Archive #37 – The 13th-Century Version of Journey to the West

I’ve previously written an article describing The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century), a seventeen chapter novelette that likely served as a prompt for oral storytellers. It is the oldest printed version of the Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) story cycle. Here, I would like to present an English translation of this tale by Charles S. Wivell (1994).

Archive link:

The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought back the Sutras

Detail of Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim from a late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). See here for more ancient depictions of Sun Wukong and his master.


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.


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.

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

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

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

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

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


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

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

1.2. Oldest known depictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.2. Oldest known depiction

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

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

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

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

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

4. First appearance? 

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

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

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

5. Conclusion



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

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive #30 – The “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” Story from Liaozhai zhiyi (1740)

The world famous Liaozhai zhiyi (聊齋志異, 1740; a.k.a. “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”) is a collection of over 400 narratives serving as a snapshot of late-Ming and early-Qing-era popular stories and culture. This is why story no. 4 of scroll 11, “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖), is important to the study of the Monkey King’s religion as it shows his cult was active in 17th and 18th-century Fujian. It also preserves the condescension that the scholarly class held for certain gods. For example, as Meir Shahar (1996) points out, the author Pu Songling was likely speaking through the main character Xu Sheng (許盛), a young merchant from Shandong, when he states: “Sun Wukong is nothing but a parable invented by [the novelist] Old Qiu [老丘]” (pp. 194). [1] Here, Xu chastises the people of Fujian for worshiping what he considers to be a fictional god. In addition, the story associates the Great Sage with a heavenly sword as opposed to his famous magic staff. I believe this is related to a 13th-century stone relief carving from Quanzhou.

Below, I have archived the only complete English translation of the tale that I’m aware of. It comes from volume six of Sidney L. Sondergard’s (Pu & Sondergard, 2014) Strange Tales from Liaozhai (pp. 2078-2085). I don’t currently have access to the physical book, so I have isolated the tale from an ebook and converted it into a PDF.

Archive link:

Click to access Strange-Tales-from-Liaozhai-vol.-6_removed.pdf


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.


1) This refers to Qiu Chuji (丘處機, 1148-1227), the founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism during the Song Dynasty. Qiu is associated with a travel journal also named Journey to the West, which Pu Songling confused with the novel of the same name (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2080 n. 1).


Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China. In Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (1996). Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Pu, S., & Sondergard, S. L. (2014). Strange Tales from Liaozhai: Vol. 6. Fremont, Calif: Jain Pub.

The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures: The Literary Precursor of Journey to the West

Last updated: 09-14-19

The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (西遊記, Xiyouji) was anonymously publish in 1592 and has since then enjoyed the adoration of readers for the last four centuries. But not many people know that an earlier version of the novel exists that predates the popular narrative by some three hundred years. Titled The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century), this seventeen chapter novelette likely served as a prompt for oral storytellers, [1] and given it’s age, contains material that differs greatly from the final 16th-century version. For example, the disciple Zhu Bajie doesn’t even appear in the story, and a precursor of Sha Wujing only makes a brief cameo as a monster that Monkey battles. The novelette is also known as the “Kozanji  version” as two editions are mentioned in a 1633 catalog held by the titular Japanese Buddhist temple. The Chinese scholars Wang Guowei (王國維, 1877-1927) and Luo Zhenyu (羅振玉, 1866-1940) first identified the earlier of the two editions as a work of the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). [2] This article will summarize each short chapter, as well as discuss the similarities and differences between it and the final Ming version of Journey to the West. I rely heavily on the English translation by Charles S. Wivell (1994).



Chapter Two: En Route They Encounter the Monkey Pilgrim

Tripitaka and five other monks happen upon a white-clad scholar on their way to India. The figure warns the Sutra Master that his two previous incarnations have died on such a journey, and he will die a thousand times more unless he has protection. The scholar reveals himself to be “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Huaguoshan ziyundong bawan siqian tongtou tie’e mihou wang, 花果山紫雲洞八萬四千銅頭鐵額獼猴王) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). Tripitaka accepts his help and rejoices that Karma is uniting the past, present, and future to benefit the people of China. Tripitaka gives him the name “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者).


1) Tripitaka initially sets out with a retinue of monks, but they are all eventually killed by monsters and tigers in chapters 13 and 14.
2) He starts referring to Monkey by the name Pilgrim Sun (Sun Xingzhe, 孫行者) in chapter 14.


1) Triptaka happens upon Monkey at the base of Five Elements Mountain, where he has been imprisoned for the last five hundred years. He removes a magic talisman from the top of the mountain, allowing the immortal to break free. See chapter 14.
2) The name Sun Wukong does not appear in the novelette. He is given the name by the immortal Subodhi in chapter one.

Chapter Three: Entering the Palace of Mahābrahmā Devarāja

Pilgrim tells the monks he is so old that he has seen the Yellow River dry up nine different times over thousands of generations. Since the immortal has knowledge of the celestial realms, Tripitaka asks Monkey to fly the group to heaven to attend the Buddhist feast being held by Vaiśravana, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王), in the Crystal Palace. There, the devas ask the monk to give a lecture on the Lotus Sutra. Knowing that a monster, the “Spirit of the Deep Sand” (Shensha shen, 深沙神), had twice devoured Tripitaka in the past, the Devarāja bestows on Monkey three magic weapons to aid in his defense. These include a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed monk’s staff, and a begging bowl. In addition, Vaiśravana tells them to call his name so that they may be delivered from any danger they face on the journey.


1) Monkey travels to and from heaven as he pleases.
2) He interacts with Vaiśravana on several occasions (see below).
3) The Bodhisattva Guanyin bestows Tripitaka with a golden-ringed monk’s staff and a cassock in chapter 12.


1) Monkey is roughly 1,100 hundred years old when he first meets Tripitaka.
2) He never uses his magic to transport the monk by cloud because the impure nature of mortal bodies makes them far too heavy. See chapter 22.
3) The August Jade Emperor is the ruler of heaven in the final version.
4) Vaiśravana makes several appearances as the Pagoda-Bearing Heavenly King Li Jing, father of the child god, Prince Nezha. [3] Monkey battles Li Jing and Prince Nezha during his rebellion in heaven. See chapter 4, for example.
5) Tripitaka is not eaten over and over again. He was originally the Golden Cicada Bodhisattva, who was exiled from heaven for falling asleep during one of the Buddha’s lectures. He goes through nine pious incarnations before he is reborn as the Sutra Master.
6) Monkey fights with an iron cudgel, which he retrieved from the underwater treasury of Ao Guang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. See chapter 3.
7) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Four: Entry in Incense Mountain Temple

The group travels to the land of the “Thousand-Armed Thousand-Eyed Bodhisattva” (Qian shou qian yan pusa, 千手千眼菩薩), or the Bodhisattva Guanyin (Wivell, 1994, p. 1185). They come upon the Incense Mountain Temple, which is lorded over by statues of fierce guardian deities. Inside, Tripitaka is dismayed to find the holy place has fallen into complete disrepair. Monkey reminds him that the worst is yet to come; the road to the west is full of foreign people with strange languages, wild animals, and unspeakable monsters.

They travel further and enter the Country of Snakes, which is populated by massive serpents that bellow miasmic clouds. However, despite their terrible appearance, the snakes respect the Buddha and let the pilgrims pass through unharmed.


1) Guanyin lives on Mount Potalaka, an island in the Eastern Ocean.
2) The giant serpents do not appear in the final version.

Chapter Five: Passing the Lion Wood and the Country of Tree People

The seven monks travel to the Lion Wood country where they are greeted by countless unicorns and lions with flowers in their mouths. Upon entering the Country of the Tree People, the group finds an inn to spend the night, and in the morning, a young monk is sent to fetch breakfast. However, hours pass without the little disciple returning, so Monkey searches the local village and finds that the monk has been transformed into a donkey by a sorcerer. Pilgrim uses his powers to turn the man’s wife into a bale of grass to feed her to the donkey as revenge. Horrified, the sorcerer then recalls his magic by spitting a mouthful of water on the animal. Monkey does the same and threatens to “mow down all the grass of [his] house” (i.e., kill his wife and anyone else he loves) if the man misuses his powers again (Wivell, 1994, p. 1187). The sorcerer promises to let the group pass through the country unharmed.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Six: Passing Long Ditch and Great Serpent Peak

The monks travel to the valley of the fire-spitting white tiger spirit and encounter a large ditch through which they cannot pass. Pointing the ringed staff towards the heavens, Tripitaka calls the name of Vaiśravana and a ray of light issues forth from the rod that destroys the ditch. Next, the group passes through a fiery pit in which Ming Huang, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, “changed his bones” and deposited them “like snow on a mountain” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1188). [4] Finally, the Sutra Master calls on the Devarāja once more and uses his alms bowl to extinguish a great prairie fire.

Pilgrim warns Tripitaka that they are passing through the territory of a white tiger spirit who can assume the form of any person. She appears out of the mist wearing white clothing and riding a white pony. Monkey confronts her, causing the spirit to forsake her beautiful façade and take on a demonic white tiger form. He then: “…transform[s] his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touche[s] the sky and whose feet straddle the earth. In his hands he grasp[s] a demon-subduing cudgel. His body [is] blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam sh[oots] forth a hundred yards long” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). She refuses to submit, so Pilgrim uses his magic to make her vomit up countless monkeys without end. When she still refuses to surrender, he takes the form of an ever-growing stone in her stomach, causing it to explode. The spirit is finally destroyed when Monkey orders the Yakşa to crush her with his cudgel.


1) The prairie fire may be a precursor to the Fiery Mountain that Monkey extinguishes in chapter 59.
2) The mention of bones and a white-clad demon likely resulted in the White Bone Demon (Baigujing, 白骨精) from chapter 27.
3) Monkey’s staff from the final version has the ability to grow, shrink, and take on different forms.
4) Pilgrim defeats several monsters by invading their stomach. See, for example, chapters 59, 75, and 82.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Seven: Entering Nine Dragon Pond

The group enters the territory of the Nine Dragon Pond, home to nine-headed dragons that cause devastating floods. Nine of the beasts leap from the water intent on taking Tripitaka’s life, but Pilgrim intervenes by blanketing the sky in darkness with a cloak created from the cap of invisibility, and enveloping thousands of miles of water with the alms bowl. He then transforms the ringed staff into a great iron dragon and engages the creatures in a two day long battle. Fighting them to exhaustion, Monkey rips out their spinal sinews as punishment and weaves them into a magical belt that gives Tripitaka the ability to travel at great speeds. In addition, he subjects each creature to eight hundred blows with an iron cudgel.


1) Monkey battles a dragon who eats and eventually replaces Tripitaka’s horse in chapter 15.
2) The iron staff is a precursor of Monkey’s weapon from the final version.


1) Monkey only battles with a single staff.
2) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Eight: TITLE MISSING


[After blocking the group’s passage through a quicksand-like desert,] The Spirit of the Deep Sand reveals: “I am the one who devoured you twice before, monk. Slung from my neck are all your dry bones!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). The monster only helps the monks cross the “Deep Sands” (Shensha, 深沙) via a magical golden bridge once he is threatened with heavily retribution. Memorial poems note that Tripitaka releases the Spirit from a five hundred-year-long curse, and Pilgrim promises to speak highly of him when they meet the Buddha.


1) The Spirit of the Deep Sand is the literary precursor of Sha Wujing from the final version.
2) The bones of Tripitaka mentioned here are similar to the nine monk skulls hanging from Wujing’s neck.
3) The monster-turned-disciple helps Tripitaka pass through the “Flowing Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) by turning the nine skulls into a makeshift raft. See chapter 22.

Chapter Nine: Entering the Country of Hārītī

The seven monks travel to a sparsely populated country peopled mainly by unattended three-year-old children. The few adults who can be found do not bother to interact with the group when spoken to. They eventually meet a king who throws them a lavish vegetarian banquet and reveals that they have entered the Country of Hārītī (Guizi mu, 鬼子母), or the “Mother of Ghostly Children”. Tripitaka is shocked to learn that they have been interacting with disembodied spirits during their stay. The King sends them off with bushels of rice, gold, pearls, and embroidered cloth to help pay for their journey. A memorial poem notes that the monks will repay their debt of gratitude by obtaining the scriptures.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Ten: Passing Through the Country of Women

The group travels for some time before Tripitaka calls on the Devarāja once more to help them bypass a raging flood. They pass through several uninhabited territories before they enter the Country of Women, where the Queen offers them a Buddhist feast. They decline to eat, however, as the food is full of sand, but offer to send the country much needed grains upon their return to the East.

The Queen invites Tripitaka and his retinue to remain as permanent residents and even offers to build them their own temple. Furthermore, she offers them any number of beautiful women as prospective brides. But true to their vow, the monks decline in order to continue their journey to India. The Queen sends them off with pearls and a white horse.


1) Tripitaka and his disciples pass through the Country of Women in chapter 54.
2) The Queen attempts to entice them to stay.

Chapter Eleven: Entering the Pool of the Queen Mother

Tripitaka asks Pilgrim to steal some immortal peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, a primordial goddess, in order to quell his great thirst. Monkey, however, hesitates as he was originally beaten with an iron club and exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for stealing her peaches when he was just eight hundred years old. He remarks that his shanks are still sore even at twenty-seven thousand years of age. They eventually enter the Queen Mother’s realm and look up high above a cliff to see the immortal peach trees laden with fruit. Monkey explains: “These peach trees sprout a thousand years after planting. They blossom in three thousand years and produce a fruit in ten thousand years. The fruit requires ten thousand more years to ripen. He who eats one gains three thousand years of life” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1196).

Several of the ripe fruits fall from the trees into the pond below. Pilgrim raps the golden-ringed monk’s staff on the ground three, five, and seven times, each time summoning a different immortal child to the surface of the water. The first and second children respectively claim to be three thousand and five thousand years old. The third child, who claims to be seven thousand years old, is pulled from the water and quickly devoured in the form of a jujube, or Chinese date. [5] The story mentions in passing that, upon their return to China, Monkey spits out the pit in Sichuan province, thus explaining the origin of ginseng in the area.


1) Pilgrim steals peaches from the Queen Mother’s immortal peach grove in chapter 5. The chapter notes that there are three classes of immortal peaches, each taking thousands upon thousands of years to ripen.
2) He is punished for his transgressions against heaven. See chapters 6 and 7.
3) Tripitaka and his disciples eat baby-shaped ginseng fruit that bestows on them forty-seven thousand years of life. The fruits are harvested from a magical tree with a golden rod. See chapter 24 through 26.


1) Monkey is born on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits in chapter one.
2) He is imprisoned under the Five Elements Mountain for trying to usurp the throne of heaven.
3) Again, he is roughly 1,100 hundred years old.
4) Tripitaka would never ask Pilgrim to steal anything for him.
5) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Twelve: Entering the Country of Heavy Scent

They travel to an unpopulated country full of large, ancient trees.

Chapter Thirteen: Entering the Country of Vara

The monks travel through Vara, a paradise on earth, complete with beautiful women, neatly kept homes, playful children, and lions and dragons who chant the Buddha’s name.

Chapter Fourteen: Entering the Country of Utpala

They travel through Utpala, a flower-filled extension of the Buddha’s paradise in which the inhabitants live for countless ages and never want for food. [6]


1) These brief episodes do not appear in the final version.

Chapter Fifteen: Entering India and Crossing the Sea

The group finally arrives in India and seeks lodging in the Prosperous Immortals Temple. After a vegetarian meal, the temple monks engage Tripitaka in a sarcastic conversation about the purpose of his quest, noting that they themselves have no need to seek the Buddha’s law any further since they already have copies of the sutras. They warn Tripitaka that endless miles of oceans and mountains separate him from Chicken Foot Mountain, home of the Buddha. Furthermore, they claim that, even if his group could surmount such a vast distance, the scriptures themselves are unattainable as they are kept in the Buddha’s residence high atop a sheer cliff accessible only to holy men with the gift of flight. The Sutra Master is disheartened at first, but Monkey suggests that the group gather the following morning to pray wholeheartedly to the Buddha. Their beautiful chanting causes the sky to go black and resound with thunder and lightning. When the darkness subsides, they are delighted to find that a near complete Buddhist canon has appeared before them. Only the Heart Sutra is missing from among the scriptures.


1) Tripitaka and his disciples actually travel to Vulture Peak, where the Buddha gives them the Buddhist canon. See chapter 98.
2) The sutras that they initially receive are destroyed in an accident linked to karmic retribution. But they eventually get new copies. See chapter 99.
3) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Sixteen: Returning They Arrive at the Fragrant Grove Temple and Receive the Heart Sutra

On their return trip home, the monks seek lodging in the Fragrant Grove Temple in the Country of Pan Lu. Tripitaka dreams a heavenly envoy announces that he will be given the Heart Sutra. The group awakens to a defining noise and rises to see the Buddha emerge from colorful clouds in the form of a young, beautiful monk carrying a golden-ringed staff. He reaches into his sleeve and retrieves a scroll, noting that its power should not be shared with the unworthy because: “As soon as this sutra is opened, bright lights will flash, ghosts will weep and spirits will howl, winds and waves will quiet of themselves, and the sun and moon will cease to shine!” (p. 1201).

Additionally, the Buddha orders Tripitaka to have Tang Emperor Xuanzong build Buddhist temples, initiate monks, and promote the Buddhist Law throughout China.

The Enlightened One only gives the monks three months to complete the task of escorting the sutras back to China, for a “Lotus-Plucking Barge” will be arriving at a particular place and time to transport them to paradise (Wivell, 1994, p. 1202).


1) The Buddha tells Vajra guardians to transport the monk and his disciples to paradise once they have completed their mission. See chapter 98.


1) The Buddha is portrayed as a huge, towering figure with a golden body. See chapter 98.
2) Tripitaka, his disciples, and the sutras are magically transported back to China by eight Vajra guardians. See chapter 100.
3) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Seventeen: They Reach Shensi, Where the Wife of the Householder Wang Kills His Son

The householder Wang (Wang zhangzhe, 王長者) leaves his second wife, whose maiden name is Meng (孟), to care for her step-son Daffy (Chi na, 癡那) while he is away trading goods in foreign lands. Half a year goes by when she receives a letter from Wang dictating that all of their money should go to Daffy if anything were to happen to him. This greatly enrages Meng since Stay-Put (Ju na, 居那), her son from a previous marriage, would miss out on any inheritance. Meng then conspires with her maid Spring Willow (Chunliu, 春柳) to kill Daffy before Wang’s return. They respectively boil him in a pot, rip out his tongue, and starve him, but each time he is magically saved by some unseen supernatural force. For instance, after four days of boiling in the pot, Daffy emerges unscathed and claims: “[T]he iron caldron changed into a lily pad on which I sat, surrounded by the cool waters of a pond. I could sleep or just sit there. It was very comfortable” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1203). Finally, they push Daffy into a tumultuous river and he is swept away. Word of the boy’s death soon spreads to his father, who returns home in tears. Wang holds a Buddhist feast to honor the memory of his son. [7]

Upon their return to China, Tripitaka and the monks stop to attend the feast. The Sutra Master refuses to eat any of the food, however, on the grounds that he is too drunk and needs fish broth to sober up. Following the monk’s instructions, Wang buys the largest specimen that he can find and sets it before Tripitaka. He slices the stomach open with a knife and Daffy emerges unharmed. In the end, father and son are reunited and the treachery of Madame Meng and Spring Willow is exposed.

The monks travel onto the capital where Buddhist feasts are held in their honor. Emperor Xuanzong personally accepts the Heart Sutra and has seven statues of the Buddha commissioned. Soon, the appointed day arrives and “the seven [pilgrims] boarded the barge and, looking due west, they ascended into the heavens and became immortals” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1206). Tang Taizong later honors Monkey with the name “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207).


1) The child emerging from the boiling pot unharmed recalls Monkey’s time in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. See chapter 7.
2) Tripitaka and his disciples are granted Buddhahood and Arhatship after returning to the Western Paradise. See chapter 100.
3) Monkey’s new name recalls his title “Great Sage Equally Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) from chapter 4.
4) This also recalls Sun receiving the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) upon attaining Buddhahood in chapter 100.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Update: 09-14-19

I have written an article discussing the influence of the Buddhist saint Mulian on the Monkey Pilgrim from the story prompt.

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian


1) The term shihua (詩話) at the end of the tale’s Chinese name is synonymous with huaben (話本), a genre of vernacular oral literature.
2) Stories dealing with the adventures of the monk Tripitaka and Sun Wukong appeared as early as the 11th-century, as evidenced by cave art from that time. Such tales were originally created and told by professional storytellers in busy market places, much like the famed Yangzhou storytellers of today. Standardized repertoires were eventually collected and published during the late Song Dynasty. See Dudbridge (1970) for more information.
3) Li Jing (李靖, 571-649) was a historical Tang dynasty general who won many battles in China and Central Asia. Shahar (2013) notes Li was deified after his death, and that the cult centered around him existed into the Song Dynasty. Most importantly, “The general [was] celebrated in a large body of oral and written fiction, which gradually associated him with the Indian god [Vaiśravana]”. He continues, “Storytellers and playwrights [eventually] merged the Tang general with the martial Heavenly King” (p. 28). This merging may have happened as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (Shahar & Kieschnick, 2013, p. 224 n. 18).
4) This changing of bones most likely refers to some type of realized spiritual cultivation that resulted in a new, pure body for the future emperor.
5) It would seem the immortal fruit takes on the form of children upon entering the pool.
6) The land of Utpala sounds very much like Tao Quan’s famous tale the “Peach Blossom Spring” (421), which tells the story of how a fisherman stumbles upon a garden paradise where the inhabitants never age (Barnhart, 1983, pp. 13-16).
7) This portion of the story is very similar to the late 9th- to early 10th-century “Transformation Text on the Boy Shun’s Extreme Filial Piety”. For a comparative analysis, see Mair (1987). For a complete English translation of the tale, see Bodman (1994).


Barnhart, R. M., & Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.) (1983). Peach blossom spring: Gardens and flowers in Chinese paintings. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bodman, R.W. (1994). The transformation text on the boy Shun’s extreme filial piety. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1128-1134). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Mair, V. H. (1987). Parallels between some Tun-Huang manuscripts and the 17th chapter of the Kozanji Journey to the West. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 3, 41-53.

Shahar, M., & Kieschnick, J. (2013). India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shahar, M. (2013). Indian mythology and the Chinese imagination: Nezha, Nalakubara, and Krshna. In Meir Shahar and John Kieschnick. India in the Chinese imagination: Myth, religion, and thought (pp. 21-45). University of Pennsylvania 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.