Interesting Facts about the Monkey King

Last updated: 08-28-2022

I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.

Current count: 108

  1. He was likely influenced by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Ch: Ha nu man, 哈奴曼) in different waves, one possibly from the north (via Tibet) and another from the south (via Southeast Asia). But the parallels are most apparent from the standard 1592 edition of JTTW, suggesting that the author-compiler had access to some form of the Indian epic Rāmāyana (7th-c. BCE to 3rd-c. CE). The novel even includes material from the epic Mahābhārata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE).
  2. In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
  3. He has the second longest association with the JTTW story cycle, appearing as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) circa 1000 (or before). Sha Wujing’s earliest antecedent appeared during the 8th-century, while Zhu Bajie didn’t appear until the 14th-century.
  4. The oldest published mention of the Monkey Pilgrim is a eulogy appearing in a tale from Zhang Shinan’s (張世南) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen, 遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). One scholar dates the story to around 1127.
  5. The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
  6. A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.

  7. This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.

  8. He is called the “Monkey King” (Houwang, 猴王) as far back as the 13th-century version. This position is likely based on a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys.
  9. The immortal is bestowed the title “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) at the end of the story by Tang Taizong.
  10. This immortal was heavily influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana).
  11. He was popular even in Korea and appeared in a set of carvings from a 14th-century stone pagoda.
  12. The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
  13. The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).

  14. The surname “Sun” (孫) means “grandson” but is an open reference to husun (猢猻, lit: “grandson of the barbarian”), the Chinese word for “macaque“. It was also a popular surname for supernatural primates in stories associated with the Lingyin Temple (靈隱寺), which also likely influenced the Monkey King.

  15. The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.

  16. So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).

  17. The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).

  18. Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).

  19. His story in the 1592 version takes place not in our world but in one modeled after ancient Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which features four island-like continents floating in a great ocean around the four respective faces of a cosmic mountain. And yet the novel was published during a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe, precisely 49 years after Copernicus suggested that the Earth orbits the sun.
  20. His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
  21. He has had past lives (see the 11-24-20 update here).
  22. He’s not the only figure from world myth born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.

  23. While his stone birth (ch. 1) is likely based on that of Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a legendary King of the Xia dynasty (more on this below), it may ultimately be linked to Tibetan stories of stone-born monkey deities.
  24. He was likely born during the late-Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046-256 BCE).
  25. He serves as a physical manifestation of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist philosophy denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep Man trapped in the illusory world of Saṃsāra (see the material below figure three here). This phrase is also surprisingly associated with sexual desire.
  26. Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
  27. The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branch shen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
  28. The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).

  29. His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’s Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
  30. Despite modern media portraying him as an adult-sized humanoid character that is sometimes handsome and/or very muscular, the 1592 version describes him as an ugly, bald, and skinny Rhesus macaque that is less than four feet tall. This means that one of the most powerful warriors in the Buddho-Daoist cosmos is the size of a child.
  31. While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
  32. The breathing and energy circulation methods that Monkey uses to achieve immortality (ch. 2) are based on real Daoist elixir practices.
  33. The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
  34. This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
  35. He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
  36. But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
  37. While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
  38. He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
  39. His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
  40. Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
  41. The novel only mentions him learning martial arts in passing (ch. 67 – see section 4.5 here), but one episode (ch. 51) features a battle between Monkey and a demon king in which they use a host of real world fighting techniques that are still known and practiced today.
  42. His favorite style of boxing is “Short Fist” (duanquan, 短拳) (see the 05-02-18 update here).
  43. His skill with the staff is so great that the novel compares it to techniques from two manuals listed among the Seven Military Classics of China (see the 08-07-18 update here).
  44. The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
  45. When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
  46. The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
  47. The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
  48. It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).

  49. The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬五百斤.

  50. He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
  51. His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!

  52. His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
  53. His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
  54. The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
  55. His conflict with Erlang (ch. 6) can be traced to ancient Han-era funerary rituals, and their battle of magic transformations shares parallels with ancient Greek tales and can ultimately be traced to even older stories from the Near East.
  56. His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
  57. He is shown to be weak against spiritual fire and smoke (see the 06-28-22 update here).
  58. Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
  59. The message that he leaves on the Buddha’s finger (ch. 7) is a popular form of graffiti in East Asia.
  60. His time under Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山) (ch. 7) is based on stories of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi (無支奇/巫支祇) being imprisoned under a mountain by Yu the Great.
  61. He was pressed under the mountain during the late-Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220CE – see section II here).
  62. A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
  63. This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
  64. One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
  65. Monkey’s mountain imprisonment was only part of his punishment. The other half was a hellish diet of hot iron pellets and molten copper, punishments straight from Buddhist canon.
  66. His golden headband (ch. 13) has three influences: 1) a historical ritual circlet worn as a physical reminder of right speech and action by Esoteric Buddhist yogins in ancient India; 2) adornments, likely based on stylized lingzhi mushrooms, worn by Daoist protector deities; and 3) an Iranic triple-crescent crown.
  67. The oldest depiction of Monkey with his headband that I know of appears in a late-Xixia (late-12th to early-13th-century) Buddhist cave grotto in Northwestern China.
  68. The earliest depiction of his double “curlicue-style” headband that I’m aware of is a 13th-century stone carving in Fujian.
  69. The secret spell that tightens his headband is likely the Akshobhya Buddha mantra.
  70. Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.

  71. Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
  72. Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
  73. The baby-shaped fruit that he eats (ch. 24) comes from a tree based on Indo-Persian lore.
  74. He claims to have eaten people when he was a monster in his youth (ch. 27) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).
  75. His greatest feat of strength is carrying two mountains while running at meteoric speeds (ch. 33). One is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, while the other is the place from which (according to legend) Buddhism spread upon entering China. This episode is based on an older tale in which Erlang does the lifting.
  76. His doppelganger, the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 56-58), is actually an aspect of his troubled mind. Once he kills him, Monkey takes one step closer to Buddhahood.
  77. He fights and is defeated by an ancient bird demon who is a spiritual uncle of the Buddha (ch. 77). This monster is based on the Hindu bird god Garuda.
  78. He and his religious brothers take human disciples in India (ch. 88), and Monkey later performs an arcane ritual in which he grants them superhuman strength (and possibly some form of immortality).
  79. His title, “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Douzhan sheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) (ch. 100), is based on a real world deity numbering among the “Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas“.
  80. The novel ranks him higher than Guanyin after his ascension (see the third quote here).
  81. As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
  82. Despite his association with the Victorious Fighting Buddha, he is primarily worshiped as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in East and Southeast Asian Chinese folk religion.
  83. Fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (Yihetuan yundong, 義和團運動, 1899-1901) believed that they could channel the Monkey King to gain his great combat skills.
  84. Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
  85. Chinese folk religion recognizes more than one Great Sage, usually between three and five individuals.
  86. Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
  87. He was even worshiped in 19th-century America!
  88. The iconic pose where he shades his eyes to search the horizon is likely based on a common motif associated with Chinese sea gods.
  89. He has a number of religious birthdays, one of which is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month (the day after the Mid Autumn Festival).
  90. There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishing kyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwar kyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
  91. His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
  92. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was a fan of the Monkey King, even associating himself with the character in his poetry. Also, a CCP propaganda play of the 1960s associates the scripture pilgrims with members of the Communist Party, with Monkey referencing Mao.
  93. He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
  94. He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).

  95. He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).

  96. He time travels to different points in Chinese history in an unofficial 17th-century sequel to JTTW.
  97. He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.

  98. He influenced the manga/anime hero Son Goku (a Japanese transliteration of 孫悟空) from the Dragon Ball Franchise.
  99. He almost appeared in an Indiana Jones movie!
  100. He has appeared in both Marvel and DC comic book series.
  101. The world’s tallest statue of Monkey is 40 ft (12.192 m) tall and resides at the Broga Sak Dato Temple (武來岸玉封石哪督廟) in Malaysia.
  102. He is the mascot of several entities in Taiwan, including the HCT delivery company, the Hang Yuan FC football team, and the Taipei Water Department.
  103. He has appeared in nearly 65 video games.
  104. He is the namesake for a Chinese satellite designed to search for dark matter.
  105. He is the namesake of a fossa on Pluto. This plays on his association with the underworld.
  106. He is the namesake of the Wukongopterus (Wukong yilong shu, 悟空翼龍屬), a genus of Chinese pterosaur.

  107. He is the namesake of Syntelia sunwukong, a Synteliid beetle from mid-Cretaceous Burma.
  108. A Covid-19 lab in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China adopted the name “Fire Eyes” (Huoyan, 火眼) in honor of Monkey’s ability to discern evil spirits.

Sources:

Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.

Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.

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

How Tall is the Monkey King? – A Debate

This was originally posted as a 03-03-2022 update to an existing article, but I decided to make it a standalone piece.

Last updated: 03-08-2022

In “What Does Sun Wukong Look Like?” I highlighted several sentences pointing to the Monkey King’s small stature (fig. 1 & 2). For example, one monster comments:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four Chinese feet [buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m] in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408).

This information was later used in the making of a youtube video called “10 Facts About Sun Wukong the Monkey King“. Fact number seven was that “He’s really short”, and I ended the section by saying: “That’s right! The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the conqueror of the heavenly army … is the size of a child”. A Chinese viewer later left a thought-provoking comment on the video stating that I was wrong about Monkey’s size.

Fig. 1 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Drawn by my friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart). Slightly modified by me to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here. Fig. 2 – A size chart comparing Sun to a six-foot human (larger version).

The Debate

Here, I will present the comment in full but interspersed with my responses:

Hello! I am a Wukong fan from China. I really enjoyed your video! I would like to say that the height of the Monkey King has been very controversial on the internet in China. The data and appearance depictions in classical Chinese novels can be somewhat exaggerated. Journey to the West is a mythological novel is even more so. For example, seventy-two transformations, a somersault that can travel one hundred thousand eight hundred thousand li respectively refer to infinite changes and fly extremely fast. Seventy-two and one hundred and eighty thousand are not exact numbers, so relying solely on data is not reliable. Besides, in addition to four feet, Wukong has also appeared other height data. For example, the earliest version of the Journey to the West, “世德堂本”, Chapter 21. “大圣公然不惧。那怪果打一下来,他把腰躬一躬,足长了三尺,有一丈长短。” “Our Great Sage was not in the least frightened. When the monster struck him once, he stretched his waist and at once grew three chi, attaining the height of one zhang altogether.”

This PDF scan (page 258) shows the original version of the novel did indeed read “grow three chi” (changle sanchi, 長了三尺) and not six like in the modern version (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 408). I was surprised when this was brought to my attention.

One zhang minus three chi equals seven chi. In other words, the height of the Monkey King here was seven chi (Since the height unit in Chinese classical novels is based on the ancient system, 7 chi is around 5.5 feet). But in later versions and translations, “grew three chi” was changed to six chi. This has always been a point of contention. The figure of four feet (four chi) appears twice, both from the perspective of other monsters, such as the Monstrous King, who is three zhangs tall (around 24 feet). It may be possible that Sun Wukong is short in his eyes in comparison.

For those unfamiliar with ancient Chinese measurements, one zhang () equals ten chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese feet”) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). The passage in question does imply that Monkey is seven chi tall. However, there are two problems. First, during the Ming (1368-1644) when the novel was published, one chi equaled approximately 12.52 inches (31.8 cm) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). This would make Sun a whopping 7.3 feet (2.22 m) tall! I must admit that the chi varied at the local level, but I doubt the variations would lead to a nearly two-foot (60.96 cm) difference. Additionally, if we use the measures for the Tang (618-907 CE), when the story is set, a chi was 11.57 inches (29.4 cm), making Monkey 6.75 feet (2.06 m) tall. There was, however, a “small chi” (xiaochi, 小尺) at this time, which was 9.66 inches (24.6 cm) (Nienhauser, 2016, p. 405 n. 40). This would only make him 5.65 feet (1.72 m) tall. But I would question if the common folk reading the novel during the Ming were aware of and still using this truncated measure. Second, as written above, the figure for “not even four chi” (buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m) appears twice. But it’s important to note that this estimate is made by two different characters at two different locations and times. The first is spoken in chapter two by the Monstrous King of Havoc (Hunshi mowang, 混世魔王) in the Water Belly Cave (Shuizang dong, 水臟洞) of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (east of the Eastern Purvavideha Continent) (PDF page 36; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). This takes place over 100 years before Sun’s initial rebellion during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). And the second is spoken in chapter 21  by Great King Yellow Wind (Huangfeng dawang, 黃風大王) in the Yellow Wind Cave (Huangfeng dong, 黃風洞) of Yellow Wind Ridge (Huangfeng ling, 黃風嶺) somewhere in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (PDF page 258; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). This takes place sometime after his release from his 600-plus-year punishment under Five Elements Mountain during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Therefore, this seems like a more reliable measure—given the distance between themthan the ten minus three argument. I suggest the latter was actually a typo that later editions tried to amend by changing three to six. 

Another reason is that the author may be deliberately blurring the height of the Monkey King. Because at least in the story, the author describes Wukong according to the height of normal people. For example: Before Wukong learned Magic skills, when he could not change his height, he had robbed ordinary people’s clothes to wear. If Wukong was the height of a child, the clothes would hardly fit. When Wukong set out on his journey to the west, he once wore the clothes of Tang Monk. Wukong could carry the Taoist priest changed by the Silver Horned King (if he was a child height this would be very difficult).

These are good points, but a 7.3-foot tall Monkey wouldn’t be able to wear the clothing of the aforementioned people either. Conversely, tucking in or rolling up clothing wouldn’t be out of the question. And carrying a priest wouldn’t be a problem for a small-statured hero capable of hoisting the weight of two cosmic mountains while running at meteoric speeds.

In the same chapter, the Tang monk sitting on the horse can pull Wukong’s tiger skin skirt. Wukong can easily grab Eight Rules’ ear. In the Bhikṣu Kingdom, Wukong once exchanged clothes with Tang monk, etc.

Horses are tall animals, so the Tang Monk would’ve probably fallen off before even grabbing the skirt of an adult-sized Sun Wukong. I look at this as something that sounds good on paper until it’s tried in real life.

I think even a 5.5-foot tall Monkey would have problems grabbing the ear of Zhu Bajie, who is likely 10 feet (3.05 m) tall or more given his three chi (3.13 ft / 95.4 cm) snout (PDF page 108; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149) and giant body that “causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (PDF page 367; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Either way, jumping would be involved, making this irrelevant.

And just because Sun might be smaller doesn’t mean he wears child-sized clothing. I believe the first instance of sharing clothes happens in chapter 14: “Pilgrim … noticed that Tripitaka had taken off a [robe] made of white cloth and had not put it on again after his bath. Pilgrim grabbed it and put it on himself” (PDF page 174; Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 313). He seems to wear whatever is available to him.

In China, there is another speculation about Wukong’s height: monkeys are usually hunched over. Wukong is four chi tall when bent over and seven chi tall when standing upright.

I studied primates in college. Monkeys usually walk on their palms (palmigrade) (fig. 3) and only stand when foraging, fighting, or carrying things. But I don’t recall the novel ever mentioning Sun traveling on all fours (please correct me if I’m wrong). Therefore, he likely walks on two legs. In this case, as stated, monkeys have a hunched posture when standing. They can’t stand straight because of mechanical limitations in their skull, spine, hips, legs, and feet (my previous essay on hominids applies to monkeys as well). One could argue that Monkey can overcome these limitations with his immortal body, but this definitely wouldn’t give him three more chi of height. For example, here’s a macaque standing at full height (fig. 4). As can be seen, straightening the head, spine, and legs would only give a handful of inches or centimeters.

Fig. 3 – A macaque skeleton in its natural posture (larger version). Fig. 4 – A young macaque male standing (larger version).

And as stated in this article, Sun shares all of the hallmarks of a macaque, including a “furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears”. This likely includes a smaller stature.

Of course, there is no doubt that he is very thin, and is definitely the shortest one in the scripture takers, but at least, his height is more like that of a shorter adult than a child. The role of Sun Wukong is a combination of human nature, monkey nature, and divinity. The author may be deliberately obscuring his height. Therefore, when describing daily life, Wukong is the same height as normal people, but in the eyes of other demons, he is more prominent in the shape of the monkey. And he has the divine power to change his height at will. Sorry for my bad English, really enjoyed your video!

I will concede that four chi is a rough estimate, so he might be slightly shorter or even taller than this. Either way, he’d be far below average human height.


Update: 03-06-22

Chapter 20 includes a scene where Monkey refers to his stature: “A person like me, old Monkey, may be small but tough, like the skin around a ball of ligaments!” (PDF page 246; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).


Update: 03-08-22

Above, I suggested that the ten minus three argument was a typo. But there might be a numerological explanation. Qing-era scholar Wang Xiangxu (汪象旭, fl.1605-1668) borrowed from the Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?-1082) by applying his “three fives equal one” (sanwuyi, 三五一) five elements concept (fig. 5) to numbers appearing in the novel. As Shao (1997) explains:

One set of five consists of wood (3) and fire (2). Wood in the east produces fire in the south. The second set is that of metal (4) and water (1). Metal in the west produces water in the north. The third is earth in the center whose number is five. The whole business of the “gold elixir” is to integrate all three sets of five to produce one—the gold elixir (pp. 16-17).

Shao (1997) goes on to explain the numeric significance of the dharma vessel constructed from Sha Wujing’s 9-skull necklace and the heavenly gourd in chapter 22: 

Wang Xiangxu shows a keen eye for the “one” gourd and “nine” skulls which make a perfect “ten”—the number for the completion of earth. However, it is not the numbers that attract him, but what they indicate—that the gold elixir is creation—a process that involves the integration of all the five elements—not unlike the creation of the universe (p. 18).

Therefore, three (wood) and seven (fire) may be a reference to the completion of ten (the golden elixir) in Daoist numerology. If this is true, even the later switch from three to six still matches this (refer to fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – A chart explaining the three fives (larger version). From Shao, 1997, p. 17.

Sources:

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.

Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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

What Does Sun Wukong Look Like? A Resource for Artists and Cosplayers

Last updated: 03-07-2022

Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.

1. Ancient Depictions

Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century. [1] But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling, [2] records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2, 11th-c. - Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim praying to Guanyin - small

Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.

Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains a late-Xixia wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).

Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 12th-century [Note (08-14-22): see my new article exploring the oldest media of Sun Wukong]. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.

A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem 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 Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.

I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).

The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted this size could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.

2. What the novel says

2.1. Physical appearance

The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subodhi, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].” [3] After he returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).

In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Golden/Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [the Rhesus macaque]” (p. 148). I also suggest that the hue of his eyes are based on the golden pupils of macaques (fig. 6).

Male macaques during mating season (for What Does Sun Wukong Look Like article)

Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.

In chapter 20, the reader learns that Monkey’s head is bald (fig. 7). An old man asks him: “…why did you shave your hair to become a monk?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).

In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)

His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)

Baby baboon with goldedn fillet - small

Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).

Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).

In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:

A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing;
A round head and a hairy face jowl-less;
Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly;
He looks more strange than [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).

In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).

In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:

A hairy face, a thunder god beak,
An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s;
Two forked ears on a big, broad head,
And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

In chapter 67, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:

You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).

In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:

“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).

Macaque features and skinny body for article

Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.

2.2 Clothing and accessories

The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.

The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:

“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).

Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).

Armor pics

Fig. 10 – Ming chainmail from the Wubei zhi (1621) (larger version). Fig. 11 – A woodblock print of Sun wearing mountain pattern armor while fighting the heavenly army (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century, “Mr. Li’s Criticism” hereafter). Fig. 12 – A detail of halberd-bearing soldiers wearing mountain pattern armor and feather caps from The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (16th-century) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 13 – Monkey as portrayed in Beijing Opera (larger version). Photo by TAO Images Limited via Alamy. Fig. 14 – A 16th-century brass statue of Skanda (larger version). This blog has photos from all sides. Fig. 15 – A modern example of a Purple Gold Cap (larger version). 

Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers in chapter six: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:

Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)

Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace in chapter seven, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One late-Ming woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).

Monkey escaping from Laozi's 8 trigrams furnace - from Mr. Li Zhuowu's Literary Criticism of Xiyouji, later 16th-early 17th-c. - small

Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late-16th to early-17th-c.).

The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 17). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:

[Slit] the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece … He cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

 

Monkey King Kicking - small

Fig. 17 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.

Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 12th to 13th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 18). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 19). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 and Yulin Cave no. 3 - Heads

Fig. 18 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 12th to 13th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 19 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237) (larger version).

As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:

His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.

There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.

2.3. The staff

Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:

Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [wutie, 烏鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,560 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). [4]

A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:

The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself. [5]
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍]
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒],
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)

So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.

Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 20 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.

sun_wukong_staff_inscription___enlarged_by_ghostexorcist-d7681eb - small

Fig. 20 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).

As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.

3. Popular depictions

The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.

3.1. The least accurate

1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 21). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.

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Fig. 21 – “Do you even lift?” Wukong (larger version).

2) Warriors Orochi video game – Mutton chops, frosted tips, and an outfit borrowed from Prince’s wardrobe (fig. 22). Words fail me.

050_Sun_Wukong

Fig. 22 – “Backup Dancer” Wukong (larger version).

3) The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) – Jet Li has a blond ponytail, mutton chops, and a soul patch (fig. 23). Need I say more?

Jet

Fig. 23 – “L’Oréal Paris” Wukong (larger version).

3.2. The most accurate

1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 20).

116.19L - small

Fig. 24 – Wukong salutes Xuanzang (larger version).

2) Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) – This dark comedy depicts the Great Sage as a short, ugly primate wearing golden armor (fig. 25).

Conquer monkey - small

Fig. 25 – Wukong prior to becoming Xuanzang’s disciple (larger version).

3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 26).

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Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).

4. Conclusion

The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.

I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.


Update: 08-31-2018

My friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information (fig. 27). As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.

Fig. 27 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Slightly modified by the author to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here.


Update: 02-02-2021

As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact”. I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.

Fig. 28 – Size chart (larger version).


Update: 01-23-22

I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes Sun Wukong’s golden headband to tighten. Similar to the above article, I had artists and fanfiction authors in mind when I wrote it.

The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband


Update: 03-07-22

I’ve written a response to a comment on one of my youtube videos. It discusses Sun Wukong’s height.

How Tall is the Monkey King? – A Debate

Notes:

1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.

2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.

3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

4) Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,560 lbs.

5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).

Sources:

Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Dubue, C., Allen, W. L., Maestripieri, D., & Higham, J. P. (2014). Is Male Rhesus Macaque Red Color Ornamentation Attractive to Females? Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 68(7), 1-10. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262066733_Is_male_rhesus_macaque_red_color_ornamentation_attractive_to_females

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

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

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.

Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.

Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of how the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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