The Weight of the Monkey King’s Staff: A Literary Origin

Sun Wukong’s magic staff is famed in popular culture for its ability to grow and shrink but less so for its great weight. The latter quality is best demonstrated in chapter 56 when human bandits attempt and fail to pick up the 8.8 ton weapon:

Sticking the rod into the ground, Pilgrim said to them, “If any of you can pick it up, it’s yours.” The two bandit chiefs at once went forward to try to grab it, but alas, it was as if dragonflies were attempting to shake a stone pillar. They could not even budge it half a whit! This rod, you see, happened to be the “As-you-will” gold-banded cudgel, which tipped the scale in Heaven at thirteen thousand, five hundred catties [yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,560 lbs. / 7,965 kg]. [1] How could those bandits have knowledge of this? The Great Sage walked forward and picked up the rod with no effort at all. Assuming the style of the Python Rearing its Body, he pointed at the bandits and said, “Your luck’s running out, for you have met old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 81).

I suggested in one of my earliest articles that the weight of Monkey’s staff had a connection to Chinese numerology:

Thirteen thousand five hundred is divisible by nine, which Chinese numerology considers to represent “infinity”. 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.

While I still agree the great weight cements his position as a superior hero, I no longer believe the number is connected to numerology.

1. Connection to the Water Margin

I now suggest the weight of the weapon was directly influenced by a scene in chapter 27 of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). [2] It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block:

“You mean I haven’t got my strength back? All right. How heavy is the stone block [shi dun, 石墩] I saw in front of the Heavenly King Temple yesterday?” [3]

[Shi En, a young admirer] “Probably three to five hundred catties [san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg].” [4]

“Let’s take a look. I wonder whether I can move it.”

“Please have some food and wine first.”

“There’ll be time enough for that when we come back.”

The two men walked to the Heavenly King Temple. The prisoners on the grounds bowed and hailed them respectfully. Wu Song shook the stone slightly. He laughed.

“This soft life is spoiling me. I’ll never be able to pick it up!”

“You shouldn’t scoff,” said Shi En. “That stone weighs three to five hundred catties!”

Wu Song grinned. “You really think I can’t lift it? Get back, you men, and watch this.”

He slipped off his tunic and tied the sleeves around his waist. Embracing the stone, he raised it easily [fig. 1], then tossed it away with both hands. It dropped with a thud, sinking a foot into the earth. The watching prisoners were astonished.

Wu Song grasped the stone with his right hand and lifted. With a sudden twist, he flung it upwards. It sailed ten feet into the air. He caught it in both hands as it came down and lightly put it back in its original place. He turned and looked at Shi En and the prisoners. His face wasn’t flushed, he wasn’t even breathing hard, his heart beat calmly (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1999, pp. 845-847).

Fig. 1 – Wu Song lifts the stone block (larger version). Image found here.

Now compare it to the scene in chapter three of Journey to the West where Monkey procures his magic staff:

“Take it [the staff] out and let me see it,” said Wukong. Waving his hands, the Dragon King said, “We can’t move it! We can’t even lift it! The high immortal must go there himself to take a look.” “Where is it?” asked Wukong. “Take me there.”

The Dragon King accordingly led him to the center of the ocean treasury, where all at once they saw a thousand shafts of golden light. Pointing to the spot, the Dragon King said, “That’s it—the thing that is glowing.” Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod [tie zhuzi, 鐵柱子] more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands [fig. 2], saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “’As-you-will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: thirteen thousand five hundred catties [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒,重一萬三千五百斤] [fig. 3].” He thought to himself in secret delight, “This treasure, I suppose, must be most compliant with one’s wishes.” As he walked, he was deliberating in his mind and murmuring to himself, bouncing the rod in his hands, “Shorter and thinner still would be marvelous!” By the time he took it outside, the rod was no more than twelve feet in length and had the thickness of a rice bowl (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). [5]

Fig. 2 – Monkey lifts the iron pillar (larger version). Fig. 3 – Sun looks at the inscription, including the weight (larger version). Screenshots from the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

2. Comparison

Both scenes involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of 一萬 and 千, respectively (fig. 4). [6] Now, someone might say the numbers are meaningless as “three to five hundred” is a common estimate for lengths, distances, and people used throughout the Water Margin (some examples). But the proposed connection is strengthened when you take into account the many similarities shared by Monkey and Wu. I show in this article that both are reformed supernatural spirits previously trapped under the weight of magic mountains, slayers of tigers, Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim”, monastic masters of martial arts, wearers of moralistic golden headbands, and wielders of bin steel weapons. Therefore, given the close historical and cultural ties between the two characters, I believe the author-compiler of Journey to the West embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.

Fig. 4 – The weight of Monkey’s staff where the red characters represent additions to the weight of Wu Song’s stone in black.

Notes:

1) I have changed Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) dry rendering “Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod” to the more pleasant one based on W.J.F. Jenner (Wu & Jenner, 2001, p. 56). Also, Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,560 lbs.

2) The scene happens in chapter 28 of the English translation (see Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1999).

3) The English translation doesn’t mention the specific name of the temple appearing in the original Chinese version. I’ve corrected this.

4) The English translation says “four or five hundred catties” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1999, pp. 845-847), whereas the Chinese says “three to five hundred catties” (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤). I’ve corrected this.

5) Again, I have slightly modified Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation. Also, both the original Chinese and the translation say the staff was shrunk to “no more than twenty feet in length” (zhiyou er zhang changduan, 只有二丈長短) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135), but it was close to 20 feet from the start. This is likely an error (thanks to Irwen Wong for pointing this out).

6) These means “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. When combined with the character for three, the latter becomes “3,000” (sanqian, 三千).

Sources:

Elvin, M. (2004). The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (1999). Outlaws of the Marsh (Bilingual ed.). Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press.

Wu, C., & Jenner, W.J.F. (2001). Journey to the West (vol. 1). Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press.

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

Parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song

Last updated: 07-08-2021

It recently occurred to me that Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (hereafter, JTTW) and Wu Song (武松) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (hereafter, WM) share a number of similarities. Each is a reformed supernatural spirit, a tiger-slayer, a Buddhist monk nicknamed “Pilgrim”, and a monastic martial artist, and each wears a moralistic headband and wields a weapon made from the same fanciful metal. Since the WM predates the publication of JTTW by nearly two hundred years, one might be tempted to speculate that the latter influenced the former. However, both story cycles first appeared during the Song dynasty, with various iterations from the Yuan to the Ming (see Ge, 2001). In this article I show the parallels are due to the respective narratives drawing on similar religious, folkloric, and historical source material. I feel such a comparison is important as it presents a fuller picture of the cultural landscape in which the Monkey King developed. 

I. Reformed supernatural spirits

Chapters one through seven of JTTW present Sun Wukong as a celestial stone-born monkey who studies under a Buddho-Daoist master and achieves great magic powers, which he uses to rebel against heaven. After being defeated by the Buddha, Monkey is imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain for five hundred years. In chapter fourteen, the repentant immortal is later released to protect the monk Tripitaka on his journey to retrieve scriptures from India.

Sun Wukong trapped under mountain - In Flames toy - small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong’s imprisonment under a section of Five Elements Mountain (larger version).

Chapter one of the WM tells how one hundred and eight spirits were quelled by a Daoist sage during the Tang dynasty and imprisoned in a bottomless pit under a great stone slab. Four or five hundred years later during the Song dynasty, a haughty government official orders the slab dug up and removed to sate his curiosity, allowing the spirits to escape in a plume of miasmic black fumes and later be reborn on earth. Wu Song, whose main story appears in chapters 23 to 32, is one of these extraordinary men and women who come to use their martial, intellectual, or magical skills to rebel against the corrupt Song government. A heaven-sent stone slab in chapter 71 is later discovered to list the names of each bandit with the corresponding name of their previous incarnation, which make up the “Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars” (Tiangang sanshiliu xing, 天罡三十六星) and the “Seventy-Two Earthly Fiend Stars” (Disha qishier xing, 地煞七十二星). Wu Song is listed as the “Heavenly Harm Star” (Tianshang xing, 天傷星), the fourteenth of the Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars.

So we see both are formerly evil spirits who were conquered by a religious figure and imprisoned under stone for centuries. After being released, each rebellious figure becomes a force for good.

Monkey’s punishment can be traced to Tang and Song dynasty tales about the sage king Yu the Great imprisoning a simian water demon under a mountain. To my knowledge, the first recorded mention of this punishment appears in an early Ming zaju play in which Guanyin traps Sun Wukong under Flower Fruit Mountain. Wang (1992) suggests the stone slab from the WM was likely influenced by the Taishan stone (taishan shi, 泰山石) (fig. 2), a class of “evil-warding stones” (shigandang, 石敢當) often placed outside of homes and temples or at the intersection of roads as protection from malevolent forces (pp. 71-72 and 254). The Taishan stone represents Mount Tai and its deity. The landmass is considered the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. This means the evil would be completely immobilized by the great weight.

Taishan stone example - small

Fig. 2 – A modern Japanese example of a Taishan stone (larger version). They often read “Taishan stone takes upon itself” (Taishan shi gandang, 泰山石敢當), denoting its duty of protection (Wang, 1992, p. 71). Original image from Wikipedia

Additionally, the pit containing the spirits can be traced to a Song-era Daoist ritual in which an exorcist draws the character for “well” (jing, 井/丼) on the ground, thereby dividing the ritual space into nine sections, representing the Nine Palaces (jiugong, 九宮), [1] and creating an earth prison. The Compilation of Rituals of the Way (Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元) reads:

[U]se the Sword mudrā to draw the character for “well” on the ground. Transform it into a black prison, ten-thousand zhang deep, and ten thousand li wide. [2] Black vapors burst out of it. Inside the prison, visualize how cangues and locks, as well as tools and machinery are laid out. Then recite the Spell for Fast Arrest [cu zhuo zhou, 促捉咒] (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 142).

The black vapors should remind readers of that released upon the spirits’ escape from their centuries-long imprisonment.

Mountain mudra with Chinese character

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for mountain (shan, 山) (larger version). Fig. 4 – The Mountain mudra (shanzi jue, 山字訣) (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 5 – The double-handed Mount Tai mudra (Taishan jue, 泰山訣) (larger version). Original picture from here.

Another version of the ritual sees the spirits being coaxed or forced inside of a liquid-filled jar placed in the center of the well diagram. Afterwards, the opening is sealed with paper and the exorcist performs a mudra representing the immense pressing weight of a mountain (just like the aforementioned Taishan stone). [3] Meulenbeld (2007) writes:

The spirits captured within the grid of the Nine Palaces were kept inside their prison by symbolically pressing them down underneath a mountain. The symbolism here lies in the fact that the mountain was represented by a posture of the hand forming the character for mountain (“Mountain Mudrā” 山字訣 with the thumb, index-finger, and little finger all pointing upward [fig. 3 and 4]. Oftentimes the specific “mudrā of Mt. Tai” 泰山訣 [fig. 5], was used, representing the heaviest of all mountains. Moreover, many present-day exorcist talismans contain a character composed of a “demon” 鬼 underneath a “mountain” 山, namely the character wei 嵬 (p. 145, n. 92).

This means the respective punishments of Sun Wukong and Wu Song (and his brethren) are for all intents and purposes the same: they are imprisoned under mountains. The Taishan stone and the Mountain mudra are no doubt based on the same belief that mountains can immobilize evil spirits. Most importantly, the mudra likely influenced the concept of the Buddha transforming his hand into Five Elements Mountain in chapter 7 of JTTW. The fictional mountain is then a cognate of Mount Tai. 

Five Thunders talisman - small

Fig. 6 – A paper fu talisman marked with an image of the Five Thunders (Wu Lei, 五雷) (larger version).

Lastly, the idea that evil spirits can be reformed and their powers put to good use—i.e. Sun Wukong protecting Tripitaka and Wu Song standing against a corrupt government—is tied to the Song-era “Thunder Ritual” (Leifa, 雷法). Meulenbeld (2007) explains stories from the Tang to the Song present the characteristics of the thunder god, Sire Thunder (Lei Gong, 雷公), becoming increasingly demonic, changing from a muscular deity to a number of animals and finally a Garuda-like bird monster. Likewise, while he was a respected force of nature in the past, Sire Thunder becomes an impulsive agent of heaven, one capable of being challenged and even captured by a brave individual or ritual master. The subjugation of this demonic god allows his captors to appropriate his heavenly power for their own purposes. The deity and his four brothers, comprising the “Five Thunders” (Wu Lei, 五雷) (fig. 6), can be summoned on command via talismans and charms and made to bring rain, heal sicknesses, or conquer demons. [4] Such ritual accouterments are just a small part of a much larger subsequent Thunder Ritual liturgy that is, according to one Song dynasty source, capable of “control[ing] the demons and spirits of the Sixfold Heavens, [expelling] evil and avert[ing] disaster” (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 67). 

II. Tiger-Slayers

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong’s first act of protecting Tripitaka upon his release is effortlessly killing a tiger with a single stroke of his staff. This happens the day after a huntsman had come to the monk’s defense by fighting a tiger for hours before dispatching it with a trident. The difference in power between the immortal and human heroes leads the monk to exclaim, “For the strong, there’s always someone stronger!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

WM, ch. 23 – Wu Song gets drunk on a trip home to see his elder brother, and after ignoring warnings not to take a mountain shortcut, the hero is set upon by a ferocious man-eating tiger. In the process of initially defending himself, Wu snaps his walking staff on a nearby tree, forcing him to resort to brute strength. He manages to wrestle the big cat’s face into the dirt and rains down sixty or seventy fist blows before it stops moving (fig. 7). He then finishes off the beast with the remains of his staff.

Wu Song kills tiger - small

Fig. 7 – “Wu Song Beats the Tiger” (Wu Song da hu, 武松打虎) by Wang Kewei (王可偉) (larger version).

I can’t help but imagine the episode from JTTW is a sly nod to that from the WM. Tripitaka’s statement could be a way of propping up the Monkey King as the most powerful hero, one who can dispatch tigers with no effort at all.

The ability to kill a tiger was considered the sign of a powerful warrior in Chinese folklore. For example, A New Account of the Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu, 世說新語, 5th-century), a collection of historical and fictional anecdotes, tells the story of how the Western Jin general Zhou Chu (周處, 236–297) was originally a wayward youth considered the worst of Yixing‘s “Three Scourges”—a tiger, a dragon, and himself. Wanting to prove his strength, Zhou is said to have easily killed the tiger but disappeared for three days and nights fighting the dragon. The youth later returned to find the people celebrating his apparent death. This caused Zhou to mend his ways and eventually become a great general (Knechtges & Chang, 2010, pp. 2274-2275).

III. Buddhist monks with matching religious nicknames 

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk upon his release. [5] His master Tripitaka then gives him the religious nickname “Pilgrim Sun” (Sun xingzhe, 孫行者), and the character is often simply referred to as “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者; literally: “traveler”) throughout the narrative.

WM, ch. 31 – Wu Song kills a thug and his Song government official friend for framing the hero for theft and attempting to have him murdered en route to a prison camp. As a result, he is forced to dress as a Buddhist monk, taking a slain priest’s religious garb and ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) and calling himself “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者).

The term Pilgrim refers to a “postulant”, a lay Buddhist acolyte who has yet to be ordained but lives as an untonsured monk, one expected to follow the Five Precepts (Pali: Pañcasīla; Ch: Wujie, 五戒) against killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and drinking alcohol (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1011-1012). Ch’en (1956) writes that such trainees were historically required to complete a long period of intense religious study and pass a rigorous examination before being awarded the aforementioned ordination certificate (fig. 8), thereby becoming a full-fledged monk. This certification system was originally initiated during the Tang to weed out those wanting to evade the draft and taxes, as well as bandits like Wu Song who sought refuge from the law. However, during the Song, the government sold these documents like war bonds in order to help pay for their ongoing struggle against the barbarians of northern China. Therefore, ordination certificates were often exuberantly expensive, [6] meaning those who had the training but could not afford the document were doomed to live as a postulant. This contrasts with the thousands upon thousands of people who bought their way into the Buddha’s fold simply for the draft and tax exemption. They forwent the training altogether and were monks only on paper. This continued practice naturally resulted in a major decline in the quality of monks during the Song.

Monk with ordination certificate - small

Fig. 8 – A present day monk showing his ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) (larger version). Original image found here.

Having read the above, we can say Sun Wukong is called Pilgrim because he assists a Buddhist priest but lacks the religious education and ordination certificate. While Wu Song has the document (taken from a dead priest), he lacks the required education. It should be remembered that Wu is a bandit-turned-monk. At the same time, both characters typify the “itinerant monk”, the second meaning of Pilgrim (xingzhe, 行者), as both are on a journey: Sun is traveling to India and Wu is traveling the road—albeit secretly to meet with fellow outlaws. But I would like to suggest that the titles may have also been meant as a jab at the violent, untrained riffraff passing for monks during the Song (more on this below). After all, the earliest references to our characters with these titles come from this period.

“Pilgrim Wu” appears in scholar-painter Gong Shengyu‘s (龔聖予, 1222–1307) In Praise of the Thirty-Six [men] of Song Jiang (Song Jiang sanshiliu zan, 宋江三十六贊), a collection of poems eulogizing each of the thirty-six bandits then associated with the early WM story cycle.

Pilgrim Wu Song: You resisted women, obeyed the Five Precepts, among Wine, Women, Wealth and Force, you were inclined to kill people (Børdahl, 2013, p. 29).

Gong claims the poems were based on “stories of the streets and tales of the lanes” (jie tan xiang yu, 街談巷語), popular narratives performed by storytellers at local venues.  Given that such early tales no longer exist, its impossible to say whether or not Wu Song was always a monk or a bandit-turned-impostor monk like his counterpart from the published edition of the WM (Børdahl, 2013, pp. 28-29). Either way, this suggests Wu’s predilection for killing was a prominent aspect of his story cycle by at least the 13-century.

Sun Wukong 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. Like Wu Song, Monkey is also depicted as comfortable with killing. For example, in chapter five, he turns an evil sorcerer’s wife into grass so that she will be eaten by a young monk who had been transformed by her husband into a donkey. After both parties are changed back to normal, Monkey threatens to “mow down all the grass of [his] house” (i.e. kill his wife and anyone else he loves) if the man ever misuses his magic again. [7] Later in chapter six, Monkey brutally tortures and then kills a white tiger demon who tries to eat his master (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1181-1207)

Wu Song and Lu Zhishen - Small

Fig. 9 – The “Pilgrim” Wu Song (right) and the “Flower Monk” Lu Zhishen (left) from a recent WM television series (larger version).

Additionally, two early WM-related tales titled “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者) and the “Flower [Tattooed] Monk” (Hua heshang, 花和尚) are listed under the “staff” (ganbang, 桿棒) category of popular stories in The Drunken Man’s Talk (Zuiweng tanlu, 醉翁談錄), a circa 13th-century collection of short stories, anecdotes, and poetry. [8] So-called staff tales were character-driven narratives about heroes, in this case Wu Song and his fellow outlaw-turned-monk Lu Zhishen (fig. 9), righting injustices using staves. [9] I should note that The Story describes the Monkey Pilgrim wielding two such weapons in his adventures.

Sun and Wu’s association with killing and staff fighting were likely influenced by historical warrior monks and bandit monks. Shahar (2008) explains warrior monks were seasoned fighters who lived in subsidiary shrines away from the devout community and protected monasteries in times of trouble. These “monks” regularly drank wine and ate meat, associating the latter with physical strength and fighting ability, and even worshiped wrathful deities like Vajrapani, who is described in scripture as killing in the name of Buddha. Their weapon of choice was a wooden staff, which was originally chosen for being non-lethal. However, a metal staff like the one wielded by Sun Wukong in JTTW was sometimes used by warrior monks for its killing capacity in times of war. The most famous monastic staff method belongs to the Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) (video 1). After the Shaolin warrior monks helped the Ming dynasty government repel Japanese pirate incursions from the Chinese coast during the 1550s, their staff method was touted in military encyclopedias and civilian weapons manuals. [10]

Video 1 – A demonstration of Shaolin Wind Devil Staff (Fengmo gun, 風魔棍).

Bandit monks are outlaws like Wu Song who dressed as monks to avoid problems with the law. [11] Lorge (2012) comments that the characteristics of bandit monks were nearly indistinguishable from that of warrior monks.

[I]t is easy to see how bandit-monks are virtually the same as warrior-monks. These men drank wine, at meat, and had sex with women—practices alien to true Buddhist monks. A number of Buddhist authorities were deeply troubled by the presence of monks who directly violated Buddhist precepts. We do not know whether there was a sharp break between ordained and trained monks who carefully followed monastic rules in their search for enlightenment and men who simply claimed to be monks, wore monastic robes, shaved their heads, but otherwise did not follow monastic rules (p. 174).

He goes on to explain that the Shaolin monastery, for example, became heavily militarized after a nasty defeat in 1356 during the Red Turban Rebellion and so may have replenished its ranks using formerly deactivated soldiers at the turn of the Ming dynasty. Such violence-prone men would naturally turn towards a life of crime. Therefore, these bandits “would have been easy enough to recruit and send out as warrior-monks to fight against [other] bandits” (Lorge, 2012, p. 175).

So we see there existed a class of staff-bearing pseudo-monks who regularly took life and drank alcohol. Serving as mainly monastic bodyguards, these fighters lacked the devotion to the precepts and, especially, the religious education to be considered real monks. Therefore, Sun and Wu’s characterization as such warriors may further explain why they are called Pilgrim.

IV. Monastic martial artists

I want to preface this section by stating upfront that it overlaps to some degree with the previous one. But while the former explored Sun and Wu’s connection to staff-wielding warrior monks by way of their characterization in late Song oral literature, this one will discuss the connection between their images as monastic martial artists and the historical practice of boxing by warrior monks.

While the Great Sage is primarily known for his skill with the staff, he displays a mastery of unarmed combat twice in JTTW. Chapter 51, for example, describes Sun and a demonic opponent fighting with a long list of punches, kicks, grapples, and throws.

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)

I show in this article that many of the named techniques are real and are still practiced to this day. Furthermore, the poem’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range “is typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature”, as noted by Shahar (2008, p. 117). He continues, “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century military experts allude to various short-range styles including ‘Cotton Zhang’s Close-Range Fist’ (Mian Zhang duanda [綿張短打]), ‘Ren Family Close-Range Fist’ (Renjia duanda [任家短打]), and ‘Liu [Family] Close-Range Fist’ (Liu duanda [劉短打])” (Shahar, 2008, p. 117). This shows the author-compiler of JTTW consulted real martial arts material to make this fight more authentic.

Having donned the monk persona, Pilgrim Wu stops by an inn while on a journey to meet with fellow outlaws in chapter 32. The monk’s great tolerance for wine (fig. 13) and request for meat surprises the inn keeper, whom Wu slaps to the ground upon seeing the man serve better wine and even chicken to a different patron. The patron and his friends attack the monk but are soundly beaten by his superior strength and fighting ability. [12]

Wu’s characterization as a meat-eating, alcohol-drinking monk with a thirst for combat is obviously tied to the warrior and bandit monks discussed earlier.

Wu Song with jug of wine and sword - small

Fig. 15 – A modern depiction of Pilgrim Wu holding a jar of wine and brandishing a saber (larger version). By Leewiart user Du_YH. Original image found here

While it precedes Wu becoming a monk, the best example of his martial prowess appears in chapter 29:

But Jiang was scornful of his foe [Wu Song], thinking that he was drunk, and he closed in rapidly. Quicker than it takes to tell, Wu Song flourished his two fists at Jiang’s face, then turned and started away. Enraged, Jiang raced after him. Wu Song lashed out backwards with his left foot and kicked him in the groin. As Jiang clasped his injured section and doubled over in pain, Wu Song whirled around and swung his right foot in a flying kick to the forehead that slammed the big man over on his back. Wu Song planted one foot on his chest and, with keg-like fists, began pommeling Jiang’s head.

This maneuver we just described—the flourish of fists and turning away, the backward left kick, the whirling around and the forward right kick—is called “the Jade-Circle Steps with Duck and Drake Feet” [Yuhuan bu, yuanyang jiao, 玉環步, 鴛鴦腳]. It was one of Wu Song’s most skillful moves. A remarkable trick! (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 332).

Wu’s style is possibly another name for “Piercing Foot” (Chuojiao, 戳腳), a northern Chinese martial art known for its dynamic kicking skills. Modern folklore traces the style to the Song dynasty due to its association with WM heroes. [13]

While JTTW never openly describes Sun Wukong training in martial arts, it does imply that he learns armed and unarmed combat as a young monk studying under the Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti. Monkey learning boxing in a religious institution is actually a faithful depiction of one aspect of monastic life during the Ming. Shahar (2008) shows Shaolin warrior monks took up unarmed combat during the late Ming-period, when boxing saw an explosion in popularity in Chinese culture (as demonstrated by the named techniques recorded in JTTW and the WM). Textual evidence suggests the first styles practiced by Shaolin were Drunken Eight Immortals Boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳), popularized by Jackie Chan in The Drunken Master (1978), and Lost Track Boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), the fighting style of the national hero Huo Yuanjia popularized by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972). The monks may have adopted boxing as a form of calisthenic exercise. To this they later added Daoyin (導引), a regimen of yoga-like Daoist breathing and stretching exercises designed to absorb qi (氣) energy and circulate it throughout the body. Therefore, the monks elevated their boxing practice from mere fighting to a form of spiritual cultivation. This synthesis of martial and spiritual practices simultaneously took place in wider Ming culture, leading to the creation of so-called “internal” (Neijia, 内家) martial arts like Taiji and Xingyi boxing. [14]

sengchou-jumps-into-the-rafters-small-1.jpg

Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the monk Sengchou showing off his newfound powers by jumping above the rafters of the Shaolin monastery (larger version). Original image found here.

That’s not to say Shaolin monks did not practice unarmed martial arts prior to the 17th-century. It’s just boxing was only a form of entertainment practiced by a few and not part of the official training regimen. For example, the Tang-era anthology Complete Records from Court and Commonality (Chaoye qian zai, 朝野僉載, c. 8th-century), contains the story of the famed dhyana master and Shaolin monk Sengchou (僧稠, 480–560) beseeching a religious statue of Vajrapani to bless him with martial strength so that the other monks, who enjoy sparring in their free time, will stop bullying him. After six straight days of prayer, the deity appears before him and offers the young novice a bowl of sinews to eat. Sengchou initially refuses due to the prohibition against eating meat, but he ultimately finishes the meal for fear Vajrapani will smite him with his vajra club. Like the radioactive spider bite that changes Peter Parker into Spider-Man, the sinews transform the monk, blessing him with a god-like physique and miraculous powers, such as the ability to walk on walls, leap great heights (fig. 10), and lift thousands of pounds. Most importantly, it drastically improves his fighting skills, so much so, in fact, that his former tormentors come to grovel in his presence (Shahar, 2008, pp. 35-37).

From whom might have Sengchou’s religious brothers learned their unarmed martial arts centuries prior to it becoming an official part of Shaolin’s training regimen? The simplest answer is someone like Wu Song who learned boxing as a bandit or soldier and later joined the sangha. Readers may recall such violence-prone men may have been tapped as warrior monks to protect the monastery in times of trouble. They could have easily passed their fighting skills to the next generation of warrior monks.

A good example of a soldier-turned-monk is the brutish former general Huiming (惠明) from the Platform Sutra (Liuzu tanjing, 六祖壇經, written from the 8th to 13th-c.). The text tells how the disciples of Hongren (弘忍, 601–674), the fifth Chan patriarch, were enraged when their master passed the mantle onto the illiterate postulant laborer Huineng (惠能, 638–713). Hundreds of monks are said to have pursued the fleeing Pilgrim south intent on forcefully taking the patriarchal symbols of the begging bowl and robe for themselves. Huiming persevered and managed to corner Huineng on a mountain. He attempted to wrestle the treasures away, but, by a miracle, he could not lift them. Realizing Huineng was the rightful heir, the monk became his disciple (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 11-12). Jealousy and anger are obviously qualities unbecoming of a real monk. In fact, the only thing that separates Huiming’s actions of hounding and attempted strong arm robbery from a bandit is his monkhood.

So we see Sun Wukong typifies a next generation warrior monk who learns boxing inside a religious institution. Wu Song typifies the soldier or bandit who learns boxing outside the monastery and later becomes a monastic fighter, one who passes on their skills to younger monks.

V. Moralistic headbands

JTTW, ch. 14 – The Monkey King is tricked into wearing a brocade hat under the pretense of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. However, the hat houses a golden fillet (jinguquan, 金箍圈) that soon takes root and painfully tightens around the immortal’s head when the correct spell is chanted (fig. 11). This allows the feeble monk Tripitaka to control the celestial monkey’s unruly nature.

WM, ch. 31 – When Wu Song disguises himself as a monk, he wears the garments of a priest who had previously been killed by bandits. The habit includes a metal “Precepts fillet” (jiegu, 戒箍) that he wears over his long hair (fig. 12).

Fillet examples - small

Fig. 11 – (Top left) Sun Wukong’s golden fillet from the 1986 JTTW television series (larger version). Fig. 12 – (Top right) Wu Song’s Precepts fillet from a recent WM television series (larger version). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) A late 11th to early 12th-century copper alloy statue of the wrathful deity Hevajra (larger version). He is portrayed with the same Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire as his followers, including the headband, arm cuffs, a bone (skull) rosary, bracelets, a girdle, anklets, and a tiger skin sarong. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of ArtFig. 14 – (Bottom center) A detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet featured in an 11th-century mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China (larger version). It has been slightly enhanced for clarity. A fuller version of the image can be seen here. Fig. 15 – (Bottom right) A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (larger version). From Bonds, 2008, p. 178.

I explain in this article that the heroes’ fillets share a common origin in an ancient Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband, one representing the Buddha Akshobhya and thereby moral self-restraint. It was one of several ritual items worn while worshiping wrathful protector deities like Heruka. Such deities were often depicted wearing the same attire as their followers, leading to the band becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits (fig. 13). The Hevajra Tantra (Ch: Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經), the original 8th-century Indian Buddhist text mentioning the ritual items, was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century. Interestingly, the earliest example of Monkey wearing the circlet (likely symbolizing the taming of the monkey of the mind) hails from this time (fig. 14). But Wu’s association with the headband was likely influenced by the Precepts fillet worn by the warrior monks of Chinese Opera (fig. 15). These heroes wear the band to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328).

VI. Bin steel weapons

JTTW, ch. 3 – Sun Wukong comes into possession of a magic staff (fig. 16) taken from the Dragon King’s underwater treasury. A poem in chapter 75 describes the weapon being hand-forged from Bin steel (bintie, 鑌鐵) by the high Daoist god Laozi.

WM, ch. 31 – Apart from wearing the fallen monk’s religious clothing, Wu Song also takes possession of his Buddhist sabers made from “snowflake pattern” Bin steel (huaxue bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) (fig. 17). [15]

Sun Wukong and Wu Song weapons - small

Fig. 16 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong holding his magic Bin steel staff (larger version). Fig. 17 – A modern painting of Wu Song wielding his Bin steel sabers (larger version). Artist unknown. 

Sun’s staff and Wu’s sabers are not the first bin steel weapons to appear in Chinese literature. A bladed pole arm example is the Bin steel great sword (bintie da podao, 鑌鐵刀) wielded by a bandit from the Old incidents in Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事, mid-13th-century), a storytelling prompt containing WM material predating the published novel. [16] Another pole arm is the Bin steel spear (bintie qiang鑌鐵槍) wielded by a general from The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt (San sui pingyao zhuan, 三遂平妖傳, c. late 16th-century), which also takes place in the Song-era (Luo, n.d.). 

I explain in this article that Bin steel is a real world metal akin to Damascus that was imported to China from Persia starting from the 6th-century, and the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom by the 12th-century. The metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel and was often used to make strong, durable, and sharp knives and swords, some worth more than silver. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). This is a simultaneous declaration of his unbreakable resolve and a statement praising the seemingly indestructible metal. Therefore, JTTW and the WM portray the finest of heroes wielding the finest of steel weapons.

VII. Conclusion

As shown, the parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song are the result of JTTW and the WM borrowing from the same cultural source material. Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements mountain and Wu’s time as an evil spirit trapped in a well beneath stone was influenced by the Daoist belief that mountains—be they sympathetically represented by stone or hand mudras—could immobilize malevolent forces. Likewise, our heroes’ portrayal as reformed demons can be tied to the Daoist “Thunder Ritual”, which aims to conquer evil and repurpose its power for good. Sun and Wu’s image as tiger-slayers was influenced by stories of tiger-killing strongmen from Chinese folklore. Their religious nickname “Pilgrim” and characterization as monastic martial artists can be tied to uneducated pseudo-monks and holy warriors skilled in both staff fighting and boxing from Chinese history. Their religious fillets were inspired by an Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband worn as a reminder of moral self-restraint. And the metal comprising Sun and Wu’s weapons can be traced to a real world steel prized in ancient China for its durability. 

This was a fun piece to write because it shows the Great Sage obviously didn’t develop in a vacuum. It’s interesting to me that much of Sun and Wu’s influences hail from the Song dynasty. These include the Daoist rituals for trapping and reforming spirits, the Pilgrim nickname and characterization as staff-wielding warrior monks, and the translation of the tantric text mentioning the moralistic headband and Monkey’s earliest known depiction wearing it.


Update: 10-04-2020

I have written a follow up article explaining the parallels between Monkey and the historical Buddha.

https://journeytothewestresearch.com/2020/10/04/parallels-between-the-monkey-king-and-the-buddha/


Update: 07-08-2021

I have written an article that shows the weight of Sun Wukong’s magic staff (一萬三千五百斤) is an embellishment on the weight of a stone block (三五百斤) lifted by Wu Song in ch. 27 of the WM.

Notes

1) The nine palaces are a cosmic geographical concept in which stars are mapped according to the five Chinese cardinal directions (N, S, E, W, and center) and the four intermediate directions. Thus, they represent the universe as a whole.

2) A zhang (丈) is ten Chinese feet, so 10,000 zhang would be 100,000 feet. A li (里) is one-third of a Western mile. More importantly, in Chinese culture, the number 10,000 represents an infinitely large concept. Therefore, by squaring the number, the well prison is described as an unfathomably large and inescapable place. I would like to thank the Dragon Ball scholar Derek Padula (his website) for suggesting this note as it helps better visualize the prison. He was kind enough to read an earlier draft of this article.

3) See Meulenbeld, 2007, pp. 143-145 for more information about the jar ritual. It likely influenced media that influenced Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame to create the Mafuba (魔封波; Ch: mofengbo), or “Demon Containment Wave” ritual. Padula (2016) describes the etymology and background of the Mafuba (pp. 122 to 126). He graciously provided me with a digital copy of his book.

4) See chapter two.

5) This is not openly stated in chapter 14 but is implied in chapter 27. See this article for more information.

6) Ch’en (1956) gives examples. During the Song, the official selling prices for the certificates ranged from one hundred thirty to eight hundred strings of cash. To put these prices in perspective, he notes the lowest cost would pay for the equivalent of seventy-five bolts of silk or one hundred twenty-five bushels of rice (pp. 316-317). 

7) Wivell, 1994, p. 1187. The full episode appears on pages 1186-1187.

8) Ge, 2001, p. 38. The eight types of stories appearing in The Drunken Man’s Talk are: “lingguai [靈怪] (spirits and demons), yanfen [煙粉] (rouge and powder), chuanqi [傳奇] (marvels), gong’an [公案] (court cases), podao [朴刀] (broadsword), ganbang [桿棒] (staff), shenxian [神仙] (immortals), and yaoshu [妖術] (sorcery)” (Ge, 2001, p. 209, n. 6).

9) Huang, 2018, p. 61 and n. 8. It’s interesting to note that the monk Lu Zhishen is said to wield an impossibly heavy metal staff like Sun Wukong. See this article for more details.

10) See chapters three and four.

11) Lorge (2012) cites a Tang-era story about an 8th-century prince who discovers an abandoned wardrobe while hunting in the forest. It is found to contain a young woman who had been kidnapped the previous night by bandits but was subsequently whisked away by two monks among the group. The prince replaces her with a wild bear that later mauls the bandit monks to death when the wardrobe is reopened (pp. 106-107). The monks were likely impostors like Wu Song.

12) Wu Song is famed in Chinese folklore for his martial arts ability. This led to the creation of a wushu form known as “Wu Song Breaks Manacles” (Wu Song tuo kao, 武松脫拷), which mimics a person fighting with their hands clasped as if shackled, forcing them to rely on doubled fist and elbow strikes and lots of kicking. The form is based on an episode from chapter 30 of the WM when the hero is attacked by assassins while being led in shackles to a prison camp. Wu Song is forced to defend himself in such a manner before breaking his restraints.

13) See, for example, Chlumsky, 2005, p. 72. The author also repeats folklore further tying the style to the Song dynasty heroes Yue Fei and his teacher Zhou Tong.

14) See chapters five and six.

15) I think it’s interesting that each weapon is presented as having some level of sentienceCalled the “As-you-wish” Gold-Banded Cudgel (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), Sun’s staff grows or shrinks according to his whim. Wu’s peerless blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magic longing for combat. The sentience of each weapon is based on different sources, however. I note in this article that the compliance of Monkey’s weapon is based on the Ruyi (如意) scepter, a symbol of religious and secular authority that was at some point associated with the similarly named wish-fulfilling cintamani jewel (ruyi zhu, 如意珠) from Buddhist mythology. The vocal ability of Wu Song’s blades may be based on the Chinese belief that swords have a soul. Two prime examples are the famed treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) made by the legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi (歐冶子) during the Spring and Autumn period. Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-ccentury) described them as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).

16) See Luo (n.d.). The original source says “po bintie dadao” (潑鑌鐵大刀). This is likely a transcription error. I have corrected it above. 

Sources

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Børdahl, V. (2013). Wu Song fights the tiger: The interaction of oral and written traditions in the Chinese novel, drama and storytelling. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.

Ch’en, K. (1956). The sale of monk certificates during the Sung dynasty: A factor in the decline of Buddhism in China. The Harvard Theological Review 49(4), pp. 307-327.

Chen, P., & Petersen, V. (2016). The development of Chinese martial arts fiction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Chlumsky, N. (2015). Inside kungfu: Chinese martial arts encyclopedia. [n.p.]: Lulu.com.

Da song xuanhe yishi [Old incidents in xuanhe period of the great Song dynasty] (n.d.). [archived document]. Retrieved from https://zh.wikisource.org/zh-hant/%E5%A4%A7%E5%AE%8B%E5%AE%A3%E5%92%8C%E9%81%BA%E4%BA%8B

Huang, Y. (2018). Narrative of Chinese and western popular fiction: Comparison and interpretation. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

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

Ge, L. (2001). Out of the margins: The rise of Chinese vernacular fiction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Knechtges, D. R., & Chang, T. (2010). Ancient and early medieval Chinese literature: A reference guide. Leiden: Brill.

Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical dictionary of Chinese women: Tang through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Luo, G. (n.d.). San sui pingyao zhuan [The three sui quash the demons’ revolt] [archived document]. Retrieved from https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/%E4%B8%89%E9%81%82%E5%B9%B3%E5%A6%96%E5%82%B3/16

Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

Padula, D. (2016). Dragon ball culture: Volume 5. (n.p.): Derek Padula.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

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

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Wang, J. (1992). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin, and the journey to the west. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

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

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

Sun Wukong’s Greatest Feat of Strength: An Allegory for Cultural or Religious Conflict?

Last updated: 06/23/2021

Now that I’ve written an entry debunking the idea that Sun Wukong’s staff anchored the Milky Way, I now want to write a piece about his greatest feat of strength in Journey to the West. This feat takes place in chapter 33 after Zhu Bajie has been captured by two demon brothers, Kings Goldhorn (Jinjiao Dawang, 金角大王) and Silverhorn (Yinjiao Dawang, 銀角大王). King Silverhorn, the younger of the two, then sets out to capture Tripitaka but is forced to resort to trickery when he learns the monk is protected by Sun Wukong. He transforms himself into an elderly Daoist laying by the roadside with a broken leg. The monk takes pity and forces Monkey to carry him on his back. However, the immortal sees through the disguise and plans to throw his charge off a cliff. But…

As the Great Sage was about to do this, the monster knew instantly of his plan. Knowing how to summon mountains, he resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” Exerting his spirit even more, he recited another spell and sent up the Tai Mountain to press down on Pilgrim’s head. With this magic of the Tai Mountain Pressing the Head, the Great Sage was overpowered as his strength ebbed and his tendons turned numb; the weight was so great that the spirits of the Three Worms inside his body exploded and blood spurted from his seven apertures (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 108-109).

We see here Monkey is able to successfully carry the weight of both the Sumeru and Emei mountains, while running after his master “with the speed of a meteor”. That’s quite impressive, even if he is eventually crushed under the weight of a third mountain (fig. 1). Attention should be given to the particular mountains used in this episode. Let’s start with Sumeru since this is the first one mentioned.

1950s Illustrated Saiyuki - Detail of Monkey crushed under 3 mountains (small)

Fig. 1 – Monkey trapped under the three mountains as King Silverhorn abducts Tripitaka, the dragon horse, and Sha Wujing (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West (1950), a Japanese children’s book.

Robert & David (2013) describe Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山) as:

The central axis of the universe in Buddhist cosmology; also known as Mount Meru. Mount Sumeru stands in the middle of the world as its axis and is eight leagues high …  The slopes of Sumeru are the abode of demigods, and its upper reaches are the heavens of the four heavenly kings. At the summit of the mountain is the heaven of the thirty-three, ruled by the king of the gods, Sakra. Above Mount Sumeru are located the remaining heavens of the sensuous realm [fig. 2] (p. 896).

A poem in chapter four of Journey to the West describes what Monkey sees when he first comes to live in heaven as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. A portion reads, “Thirty-three mansions were found up here, / With names like the Scattered Cloud, the Vaisravana, the Pancavidya, the Suyama, the Nirmanarati…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 146). Translator Anthony C. Yu notes, “The verse here is alluding to the Indra heaven with it’s thirty-three summits (trāyastriṃśa) [fig. 2] and the six heavens of desire (devalokas)”, which are located atop Mount Sumeru (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 510, n. 1). Therefore, the heaven described in the novel is located on the same cosmic mountain as that from Hindo-Buddhist cosmology, meaning Monkey successfully supports the axis of the universe on one shoulder.

Sumeru World System - Sideview small

Fig. 2 – Mount Sumeru indicated in gold. The location of the aforementioned 33 heavens/mansions are indicated in pink. A great cosmic ocean is indicated in blue (larger version). Adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxxii.

Mount Emei (Emei shan, 峨嵋山; 峨眉山) is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. It is considered extremely important as Chinese tradition believes, upon entering the Middle Kingdom from India, Buddhism spread from this very mountain during the eastern Han Dynasty and proliferated throughout China. The mountain is 10,167 feet high, making it over 3,000 feet taller than the other sacred Buddhist mountains. This place is believed to be the heavenly abode of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, making him the patron saint of Emei (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 282-283).

I want to reiterate the fact that both Sumeru and Emei are important to Buddhism. Not only does Monkey support the very axis of the Buddhist universe on one shoulder, he supports on the other the very mountain from which the religion is believed to have spread into China. I’m not sure if this was the author-compiler’s original intent, but it seems as if this feat of strength could be symbolism for Monkey literally “supporting” Buddhism by protecting his master on their journey to India. After all, the historical Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664) on whom Tripitaka is based is considered to be one of, if not the, most prolific translators of Buddhist texts in the history of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016).

I turn now to Mount Tai (Taishan, 泰山), the mountain that ultimately overwhelms Sun Wukong’s supernatural strength. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China, which differ from the four Buddhist counterparts mentioned above. Mount Tai was the epicenter of a state cult in Ancient China, one in which Sage-Kings and emperors of millennia past traveled there to perform sacrifices to heaven, thereby gaining the right to rule or attaining eternal life. An entry in the Classic of History (Shujing, 書經, 4th-c. BCE) suggests the practice goes all the way back to the Sage-King Shun (3rd millennia BCE) (Poo, 2011, pp. 20-21). Due to its great cultural and historical significance, the mountain came to be recognized as an adamantine monolith, the very name of which was used as a metaphor for something unfathomably heavy, whether it be a physical measure of weight or philosophical importance. For example, Warring States philosopher Mozi took part in a debate over the plausibility of his school of thought taking center stage in Chinese society. His opponent claimed, “As we see it, one can no more put it into practice than one can pick up Mount Tai and leap over a river with it!” Mozi highlighted the irrelevant nature of the metaphor by replying, “As for picking up Mount Tai and leaping over rivers with it, no one from ancient times to the present, from the beginning of humankind to now, has ever succeeded in doing that!” (Watson, 1999a, p. 71). Another example comes from the Han historian Sima Qian who wrote, “A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it” (pp. 371-372). Therefore, the mountain represented the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. It’s no wonder then that not even Monkey could withstand its weight.

The idea of Mount Tai symbolizing a heavy object influenced the name of a 17th-century technique related to the development of Taiji boxing called “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai” (Taishan yading, 泰山壓頂) (fig. 3), which involved climbing onto an opponent (Henning, 2009, pp. 78 and 82). Incidentally, the name of this technique is also a common chinese saying referring to someone being under a lot of stress (Gao, Wang, & Weightman, 2012, p. 191).

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Fig. 3 – “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai”. From Henning, 2009, p. 78 (larger version).

I find it interesting that, after easily bearing the weight of two Buddhist mountains, Mount Tai is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Mount Tai represents native Chinese history and culture, while Sumeru and Emei represent Buddhism, a non-native religion from India. Therefore, this episode could be read as a struggle between the domestic and foreign aspects of Chinese culture. Considering the monsters are later revealed to be Daoist attendants of Laozi sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145), it’s possible the conflict is between Daoism, a native Chinese religion, and Buddhism.

This is obviously not a perfect theory, though. For instance, Laozi reveals that it was actually the Bodhisattva Guanyin who requested the lads be sent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). Does this explain why a Daoist spirit would summon two Buddhist mountains to crush Monkey? I’m interested in what others think.

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Fig. 4 – A modern painting of Hanuman lifting the mountain (larger version). All credit goes to the original artist S. Keerthi. 

Lastly, I would like to note Sun Wukong’s feat of lifting mountains recalls an episode in the Ramayana (4th-c. BCE) in which the monkey god Hanuman carries back a mountain laden with magical herbs to heal the wounds of his master‘s brother Lakshmana (fig. 4). Hanuman is the living embodiment of strength (shakti) in India (see for example Alter, 1992). Monkey is believed to be loosely based on Hanuman (Walker, 1998), so there could be a connection between both instances of mountain lifting.


Updated: 08/10/2018

Monkey’s feat appears to be based on a native Chinese story and not the Ramayana. This is first hinted at in chapter 33 when the demon exclaims the Great Sage “truly knows how to pole mountains [dan shan, 擔山]!” A poem spoken by Sun Wukong in chapter 67 confirms the connection:

Purvavideha was my ancestral home,
I did cultivation on Mount Flower-Fruit.
I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mind
and perfected with him the martial arts.
I can tame dragons, stirring up the seas;
I can tote mountains to chase down the sun.
In binding fiends and demon’s I’m the best;
Moving stars and planets, I scare ghosts and gods.
Stealing from heav’n and Earth gives me great fame,
Of boundless change, Handsome Stone Monkey’s my name (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 243).

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Fig. 5 – Erlang poling the mountains (larger version). Artist unknown.

“I can tote mountains to chase down the sun” (shan hui dan shan gan ri tou, 善會擔山趕日頭) is a clear allusion to the ancient tale “Erlang carries mountains to chase the suns” (Erlang dan shan gan taiyang, 二郎擔​​山趕太陽). The tale describes how the ancient earth was plagued by many suns that scorched the land, making it impossible for the people to grow anything. Vowing to end this plight, the hero Erlang shoulders two mountains hanging from a tree and, with the aid of magical shoes, chases down each sun [fig. 5], using the weight from both landmasses to overwhelm and crush the superfluous celestial bodies (担山赶太阳, n.d). Apart from the feat of lifting two mountains, Erlang’s fleet pursuit of each sun (gan taiyang, 趕太陽) foreshadows Monkey “giv[ing] chase to his master with the speed of a meteor” (fei xing lai gan shifu, 飛星來趕師父).

It’s interesting to note that “Erlang Carrying Mountains” (Erlang dan shan, 二郎擔山) is a common Shaolin stance, and a staff variant even appears in the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 6). The staff obviously recalls the pole (or in this case tree) that Erlang uses to bear the weight of the mountains.

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Fig. 6 – The “Erlang Carrying Mountains” staff stance (larger version).


Updated: 06/23/2021

One thing I forgot to stress was the speed with which Sun Wukong is able to run while carrying the mountains. The novel reads: “Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor!” (Kan ta tiaozhe liang zuo dashan, feixing lai gan shifu, 看他挑著兩座大山,飛星來趕師父) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 109). According to this page, meteors (feixing, 飛星; lit: “flying stars”) enter the atmosphere between 25,000 to 160,000 mph (40,226 to 257,451 km/h). So Monkey would be traveling at mach 32 to 208(!) while carrying the weight of the aforesaid mountains. Pretty impressive, no? This puts the Flash to shame (fig. 7). I wonder if Superman has ever carried something this heavy while running.

Fig. 7 – DC Comics’ the Flash running at super speed (larger version). Found randomly online.

Sources:

Alter, J. S., & OUP. (1992). The wrestler’s body: Identity and ideology in north India. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Gao, W., Wang, A., & Weightman, F. (2012). A handbook of Chinese cultural terms. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford On Demand Pub.

Henning, S. (2009). Taijiquan: Symbol of traditional Chinese martial arts culture. Journal of Chinese Martial Arts (1), pp. 76-83.

Poo, M. (2011). Preparation for the afterlife in ancient China In Olberding, A., & Ivanhoe, P. J. (Ed.) Mortality in traditional Chinese thought (pp. 13-36). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

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

Watson, B. (1999a). Mozi: Utility, uniformity, and Universal Love In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 64-76). New York: Columbia University Press.

Watson, B. (1999b). The great Han historians In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 367-374). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

担山赶太阳. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://baike.baidu.com/item/担山赶太阳