283–343) was the first to classify the lingzhi into five major types. [25] Methods For Planting the Zhi Plants (Zhong zhicao fa, 種芝草法), a late Six Dynasties (220–589) text attributed to the Daoist god Laozi (老子), details how to seed this magical fungus by burying precious substances, such as gold or cinnabar, on a mountain side during solstices and equinoxes. [26] Originally written during the Song Dynasty, a Ming edition of Classification of Supreme Numinous Treasure Mushrooms (Taishang lingbao zhicao pin, 太上靈寶芝草品) lists one hundred twenty-six different kinds of immortality-bestowing fungi. It’s important to note that this text became part of the official Daoist Canon (Daozang, 道藏) during the mid-15th-century. [27] This means immortal mushrooms are a central tenet of Daoism.

Fig. 6 – A lingzhi mushroom (larger version).

Daoism adopted the ruyi centuries prior to the Song Dynasty when the lingzhi mushroom was associated with the scepter. [28] It was one of the few ritual objects permitted Daoist monks living in medieval Chinese monasteries. [29] In fact, one early Tang Dynasty text states that it is among the items that “are essential for all Daoists, whether male or female, when they present offerings”. [30] Possibly taking a cue from Buddhist depictions of Manjusri, Daoists of the Tang began to depict some of their supreme deities with the scepter. For example, a late 7th- or early 8th-century statue of Laozi depicts him holding a straight tanbing-style ruyi (fig. 7). [31] After the lingzhi imagery was absorbed into the scepter, it became closely associated with the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao Tianzun, 靈寶天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing, 三清), a trinity representing different aspects of the Dao (道). A 14th-century woodblock print depicts this deity holding a large mushroom ruyi—called by one scholar “his principle attribute”—while sitting on a heavenly throne surrounded by a sea of celestial beings (fig. 8). [32] The scepter was later associated with other Daoist deities during the Ming. [33] Therefore, the long association of the ruyi with Daoist immortals explains why Monkey would come to wield such an instrument with that name.

Fig. 7 – A late-7th- or early-8th-century statue of Laozi holding a straight tanbing-style ruyi (larger version). Fig. 8 – A 14th-century woodblock print depicting the Celestial Worthy holding a linzhi ruyi (larger version). Fig. 9 – Detail of a Cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl” (larger version).

Unlike their Daoist counterparts, Buddhists during the Tang looked upon the scepter as a somewhat base object. For example, although he listed it as a “lecture baton”, the monk Daoxuan (道璿, 702–760), an expert on monastic law, placed the ruyi in the same category as non-ritual items like satchels and spittoons. Furthermore, he described it as being one of the objects not among the “tools of the way”. [34] Sources from this time and the Song Dynasty equate the object with a simple backscratcher. [35] This shows that the ruyi lost any association that it may have had with wish-granting (as the term implies) upon entering China. So how did it regain its magic properties? This probably happened because it was equated with the Buddhist Cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl” (fig. 9). [36] This is suggested by the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term, Ruyi zhu (如意珠). [37] The association between the two was surely established by the Ming as Monkey’s staff has the magical ability to grow or shrink according to his wishes. [38] This is best exemplified by a poem appearing in Chapter seven of Journey to the West:

A spirit beam filling the supreme void—
That’s how the rod behaves accordingly.
It lengthens or shortens as one would wish;
Upright or prone, it grows or shrinks at will. [39]

The magic powers of the staff may be based on a weapon appearing in the earliest version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話). In this 13th-century adaptation, our protagonist changes a ringed monk’s staff into a “gigantic yaksha whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth”. [40] This means that the Song and Ming Dynasty versions of the staff both have the ability to change their size and shape as Monkey wishes. I suggested in the second article that the initial description of the weapon in chapter one as a giant pillar of black iron is based on the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi, a religio-political Indian monument of the 4th-century. A warrior wishing to wield such a pillar would naturally need to shrink it down. Therefore, the “wish-granting” ruyi concept was probably associated with the shape-changing abilities of the ringed monk’s staff and applied to monkey’s signature iron weapon.

In conclusion, the inscription on Monkey’s staff stands as a microcosm of Chinese literature, history, and religion. The weight harkens back to Yuan and Ming (13th-c. to 17th-c. CE) Military Romance literature in which great heroes are distinguished from normal humans by their ability to brandish extremely heavy weapons. Monkey’s ability to wield a staff weighing nearly nine tons elevates him above his human counterparts as a divine hero with herculean strength. The ruyi (如意) concept is much older and can be traced back to ancient India. The term is based on the Kalpavriksha, or “wish-granting” tree, of Hindu mythology. This element of Hindu culture was absorbed by Indian Buddhism and mixed with a separate tradition to become a symbol of religious debate and authority. Upon entering China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), this branch was stylized into a tanbing (談柄), or “Discussion Stick”, which later became the emblem of the Bodhisattva Manjusri. It was simultaneously adopted by aristocrats and military commanders in subsequent dynasties as a sign of their secular power. The object attained its current S-shape and ornate head during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) when historical archaeologists happened upon ancient Chinese belt hooks and buckles from the Zhou and Han Dynasties (11th-c. BCE–3rd-c. CE) and confused them for such scepters.

There are three reason for the ruyi term being applied to Sun Wukong’s magic weapon. First, due to its historical association with military commanders, literati during the Song and Ming Dynasties came to look upon the object as an iron club used for self-defense. This would be perfect for protecting Monkey’s Buddhist master Xuanzang (玄奘) during their journey to India. Second, the head of the scepter was associated with the immortality-bestowing lingzhi mushroom (靈芝) during the Song Dynasty and became the emblem of the highest gods of Daoism, most notably the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (靈寶天尊). This makes the ruyi an excellent weapon for an immortal macaque possessed of Daoist magic. Third, the scepter was equated with the Buddhist Cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl”; this was associated with the magic, shape-changing abilities of a literary precursor of the weapon. Hence, the Ming version of Monkey’s pole gained the ability to magically shrink or grow according to his wishes. So, in the end, we see that both Monkey and his staff straddle the Buddhist and Daoist religions.

Update: 01/05/2015

I suggested in the above entry that the ruyi may have been equated with the Buddhist cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl”. Well, I just noticed that the lingzhi-style scepter held by the Celestial Worthy from figure 8 appears to have a flaming pearl attached to it (fig. 9).

Fig. 9 – Enhanced version of the Celestial Worthy’s lingzhi ruyi scepter with a flaming pearl (larger version).

If it really is a Cintamani, this shows the association between the two happened by at least the 14th-century. This probably happened earlier considering iconography takes time to become standardized. I’ve found at least one other Chinese painting featuring a flaming pearl ruyi. A Ming work titled “The Lady of the Highest Primordial and the Empress of Earth” (c. 1600) features an attendant of the second deity holding the object (fig. 10).

Fig. 10 – Detail of the attendant (larger version).

Update: 01/06/2015

A prime example of the relationship between the ruyi and the cintamani comes in the form of a 16th-century statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音). The deity is usually associated with the flaming pearl, but this statue depicts her holding a scepter (fig. 11). H.A. van Oort comments: “In the mind of the artist, the scepter could well have replaced the cintamani, the “wish-fulfilling jewel”; in that case the statue is a very free interpretation of the Ju-i Kuan-yin [Ruyi Guanyin, 如意觀音], or Cintamani Avalokitesvara, the Kuan-yin with the wish-fulfilling pearl”. [41]

Fig. 11 – Guanyin holding a ruyi scepter (larger version).

Update: 08/16/2020

I’ve written an article suggest the ruyi/lingzhi mushroom influenced the shape of Wukong’s curlicue-style headband.

Update: 02/06/2021

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


[1] Wu Cheng’en and W.J.F. Jenner, Journey to the West (Vol. 1). [S.l.]: Foreign Languages Press, 2001), 56. Text altered slightly. Compare with Anthony C. Yu’s translation: “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod” (Wu Cheng’en and Anthony C. Yu, The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 135). I prefer the former. Both translations use the word “pounds”; however, the Chinese version of the novel uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (New Haven (Conn.): Yale University P, 2004), 491 n. 133). This means 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs.
[2] Luo Guanzhong and Moss Roberts, Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 27.
[3] Shi Naian, Guanzhong Luo, and Sidney Shapiro, Outlaws of the Marsh (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1988), 94-95.
[4] Patricia Bjaaland Welch, Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub, 2008), 230.
[5] The Vimalakirti Sutra (c. 100) tells of how the Buddha chose Manjusri to call upon the malingering householder whom no other disciple wanted to visit due to his supernatural intellect. He and Vimalakirti debate Buddhist doctrine before a crowd of celestial onlookers until they realize that they are both equally versed in the dharma (Burton Watson, The Vimalakirti Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)). For Manjusri’s association with the Ruyi scepter, see J. Leroy Davidson, “The Origin and Early Use of the Ju-i,” Artibus Asiae 13, no. 4 (1950): 240. The aforementioned sutra was not translated into Chinese until the 5th-century, so this means the ruyi became associated with the deity rather quickly.
[6] Davidson, 241-242. Medieval Chinese dictionaries refer to the ruyi as a type of backscratcher, the idea being that it can reach the areas that “one wishes” (Ibid, 239; John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 142).
[7] Ibid, 245. See plate IV for examples of 8th-century ruyi scepters from Japan shaped like Bamboo stalks.
[8] Ibid, 246. Davidson cites a hard to find book that is long out of print. I located an archived scan of the publication online. See “A Manual of Buddhism, in Its Modern Development (1853).” Internet Archive. Accessed December 17, 2014. The story appears on page 255.
[9] Davidson, 246. Various Puranas state that such trees arose during the churning of the ocean of milk. The gods allowed humans to wish for whatever their hearts desired until they started asking for evil things. The trees were then transported to heaven beyond the reach of man (Roshen Dalal, Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2010), 189).
[10] A day of religious observance in which the Buddhist lay community renews their commitment to the Eightfold Path. Buddhist priests are invited into homes to help with this process (Yijing, F. Max Müller, and Junjirō Takakusu, A Record of the Buddhist Religion As Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), 35 n. 1).
[11] Davidson, 246-247.
[12] John Kieschnick believes the ruyi is a strictly Chinese invention (Kieschnick, 138-152). I, however, find Davidson’s arguments for an Indian origin more compelling.
[13] Joseph Edkins. “The Ju-i, or, Sceptre of Good fortune”. The East of Asia Magazine III (1904), 238. For a complete translation of the story, see John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau, Classical Chinese Literature: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 671-672.
[14] Edkins, 238.
[15] Ibid, 239.
[16] Ibid. See also Kieschnick, 144. Kieschnick refers to him by his temple name Gaozu. I have used his reign name to avoid confusion with other similarly named emperors from subsequent dynasties.
[17] Edkins, 239.
[18] Berthold Laufer, Jade: A Study in Chinese Archaeology and Religion (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1912), 336 n. 1. Text altered slightly. Laufer describes the ruyi as a blunt sword, but the available information makes the object sound more like a club.
[19] He writes: “The ruyi was used in ancient times to give directions or to protect oneself from the unexpected. It was for this reason that it was made of iron, and not on the basis of strictly aesthetic considerations…” (Kieschnick, 151).
[20] Davidson, 249. Text altered slightly.
[21] Ibid.
[22] R. Gordon Wasson and Joseph Needham both suggested that Zhi was actually based on Indian stories of Soma (Paul U. Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 112.
[23] Sima Qian and Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian (Vol. 2) (Hong Kong: Columbia University Press, 1993), 14-15 and 45-46. Despite its association with mushrooms, some texts refer to it as a type of grass or herb (Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), 173-174.
[24] Xiao Tong, Wen Xuan or Selections of Refined Literature (Vol. 3) (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), 201.
[25] These are stone zhi (石芝), wood zhi (木芝), plant zhi (草芝), flesh zhi (肉芝), and mushroom zhi (菌芝) (Fabrizio Pregadio, The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 2) (London: Routledge, 2008), 1273).
[26] Ibid.
[27] Stephen Little and Shawn Eichman, Taoism and the Arts of China (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000), 340.
[28] The association with the lingzhi, however, may have been as early as the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Yan Liben’s (閻立本, 600–673) “The Thirteen Emperors” painting features a monarch holding a straight tanbing-style ruyi with the head in the shape of a lingzhi. Although, the scalloped perimeter could denote a cloud. See “The Thirteen Emperors.” Digital Scrolling Paintings Project. Accessed December 23, 2014.
[29] Livia Kohn, The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao Kejie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 122.
[30] Ibid, 119.
[31] See image #39 in Little and Eichman , 183. Little suggests this could instead be a depiction of the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (靈寶天尊) (Ibid, 187 cat. nos. 39-42 n. 9). On the contrary, Silvio A. Bedini mentions an incense burner of Laozi carrying a ruyi on his famous journey to the Western Paradise (Silvio A. Bedini, The Trail of Time: Time Measurement with Incense in East Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), 113). This suggests that Laozi was indeed associated with the scepter.
[32] This illustrates a scene from an important Song Dynasty text in which the Celestial Worthy is said to reveal heavenly secrets to mankind (Little and Eichman, 237-238).
[33] See, for example, Cao Guojiu (曹國舅) (Welch, 259).
[34] Kieschnick, 148-149.
[35] Ibid, 1414-142 and 149-150.
[36] Erik Zürcher has suggested that the only way the lowly back scratcher could have become a symbol of lofty knowledge was via an association with the wish-granting pearl (Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 407 n. 59). It seems only natural that an affiliation between the scepter and the pearl would have sparked the idea that the former had magical properties.
[37] I’m not sure when the term was first translated into Chinese, but it appears in the Scripture on the Ten Wheels, a 6th-century sutra centered around the Bodhisattva Dizang (地藏, a.k.a., Ksitigarbha) (Ng Zhiru, The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva Dizang in Medieval China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 29-30). This shows the association between the ruyi and the wish-granting pearl could be quite old. For more information on the Cintamani, see Alice Getty, The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), 186-187.
[38] Wu and Yu, 135.
[39] Ibid, 190.
[40] Victor H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1189. For the complete story, see pages 1181-1207.
[41] H. A. van Oort, The Iconography of Chinese Buddhism in Traditional China (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 22.


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