Zhu Bajie’s Earliest Known Depictions and the Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda

Last updated: 10-26-19

I suggested in a previous article that Zhu Bajie was first added to the Journey to the West story cycle during the 14th-century. This is because the character does not appear in the 13th-century version of the story, but he does appear in a stage play from the 15th-century. Thanks to the writing of Prof. Ben Brose, I learned of Pigsy’s three earliest known depictions from this time period. The first is a Yuan Dynasty Cizhou ware ceramic pillow showing all of the characters (fig. 1). The second is a fragmented Yuan-era blue and white incense burner (fig. 2). Older still are Zhu’s depictions appearing on the 14th-century Gyeongcheonsa pagoda (Kyŏngch’ŏnsa sipch’ŭng sŏkt’ap, 경천사십층석탑) from Korea (fig. 3). You read that right, Korea!

cizhou ware pillow and korean pagoda

Fig. 1 – The Cizhou ware pillow featuring Pigsy and the other pilgrims (larger version); Fig. 2 – A fragment of the blue and white incense burner showing Pigsy leading the White Dragon Horse (larger version). Fragments with the other characters can be found here; Fig. 3 – The Gyeongcheonsa pagoda is now housed inside of the National Museum of Korea (larger version). 

I. Why Korea?

The Pak t’ongsa ŏnhae (Ch: 朴通事諺解, Pu tongshi yanjie), a circa 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese, presents the Journey to the West story cycle as a highly popular tale among Koreans. This fact is revealed during a conversation between two Buddhist monks, one of which states: “The Xiyouji is lively. It is good reading when you are feeling gloomy” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 180). The same monk then recounts an episode where Monkey competes with three animal spirits-cum-Daoist priests in a test of magic skill. This episode comprises chapters 44 to 46 in the final Ming version of the novel. [1] The popularity of the Chinese story cycle in Korea then explains why scenes from it appear on the pagoda.

II. Pagoda Background

The National Museum of Korea explains the 13.5 meter (44.3 ft) tower has a long and tumultuous history:

Made of marble, this ten-story stone pagoda was erected at Gyeongcheonsa Temple in Gaeseong in 1348, the fourth year of the reign of Goryeo’s King Chungmok. The first tier of the pagoda bears an inscription that records various details about the pagoda’s production, including the production date and the patrons. According to the inscription, the pagoda was sponsored by Goryeo people who were associated with China’s Yuan Dynasty. Notably, this stone pagoda was closely modeled after wooden architecture, and each story is expertly carved with Buddhist images. The platform is sculpted with scenes of Xiyouji (Journey to the West), as well as lions, dragons, and lotus flowers. The lower four stories are sculpted with scenes of Buddha’s Assembly, while the upper six stories are sculpted with images of Buddha with both hands clasped. The four sides of the platform and those of the lower three tiers are protruding, recalling the shape of Tibetan-Mongolian pagodas that were prevalent in the Yuan period. However, the upper seven tiers have a more standard rectangular shape that corresponds with the conventional form of stone pagodas. Notably, about 120 years after this pagoda was built, the Joseon royal court erected a stone pagoda with a similar material and shape at Wongaksa Temple in Gwangju. In 1907, this pagoda was illegally dismantled and smuggled to Japan by Tanaka Mitsuyaki, the Japanese Minister of the Imperial Household. However, thanks in part to the efforts of a British journalist named Ernest Thomas Bethel and an American journalist named Homer Hulbert, it was returned to Korea in 1918. The pagoda was partially restored in 1960, while it was being kept at Gyeongbokgung Palace, but after having been kept outside for so long, suffering the effects of weather and acid rain, it could not be properly preserved. Thus, in 1995, it was dismantled for a more extensive restoration project. Ten years later, it was reassembled inside the new building of the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, being unveiled as part of the museum’s grand opening in 2005 (“Ten-story Stone Pagoda”, n.d.).

The pagoda’s political and architectural connections to Yuan China further explain why scenes from the story cycle grace the platform.

III. The Images

Twenty Journey to the West-related scenes appear on the second level of the pagoda’s multifaceted three-tiered base. The following line drawings, which are based on ink rubbings of the original carvings, come from an in-depth field report by the Yegŭrin Architectural Firm (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993). (Note: I have recently learned that the line drawings from Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso (1993) are all but useless. See the update below for more info.) The images are presented below starting from the southernmost face (the six o’clock position) of the pagoda’s diamond-shaped cross section, proceeding in a clockwise fashion. Each is accompanied with commentary from the original report.[2] You will notice the report is generally vague as the exact meaning of the scenes are often unclear. I will therefore present my own commentary or questions below in the hopes of furthering the discussion.

Number One: A royal send off

image 1 (small)

Fig. 5 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure of a Buddhist monk stands at the front, and behind him a horse and figures in the shape of a pig’s head, a monkey, and more are depicted. The figure of the Buddhist monk appears to be Monk Xuanzang, the figure of the monkey, Sun Wukong, the figure with the pig’s head, Zhu Bajie, and the last figure appears to be Sha Wujing. In other words, it is Monk Xuanzang’s travel companions. On the right, pictured symmetrically with Xuanzang’s travel party is the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown, and behind him stands a figure of a young boy holding an umbrella over his head and the figures of three noblemen.

And to the right of this a building structure is depicted. The nobleman who is at the very front wearing a crown seems to be a king and the building structure appears to represent a palace. Therefore, the content of the carving above seems to be the scene of a king sending off Monk Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 5] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).

Could this scene be a telescopic version of the narrative, one in which the already assembled group is being sent off by Tang Taizong? After all, the authors suggest in panel number ten that the first ten images likely show the journey to India, while the latter half shows the return (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124). Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the king as the largest and therefore the most important, with Tripitaka being the second tallest/important, and the three disciples even shorter. Pigsy’s porcine head really stands out as Sandy is depicted as a human monk.

Number Two: On the Road

image 2 (small)

Fig. 6 – (larger version)

As above, the horse and the travel party of Monk Xuanzang, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing have been portrayed. Here Sha Wujing is carrying a knapsack. On the left a road populated with animals and birds are depicted. Therefore, here it appears to show that Monk Xuanzang and his companions are traveling on a mountain road [fig. 6] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).

Take note of Pigsy’s upraised hands and wide stride. This motif appears several more times on other panels (fig. 12, 13, 17, and 24). The posture is quite similar to that from the aforementioned ceramic pillow and incense burner, which depict Pigsy carrying his rake and leading the horse. He lacks his signature weapon in these scenes, however (fig. 7). This might explain the strange posture of his right hand.

Korean Pagoda paper - Pigsy iconography comparison

Fig. 7 – Similar Pigsy iconography from the Cizhou ware pillow (left), the incense burner (center), and panel two (right), all corresponding with the Yuan Dynasty (larger version). See also figure 24 for a better match. 

Number Three: A prisoner?

image 3 (small)

Fig. 8 – (larger version)

On the left, the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown is kneeling. Behind him, a figure of a person holding a club appears to threaten the nobleman in front. Behind them something like an altar is depicted. Symmetrical with the figure of the kneeling nobleman, a figure looking like a government official from a prison in a provincial district stands holding a tool of torture.

Even if we don’t know what this is, it seems to show the oppression by those of other religions during the years of Xuanzang’s journey [fig. 8] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

My view on the scene differs from the authors. The “government official” appears to be a deity (noted by the flowing ribbons around the shoulders), possibly Guanyin since the upheld item reminds me of her holy vase. The figure to the right could be her disciple Moksha. Would this make the club-wielding figure Monkey and his prisoner a captured demon?

Number Four: A confrontation

image 4 (small)

Fig. 9 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure holding a club and Monk Xuanzang are depicted. On the right, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are portrayed. Here Monkey is posed as if he is defeating something with the stick, and behind the horse Sha Wujing is carrying the knapsack. Monk Xuanzang is shown lifting his left hand as if he is arguing something. This appears to show the scene of Xuanzang’s companions defeating some hindrance [fig. 9] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

I believe Tripitaka is begging Monkey not to slay or beat the person, as the monk steps in many times throughout the narrative to do this. Could this be the White Bone Demon under one of its many disguises from chapter 27?

Number 5: A king or deity

image 5 (small)

Fig. 10 – (larger version)

On the right side, a figure riding a lion is depicted. On the left side, three figures that seem like they are servants are depicted, and in the back a building structure is carved. It seems to depict some group of royals or noblemen on Xuanzang’s way to India [fig. 10] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

The group of servants appear to me to be our pilgrims, the long-faced figure possibly being Pigsy. The figure riding the lion could be Manjusri and his feline mount. Could this be a reference to him subduing the beast in chapter 77? The figure’s hands appear to be producing bolts of lightning. I’m not sure of the significance, if any.

Number Six: A foreign court

image 6 (small)

Fig. 11 – (larger version)

On the right, there is a figure of a Buddhist monk holding a monk’s staff who seems to be Monk Xuanzang, and a figure to his left seems to be a disguised Monkey. On the left, figures of noblemen from a palace are portrayed. This appears to depict a scene where Monk Xuanzang’s travel party is welcomed in some palace along the road [fig. 11] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The strange figure in the middle is a complete mystery to me. While the figure is identified as Monkey, it’s impossible to tell for sure.

Number Seven: Fire Mountain

image 7 (small)

Fig. 12 – (larger version)

On the left side, a pattern of fire sparks is carved. And in front of that is Monkey, holding a fan trying to put out the fire. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is carrying out some action with lifted hands, and behind him Zhu Bajie is holding the horse reins while Sha Wujing as always is carrying the knapsack. This depicts the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting and trying to eliminate difficulties along the road [fig. 12] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

This is the least ambiguous of the twenty scenes and my personal favorite. It depicts Monkey using the magic palm leaf fan to conquer the flames of Fire Mountain.

Pigsy’s upraised hand-wide stride motif appears once more.

Number Eight: Offerings

image 8 (small)

Fig. 13 – (larger version)

A table is placed in the middle, and on top of it lays objects that seem to be offerings. On the right Xuanzang’s travel party and on the left figures of noblemen or royals are depicted. Two of the figures from Xuanzang’s travel party are covering their heads with something, but this seems to be to conceal the sight of Monkey and Zhu Bajie’s animal heads. This appears to be the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party receiving offerings from a royal or gentry family along the way [fig. 13] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The bearded figure between Tripitaka and the supposedly veiled figure is no doubt Pigsy, based on his upraised hands and wide stride. The elongated snout has been confused for a beard.

Also, could the veil actually be supplies on the horse’s back? Maybe the original rubbing is degraded in this area, making the head look as if it is under (instead of in front of) the object.

Number Nine: Another confrontation

image 9 (small)

Fig. 14 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure of a nobleman who is kneeling or bending his head is depicted. On the right, the figure of Zhu Bajie, who is trying to attack the nobleman, and the figure of Monk Xuanzang, who is trying to prevent this, are shown. It appears to be depicting some sort of misunderstanding that happened between the nobleman and Xuanzang’s attendant [fig. 14] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

Pigsy has not been portrayed with a weapon up to this point. It would make more sense if Monkey was wielding the staff. After all, figure 17 depicts Sun standing in a similar posture while wielding a club/staff. Perhaps the elongated face on this panel is just an artifact from the original rubbing?

Number Ten: A temple

image 10 (small)

Fig. 15 – (larger version)

On the left side, Xuanzang bears a monk’s staff and his attendants are depicted together with the horse. And on the right side, symmetrical to this, are the figures of a Buddhist monk (holding a monk’s staff) and his attendant, who are about to receive Xuanzang’s travel party. This appears to depict the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party being welcomed by the monks of some temple along the way. Here Monkey and Zhu Bajie seem to have transformed into monks and are posing as Buddhist monks.

The above ten sides, beginning at due south and reaching due north, appear to be depicting the process of Xuanzang’s travel party going to India, while the ten sides starting at due north appears to depict their return journey [fig. 15] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The scene shows the small monk on the right passing something to Tripitaka. Based on iconography from the following images (see, for example, fig. 18), this could be portraying the monks receiving the scriptures in India.

Number Eleven: Returning home

image 11 (small)

Fig. 16 – (larger version)

On the left side, two horses carrying something on their backs and Xuanzang’s travel party are shown. On the left are two figures of kings with umbrellas held over their heads by attendants. And to the left of them, a figure of an official who seems to be guarding the palace is visible. This appears to be depicting the scene where the kings are sending off Xuanzang’s travel party, who are setting off on their journey home after obtaining the scriptures [fig. 16] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The “something” on the horses’ backs could be the scriptures.

Number Twelve: Saving their Master

image 12 (small)

Fig. 17 – (larger version)

On the left, the figure of a monk is caught by the figures of noblemen wearing crowns. On the left Monkey, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing and the horse are depicted. But Monkey and Zhu Bajie are assuming postures threatening to save the captured Monk Xuanzang. This seems to show the image of Monkey and company as guards, trying to save Xuanzang when he was being captured on their way back [fig. 17] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Here the figure wielding the staff is designated Monkey, with Pigsy standing behind him. Again, this makes more sense than Zhu Bajie attacking (as portrayed in figure 14).

Number Thirteen: Passing on the dharma

image 13 (small)

Fig. 18 – (larger version)

On the right side, Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse carrying the scriptures are depicted. Here Xuanzang is shown handing over some of the Buddhist scriptures to the figure of a monk on the left. This appears to show Xuanzang’s travel party passing on Buddhism along the way on their return journey [fig. 18] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Compare the shape of the Buddhist scriptures held by the monks with that in figure 15.

The panel draws on preexisting iconography regarding the sutras. The collection of holy writings are sometimes portrayed as a bundle of scrolls emitting an aura of holy light. See, for example, the 12th-century mural from Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu province, China (fig. 19).

Yulin Cave and Korean pagoda examples of sutras - small

 Fig. 19 – Detail of sutras from a 12th-century Yunlin cave mural (left) and the sutras from panel thirteen (right) (larger version). Both are shown stacked atop a horse. 

Number Fourteen: The emperor waits

image 14 (small)

Fig. 20 – (larger version)

In the middle of the right side, the figure of a king seated on a throne is depicted. On both sides of him figures of scholar-officials attend to him or sit. On the left, figures of officials are shown attending to duties or sitting. It seems this is depicting the scene of China’s emperor waiting for Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 20] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Could the figures at the table actually be our heroes, with Xuanzang kneeling before a foreign king?

Number Fifteen: An ascetic or Monkey

image 15 (small)

Fig. 21 – (larger version)

On the left side, a figure of an ascetic is depicted sitting under a tree (Bodhi tree) meditating, and Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse are depicted. Here Xuanzang is assuming a posture, holding the monk’s staff and lifting his right hand trying to assert something. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting an ascetic and passing on Buddhism on their journey home [fig. 21] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Look closely and you will notice that Sun Wukong does not appear in the scene. Could the “ascetic” be Monkey kneeling before Xuanzang. If so, could this be a reference to the immortal and his master mending their relationship in chapter 58 after the trickery of the Six-Eared Macaque forced them apart?

Number Sixteen: Imperial court

image 1 (small)

Fig. 22 – (larger version)

On the right, a building is depicted and inside it a figure of a king sitting on a throne, and in front of him, a figure of a kneeling monk (Xuanzang) are portrayed. Outside the building, the figure of a young monk that seems to be Xuanzang’s attendant is depicted. Behind him, figures that seem to be civil and military officials are depicted. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang meeting some king along his way [fig. 22](Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Could the “attendant” be Monkey?

Number Seventeen: Attacking a pagoda

image 2 (small)

Fig. 23 – (larger version)

On the left, a pagoda is depicted and in front of it, Zhu Bajie is carrying a club, assuming a posture trying to bring the pagoda down. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is lifting his right hand and insisting something, as if trying to stop him. This seems to show the soothing of Zhu Bajie’s aggressive, insulting actions towards Buddhism [fig. 23] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Like figure 14, it would make more sense if Monkey is the one wielding the staff. Could this be a reference to chapter 62 when Sun captures two fish spirits found on a pagoda’s topmost floor?

Number Eighteen: Nearing home

image 3 (small)

Fig. 24 – (larger version)

In the upper left part, the sun symbolizing light is depicted. Headed in that direction Monk Xuanzang is taking the lead and behind him Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are shown hurrying their steps while leading the horse. Here Monk Xuanzang seems to be urging Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, rushing their journey home [fig. 24] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

This includes Pigsy’s aforementioned motif. It is a better match for the ceramic pillow and incense burner examples from figure 19.

Number Nineteen: A deity appears

image 4 (small)

Fig. 25 – (larger version)

On the right, a figure of a celestial being is depicted and Xuanzang’s travel party is facing it symmetrically. This seems to show the fact that Xuanzang’s travel party received the blessing of celestial guardian deities [fig. 25] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).

I’m confused as to why the two characters on the far right are stacked one on the other. Per the original ink rubbing, could “they” actually be a singular figure, possibly someone of great importance given their size? Could the “deity” actually be Xuanzang being elevated in spiritual rank like in chapter 100?

Number Twenty: Teaching the dharma

image 5 (small)

Fig. 26 – (larger version)

On the left, something that seems to be a Buddhist altar is depicted. In front of it, Xuanzang is placed in the middle shown holding the monk’s staff, and Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are each shown performing different actions. Xuanzang is lifting his right hand, posed arguing something and you could say he is trying to educate his attendants, Monkey etc., in Buddhism [fig. 26] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).

While the line drawing looks more like a figure at a desk, it very well could be an altar with a Buddha statue. Could this depict the lives of our heroes after entering paradise?

IV. Other Pagodas

This is not the first time characters from the story cycle have appeared on a pagoda. Even older examples appear on the 13th-century tower of the Kaiyuan Temple from Quanzhou, Fujian province, China. In this previous article I described how the pagoda is covered with eighty life-sized carvings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, guardian deities, Buddhist saints, and eminent monks. Of note is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior that many consider to be an early example of Sun Wukong. Another is an armored, spear-wielding warrior believed to be the dragon prince who becomes the white dragon horse. Both occupy the same face of the eight-sided structure (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 47-48 and 49-51).

V. Conclusion

Zhu Bajie’s oldest known depictions come from a time coinciding with the late Yuan Dynasty, examples including a ceramic pillow and a fragmented incense burner from China and carvings on a pagoda from Korea. Built in 1348 by Goryeo representatives with ties to the Yuan court, the ten-story Gyeongcheonsa pagoda includes twenty Journey to the West-related scenes around the second level of the structure’s multifaceted three-tiered base. Many of the scenes are vague or focus more on kings and nobles in place of Tripitaka’s tribulations or instances of supernatural battles. One has to consider the story cycle was still solidifying at this point, so it’s possible some of the scenes depict episodes that did not make it into the final Ming version of the novel. But given the amount of royalty, is it possible the donors/planners were trying to ingratiate themselves with people of higher social rank? Or were they just trying to illustrate the great many countries visited by the pilgrims (each one ruled by a king) within the limited space provided?

The panels involving Pigsy for the most part use a consistent iconography borrowed from China. The aforementioned Yuan examples portray Pigsy leading the horse with one hand and with the other holding his signature rake, which rests on his shoulder, all while taking a large step forward. The pagoda panels, however, do not portray the rake, leaving our portly hero with his arm strangely floating in the air. Instead of a rake, some panels appear to show him wielding a staff. But the figure might actually be Sun Wukong, the elongated face just being an artifact from the original ink rubbings.

The fact that characters from the Journey to the West story cycle appear on Chinese and Korean pagodas alongside Buddhist deities proves just how intertwined the story is with the religion. The tale essentially symbolizes the quest for enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Therefore, such pictorial representations, especially the narrative-type scenes from Gyeongcheonsa, were probably meant to both entertain and spread the faith.

Update: 10-26-19

I have recently learned that the line drawings from Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso (1993) are all but useless. A prime example is number nineteen. As a reminder, here is the drawing:

Korean Pagoda scene with Red Boy - Line drawing

(larger version)

I originally suggested that the being on the cloud was Xuanzang being elevated in spiritual rank. I didn’t comment on the strange, flower-like cloud to the right of that figure because of its abstract shape.

Now here is a photo of the actual carving. It has been enhanced slightly for clarity.

Korean Pagoda scene with Red Boy - small

(larger version)

You’ll noticed that the cloud really is a flower with a defined bulb, stem, and leaves. There also appears to be a figure sitting on the flower, one who is surrounded by what looks to be spikes or swords. Here’s a closer look with a crude line drawing by the author.

Korean Pagoda scene with Red Boy - Close up of flower with new line drawing - small

(larger version)

Wall (2019) notes the figure on the flower is Red Boy and the figure on the cloud is Guanyin (pp. 2129-2130), making this a depiction of the former’s defeat at the end of what would be chapter 42 of the Ming Journey to the West:

After she received [treasure swords borrowed from heaven], the Bodhisattva [Guanyin] threw them into the air as she recited a spell: the swords were transformed into a thousand-leaf lotus platform. Leaping up, the Bodhisattva sat solemnly in the middle.


[Sun Wukong feigns defeat and tricks Red Boy into chasing him to Guayin’s domain] When the monster spirit suddenly discovered that Pilgrim was gone, he walked up to the Bodhisattva with bulging eyes and said to her, “Are you the reinforcement Pilgrim Sun brought here?” The Bodhisattva did not reply. Rolling the lance in his hands, the monster king bellowed, “Hey! Are you the reinforcement Pilgrim Sun brought here?” Still the Bodhisattva did not reply. The monster-spirit lifted his lance and jabbed at the heart of the Bodhisattva, who at once changed herself into a beam of golden light and rose into the air. Pilgrim followed her on her way up and said to her, “Bodhisattva, you are trying to take advantage of me! The monster-spirit asked you several times. How could you pretend to be deaf and dumb and not make any noise at all? One blow of his lance, in fact, chased you away, and you have even left behind your lotus platform.”

“Don’t talk,” said the Bodhisattva, “let’s see what he will do.” At this time, Pilgrim and Mokṣa both stood in the air shoulder to shoulder and stared down; they found the monster-spirit laughing scornfully and saying to himself, “Brazen ape, you’re mistaken about me! What sort of person do you think that I, Holy Child, happen to be? For several times you could not prevail against me, and then you had to go and fetch some namby-pamby Bodhisattva. One blow of my lance now has made her vanish completely. Moreover, she has even left the treasure lotus platform behind. Well, let me get up there and take a seat.” Dear monster-spirit. He imitated the Bodhisattva by sitting in the middle of the platform with hands and legs folded. When he saw this, Pilgrim said, “Fine! Fine! Fine! This lotus platform has been given to someone else!”

“Wukong,” said the Bodhisattva, “what are you mumbling again?”

“Mumbling what? Mumbling what?” replied Pilgrim. “I’m saying that the lotus platform has been given to someone else. Look! It’s underneath his thighs. You think he’s going to return it to you?”

“I wanted him to sit there,” said the Bodhisattva.

“Well, he’s smaller than you,” said Pilgrim, “and it seems that the seat fits him even better than it fits you.”

“Stop talking,” said the Bodhisattva, “and watch the dharma power.”

She pointed the willow twig downward and cried, “Withdraw!” All at once, flowers and leaves vanished from the lotus platform and the auspicious luminosity dispersed entirely. The monster king, you see, was sitting actually on the points of those swords. The Bodhisattva then gave this command to Mokṣa:

“Use your demon-routing cudgel and strike back and forth at the sword handles.”

Dropping from the clouds, Mokṣa wielded his cudgel as if he were demolishing a wall: he struck at the handles hundreds of times. As for that monster-spirit,

Both his legs were pierced till the points stuck out;
Blood spouted in pools as flesh and skin were torn.

Marvelous monster! Look at him! Gritting his teeth to bear the pain, he abandoned the lance so that he could use both hands to try to pull the swords out from his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 246 and 249-250).

Could the figures, one on top of the other’s shoulders, be an inventive way of showing Monkey and Guanyin’s disciple Moksha working together to subdue Red Boy?

This carving shows the Red Boy episode was known in Korea during the 14th-century, demonstrating that it predates the final Ming novel by centuries. The tale obviously would have taken time to form, become established in the accepted story cycle, and travel north, suggesting it may date to the early part of the corresponding Yuan-period when the Pagoda was raised in Korea, or possibly even before.

I hope to locate pictures of the other carvings to make this article more accurate.


1) See Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 60-74 for more information. The tale itself is translated in appendix B of the same work. See pages 179-188.

2) I am indebted to Sini Henningsen, BA (sinihenningsen@gmail.com) for translating the cited Korean material.


Brose, B. (2018). The pig and the prostitute: The cult of Zhu Bajie in modern Taiwan. Journal of Chinese Religions, 46 (2), pp. 167-196, DOI:

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

Ten-story Stone Pagoda from Gyeongcheonsa Temple. (n.d.). Retrieved January 23, 2019, from https://www.museum.go.kr/site/eng/relic/masterpiece/view?relicMpId=11

Wall, B. (2019). Dynamic texts as hotbeds for transmedia storytelling: A case study of the story universe of the Journey to the West. International Journal of Communication 13, 2116-2142. Retrieved from https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/10006/2648

Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso 예그린 건축사사무소. (1993). Wŏn′gaksaji sipch′ŭng sŏkt′ap: silch′ŭk chosa pogosŏ 圓覺寺址十層石塔: 實測調查報告書. Seoul: Munhwajae Kwalliguk.

The Sun Wukong Stone Relief of Kaiyuan Temple

The southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian province is home to Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺), also known as the Purple Cloud Temple (Ziyun si, 紫雲寺), an ancient Buddhist complex originally built in 686. The temple is famous for its two stone pagodas, each of which is covered in 80 lifesize relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures rendered in a rustic style influenced by the Northern Song Dynasty school of art (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, pp. 11-18). One figure of interest is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (fig. 1) located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. Many scholars consider this to be an early depiction of Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (1592). The pagoda was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), so this depiction predates the ming novel by 355 years, making it an important source for analazying the early influences on the much beloved literary character. In this paper, I present past research on the relief, as well my own in which I suggest the iconography is based on ritual adornments mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, an Esoteric Buddhist text of the 8th-century.

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small (with number)

Fig. 1 – The  Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .

I. Previous research

The first detailed description of the relief appears in Ecke and Demiéville (1935).

A guardian with a monkey-head, holding with one hand a rosary which is hanging around his neck, and with the other a sword emitting a cloud from its tip. He wears a short tunic, travel-sandals, and a rope-belt from which are hanging a calabash and a scroll with the Chinese title of the Mahamayarividyārajñi [Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經] (T982-985, a text which was used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases). [According to local tradition, it is] Sun Wu-k’ung the name of the monkey assistant (alias the Monkey attendant 猴行者, or the fair Monkey-king 美猴王, or the Great Saint Equal to Heaven 齊天大聖) of Hsüan-tsang [Xuanzang] in the JW-novel. In the upper right corner of the carving there is a small monk-figure with a halo, evidently Hsüan-tsang himself, appearing on a cloud, seemingly the same cloud as that which emanates from the monkey’s sword. In the version of the JW now extant, the monkey assistant’s weapon is not a sword, but an iron rod with two golden rings, which he can reduce, whenever he finds it convenient, into a needle and so keep inside his ear. Also, he wears a tiger-skin over the lower part of his body, a detail which does not agree with our carving (p. 35)

Glen Dudbridge (1970) compares Ecke and Demiéville’s analysis with the description of the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xinzhe, 猴行者) from the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the late 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Based on the differences, he suggests Northern and Southern China may have had separate Monkey story cycles.

[T]here is no sign there of the traveller’s garb in which the Zayton [2] figure is so meticulously clothed; the sword is also not mentioned, although the ‘iron rod with gold rings’ … has not yet assumed its full distinctive role; similarly, the tiger-skin robe, while not described in so many words, seems faintly anticipated in the episode [chapter six] in which Hou Hsing-che slays a tiger-demon, and certainly this standard attribute of demonic figures in Tantric iconography accords well with the description of the yakṣa in that same episode. [3] All this tends to suggest that the Zayton monkey-figure remains strangely distinct from that known to us in the literary sources … Certainly at this stage of their development, there seems to have been no obligation to uniformity in the enactment or representation of popular story cycles: the monkey seen, heard or read about by the northern public could well have differed from his southern counterpart (p. 49).

Writing in 1977, Journey to the West translator and scholar Anthony C. Yu highlighted a difference in opinion regarding the pious figure on the upper right of the piece.

Ōta Tatsuo 太田辰夫 and Torii Hisayasu 鳥居久靖, in “Kaisetsu 解説,” in Saiyuki, Chūgoku koten bungaku taikei, 31-32 (Tokyo 1971), 432, have challenged Ecke and Demiéville’s interpretation of the carving by pointing out that the figure at the upper righthand corner should be thought of simply as a figure of Buddha (not Hsüan-tsang), which Monkey will become by virtue of bringing back the scriptures. It may be added that Sun Wu-k’ung of the hundred chapter narrative did use a sword or scimitar 刀 (JW, chaps. 2 and 3) before he acquired his famous rod. [1] None of the scholars consulted here sees fit to discuss the significance of what seems to be a headband worn by the carved figure (Wu & Yu, 1977, p. 497 n. 23). 

Victor Mair (1989) focuses on the relief’s iconography and suggests the various elements might have ties to depictions of both the Buddhist protector deity Aṇḍīra and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the Ramayana (c. 4th-cent BCE).

The band on the Zayton monkey’s head is indeed very important. Surely it must represent what becomes the Tight-Fillet 緊箍 of the Ming JW, ch. 14. Regardless of the author’s (or his predecessors’) elaborate creative inventions surrounding this fillet in the tradition of the novel, we may ask whether it has any identifiable iconographical origins in art.

The Tight-Fillet recalls the band around the head of representations of Aṇḍīra, the simian guardian of Avalokiteśvara and Bhaișajyaguruvaidūryaprabhāṣa … As a typical specimen, we may take a statue [fig. 2] from the Kōfukuji in Nara. The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra has curious wing-like projections extending from the sides of the band around his head that remind us of Mercury in Western classical art. On the Zayton SWK [Sun Wukong], these symbols of swiftness have been displaced to the sides of the eyes. In either case, the wings remind us of H’s [Hanuman’s] descent from the god of the wind. Other similarities between the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra and the Zayton SWK include: identical earrings (these are key iconographical features of H in many Southeast Asian Rs [Ramayanas]), comparable tilt of the head (exaggerated with the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra) which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on forearms and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all of these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H. For its photographic clarity, we may choose a scene from the Rāma reliefs in Panataran, Indonesia [fig. 3]. H’s forearms are bare in this particular representation, but in some Thai reliefs (at Wat Phra Jetubon in Bangkok), they resemble those of the Zayton SWK and the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra. The discrepancies in the dress and ornamentation of the lower parts of the body may be attributed to culture and climate (pp. 699-700).

Kofukuji andira and Hanuman sculpture - small

Fig. 2 – The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra wooden relief carving (c. 11th to 12th-cent.) (larger version), Nara, Japan. Fig. 3 – Hanuman (left) besting a demonic foe (right), from the Ramayana reliefs of the Panataran temple complex (c. 12th-cent.) (larger version), East Java, Indonesia. 

II. My findings

My opinion on the origins of the Kaiyuan relief’s iconography parts ways with Mair in some respects. For instance, upon close inspection of the Japanese Aṇḍīra carving, the band that he refers to appears to be the brim of a helmet, and the “symbols of swiftness” transferred to our relief are simply wrinkles on Monkey’s face. I do agree the Kaiyuan relief shares affinities with the cited image of Hanuman (e.g., the earrings and armbands). But again, here I part ways with Mair because I suggest the relief’s accoutrements were instead influenced by Esoteric Buddhism and not Hinduism. The similar imagery is no doubt due to a common cultural source.

Nearly every aspect of Sun Wukong’s attire can be found in a passage from the 8th-century esoteric text the Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經). It instructs yogins on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka (Xi lu jia, 呬嚕迦), a wrathful protector deity of Buddhism.

Sanskrit: bhavakena vidhartavyam karnayor divyakupdalam/ sirasi cakri dhartavya hastayo rucakadvayamkatyarp va mekhalam caiva padayor nupuran tatha/ bahumule ca keyuram gnvayam asthimalika/ paridhanam vyaghracarma bhaksanam dasardhamrtam

Translation: The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62).

Earrings? Check! Circlet? Check! Bracelets, girdle, anklets, and arm ornaments? Check, check, check, and check! The only two aspects that are questionable are the bone necklace and the tigerskin. Rosaries are sometimes made from bone, which satisfies that requirement. As for the skin, while Ecke and Demiéville were quick to note its omission in their study, I think the appearance of so many elements from the passage suggests the tigerskin is present but the features may have just been eroded by time. The chevron shape visible below the girdle could be a skin apron. I’ve created a color version of the relief based on this information (fig. 4).

Kaiyuan Monkey - with color - 2 - small

Fig. 4 – My interpretation of the relief (larger version). A comparison of the original and new versions can be seen here.

As I explained in a previous article, the Hevajra Tantra was officially translated into Chinese in 1055 (no doubt arriving earlier than this), so the text was present in the middle kingdom for nearly 200 years prior to the creation of the relief.

What can these ritual elements tell us about Monkey’s depiction? Firstly, it should be noted that the esoteric deity Heruka and other such wrathful guardians, known as “Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles” (Sk: krodha-vighnantaka), are commonly portrayed wearing such items, leading to the scholar Van Kooij to comment, “Heruka is more or less a deified hypostasis of the … yogin himself” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251). Second, these deities are often portrayed wielding weapons. For example, one source describes Vajrapani‘s wrathful form Trailokyavijaya “hold[ing] the vajra, ankusa-hook, sharp sword, pâsa-noose and other âyudha [weapons]” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 188). Sun Wukong too is depicted with a weapon, a sword with a lick of heavenly flame. Third, the flaming sutra tied to Monkey’s girdle was, as explained above, historically “used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases.” Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles are charged “with the destruction of barriers which prevent the experience of enlightenment” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 25). These include external threats like manifested demons and internal threats like demon-caused mental and bodily illness, the “three poisons”, and karmic debt (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 24-25). Therefore, the iconography presents Sun Wukong as a wrathful protector deity.

This then may lend support to Ecke and Demiéville’s original assertion that the pious figure floating in the clouds to the right of Monkey’s head is in fact Xuanzang. The Great Sage clears the path of manifested demons that obstruct the monk’s path to enlightenment, leading to his ascension into paradise (this happens in both the 13th-century version of the story and the final Ming novel).

III. Conclusion

The 13th-century Sun Wukong pagoda relief of the Kaiyuan Temple shares many similarities to ritual adornments mentioned in the esoteric Hevajra Tantra (8th-cent.), including earrings, the circlet, arm cuffs, a necklace, a girdle, wrist bangles, anklets, and possibly even a tiger skin. Esoteric protector deities are often portrayed with similar attire since they represent the very yogin ascetics who worship them. Monkey’s depiction with said attire suggests the artist who created the piece intended to present him as a powerful Buddhist guardian on par with Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles like Heruka. The depicted sword and sutra, each shown with a lick of heavenly flame, no doubt represent the means by which the Great Sage protects his master Xuanzang (possibly the pious figure on the upper right corner of the relief).

While Monkey’s association with the fillet and the tiger skin carried over into the novel, other characters came to be associated with ritual adornments from the Hevajra Tantra. A prime example is Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), son of the Bull Demon King and Lady Iron Fan. The Bodhisattva Guanyin forces the demon child to submit in chapter 42, after which she uses a magic treasure given to her by the Buddha to ensnare his extremities.

Dear Bodhisattva! She took the fillet and waved it at the wind once, crying, “Change!” It changed into five fillets, which she threw at the body of the boy, crying, “Hit!” One fillet enveloped the boy’s head, while the rest caught his two hands and two feet (Wu & Yu, 1977, vol. 2, p. 280).

Red Boy is the literary counterpart of the religious figure Sudhana (Sancai, 善財), whose spiritual journey is told in the Gandavyuha Sutra (Dafang guang fohuayan jing, 大方廣佛華嚴經, c. 3rd-cent.). The youth sets out on a quest towards enlightenment and trains under 52 different teachers, including Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara (the South Asian variant of Guanyin), Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 864). It’s no wonder then that the ascetic came to be associated with such ritual adornments. South and East Asian depictions of Sudhana/Sancai often portray him wearing bangles and anklets (fig. 5).

Sudhana - small

Fig. 5 – A modern day altar statue of Sudhana/Sancai (larger version). Notice the bangles and anklets.


1) Yu is referring to the fight between Sun wukong and a demon, during which time the monkey disarms him and uses the latter’s own sword against him.

2) The city of Quanzhou was known to both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta by the Arabic name Zayton or Zaiton (زيتون , the “City of Olives”).

3) Monkey transforms a ringed monk’s staff into a titanic yakṣa that crushes the aforementioned tiger demon with a club.


Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.

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

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The twin pagodas of Zayton: A study of the later Buddhist sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

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.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (1977). The journey to the West. Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.