A Survey of Sun Wukong’s Magic “Immortal Breath” and Its Abilities

I’ve previously written an article in which I detail the origins of the Monkey King’s magic hair. He first exhibits the ability to transform his hair in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592):

Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces and then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129).

拔一把毫毛,丟在口中嚼碎,望空噴去,叫一聲:「變!」即變做三、二百個小猴,週圍攢簇。 原來人得仙體,出神變化無方。不知這猴王自從了道之後,身上有八萬四千毛羽,根根能變,應物隨心。

This tactic of transforming chewed up hairs into dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of monkey clones also appears in chapters 3, 5, 21, 35, 44, 86, and 90 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 132, 165, 172, & 409; vol. 2, pp. 138 & 277; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, pp. 164-165, 168, 219, & 221). But these chewed up hairs can also be transformed into other objects, such as sleep-inducing bugs in chapters 5 and 86, as well as seven kinds of hawks in chapter 72 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 165; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, p. 168).

But the novel states that Sun sometimes changes his hair by first blowing on it with his magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣). This article will provide a brief survey of this skill and its abilities.

I. Hair

Explicit mentions of the immortal breath show that it can transform hair into:

  • Ink-soaked brush to write on the Buddha’s hand (ch. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 195).
  • Dagger to skin a tiger (ch. 14) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
  • Three-ply hemp rope to tie up Zhu Bajie (ch. 19) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 385).
  • Duplicates of the Monkey King (fig. 1) (ch. 25, 27, 45, 73, 77, 84, 85, & 94) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465; vol. 2, p. 27, 129, & 292; vol. 3, p. 340; vol. 4, pp. 20, 139, 151, & 293).
  • Copper coin to pay for paper (ch. 33) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 117-118).
  • Fake lesser demons (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 122).
  • Yellow-gold rope to replace a magical weapon of the same name (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 130).
  • Gold-plated, red lacquered box to hold a white jade token (ch. 37) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 169).
  • Wrapper to infiltrate a demon’s lair (ch. 41) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 235-236).
  • Yellow hound to carry away a bogus immortal’s decapitated head (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 308).
  • Hungry hawk to eat a bogus immortal’s entrails (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 310).
  • Group of 30 tigers to scare away monks (ch. 64) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 194).
  • Sleep-inducing insects and lice, fleas, and bedbugs (ch. 71 (A & B) & 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 303 & 304; vol. 4, p. 139).
  • Gold-headed fly to scare a demon king (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 366).
  • Bow drill (comprised of a diamond bit, a bamboo strip, and a cotton string) to drill out of a dangerous magic treasure (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369).
  • Very thin but long rope to climb out of a monster’s stomach (ch. 76) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 3).
  • Thirty ropes for tying up bandits (ch. 97) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 328).

It should be noted, however, that the novel is very inconsistent regarding this ability. The immortal breath is not always used; Sun often just commands the hair to transform or changes it without saying anything, such as in chapters 4, 33, 34 (A, B, & C), 42, 46, 49, 51, 59, 65, 68, 71, and 74 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156; vol. 2, p. 115, 124-125, 237, 301, 305, & 345-346; vol. 3, p. 13, 120, 216, 269, 305, & 358). The “chewing” and “spitting out” of the hair is another example (see above). But one might argue that spitting requires a build of air in the lungs, so by extension, the immortal breath is being used.

This inconsistency is probably due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, some story tellers likely employed the immortal breath, while others did not.

sc137582 - small

Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).

II. Staff

This immortal breath is also shown capable of transforming the magic iron staff (fig. 2).

  • Steel file to file through a magic golden ring pinning Monkey’s neck to a column (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 129).
  • Razor to mutilate two lesser demons (ch. 63) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 180).
  • Flag pole to make a pair of magic cymbals stand upright (ch. 65) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 216).
  • Seventy forked weapons to cut the threads of supernatural spider webs (ch. 73) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 340).
  • Nail to prop open a demon’s mouth while Monkey climbs out of their stomach (ch. 83) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 113).
  • Three-pointed drill to make a covert hole in a wardrobe (ch. 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 139).

As noted above, the novel is inconsistent in this regard. For instance, Monkey changes the staff into a steel drill without blowing on it in chapter 65 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218). Likewise, no breath is used in chapters 46 and 84 when Sun transforms the weapon into razors for shaving heads (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305; vol. 4, p. 139).

Fig. 2 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar that will become his iron staff (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).

III. Miscellaneous 

Monkey can also transform items not in contact with his body. For instance, in chapter 46, he changes a Daoist lad’s clothing from a spring onion white robe into a brown monk’s robe (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In chapter 78, Sun transforms Tripitaka into his likeness using a mask made from mud:

Pilgrim, too, had little alternative but to flatten the mud and press it on his own face and, after a little while, succeeded in making an apelike mask. Asking the Tang Monk to stand up but without uttering another word, Pilgrim pasted the mask on his master’s face and recited a magic spell. He then blew his immortal breath onto the mask, crying, “Change!” At once the elder took on the appearance of Pilgrim. He was told to take off his own garments and switch clothes with Pilgrim, who made the magic sign and then recited another spell to change into the form of the Tang Monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 47).

行者沒奈何,將泥撲作一片,往自家臉上一安,做下個猴像的臉子。叫唐僧站起休動,再莫言語。貼在唐僧臉上,念動真言,吹口仙氣,叫:「變!」那長老即變做個行者模樣。脫了他的衣服,以行者的衣服穿上。行者卻將師父的衣服穿了,捻著訣,念個咒語,搖身變作唐僧的嘴臉。

Again, the novel is inconsistent regarding external objects. Sometimes Monkey bights his tongue and spits blood out to change said item, such as in chapter 25 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 474-475 & 477; vol. 2, p. 303). [1-2] But, again, one could argue that the immortal breath is used as spitting requires a build-up of air in the lungs.

IV. Special abilities 

The immortal breath (fig. 3) is also shown to have other special abilities. For instance, in chapter 46, Monkey uses it to heal a gaping wound in his stomach:

With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).

行者搖搖擺擺,徑至殺場。將身靠著大樁,解開衣帶,露出肚腹。那劊子手將一條繩套在他膊項上,一條繩紮住他腿足,把一口牛耳短刀幌一幌,著肚皮下一割,搠個窟窿。這行者雙手爬開肚腹,拿出腸臟來,一條條理夠多時,依然安在裡面,照舊盤曲。捻著肚皮,吹口仙氣,叫:「長!」依然長合。

The novel implies that Sun’s immortal breath also has the ability to manipulate souls. For example, in chapter 88, Sun uses it in an arcane ritual designed to bestow three human disciples with super human strength. The pertinent section reads:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits [yuanshen, 元神] were thus restored to their original abodes …

行者才教三個王子都在暴紗亭後,靜室之間,畫了罡斗。教三人都俯伏在內,一個個瞑目寧神。這裡卻暗暗念動真言,誦動咒語,將仙氣吹入他三人心腹之中,把元神收歸本舍 。。。

The term “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神) is commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, it is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008). This suggests that Monkey’s immortal breath also grants the disciples some form of immortality. You can read about the entire ritual here.

Fig. 3 – A vapor blowing smoke (larger version). Image found here. Photographer unknown. I imagine this is what the immortal breath would look like.

And in chapter 97, Sun uses the immortal breath to transform an old man’s soul into “ether” for easy transport back to the world of the living:

Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether [qi, 氣] by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave [Hell] and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house. Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] was told to pry open the lid of the coffin, and the soul of the squire was pushed into his body. In a moment, he began to breathe once more and revived (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 339).

將他吹化為氣,掉於衣袖之間,同去幽府,復返陽間。駕雲頭,到了寇家,即喚八戒捎開材蓋,把他魂靈兒推付本身。須臾間,透出氣來活了。

The phrase “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) is missing in the original Chinese, but the ability’s use is understood as the passage mentions Monkey “blowing” (chui, 吹) on the soul.

V. Conclusion

Various chapters of Journey to the West show that Sun Wukong can use his immortal breath to transform his hair, his magic staff, and items not directly in contact with his body into anything he desires. These range from utilitarian items like files, blades, drills, and ropes to living creatures like insects, birds of prey, dogs, tigers, lesser demons, and even independent copies of himself. It can also change the color and appearance of clothing, as well as magically disguise someone when used in tandem with a mask. The skill’s special abilities include healing and soul manipulation. Evidence suggests that it can restore the “primordial spirit”, granting some form of immortality, as well as transform souls into “ether” for better ease of transport.

The immortal breath, however, is not used consistently throughout the novel. Monkey sometimes chews up and spits out the hair, commands it to change, or simply transforms it without saying anything at all. This inconsistency is likely due to the novel coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries.

Notes:

1) Thank you to Irwen Wong for reminding me of this.

2) The second instance of tongue-biting doesn’t mention the word for blood (xie, 血), but it can be understood to be present.

Sources:

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (pp. 883-884). London: Routledge].

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

Hercules vs Sun Wukong Death Battle Analysis

Last updated: 11-04-2022

DEATH BATTLE! is a youtube show that pits famous fictional and (now) mythological characters against one another to see who is the strongest. The outcome of each fight, usually ending in death, is supposedly based on research comparing the combatants’ respective canonical strengths and weaknesses. There are in total nine seasons with 161 episodes. The 162nd episode (episode 7 of season 9) will feature a battle between the hero Hercules from Greco-Roman myth and Sun Wukong from the Chinese Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, JTTW hereafter) story cycle. I only learned about this upcoming fight a little over a week ago when I noticed via my website analytics that a DEATH BATTLE! staff member had linked to my research blog on their external site. Very little concrete information about the battle was released until a few days ago, so I’ve been scrambling to finish this article in preparation for the episode on June 20th, 2022. It can be watched here:

This may not seem very important to some of my followers and lurkers, but DEATH BATTLE! has 5.05 million subscribers, and their last video received 1.7 million views in just a week and the one before got 5 million in just 3 weeks! Therefore, the battle is likely to introduce many, many people to the Monkey King. For example, the primate hero’s fighter preview gained nearly 220,000 views in the first 24 hours, 260,000 as of June 18th, 2022. And as of the same date, Hercules’ fighter preview has 287,000 views.

Win or lose, the purpose of this article is to present accurate information about Sun Wukong. I will correct any mistakes that appear in the video. I will also present a list of surprising parallels shared between Hercules and Sun Wukong, suggesting that they might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. See also my articles comparing Monkey with the Water Margin hero Wu Song and the historical Buddha.

Before continuing, I want to note that I know the original name is Heracles (or Herakles), but I will use Hercules throughout as this is the name chosen by the staff of DEATH BATTLE!

1. Analysis

1.1. The Death Battle

It’s official, Sun Wukong WON the fight. I will add my comments and corrections (in blue) to the official battle transcript:

An ancient scroll unfurls onscreen as a painted mountain manifests. An unseen narrator begins his story.

1. This was an interesting concept.

Muse: Our tale begins up top a great mountain, where the mighty Heracles sought a gift from the Gods.

As narrated, the legendary demigod finishes his trek up the mountain and calls out to the nearby Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who is sitting atop his Nimbus cloud and holding a divine fruit in his hand.

2. Just a tiny nitpick: The Nimbus cloud is not from JTTW but the Dragon Ball franchise. The novel refers to this skill as the Cloud-Somersault.

Hercules: Ho there! I’m in need of that apple. Relinquish it.

Wukong turns to face the hero and explains his own need for it.

Sun Wukong: Sorry, I’m supposed to find my master some vegetarian food.

3. I really like that the fight starts over fruit. As I note below (sec. 2, #12), both characters steal supernatural fruit (golden apples vs immortal peaches) from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera vs the Queen Mother of the West). So this was a nice nod to both myths.

But in hindsight, Monkey stealing the golden apples to feed his master doesn’t make much sense considering: 1) they are located in a land that’s much further west than the scripture monk’s final western destination, India; and 2) I don’t recall reading that the golden apples were anything other than treasures. To my knowledge, none of the associated myths treat them as foodstuff. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

However, the explanation is ignored. His short temper kicking in, Hercules draws his sword from its scabbard and threatens Wukong.

Hercules: You’ll find it… elsewhere.

With a shrug and groan of annoyance, Wukong passes the apple to Hercules, who catches it.

Muse: But Heracles was not so easily fooled.

4. Legitimate question: Is Hercules known for having supernatural perception? Are there examples of him seeing through illusions in his original mythos? If anyone knows, please leave a comment.

The hero’s satisfaction turns to indignation as he crushes the illusory fruit in his hand, revealing it to merely be strands of Wukong’s hair. With his scheme discovered, the trickster god pulls out a miniaturized Ruyi Jingu Bang from his ear and enlarges it to its standard size. Laughing with glee, he leaps from his cloud and clashes with Hercules’ sword,

5. Another tiny nitpick: The “standard size” in the animation was not large enough. The novel states that Monkey fights with the staff when it’s around 12 feet (3.65 m) long [1] and the width of a bowl (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135, for example). [2] This illustration (fig. 1) shows how big the staff should be in relation to Sun’s body size.

Fig. 1 – Monkey and his religious brothers on patrol (larger version). Artwork by @真·迪绝人 (see here and here). Image found here.

Muse: The Monkey King’s strike rang true, but he’d not so easily overwhelm the God of Strength.

Locked in a clash of weapons, Hercules slashes at Wukong, who dissipates into smoke. The monkey flies behind Hercules on his Nimbus and jabs the hero in the gut with his staff, sending him flying into a cliff below. The mighty demigod is hardly phased though and springs back with a powerful dropkick against the advancing Wukong, sending them down another level.

6. I personally thought Monkey relied far too much on turning into a puff of smoke. I think he instead would have preferred to meet Hercules head-on.

As they both land, Hercules attempts to slash him with his sword once again, but Sun Wukong disappears in a smoke cloud and strikes Hercules with his Ruyi Jingu Bang. As Hercules lies on the ground, the Monkey King extends the staff and brings it down on the hero, who raises his sword to block the strike, only for the blade to shatter. Quickly recovering, Hercules grabs the Ruyi Jingu Bang and pulls on it, bringing Sun Wukong down to him.

Hercules: I am Heracles!

With a single mighty punch to the jaw, Heracles sent the Monkey King soaring through the sky, hitting the edge of the scroll and forcing it to go higher up before landing on a nearby cloud. Before the Monkey King has time to even breathe, Hercules shoots an arrow at him, only narrowly missing.

Sun Wukong: Yikes!

As the hero continues his assault, Wukong begins to jump through the clouds in order to avoid all of his shots, and after beginning to fly with one of them, summons several clones with his hairs to try and reach Hercules. However, the God of Strength manages to shoot down almost all of the clones. One of them climbs onto the cloud Wukong is riding and grabs his tail. Wukong spins him around and launches himself and the clone at Hercules. The Wukongs turn into birds to reach Hercules faster, before turning into snakes to restrict his arms. Tired of the monkey’s shenanigans, Hercules breaks free and grabs his rattles.

7. Legitimate question: Does Hercules have unlimited arrows? Please let me know.

Regarding the transformations, this seemed so out of place during the battle as Monkey never uses animal forms offensively. He instead uses them for stealth or, most famously, to hide from from an opponent

Hercules: Die, demon!

The loud noise echoes through the skies, destroying every single Wukong clone. Reeling in pain from the noise, Wukong’s snake transformation comes undone as he tumbles down the mountain into the forest below.

Sun Wukong: Agony, agony!

8. Why would the rattles have any effect on Monkey? I don’t recall his ears being a weakness

Update: 06-24-22

A redditor explained the following: “It’s not so much that Wukong is weak to sound, more so that the krotalas [rattles] are so loud that the noise causes pain to whatever hears them…”

But the original sources don’t make this claim. For example, the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius reads: 

“For not even could Heracles, when he came to Arcadia, drive away with bow and arrow the birds that swam on the Stymphalian lake. I saw it myself. But he shook in his hand a rattle of bronze and made a loud clatter as he stood upon a lofty peak, and the birds fled far off, screeching in bewildered fear” (2.1052).

The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

“Heracles then received a Command to drive the birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art and by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country round-about. Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them” (4.13.2).

And Pausanias writes:

“There is a story current about the water of the Stymphalus, that at one time man-eating birds bred on it, which Heracles is said to have shot down. Peisander of Camira, however, says that Heracles did not kill the birds, but drove them away with the noise of rattles” (8.22.4).

As can be seen, no mention is made of the implements being painfully loud to anything other than the birds (please provide an example if you know otherwise). While uncertain of the true reason why the rattles appear in the story, Aston (2021) posits that they could reference cultic practices or even just the “noisy rattle[s] or clapper[s] … used by farmers to scare birds from their crops (p. 102).

I can understand the rattles working if Monkey was still in bird form, but the clone attacking Hercules had already transformed into a snake at the point. And the rattle subsequently affects all of the clones. This doesn’t make any sense.

The scroll unfurls further, revealing the spot where the Monkey King landed, as he begins to laugh.

Muse: The Monkey King fell into a strange forest, in awe of such a wondrous fight. But should he mistake his fear, he might lose his head.

Hercules comes crashing down, instantly crushing Wukong’s head with his club. But to his shock, the beheaded body of the Great Sage gets right back up.

9. Crushing Monkey’s head would not be possible with the olive club, for it would break over his adamantine crown like when Hercules broke the weapon over the Nemean Lion‘s head (sec. 2, #3). Sun’s crown is one of the hardest parts of his body, easily taking direct blows from even sharp weapons wielded by demons with no issue (sec. 1.2, #3).

It think it would have made more sense for both heroes to have, at some point, exchanged blows with their respective blunt weapons (sec. 2, #4). But, again, the club wouldn’t have lasted long. This brings me back to my previous question about the number of Hercules’ arrows. If he ran out, then he would be weaponless after both his sword and club are destroyed.

So, I think at this point Sun would have placed his staff in his ear and offered to have a boxing match with the Greek hero. Something similar happens twice in JTTW. In chapter two, Monkey confronts a demon that had been terrorizing his children during his quest for immortality. But when the monster sees that the primate is not only small but also unarmed, he offers to fight him barehanded in order to avoid criticism from other demon kings. Sun ends up beating him so badly that the monster rushes to defend himself with his sword (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). And in chapter 51, another demon uses a powerful treasure stolen from heaven to take away Monkey’s staff, leading the latter to challenge the monster to unarmed combat to show that he isn’t useless without his weapon. A poem describing the subsequent battle states that the combatants use real-world punching and kicking techniques, many of which are known and still practiced today. And while said poem claims that they are equally matched, all of the heavenly commanders agree that Monkey’s technique is faster and more polished (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-14)

Seeing Hercules and Sun duke it out, causing the earth to shake and mountains crumble, would be much more entertaining than the latter’s game of hopscotch among the clouds from the video.

Sun Wukong: I haven’t had such fun since I fought all of Heaven! Change!

Wukong transforms into a taller, three-headed and six-armed version of himself, with three separate Ruyi Jingu Bangs included.

Sun Wukong: Behold me, the Immortal Monkey King!

Hercules stares at his opponent’s transformation and laments his misfortune.

Hercules: Huh… Multiple heads. Of course.

10. A nice nod to the Lernean Hydra.

Both warriors begin to trade blows, Hercules managing to avoid a few of Wukong’s strikes before being disarmed of his club and becoming a victim of a staff combo before being kicked away. He shoots out three more arrows at the Monkey King, which seemingly manage to damage him, before his three-headed form dissipates into smoke, and the real Wukong jumps right back up to the clouds, before sending out his staff to hit Hercules once more. The hero merely watches before the staff suddenly grows into an enormous size mere inches away from his face.

11. Monkey does indeed use deceptive magic doubles in battle. One example happens in chapter 4 during his fight with Prince Nezha

“They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, ‘Change!’ It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind [Nezha] and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha] … heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

Hercules: Huh?

He is suddenly crushed underneath the Ruyi Jingu Bang as Wukong sits on top of it and laughs. But the staff suddenly begins to shake, as Hercules begins to lift it from underneath.

Hercules: You’ve had your fun, beast, but I’ve had enough!

Hercules throws the staff away, forcing Wukong to get off it before changing its size once more, and preparing to strike a finishing blow. Hercules sees this and charges towards the Monkey King, clashing with the staff with only his fist. But as the blows make contact, two blue, divine versions of the two warriors can be seen holding the scroll, before preparing their weapons for a clash of their own. The club of Hercules’ celestial body leaves a trail of constellations, while the celestial Ruyi Jingu Bang leaves a trail of names of Four Symbols written in Chinese in its wake.

Muse: The gods watched their earthbound selves, and so joined in battle. The God of Strength mustered the heart of Olympus, while the Great Sage harnessed power equal to Heaven! Thus…

The two celestial bodies swing at each other, with the force of the blows turning the screen a blinding white. Slowly, the light fades away to reveal that Hercules’ celestial body has been impaled by the Ruyi Jingu Bang. The scroll floats back into view, covering the screen once more.

12. I think I understand what the Death Battle staff was going for when they portrayed each character in their celestial form. But this contradicts their promise to not use the heroes’ post-apotheosic versions. Therefore, this also seemed extremely out of place during the fight.

Muse: The Monkey King emerged victorious!

Returning back inside the scroll, Wukong’s attack manages to overpower Hercules, and its might destroys the God of Strength leaving nothing behind.

Sun Wukong: Wow, would you look at that! I struck him so hard he was reduced to nothingness!

13. I think this would have only killed Hercules’ mortal half, releasing the god within and prolonging the fight. While sources vary on what caused his apotheosis (virtus vs the 12 Labors vs Gigantomachy deeds), it’s clear that the son of Zeus become a god upon his fiery death (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275).

Wukong laughs once more and grabs the apple, leaving the forest to rejoin his master.

Muse: With a formidable foe slain, stricken against the mountain’s breast, so ends our great tale of East and West.

14. I was honestly underwhelmed by the ending. It seemed like the staff ran out of time, money, or interest and decided to stop the episode prematurely. It should have gone on much longer since Hercules and Sun Wukong are the first two mythological characters to be featured. I also thought Hercules was splattered way too easily. I’m sure there could have been a different way to end the fight. It would have been more respectful to both pantheons if the heroes had simply come to a draw and, having developed a newfound respect for each other’s skills, parted as bond brothers.

But considering that the show is called “Death Battle!”, somebody needs to die (the fans would otherwise be upset). So, baring that in mind, I thought of an idea five days before the episode aired, but I must admit that it’s not very respectful to the Greek hero. In my scenario, Sun seemingly disappears, but he actually turns into an insect and flies into Hercules’ mouth and crawls into his stomach. There, Monkey beats him up from the inside using the iron staff or even his fists. Then he instantly takes on his 100,000 foot (30,480 m) tall cosmic form, causing Hercules’ mortal body to explode. This “attack from within” tactic appears in chapters 59, 75, and 82 of JTTW, [3] as well as chapter 11 of the late-13th-century version of the story cycle

Lasty, I didn’t think the sprite animation was appropriate for such a mythic showdown. I personally would have liked more dynamic, hand-drawn animation like that from the Omni-man vs Homelander episode.

Update: 06-24-22

The same redditor from above also explained that the show apparently has budgetary constraints on episode length and art style. This explains the seemingly abrupt ending and the sprite animation. Hand drawn animation is apparently only reserved for the very tip of the top-most requested matchups.

This still doesn’t change my opinion, though. This was their first battle between extremely famous mythological characters. The fight should have been more grand.

But this information still doesn’t change my opinion of the episode. Rooster Teeth should have allotted a larger budget and made the episode longer.

1.2. The Results

I will do the same for the official fight result transcript:

Boomstick: Talking about a herculean matchup.

Wiz: Heracles was among the greatest heroes in myth, but the Great Sage Equal to Heaven held many more advantages.

Boomstick: You’d think Sun might not measure up to the God of Strength… you know, strength, but he totally could. remember he carried Sumeru on his back, the mountain holding up the infinite celestial sky, like how Heracles held up the infinite celestial sphere.

1. The Death Battle researchers likely learned about this feat from my article. But nowhere do I write that the mountain upheld the sky. The Abhidharmakośa (Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century) contains an overview of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, and it states that the sun, moon, and stars orbit half way down the exposed portion of the mountain [4] in a whirlpool-like ring of wind (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 460; Sadakata, 1997, p. 38-40). But the source doesn’t associate this ring with any weight.

Conversely, native Chinese mythology views the sky as a solid object that must be propped up by mountains. And if one of these earthly pillars is damage, it will cause the sky to tilt and even tear, requiring divine repair. See, for example, the legend of Nuwa mending the sky (Birrell, 1999, pp. 69-72 and 96-97). But this has no baring on the discussion at hand as Journey to the West expressly describes the world according to Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography.

Therefore, Sun’s feat should be scaled accordingly. But I’m not sure how this would be possible as the Buddhist and Greek concepts of the sky appear to be fundamentally different. I’ll have to read more on the latter concept to be sure.

Update: 06-25-22

I was contacted by a reader who said that the episode’s Sun Wukong researcher responded to me on the Death Battle discord, stating:

“To clarify, the basis for what Sumeru supports comes from the Buddhist cosmology lectures sourced in the character sheet. Though the article Jim wrote was what made me initially take note of the feat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6agAavZTEK0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMQeFiwacbQ” (per a screenshot emailed to me). 

But I’ve watched the videos and they don’t contradict what I wrote. The problem is that the researcher didn’t make a distinction between the “sky” (as stated in the Death Battle video) and “heaven”. I’ve already described the wind ring in which the celestial bodies orbit the midpoint of Mt. Sumeru. So, now I will give a brief and very simplified overview of the Buddhist cosmos to help readers form a better picture of what I’m arguing. As the axis mundi, Mt. Sumeru is located at the center of our earthly realm, with a ring of seven smaller mountains circling it. This landmass is surrounded by four island-like continents, one for each face of Sumeru, that float in a great sea resting on a disc of golden earth (kāñcanamaṇḍala). This is then supported by a disc of water (jalamaṇḍala) and finally a disc of wind (vāyumaṇḍala), each layer generally becoming larger as one descends. This grand creation is thought to float in “space” (ākāśa) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 25-30), sometimes translated as “sky” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 26). There are indeed various layers of heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru, but they appear to be separate from this space/sky (fig. 2). The first two heavens, that of the Four Great Kings and the 33 Gods, are respectively located at the midpoint and summit of Mt. Sumeru. But the following four heavens float above it at varying heights (fig. 3) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 56-62). Therefore, by running with Mt. Sumeru on one shoulder (and Mt. Emei on the other), Monkey would have supported both the landmass and the two earthly heavens, a monumental task to be sure. But he doesn’t support the four floating heavens above or, most importantly, the space/sky that they are located in. 

Having written the above, I want to note that I’m not claiming Hercules’ feat is stronger by default. I just want to present accurate information. I will at some point post an update with info about ancient Greek concepts of the sky.

Fig. 2 – A diagram of the Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk. It’s the most simplistic, eye-catching version I’ve seen. The column of red, blue, and purple rings on the bottom represent the various layers of Hell. Fig. 3 – A diagram of the various heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru (larger version). From Sadakata, 1997, p. 60.

Wiz: As befitting heroes of myth they were on par in that they were both incomprehensibly strong, however, Wukong’s healing abilities meant he could bounce back from Heracles deadliest blows, whereas Heracles did not have a similar option.

Boomstick: But Heracles did have one way of putting the Monkey King down, his arrows dipped in hydra poison.

Wiz: The hydra poison threatened even the gods of Olympus, similar to the scorpion sting. Whether or not it would be fatal is questionable but it could have incapacitated Wukong, similar to how it affected Heracles himself.

2. The novel presents concepts with elemental states beyond heaven and earth. A prime example is Red Boy‘s Samādhi fire, which is considered more powerful than normal or even divine flames. [5] Likewise, the scorpion’s “horse-felling poison” (daoma du, 倒馬毒) likely falls into this separate category, for it was able to hurt even the Buddha! The bodhisattva Guanyin explains:

“Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

The aforementioned monastery is located in the Western Paradise. This suggests that she might have been imbued with “dharma power” [6] over a certain period of time, making her a super powerful foe. Even the bodhisattva Guanyin fears her sting (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72). 

I conjecture that the scorpion’s sting may be stronger than the hydra’s heavenly poison. [7] Therefore, I question if the latter would have the same effect on the Monkey King.

Boomstick: But that is one very specific win condition and we’re looking at this with every possible option in mind.

Wiz: With his variety of clones, transformations and numerous other spells, Wukong’s arsenal was far more versatile.

Boomstick: Like, there was nothing stopping him from making thousands of clones of himself and just sitting back, while they beat up Herc for him. Unsporting been like? Sure. In character? Absolutely.

Wiz: Even then, those arrows would have to actually strike Wukong, which would be extremely difficult. Yes, in some depictions Heracles could potentially shoot the sun of Helios, his arrows flying 90 times the speed of light. However, in his contest with the Buddha, Wukong leap to the edge of the universe in a single second. To do so he had to be moving over 1.4 quintillion times faster than light.

3. But even if the hydra venom was equally potent, there is no guarantee that Hercules’ arrows could pierce Sun’s adamantine hide. The novel is clear that Monkey’s frame is nearly indestructible. For instance, upon his capture, heaven fails to execute him:

“They then slashed him with a scimitar, hewed him with an ax, stabbed him with a spear, and hacked him with a sword, but they could not hurt his body in any way. Next, the Star Spirit of the South Pole ordered the various deities of the Fire Department to burn him with fire, but that, too, had little effect. The gods of the Thunder Department were then ordered to strike him with thunderbolts [lei xie ding, 雷屑釘, lit: “nails of thunder”], but not a single one of his hairs was destroyed”. (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 188).

This invincibility follows him throughout the novel. For example, in chapter 75, Sun agrees to a demon lord’s offer to set the monk free if he can survive a blow to his head with a scimitar:

“‘When he heard this, Pilgrim smiled and said, ‘Fiend! If you have brush and paper in your cave, take them out and I’ll sign a contract with you. You can start delivering your blows from today until next year, and I won’t regard you seriously!’ 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).

Someone may argue that the scorpion’s sting pierced his face, but refer back to what I wrote about dharma power in comment #2, and see also note #6 below.

Also, the Death Battle crew lists astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated (I make the same critic of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog in my 06-19-22 update). These figures mean absolutely nothing without some sort of explanation.

But since the numbers are used in reference to Monkey’s feat of leaping out of the Buddha’s palm, I want to explain its significance for those who don’t understand (per this reddit post). Sadakata (1997) writes: “[Sun’s feat] reflects the world of the Flower Garland Sutra, where every phenomenon is located within the buddha-world” (p. 155). He goes on to discuss the Cosmic Buddha Vairochana, noting how Buddhist art from all over the world depicts the myriad Buddhas as his emanations. One Javanese example features images of the Five Dhyani Buddhas encircling a stupa dedicated to Vairochana, thereby “express[ing] the Mahayana idea that the buddhas emanate from Mahavairocana and penetrate the universe, that the ‘one’ is at the same time the ‘many'” (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 156-157). Therefore, in essence, the Buddha’s palm in the novel represents the universe.  

Update: 06-25-22

Another redditor wrote:

“[T]he Hydra venom doesn’t need to ‘pierce’ your body to make effect, it just needs to have skin contact, referring to the time Hercules died because he was tricked into using a robe with some hydra venom on it”.

I responded:

“I’m aware of how Hercules dies, but there’s still the question of whether or not the venom would be absorbed into Sun Wukong’s nearly indestructible skin. I don’t recall any similar episode where a substance is absorbed through his skin in JTTW. So assuming that it could is not the same as citing evidence that it would. I’m not trying to split hairs. I’m just a stickler for details”.

But I will concede that artistic license and the need to raise the stakes of the battle could warrant the venom effecting him even if the arrows can’t penetrate his skin. 

Boomstick: Making him way faster than Herc could ever hope to be.

Wiz: Heracles held might of mythic proportions, but barring a lucky shot. Sun Wukong’s versatile magic, similar strength and absolutely absurd speed overcame this foe fitting for heaven’s equal.

Boomstick: When fighting Sun Wukong, Heracles mythed his chance.

Wiz: The winner is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

2. List of Parallels

(As of 07-03-22, I’ve added more quotes and similarities. The total stands at 16.)

Here is a list of parallels shared by Hercules/Herakles and Sun Wukong. I noticed several of these myself, but I am also indebted to the similarities posted on the DEATH BATTLE! Wiki.

1) Origins – Both are born of masculine heavenly forces. Hercules is the half-human son of ZeusHesiod‘s Shield of Heracles reads:

But the father of men and gods [Zeus] wove another design in his mind, how he might fashion for gods and wheat-eating men a protector against disaster. He arose from Olympos by night, pondering a deception in his spirit, longing for sex with a fine-waisted woman. Quickly he came to Typhaonion, and from there Zeus the Counselor trod the peak of Mount Phikion. Taking his seat, he planned wondrous deeds in his heart. On that very night he slept with the slender-ankled daughter of Elektryon [Alkmene]; he fulfilled his desire […] She bore him [Herakles] by submitting to the son
of Kronos, lord of the dark clouds (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 153 and 154; see also Pache, 2021).

The Monkey King is born from a stone seeded by heavenly energies. Chapter one of JTTW reads:

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Hinsch (2011) explains that Chinese works as far back as the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (pp. 157-158).

2) Temper – Both are quick to anger. In his youth, Hercules killed his music teacher for punishing him. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

Linus [of Thrace] also, who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyras, and Orpheus. Of these three Heracles, who was learning to play the lyre, was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul, and once when he had been punished with rods by Linus he became violently angry and killed his teacher with a blow of the lyre (3.67.2; Pache, 2021, p. 10).

Sun pushes over a magical, one-of-a-kind Ginseng Tree (Renshen shu, 人參樹) in retaliation for verbal abuse at the hands of some immortal youths. Chapter 25 of JTTW reads:

When the immortal lads found out the truth, they became even more abusive in their language; the Great Sage became so enraged that he ground his steel-like teeth audibly and opened wide his fiery eyes. He gripped his golden-hooped rod again and again, struggling to restrain himself and saying to himself, “These malicious youths! They certainly know how to give people a lashing with their tongues! All right, so I have to take such abuse from them. Let me offer them in return a plan for eliminating posterity: and none of them will have any more fruit to eat!” Dear Pilgrim! He pulled off a strand of hair behind his head and blew on it with his magic breath, crying “Change!” It changed at once into a specious Pilgrim, standing by the Tang Monk, Wujing, and Wuneng to receive the scolding from the Daoist lads. His true spirit rose into the clouds, and with one leap he arrived at the ginseng garden. Whipping out his golden-hooped rod, he gave the tree a terrific blow, after which he used that mountain-moving divine strength of his to give it a mighty shove (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465-466).

3) Skins – Both wear the skins of big cats. Hercules wears the skin of the Nemean Lion. TheocritusIdylls (25) reads:

The fight ended, I fell to pondering how I could strip the shaggy hide from the dead brute’s limbs—a troublesome task indeed, for when I tried, I could not cut it either with iron or with stone or [otherhow]. But then some god put in my mind the thought to sever the lion’s skin with his own claws; and with these I flayed it speedily and wrapped it about my body to guard me from the rents and hurts of war (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 213; see also March, 2021).

Monkey wears the skin of a mountain tiger. Chapter 14 of JTTW reads:

He [Sun] pulled off one strand of hair and blew a mouthful of magic breath onto it, crying, “Change!” It changed into a sharp, curved knife, with which he ripped open the tiger’s chest. Slitting 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 picked it up and tried it for size, and then said, “It’s a bit too large; one piece can be made into two.” He took the knife and 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).

4) Weapons – Both are knowledgeable in multiple armaments but often wield blunt weapons in their adventures. Hercules uses an olive wood club (I’m unsure if it has an actual name). Theocritus’ Idylls (25) reads:

I set forth, taking my pliant bow, a hallow quiver filled with arrows, and in my other hand a club, made from a spreading wild olive, close-grained, with bark and pith intact, which I had found under holy Helicon and had pulled up entire with all it’s tangle of roots.

[…]

And I, holding in front of me with one hand my arrows … with the other raised my seasoned club over my head and brought it down on [the lion’s] skull; and full on the shaggy head of that invincible brute I broke the tough olive clean in two (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 209 and 211).

Sun uses a black iron staff. Chapter three of JTTW reads:

[After a magic iron pillar followed his wish to shrink] He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “As-You-Will Gold-Banded Staff. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” [8] … See how he displayed his power now! He wielded the rod to make lunges and passes, engaging in mock combat all the way back to the Water-Crystal Palace. The old Dragon King was so terrified that he shook with fear, and the dragon princes were all panic-stricken (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135).

5) Strength – Both are immensely strong. Hercules (in one version of the myth) holds up the sky. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere<he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should> put a pad on his head [fig. 2]. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Fig. 2 – A lovely Olympian Temple of Zeus metopes portraying Hercules (middle) resting the uplifted sky on his cushioned back. Athena (left) aids him in this task. Atlas (right) is shown with the golden apples (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Monkey runs at great speed while bearing the weight of two mountains on his shoulders, one of which is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos and the abode of the gods. Chapter 33 of JTTW reads:

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

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 108-109).

6) Submission – Both are subdued with a blow by deities. Hercules is knocked out with a rock by Athena during his murderous rage. EuripidesHeracles reads:

Then in wild gallop he starts to slay his aged father; but there came a phantom [Athena], as it seemed to us on-lookers, of Pallas, with plumed helm, brandishing a spear; and she hurled a rock against the breast of Heracles, which held him from his frenzied thirst for blood and plunged him into sleep (1000-1006).

Sun is dazed by Laozi‘s magic bracelet during his rebellion, allowing the primate to be captured by heaven. Chapter six of JTTW reads:

[Laozi] rolled up his sleeve and took down from his left arm an armlet, saying, “This is a weapon made of red steel, brought into existence during my preparation of elixir and fully charged with theurgical forces. It can be made to transform at will; indestructible by fire or water, it can entrap many things. It’s called the diamond cutter or the diamond snare … After saying this, Laozi hurled the snare down from the Heaven Gate; it went tumbling down into the battlefield at the Flower-Fruit Mountain and landed smack on the Monkey King’s head. The Monkey King was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Seven Sages and was completely unaware of this weapon, which had dropped from the sky and hit him on the crown of his head. No longer able to stand on his feet, he toppled over (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

7) Punishment – Both are given difficult tasks in order to atone for past transgressions. For killing his family, Hercules is tasked with serving King Eurystheus and completing the 12 Labors. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten [plus two] labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal (2.4.12; see also Hsu, 2021).

Monkey is directed to guard the Buddhist monk Tripitaka for rebelling against heaven. Chapter eight of JTTW reads:

Tathagata deceived me,” said the Great Sage, “and imprisoned me beneath this mountain. For over five hundred years already I have not been able to move. I implore the Bodhisattva to show a little mercy and rescue old Monkey!” “Your sinful karma is very deep,” said the Bodhisattva. “If I rescue you, I fear that you will again perpetrate violence, and that will be bad indeed.” “Now I know the meaning of penitence,” said the Great Sage. “So I entreat the Great Compassion to show me the proper path, for I am willing to practice cultivation.”

[…]

“If you have such a purpose, wait until I reach the Great Tang Nation in the Land of the East [China] and find the scripture pilgrim. He will be told to come and rescue you, and you can follow him as a disciple. You shall keep the teachings and hold the rosary to enter our gate of Buddha, so that you may again cultivate the fruits of righteousness. Will you do that?” ”I’m willing, I’m willing,” said the Great Sage repeatedly (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 215).

8) Heavenly aid – Both are aided by goddesses. Hercules is helped by Athena. For example, Homer‘s Illiad reads”

[B]ut my [Athena] father Zeus is mad with spleen, ever foiling me, ever headstrong and unjust. He forgets how often I saved his son [Hercules] when he was worn out by the labors Eurystheus had laid on him. He would weep till his cry came up to heaven, and then Zeus would send me down to help him; if I had had the sense to foresee all this, when Eurystheus sent him to the house of Hades, to fetch the hell-hound from Erebos, he would never have come back alive out of the deep waters of the river Styx (8.366; See also Deacy, 2021).

Sun is helped by the Bodhisattva Guanyin. For example, the goddess tells him the following in chapter 15 of JTTW:

If on your journey you should come across any danger that threatens your life, I give you permission to call on Heaven, and Heaven will respond; to call on Earth, and Earth will prove efficacious. In the event of extreme difficulty, I myself will come to rescue you. Come closer, and I shall endow you with one more means of power.” Plucking three leaves from her willow branch, the Bodhisattva placed them at the back of Pilgrim’s head, crying, “Change!” They changed at once into three hairs with lifesaving power. She said to him: “When you find yourself in a helpless and hopeless situation, you may use these according to your needs, and they will deliver you from your particular affliction.” After Pilgrim had heard all these kind words, he thanked the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy and Compassion. With scented wind and colored mists swirling around her, the Bodhisattva returned to Potalaka (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 328-329).

9) Enemies – Both face similar enemies: A) supernatural lions (Nemean Lion vs Lion demon); B) opponents that regrow their heads once severed but are eventually defeated with fire (Lernaean Hydra vs Bull Demon King); C) supernatural deer (Ceryneian Hind vs Great Immortal Deer Strength); D) supernatural boars (Erymanthian Boar vs Zhu Bajie); E) supernatural birds (Stymphalian birds vs Great Peng of 10,000 Cloudy Miles); and F) supernatural bulls (Cretan Bull vs Bull Demon King).

10) Horses – Both tame supernatural horses. Hercules tames the man-eating Mares of Diomedes. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

The next Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes, the Thracian. The feeding-troughs of those horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men. Heracles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control (4.15.3; see also Ogden, 2021b).

Monkey serves as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. Chapter four of JTTW reads:

Never resting, the [Sun] oversaw the care of the horses, fussing with them by day and watching over them diligently by night. Those horses that wanted to sleep were stirred up and fed; those that wanted to gallop were caught and placed in the stalls. When the celestial horses saw him, they all behaved most properly and they were so well cared for that their flanks became swollen with fat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

11) Women lands – Both visit locations peopled entirely by women. Hercules visits the Amazons to get the heavenly war belt (zoster) of their Queen Hippolyte. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

The ninth labour he [Eurystheus] enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they reared the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be trammelled by them in throwing the javelin, but they kept the left breasts, that they might suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail …

[After taking part in a small war elsewhere, Hercules finally arrived at his destination]

… Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and touched at Troy (2.5.9; see also Mayor, 2021).

Monkey and the other pilgrims travel through the “Woman Kingdom of Western Liang” (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國) in chapter 53 on their way to India (both Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant from drinking magic water while there). In chapter 54, the group enters the capital in order to have their travel rescript signed by the queen, but she has other plans for the head monk:

The queen said, “This man from the Land of the East [China] is a royal brother of the Tang court. In our country, the rulers of various generations since the time when chaos divided had never seen a man come here. Now the royal brother of the Tang emperor has arrived, and he must be a gift from Heaven. We will use the wealth of an entire nation to ask this royal brother to be king; we are willing to be his queen. Such a sexual union will produce children and grandchildren, and the perpetuity of our kingdom will be assured (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 49).

Sun helps arrange the marriage with the veiled purpose of ensuring that their travel rescript is signed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 52-53).

12) Theft of fruit – Both steal supernatural fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses. Hercules (in one version of the myth) steals Queen Hera‘s Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Monkey steals the Queen Mother‘s immortal peaches. Chapter five of JTTW reads:

One day he saw that more than half of the peaches on the branches of the older trees had ripened, and he wanted very much to eat one and sample its novel taste. Closely followed, however, by the local spirit of the garden, the stewards, and the divine attendants of the Equal to Heaven Residence, he found it inconvenient to do so. He therefore devised a plan on the spur of the moment and said to them, “Why don’t you all wait for me outside and let me rest a while in this arbor?” The various immortals withdrew accordingly. That Monkey King then took off his cap and robe and climbed up onto a big tree. He selected the large peaches that were thoroughly ripened and, plucking many of them, ate to his heart’s content right on the branches. Only after he had his fill did he jump down from the tree. Pinning back his cap and donning his robe, he called for his train of followers to return to the residence. After two or three days, he used the same device to steal peaches to gratify himself once again (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162).

13) Underworld – Both travel to the land of the dead. Hercules goes to Hades to acquire Cerberus. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated … [He sought ritual purification for his past misdeeds] … And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it … [He fended off the empty attacks of shades, rescued Theseus, sated the various ghosts with blood, and won a wrestling match against Menoetes] …When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found him at the gates of Acheron, and, cased in his cuirass and covered by the lion’s skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended through Troezen … [A]nd Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried him back to Hades (2.5.12; see also Hanesworth, 2021).

Sun travels to the Land of Darkness at least twice. For instance, in chapter 97, he goes to the underworld to retrieve the spirit of a recently deceased benefactor:

With a series of cloud somersaults, that Great Sage went to the Region Below and crashed right into the Hall of Darkness … Pilgrim said, “Which one of you took away the soul of Kou Hong, the person who fed the monks in the Numinous Earth District of the Bronze Estrade Prefecture? Find out instantly and bring him to me.”

[…]

[After being led out] Kou Hong, who, on seeing Pilgrim, cried out, “Master! Master! Save me!” “You were kicked to death by a robber,” said Pilgrim. “This is the place of the Bodhisattva King Kṣitigarbha in the Region of Darkness. Old Monkey has come especially to take you back to the world of light so that you may give your testimony. The Bodhisattva is kind enough to release you and lengthen your age for another dozen years. Thereafter you’ll return here.” The squire bowed again and again.

Having thanked the Bodhisattva, Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave the house of darkness and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 338-339).

14) Heavenly war – Both take part in battles with heaven but on opposing sides. Hercules fights alongside the Olympian gods during the Gigantomachy. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But Earth, vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the giants, whom she had by Sky. These were matchless in the bulk of their bodies and invincible in their might; terrible of aspect did they appear, with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet. They were born, as some say, in Phlegrae, but according to others in Pallene. And they darted rocks and burning oaks at the sky. Surpassing all the rest were Porphyrion and Alcyoneus, who was even immortal so long as he fought in the land of his birth. He also drove away the cows of the Sun from Erythia. Now the gods had an oracle that none of the giants could perish at the hand of gods, but that with the help of a mortal they would be made an end of. Learning of this, Earth sought for a simple to prevent the giants from being destroyed even by a mortal. But Zeus forbade the Dawn and the Moon and the Sun to shine, and then, before anybody else could get it, he culled the simple himself, and by means of Athena summoned Hercules to his help. Hercules first shot Alcyoneus with an arrow, but when the giant fell on the ground he somewhat revived. However, at Athena’s advice Hercules dragged him outside Pallene, and so the giant died (1.6.1; see also Salowey, 2021).

Monkey fights against the Buddho-Daoist gods a few times. For instance, chapter four of JTTW reads:

Each displaying his divine powers, the Third Prince [Nezha] and Wukong battled for thirty rounds. The six weapons of that prince changed into a thousand and ten thousand pieces; the golden-hooped rod of Sun Wukong into ten thousand and a thousand. They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, “Change!” It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind Nata and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha], still performing his magic, heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain. Breaking off his magic and gathering up his six weapons, he returned to his camp in defeat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

15) Godhood – Both become deities at the end of their respective story cycles. Hercules joins the gods of Olympus after death. Reasons given for this apotheosis include his his 12 Labors, his Gigantomachy deeds, or simply his virtus (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275). One account from the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

… Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself [due to exposure to hydra venom], ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him too put torch to the pyre. And when no one had courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed.

After this, when the companions of Iolaus came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.

[Description of the kinds of sacrifices that the various Greek states made to Heracles as a hero and god following his death/ascension]

We should add to what has been said about Heracles, that after his apotheosis Zeus persuaded Hera to adopt him as her son and henceforth for all time to cherish him with a mother’s love, and this adoption, they say, took place in the following manner. Hera lay upon a bed, and drawing Heracles close to her body then let him fall through her garments to the ground, imitating in this way the actual birth; and this ceremony is observed to this day by the barbarians whenever they wish to adopt a son. Hera, the myths relate, after she had adopted Heracles in this fashion, joined him in marriage to Hebe (4.38.4-4.392; see also Romero-Gonzalez, 2021).

Sun is elevated to Buddhahood at the journey’s end. The Buddha says the following to Monkey in chapter 100 of JTTW:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife [Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

16) Worship – Both are (were) worshiped. Hercules was worshiped by the ancient Greeks and Romans, while Sun is worshiped as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” in modern Chinese folk religion. It’s interesting to note that both deities are are believed to ward off evil.

These similarities might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. For example, the skin of big cats have symbolized strength in many cultures. Scholars have suggested that Hercules has ties to ancient heroes of the Near East (Ogden, 2021a, pp. xxiv-xxv), so perhaps the Indic practices that would come to influence the Monkey King’s iconography were also influenced by the same ancient Indo-European sources.

3. When heroes meet

Hercules and Sun Wukong have technically met before. In the 13th-century version of the story cycle, Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), changes a magic golden-ringed monk’s staff (Sk: khakkhara; Ch: xizhang, 錫杖) into a titanic, divine warrior while facing a white tiger spirit:

Monkey Pilgrim transformed his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel [jiangmochu, 降魔杵]. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam shot forth a hundred yards long” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189).

The titan eventually crushes the spirit with his weapon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). His “demon-subduing cudgel” is another name for a pestle-like ritual weapon with pronged tips called the vajra (Sk: “diamond” or “thunderbolt”; Ch: jingang, 金剛), which represents “power, indestructibility, and immutability, especially in tantric Buddhism” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 952). The vajra is traditionally the weapon of Vajrapāni (Ch: Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩; lit: “Bodhisattva Holding the Vajra”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955; Huntington & Bangdel, 2003, pp. 197-199). So what does this have to do with Heracles?

Religious depictions of Vajrapāni as a muscular, club-wielding protector were influenced by depictions of Heracles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara (modern Pakistan/Afghanistan) (Hsing & Crowell, 2005). In fact, some carvings even portray Heracles as a protector of the Buddha (fig. 3)!

Fig. 3 – A stone carving of Heracles protecting the Buddha, Gandhara, 2nd-century (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Also, Sun Wukong briefly interreacts with Vajra warriors based on Vajrapāni in the standard version of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 357, for example). So the above Death Battle is not a stretch at all. I’d like to see someone write a story where the divine Greek and Chinese heroes meet, perhaps some centuries after Zeus tasks Heracles/Vajrapāni with protecting the Buddha. After a brief fight, Heracles and Monkey become bond brothers. This would open the door to Monkey appearing in Greek tales!

In addition, Sun Wukong and Vajrapāni are associated with each other in Shaolin Monastery myth. The latter was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows that the deity’s vajra-club had been changed to a Chinese staff (fig. 4) (Shahar, 2008, p. 84). Vajrapāni’s Yaksha-like Nārāyana (Naluoyan(tian), 那羅延(天)) form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding “Kimnara Kings” from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to “Kimnara King” (Jinnaluo, 緊那羅) (Shahar, 2008, p. 87). One version of the story about his creation of the staff method takes place during the Yuan Dynasty‘s Red Turban Rebellion. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant tall enough to straddle both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi, which are five miles (8.046 km) apart. The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kimnara King in disguise (Shahar, 2008, pp. 87-88). Shahar (2008) suggests that mythical elements of the story were borrowed from the Monkey King’s adventures. He compares the worker’s transformation in the stove with Sun’s time in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace (Bagua lu, 八卦爐), their use of the staff, and the fact that Monkey and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions (Shahar, 2008, p. 109). [9]

Fig. 4 – The 1517 Shaolin stele showing a titanic Vajrapāni defending the monastery from rebels (larger version). From Shahar, 2008, p. 84.


Update: 06-19-22

I’ve been notified by several people that the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog has posted a prediction. This blog is independent from the actual content creators. In a 7 to 6 split, the blog predicts Hercules will win, explaining that he is stronger and faster. While seemingly thorough, portions of their analysis make no sense. For example, the section on speed reads:

As far as speed goes, the demigod also comes out on top. Taking into account Wukong growing his staff from Earth to the Underworld and the Heavens, then scaling that back to his speed, he could potentially move at 800 quadrillion times the speed of light. However, Heracles scaling to Zeus surpasses this by dozens of times, with him being able to send shockwaves across the entire firmament by simply nodding his head. Zeus nodding his head is an act that should have been done with extreme ease – at least more ease than Zeus actually wrestling Heracles – meaning that Heracles should reasonably scale. As the firmament and Olympus are on the outer sphere of the cosmos, which encircle each other, this would have had to cross the entire diameter, putting the feat at 29 quintillion times the speed of light, over 36 times faster than Wukong …

They scale Sun Wukong’s speed not by his Cloud-Somersault (a metaphor for instantaneous travel) or his ability to carry mountains with meteoric speed but by the magic growth of his staff into a pillar of heaven. Why? They also provide astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated, a very common problem with such versus discussions.

In addition, they wrongly state that the 72 Transformations grant Monkey immortality. He actually first attains immortality via Daoist elixir arts. Furthermore, they claim that Sun’s immortality can be taken away from him, referencing his turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace. While the extreme heat was meant to extract the elixir from his body, it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an “intended result” with an “actual result”. But even if the heat could complete the job, how exactly is Hercules going to defeat Sun’s immortality. Does he also carry around a heavenly furnace? This is never explained in the analysis.

I don’t have time to analyze the entire article. I will reserve this space for the actual fight results.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.


Update: 06-23-22

I have finished adding my comments to the official fight and result transcripts of the battle (sec. 1.1 and 1.2). If any new evidence comes to light, I will make sure to further update the page.

I’m thrilled to announce that the episode has 1.1 million views after only two days! 925,000 plus of those were in the first 24 hours! I knew this fight would attract a lot of attention. I hope more and more people will finally read the novel and fall in love with Monkey’s adventures like I did oh so long ago.


Update: 06-26-22

When I originally watched the video, I skipped the character analysis straight to the fight. I only just now got around to reading the official transcript for the beginning, and I’m sorry to report that Monkey’s section is riddled with errors. Whomever wrote it has definitely never read the book. It would be like me writing a Death Battle transcript about Harry Potter based on a very lazy read of Wikipedia. I tried correcting the mistakes onsite, but my edits were reverted and I was told that the transcript is off limits. Therefore, I’ve decided to add my corrections and comments here (in blue) like I did above.

But before continuing, I want to note that I’m upset because it appears that info from my research blog was likely used in the video and Death Battle wiki website without the specific articles being linked to. Sure, my general blog URL was added twice to an external site (here and here), but this is not the same as linking to the actual articles on the video/wiki so people can see where Death Battle got their information from. Make no mistake, this has little to do with publicity; my blog generates zero money for me. It’s just fair that my work be recognized if it’s being used, especially if it contributed to a video currently making money for its creators

4. Sun Wukong’s character analysis

Wiz: There once was a mighty monkey warrior, born of a mystic stone from the energy of the sun and moon. Upon birth, he graciously bowed to the cardinal directions and-

1. The stone was “nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 101). 

Boomstick: Shot lasers from his eyes! Strap in folks, this one’s a doozy.

2. This feat is likely based on the birth of the historical Buddha. See parallel #2 on this article.

Wiz: This monkey soon befriended a band of other primates and, rather narcissistically, named himself their handsome Monkey King.

3. Sun doesn’t just proclaim himself king, though the addition of “handsome” is pure ego on his part (he’s actually really ugly). He proves himself in a test of bravery by jumping through a waterfall to discover a long-forgotten immortal’s grotto-heaven (see the opening of this article).

Boomstick: But after a few centuries of monkeying about, he got a taste of the dreaded… midlife crisis!

Wiz: You see, the Monkey King was fierce and brave, yet he feared death, so he ventured to new lands in search of immortality.

4. Brave? Yes. Fierce? Not yet a warrior.

Boomstick: Turns out, he’d find a lot of it.

Wiz: Training under the Taoist master, Puti, he earned his first method of immortality and a new name. He would be the Monkey Awakened to the Void, spoken as: Sun Wukong.

5. Subodhi is a Buddho-Daoist sage with heavy Buddhist associations despite his normal portrayal as an immortal.

Boomstick: He also learned a bunch of magic. He can ride clouds, make thousands of clones, heal from fatal wounds like decapitation, and transform into basically anything: a bird, some vapor, a pitchfork, even an incredible fighting temple!

Popup: Though this technique is called “72 Earthly Transformations”, the scope of Sun Wukong’s shapeshifting is limited only by his imagination. The number actually references a collection of stars that the power is associated with.

6. Example #1 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. And the actual name for the technique is the “Multitude of the Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu地煞數). [10]

Wiz: With his famous cloud somersault, he could traverse the world at incredibly high speed. At first, a single somersault could carry him 180,000 li [a typo for 108,000], li being a traditional Chinese unit equal to about 500 meters, making one somersault move 54,000 kilometers per second, fast enough to circle the entire Earth in one leap.

7. Example #2 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. I note this ability to encircle the earth in the opening paragraph here.

Boomstick: And he’d only get faster from there. Monkey would do whatever it took to prove he was the best of the best.

Wiz: When fighting the mighty deity Prince Nezha, his foe transformed into a more powerful visage with three heads and six arms.

8. This doesn’t happen until chapters later when Monkey first rebels. I’m not sure why they would introduce this fight so early.

Boomstick: But Sun was like, “Hey, I can do that too,” and then did just that.

Wiz: Sun Wukong eventually returned to his simian subjects and, with his newfound power, amassed a veritable army. However, he felt no weapon in their arsenal suited him.

Boomstick: So he barged into the Dragon King‘s palace and demanded he hand over a weapon worthy of a king who can match the power of Heaven. Yeah, Sun was pretty full of himself. But, he wound up taking a pillar, originally designed to measure the depths of the ocean.

Popup: Some translations claim this “golden-hooped rod” measured or held up the galaxy, but these are incorrect. It was originally used to gauge the depth of the Great Flood, a story regarding the rise of dynastic China.

9. Example #3 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. Here I discuss the error in translation that led to this common misconception.

Wiz: What seemed like a worthless rod to the Dragon King was actually the perfect weapon for Wukong. Weighing nearly eight tons, the Ruyi Jingu Bang can change size at his whim. It can shrink to the size of a needle or grow long enough to pierce the heavens.

10. The pillar was not “useless”. He considered it an item of great importance:

“‘That,’ said the Dragon King, ‘was the measure with which the Great Yu fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood. It’s a piece of magic iron, but of what use could it be to him [Monkey]?'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

And later, he even refers to it as a “divine treasure” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 142).

But the Dragon Queen suggests giving it to the rude and very powerful immortal anyway so that he will leave their kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

Also, the staff weighs nearly nine tons.

Boomstick: The same heavens that got pretty mad with Sun after he crossed his name out of the Ledger of Death, making himself double immortal! Wait, how does that work?

Wiz: And even more mad when he demanded to be formally acknowledged as “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven”.

11. This doesn’t happen until after serving as the Bimawen and subsequently rebelling. Again, they introduce something too early.

Boomstick: Okay, we got a headstrong goofball who quickly masters new powers and wants a fancy title. This is just Shonen anime!

Wiz: Now, the Monkey King may have lashed out, but it was because when he requested a place in Heaven, a place he truly believed he deserved, the Jade Emperor‘s court reduced him to a stable boy.

12. He didn’t request a place in heaven. The celestial bureaucracy just gave him a position to keep his unruly adventures in check (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 143). Monkey only later “lashes out” upon learning of his low rank (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

Boomstick: Beneath all his antics, what Sun wanted most was to prove himself.

Wiz: Even with all the shenanigans, the Jade Emperor remained cautious and willing to placate Wukong.

Boomstick: By making him the watchdog of the Garden of Immortal Peaches. He totally ate that shit, didn’t he, Wiz?

13. It’s only at this point when Monkey battles Nezha, and when he proves too powerful, heaven placates him with the aforementioned sagely title and the above position (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 155-159).

Wiz: Oh yeah, Wukong got hammered, ate most of the peaches, ran around the Jade Palace in a fit, and found five gourds of immortality pills… which he promptly swallowed. All of them.

Boomstick: Ok, so that makes… how many layers of immortality now?

Wiz: I’d say a few… hundred? Thousand? If you count each individual peach and pill. When he sobered up, he knew he was in serious trouble, so naturally… he prepared for war.

14. This glosses over the reason for why Sun was drunk in the first place. He crashes the long-awaited immortal peach banquet and drinks all of the heavenly wine. Only then does he drunkenly stumble into Laozi’s laboratory and eat all of the alchemical pills (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 165-166).

Boomstick: Wow, that escalated quickly! What are they gonna do? Kill him? So, the Monkey King proved too strong for Heaven. He battled all their best fighters, and even matched Erlang Shen blow-for-blow in an epic battle of transformations! He’s that guy with the third eye.

Wiz: And Heaven’s greatest holy warrior. Yet, no matter Erlang’s form, Wukong always had a counter. Until Laozi threw in a convenient plot MacGuffin that captured the monkey. But even with Wukong in chains, Heaven had a problem.

15. Sun has no problem fighting Erlang, that is until his beloved monkey army is routed. He thereafter loses heart and flees, using a number of animal/structural transformations to escape (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 181-184). This is obviously different from the scenario described above. See this article by my friend Irwen Wong over at Journey to the West Library to learn how Erlang wins the majority of their encounters. 

Also, Laozi’s Diamond snare doesn’t capture Monkey. It simply hits Sun on the head, dazing him long enough for heaven to capture him (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

We cut to Boomstick.

Boomstick: He just wouldn’t die! Lightning, fire, even Laozi’s de-immortalizing furnace just made the monkey stronger!

16. The purpose of the Eight Trigrams furnace is not to remove one’s immortality but to produce the intense heat needed to manufacture alchemical elixirs (see section III of this article). This is an important distinction.

Laozi suggests that the reason why Monkey has a nearly indestructible body is because all of the immortal peaches and alchemical pills were likely refined in his lower elixir field. He then offers a possible solution:

“It would be better, therefore, if [he is placed] in the Brazier of Eight Trigrams, where he will be smelted by high and low heat. When he is finally separated from my elixir, his body will certainly be reduced to ashes” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 188-189).

But as I note in my 06-19-22 critique of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog,

“…it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace. But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an ‘intended result’ with an ‘actual result'”.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.

Wiz: Now, Wukong is not invincible. He has been hurt by the Scorpion Demoness’ poison, which could even harm the Buddha, an awaken divine being liberated from the cycle of life and death entirely.

17. Please see what I wrote about the scorpion above (sec. 1.2, #2)

[Random skit removed for brevity]

Boomstick: Ugh… But even after all that, Sun had one more challenger to contend with; the Buddha himself!

Wiz: Buddha approached Wukong with a contest: leap out of his hand, and he could have the Jade Emperor’s throne for himself.

Boomstick: Having no impulse control, the monkey agreed, and in an instant, somersaulted to the very edge of Heaven.

Wiz: But he had already lost. Because Buddha achieved Nirvana, he transcended the world, literally holding all of existence. So even at the edge of the universe, Wukong technically never left his hand.

18. This matches what I wrote above about the Buddha and the universe (sec. 1.2, #3).

Boomstick: For his rebellion, Sun was put in time out, sealed under a mountain for 500 years.

19. This is an understandable mistake as the phrase “500 years” is thrown around a lot in the novel. But as I explain here, chapter 14 states that the mountain trapped Monkey during the rein of a historical usurper (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 306), revealing that his imprisonment actually lasts somewhere between 617 to 649 years.   

Wiz: But even Sun Wukong would find a chance at redemption. In his case, he was tasked with escorting and protecting a monk, Tang Sanzang, or Tripitaka, on a journey to the west.

Boomstick: With additional companions Pigsy and Sandy. The trip was a tough one, and Monkey abandoned it more than once. But through it all, he always returned to shine as the group’s powerhouse, saving Tripitaka’s life many, many times. Seriously, this guy could not stay out of trouble. It’s like Wiz on a blind date.

Wiz: Ahem. Wukong has cracked apart mountains, slayed hundreds of monsters, and survived the Yellow Wind Demon‘s storm that could destroy the universe. As in Heaven, Earth, the 18 layers of Hell, and more!

Popup: The storm is depicted differently across translations, but the original Chinese text uses “乾坤”, meaning “universe”, or more literally “every manifestation of nature”.

Boomstick: That’s cool and all, Wiz, but let’s answer the real question. Can he beat Goku?

Wiz: Um… maybe! During his journey, Wukong performed possibly his most legendary feat: holding up Mount Sumeru which, in traditional Mahayana Buddhism, is a mountain supporting the infinite cosmic sky.

Boomstick: And Sun just hauled it around on one shoulder. Just one! Because on his other shoulder… was a whole other mountain!

Popup: The other mountain was Mount Emei, one of the Sacred Mountain of China.

20. Example #4 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. This material of course comes from here.

Wiz: After 14 years of travel, the journey was complete, and Wukong had finally accomplished a truly great deed. For this, he was given his long-awaited place among the heavens.

Boomstick: As the Victorious Fighting Buddha! Now that’s got to be an anime.

Wiz: After so much time as a rebel, an outcast, and a truly unstoppable warrior, Sun Wukong had, at last, found his home.


Update: 06-28-22

I previously referenced Sun’s turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace but stated that this should not be used as an anti-feat since the flames never actually hurt him (due to taking shelter in a cooler portion of the brazier) (06-19-22 update & sec. 4, #16). I also referenced Red Boy’s spiritually-cultivated Samādhi fire, noting that it is more powerful than earthly or even heavenly fire (sec. 1.2, #2). Regarding the latter, remember that Monkey easily survives an attempted execution by this celestial flame (sec. 1.2, #3). But it’s important to highlight that, in chapter 41, the combination of Samādhi fire and intense smoke is shown to override Monkey’s famous fire-protection spell:

His whole body covered by flame and smoke, the Great Sage found the intense heat unbearable and he dove straight into the mountain stream to try to put out the fire. Little did he anticipate that the shock of the cold water [11] was so great that the heat caused by the fire was forced inward into his body and he fainted immediately (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 231).

And I was recently reminded of an additional episode where Sun has another brush with supernatural flames. In chapter 75, an ancient demon king places Monkey in a small, unassuming vase for execution, but the latter comments on the cool temperature inside. However, it turns out that this is an ultra powerful treasure “governed by the double primal forces of yin and yang” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368), and the second that he speaks, the vessel assaults Sun first with fire, then biting snakes, and finally fire dragons. The first round of fire has no effect on him (nor do the snakes) but the fire dragons produce flames so hot that they also override the fire-protection spell:

He had hardly finished speaking when he felt some pain on his shanks. Rubbing them hurriedly with his hand, he found his shanks were turning flaccid because of the fire. More and more anxious, he thought to himself, “What’s to become of me? Even my shanks are weakened by the fire. I’ll be reduced to a cripple!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369)

What’s interesting is that the vase’s various torments are said to be “activated by the seven jewels, the eight trigrams, and the twenty-four solar terms” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368) (emphasis mine). These are the same eight trigrams as Laozi’s furnace. So, this suggests that Sun’s time in the brazier would have actually hurt his body. While this might even destroy his form, the novel hints that, besides providing a surplus of extra heads, the 72 Transformations also grant Monkey extra lives just like a video game (see the 06-12-22 update here). But this “respawning” is never officially shown in the novel. So what would happen if Sun had been trapped inside the Eight Trigrams furnace in direct heat? Would he just keep regenerating over and over again until his extra lives were spent (or he escaped), or would the supernatural flames simply destroy his body once and for all? I’m not sure. Make of this what you will.

But my original point still stands: Hercules would not have been able to overcome Monkey’s immortality unless he was carrying around a heavenly furnace and managed to force and keep the primate hero inside for a given time.


Update: 07-01-22

I forgot to mention something regarding the various fire-related episodes in the last update: Sun Wukong’s abilities are presented inconsistently throughout the novel. This is best illustrated by two episodes. As mentioned above, in chapter 75, Monkey cries that he’ll be a cripple if the supernatural fire continues to burn his ankles. But he previously demonstrated the ability to heal using his immortal breath in Chapter 46:

With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).

Prior to this, he quoted a fun poem about his abilities:

Cut off my head and I still can speak,
Sever my arms, I still can beat you up!
My legs amputated, I still can walk.
My belly, ripped open, will heal again,
Smooth and snug as a wonton people make:
A tiny pinch and it’s completely formed.
To bathe in boiling oil is easier still;
Like warm liquid cleanse me of dirt it will (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 307).

This inconsistency is likely due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, it’s important to remember that Monkey is only as fast, strong, or invulnerable as the story calls for him to be. This serves to heighten the drama, making the story more compelling.


Update: 07-03-22

I’ve updated section three (“When heroes meet”) with new information. The section was more of an after thought when I was originally rushing to finish the article.


Update: 07-08-22

I’ve been thinking of more plausible ways in which the Monkey King and the original Greek Heracles might come into conflict. The two I have in mind require “what if” scenarios that change the original Journey to the West (1592) story in one way or another. The first involves Guanyin calling on Heracles/Vajrapāni instead of Erlang to deal with the primate immortal in chapter six. (As a dharma protector and embodiment of the Buddha’s power, Heracles/Vajrapāni would naturally be imbued with dharma power, the penultimate power in the novel’s cosmos. This means that he would eventually prevail over Monkey but come to respect Monkey’s strength and skill, especially since the primate only studied spiritual cultivation and martial arts for three years prior to his adventures.) This would make the reason for their fight more natural, but creating an extended narrative where the hero befriends Sun and introduces him to the Greek pantheon would be difficult as the journey—i.e. escorting the monk to India—still needs to take place.

The second involves the end of the novel when the Buddha orders the eight Vajra warriors to escort the pilgrims to China in chapter 100. Perhaps, in our version, Heracles/Vajrapāni is among them or he even replaces the eight. Knowing of Monkey’s great power, he might invite him to have a friendly sparring match. But this seems like a bad time to pick a fight, making their confrontation less natural. But considering that this happens at the end of the journey, it opens the door to introducing Sun to the Greek gods. This would naturally occur after Monkey achieves Buddhahood, removing any chance that he would struggle against a Grecian foe.

As I write this, I thought of a third that’s a mix of the two. Heracles/Vajrapāni is still called on to halt Sun’s rampage, and after the latter is promoted in spiritual rank, the Buddha charges the guardian with escorting the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” through the Greek world system—i.e. the Greek pantheon. I really like the idea of Heracles/Vajrapāni visiting his old pantheon as his Vajra weapon is analogous to Zeus’ thunderbolt. It serves the same function under the Hindu storm god Indra, who is sometimes associated with Zeus in Greco-Buddhist art.

The first Greeks arrived in India during the reign of Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) and later Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Just like American Gods, these merchants, artisans, farmers, and mercenaries would have brought their religion with them, allowing the Greek pantheon to learn of the Buddha. And just like the “Enlightened One” conversed with the Vedic gods atop Mt. Sumeru, he too might visit Olympus and talk with the Greek gods. This would lead Zeus assigning his son, the “god of strength”, to guard the Buddha, forming a link between the Greek and Buddhist pantheons.


Update: 11-04-22

According to a legend appearing in various Indian, Chinese, and Burmese translations, the ancient Indian king Ajatasatru (c. 492 to 460 BCE) had wooden, blade-wielding automatons constructed to guard the relics of the Buddha after his passing. They were known as “spirit movement machines” (Sk: bhuta vahana yanta). Some versions say they were built by a Vedic god, while another says they were based on secret plans stolen from the Romans (in a strange story of reincarnational espionage). The robots were apparently stored in a secret underground chamber beneath a stupa to await the coming of a future king (Ashoka). This brings to mind the Golden Army from Hellboy II.

While I first learned about the legend from this tweet, the info comes from Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (2018) by Adrienne Mayor (see pages 203-211). I have uploaded a PDF of the book to my research blog server. You can download it from here (please support the official release if you enjoy the digital copy).

Mayor notes that the automatons do not appear in any visual media. But she uses existing Buddhist art to suggest that they were likely modeled after the muscular dvarapala and yaksha shown protecting the Buddha. What’s even more interesting is that she highlights the fact that the Greek hero Heracles is depicted as one of these guardians in Greco-Buddhist art (as discussed above).

Can you imagine the Monkey King going up against a celestial robot powered by the godly spirit of Heracles?!?!

Notes:

1) JTTW uses two measurement units when referring to the staff, the chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese foot”; 12.52 in / 31.8 cm) and the zhang (丈; 1 = 10 chi) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). Monkey is said to fight with the staff at two lengths, “two zhang” (erzhang, 二丈, i.e. 20 chi) in chapter three and “12 or 13 chi” (丈二三) in chapter 88 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135; vol. 4, p. 196). But twenty is likely a typo for 12 (zhanger, 丈二, 3.82 m / 12.53 ft.) since the pillar was already close to the former size when Sun first saw it in the dragon treasury. Therefore, this correction agrees with the latter measurement.

2) Translation slightly altered. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) writes that it’s the size of a “rice bowl” (vol. 1, p. 135), but this doesn’t appear in the original Chinese.

3) In chatper 59, for example, he invades the stomach of his former bond brother‘s wife in an attempt to procure a magic weapon needed to clear his master’s path to the west:

“I’m now having a little fun in my esteemed Sister-in-law’s stomach! I am, as the saying goes, seeing right through you! I know how thirsty you must be, so let me send you a ‘sitting bowl’ to relieve your thirst” Suddenly he shoved his foot down hard and unbearable pain shot through Rākṣasī’s lower abdomen, sending her tumbling to the floor and moaning. “Please don’t refuse me, Sister-in-law,” said Pilgrim, “I’m presenting you with an added snack for your hunger.” He jerked his head upward, and unbearable pain coursed through Rākṣasī’s heart. She began to roll all over the ground, the pain turning her face yellow and her lips white. All she could do was to cry out, “Brother-in-law Sun, please spare my life!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129).

4) Mt. Sumeru is said to be 160,000 yojanas (1 yojana = roughly 8 miles/12.87 km) tall, with 80,000 below a great ocean and 80,000 exposed above (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 454).

5) Three lines from a poem in chapter 41 read: “It’s not fire from Heaven, / Nor is it a wildfire. / It’s the realized samādhi fire born of the demon’s self-cultivation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 225).

6) “Dharma power” (fali, 法力) is the strongest form of magic in Journey to the West. See this paper for an explanation of the novel’s Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy, which places Buddhist deities at the top.

7) The hydra is the nigh-immortal offspring of the Titanic monsters Typhon and Echidna (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 52).

8) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) uses “pounds” instead of the original jin (斤, a.k.a. catty) (vol. 1, p. 135). During the Ming dynasty when the novel was compiled, one jin equaled approximately 590 grams (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). I will therefore alter Yu’s translation to reflect more accurate measures.

9) Yes, this information comes from Wikipedia, but I’m the one who originally added it under the screenname “Ghostexorcist”. See this edit history, for example.

10) I follow the translation used in Meulenbeld (2019). Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) simply translates this as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude” (vol. 1, p. 122).

11) This sounds like a case of thermal shock.

Sources:

Aston, E. (2021). Labor VI: The Stymphalian Birds. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 95-106). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Deacy, S. (2021). Heracles between Hera and Athena. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 387-394). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Hanesworth, P. (2021). Labor XII: Cerberus. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 165-180). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Hesiod, & Powell, B. B. (2017). The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Herakles. United States: University of California Press.

Hinsch, B. (2011). Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hsing, I.T., & Crowell, W. G. (2005). Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China. Asia Major, 18(2), 103–154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41649907

Hsu, K. L. (2021). The Madness and the Labors. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 13-25). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Huntington, J. C., Bangdel, D. (2003). The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. United Kingdom: Serindia Publications.

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code: Da Ming Lü. United States: University of Washington Press.

March, J. (2021). Labor I: The Nemean Lion. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 29-44). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Mayor, A. (2021). The Girdle of the Amazon Hippolyte. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 124-134). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Meulenbeld. (2019). Vernacular “Fiction” and Celestial Script: A Daoist Manual for the Use of Water Margin. Religions10(9), 518. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/rel10090518

Ogden, D. (2021a). Introduction. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. xxi-xxxi). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Ogden, D. (2021b). Labor VIII: The Mares of Diomede (and Alcestis). In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 113-123). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Pache, C. (2021). Birth and Childhood. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 3-12). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Romero-Gonzalez, D. (2021). Deianeira, Death, and Apotheosis. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 266-280). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Sadakata, A. (1997). Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Japan: Kosei Publishing Company.

Salowey, C. (2021). The Gigantomachy. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 235-250). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Salapata, G. (2021). Labor XI: The Apples of Hesperides. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 149-164). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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

Theocritus, & Gow A. S. F. (1952). Theocritus (Vol. 1-2). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

Vasubandhu (2014). Abhidharmakosabhasyam of Vasubandhu (Vol. 2) (L. de La Vallee Poussin & L. M. Pruden, Trans.). United States: Jain Publishing Company.

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

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

Journey to the West Artist Spotlight #1: Dario Virga

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of researching the history and influences of Journey to the West. But as an artist, I am also a fan of JTTW-related artwork. There are so many talented people in the world who post their traditional and original designs and comics online, so I’ve decided to feature some of them on my blog. My hope is that such posts will expose this art to a wider audience interested in JTTW, while also documenting modern day perceptions and depictions of the novel and its characters.

Our first artist is Dario Virga, who goes by Onibotokemaru on Instagram. They were kind enough to answer some interview questions, as well as allow permission to display a few of their pieces.

I. Q & A

1) Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Real name Dario Virga, from Italy (Piedmont). Interest in eastern culture and literature, mostly from Japan and China.

2) Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?

Self-taught, though I had some help from someone who went to art school.

3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?

Usually animals and characters/elements taken from mythology and literature.

4) How did you learn about Journey to the West?

My very first contact with Journey to the West was back when I was younger, in a book about Chinese myths. Later I found an integral translation done by Serafino Balduzzi (translated from a French one).

5) Who is your favorite character?

Tough question, but I like most of the characters. If forced to choose, I’d say Pigsy for the good guys and the Bull Demon King for the villains.

6) Do you have a favorite episode from the novel?

Probably the whole Gold Horn & Silver Horn arc.

7) Does the novel have a special meaning to you?

Not a special meaning per se, but it was a novel I really enjoyed, both for the setting, the narration, the characters within and watching them grow.

8) Can you tell me about your ongoing JTTW-related projects?

Plan to make a gallery of, if not all, at least a huge amount of the novel’s characters.

II. Art and Thought Process

1. As the opening drawing of the Xiyouji-themed Inktober set, I’ve decided to focus not on Sun Wukong himself but rather on Tripitaka, the monk, as Guanyin Pusa appears before him to assign him the quest for the sutras. Guanyin’s reference are commonly-found icons and statues. Between the two of them float the items Tripitaka receives (the cossack, nine-ringed staff and hat).

(Larger version)

2. This is the first time I depict Sun Wukong in the series, and I did it based his design on an article written on this very blog, trying to stick as much as possible to his literary description, especially regarding the clothing (monk’s shirt and tiger pelt kilt held by a rope), short stature, simian face and bald spot on the top of the head (converted to Buddhism). I gave him long spike-like hair in the back because otherwise his head felt too small. The Ruyijingubang has a rather simple design, as I never liked its depictions with pommels on both ends. I also tried to make the inscriptions on the shaft, but ultimately gave up, admittedly.

(Larger version)

3. This picture has Sun Wukong fighting against the Iron Fan Princess, who sends him flying away with her Banana Leaf Fan. Once again, I wanted to show how small Monkey is (in comparison to nearly everyone else, though I’m not always 100% consistent) and remind that the Ruyijingubang can increase in both length and width, as seen here where he tries to use it as a shield to block the wind, unsuccessfully. Also of note, the massive stone pillar on which the “address” of the Iron Fan Princess is written.

(Larger version)

4. This one isn’t based on any specific event, but it’s here to bring out two topics: the first is the size of the party members, which I always tried to keep consistent (and tried is the keyword). The idea is that Sun Wukong is the smallest of the group (4 feet), then we have Tripitaka, the “normal” one, and the Dragon (horse-sized): Pigsy (here depicted with a hint of boar) is the second tallest but also the fattest, while Sandy is the tallest of the party (and definitively not a Kappa). The second one is Sha Wujing’s weapon: while it’s usually depicted as a Monk Spade, the actual name is the “Demon-Subduing Treasure Cane” (降魔宝杖, Xiangmobaozhang), making it a stick/staff. However, it’s also worth a mention that the Monk Spade is sometimes called “Zen Cane” (禪杖, Chanzhang), a term which also refers to the ringed staff used by monks. Admittedly, I liked the spade version the most, though I plan to depict this weapon as a staff when Sandy is in his celestial marshal/arhat forms, implying that the staff changed into a spade when he fell from Heaven.

(Larger version)

5. The big battle between Sun Wukong and the Lion Demons working for the Great Sage Nine Spirits (seen in the background, in his giant nine-headed form): this was mostly done because it was one of the rare parts of the book where Sandy actually fights the monsters alongside Sun Wukong (as Pigsy was captured), as well as an attempt to make a big battle scene.

(Larger version)

6. The only god who actually beat Monkey, Erlang Shen. Since the Inktober was focused on the journey itself, I’ve decided to depict their battle as a bad dream. This time, Monkey wears his old, stylish outfit he got from the Dragon Kings, while Erlang is in full battle regalia, including his “Sanjiang Lianrendao” (三尖两刃刀 Three-pointed, Double Edged Glaive) and his Heavenly Roar Dog.

(Larger version)

7. The clash between the three pilgrims and the three Demon Kings of Lion Camel Mountain, from top to bottom: the Blue-Haired Lion vs Sha Wujing, the Yellow-Tusked White Elephant vs Zhu Bajie and the Golden-Wings Peng King vs Sun Wukong. The design of the three kings was based on a series of pictures I loved very much. Once again, a reminder that Wukong’s staff can widen as well.

(Larger version)

8. Sun Wukong fights the three Rhino Kings, who’re kidnapping Tripitaka. This time I wanted to depict Monkey twirling his staff as he fights. Like with the Demon Kings above, the design of the three Rhinos was based on the same set of pictures, even though I remember that in the novel they’re described as “bull-like” in appearence. Particularly like the dust cloud to the right.

(Larger version)

9. Sun Wukong is poisoned by the Scorpion Spirit. Aside from the scenery, I like the scorpioness. I’ve noticed in several arts (even old ones) that she sports a relatively skimpy outfit. As of her weapon, mentioned to be a “fork/trident” in the book, I’ve seen plenty of depictions with both the single trident version and the smaller, dual trident version.

(Larger version)

10. As a bookend, I’ve depicted a scene from the end of the book, the moment where Tripitaka drowns and ascends to buddhahood, so that he can obtain the sutras properly. This is also to represent one of the things I liked the most from the novel, the gradual growth of the pilgrims and the attachment to Tripitaka as a father figure. [Note: Tripitaka sheds his mortal form as he and his disciples are ferried across a body of water to the Buddha’s paradise. See the paragraph above image one and the material between images two and three in this article.]

(Larger version)

The Magic Powers of the Monkey King’s Iron Staff

Last updated: 07-04-2021

I’ve written several articles on Sun Wukong’s iron staff, including its origin from religious and martial staves used by historical Buddhist monks, the meaning of its inscription (“‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,560 lbs” (7,965 kg)), the real world metal that it is made from, its ties to Yu the Great and flood control, its ties to the Buddhist Saint Mulian, its possible ties to a Hindu monument, and modern day misconceptions about its ability to weigh down the entire Milky Way galaxy. Now, I’d like to briefly survey the magic powers associated with this weapon. This will by no means be exhaustive.

I. Powers

A. Size Manipulation

Sun travels to the Eastern Sea Dragon King’s underwater kingdom in ch. 3 to acquire a celestial weapon. But when the immortal fails to find a suitably heavy armament, the Dragon Queen suggests that they give him a black iron pillar from their treasury. It is described as over 20 feet (6.096 m) in height and the width of a barrel. Only when Monkey lifts the pillar and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable does it comply with his wishes:

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 in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The ‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,560 lbs. [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). [1]

Later in the chapter, Sun shows off the new weapon to his children by shrinking it to the size of a needle and then expanding it to a literal pillar of heaven.

He held the treasure [the staff] in his hands and called out, “Smaller, smaller, smaller!” and at once it shrank to the size of a tiny embroidery needle, small enough to be hidden inside the ear. Awestruck, the monkeys cried, “Great King! Take it out and play with it some more.” The Monkey King took it out from his ear and placed it on his palm. “Bigger, bigger, bigger!” he shouted, and again it grew to the thickness of a barrel and more than twenty feet long. He became so delighted playing with it that he jumped onto the bridge and walked out of the cave. Grasping the treasure in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be one hundred thousand feet tall, [2] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138).

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey grows his staff to touch heaven as he performs a cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

B. Controlling the oceans

Prior to giving Monkey the staff, the Dragon King tells his wife, “That…was the measure with which [Yu the Great] fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). Later, in ch. 88 our hero recites a poem in which he gives more detail about the weapon’s origins and history. The first few lines discuss its power over water:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having bored through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 201).

Despite the staff’s influence on bodies of water both great and small, it paradoxically doesn’t grant Sun an advantage when traveling through the aquatic realm or fighting water-based demons. [3] I’ll just chalk this up to inconsistencies born from oral storytelling.

C. Astral entanglement

Ch. 3 shows that Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in the underworld even when the physical weapon is back with his body in the world of the living.

In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach with a summons with the three characters “Sun Wukong” written on it. They walked up to him and, without a word, tied him up with a rope and dragged him off. The soul of the Handsome Monkey King was reeling from side to side. They reached the edge of a city. The Monkey King was gradually coming to himself, when he lifted up his head and suddenly saw above the city an iron sign bearing in large letters the three words “Region of Darkness.” … Yanking and pulling, they were determined to haul him inside. Growing angry, the Monkey King whipped out his treasure. One wave of it turned it into the thickness of a rice bowl; he raised his hand once, and the two summoners were reduced to hash.

[…]

[After reprimanding the 10 judges for bringing his soul to hell, Sun says,] “All I want is to erase my name [from the ledgers of life and death]. Bring me a brush.” The judge hurriedly fetched the brush and soaked it in heavy ink. Wukong took the ledger on monkeys and crossed out all the names he could find in it [fig. 2]. Throwing down the ledger, he said, “That ends the account! That ends the account! Now I’m truly not your subject.” Brandishing his rod, he fought his way out of the Region of Darkness.

[…]

While our Monkey King was fighting his way out of the city, he was suddenly caught in a clump of grass and stumbled. Waking up with a start, he realized that it was all a dream (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 139).

Sun’s ability to use the weapon as a disembodied spirit implies that it has some power of astral projection and entanglement (i.e. it goes where his soul goes). However, to my knowledge, this only happens once in the story, and the novel clearly demonstrates that he can’t use the weapon if it is physically taken away from him. [4] This is likely another inconsistency from oral storytelling.

Fig. 2 – Monkey holds his staff as he strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

D. Multiplication

The weapon is shown capable of creating manifold copies of itself. For example, in ch. 4, Monkey multiplies his staff to accommodate his monstrous, multi-armed form while fighting Prince Nezha: “Dear Great Sage! He shouted, ‘Change!’ and he too transformed himself into a creature with three heads and six arms. One wave of the golden-hooped rod and it became three staffs, which were held with six hands” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 155). Later in ch. 50, he rains staves down on a demonic army.

Using the tip of his lance to point at the ground, the demon king shouted for the little imps to attack together. All those brazen fiends, wielding swords, scimitars, staffs, and spears, rushed forward at once and surrounded the Great Sage Sun completely. Entirely undaunted, Pilgrim only cried, “Welcome! Welcome! That’s exactly what I want!” He used his golden-hooped rod to cover his front and back, to parry blows east and west, but that gang of fiends refused to be beaten back. Growing more agitated, Pilgrim tossed his rod up into the air, shouting, “Change!” It changed immediately into iron rods by the hundreds and thousands; like flying snakes and soaring serpents, they descended onto the fiends from the air” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 372).

E. Lock-Picking

Sun demonstrates the staff’s magic lock-picking ability in ch. 25.

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 468-469).

Admittedly, this passage could be read two ways: 1) The staff opens the lock; 2) Monkey uses the staff as a conduit for his own lock-picking magic. But I’m choosing the first interpretation as this ability was likely influenced by Saint Mulian unlocking the gates of hell with his staff. [5]

F. Transformation

In ch. 46, during a competition of Buddhist and Daoist prognostication, Sun magically disguises himself as a Daoist lad’s ritual master and convinces the boy to let him shave his head: “He changed his golden-hooped rod into a sharp razor, and hugging the lad, he said, ‘Darling, try to endure the pain for a moment. Don’t make any noise! I’ll shave your head.’ In a little while, the lad’s hair was completely shorn” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In ch. 65, Sun turns the staff into a drill in order to escape from a pair of magic cymbals, using the tool to bore a hole in the horn of a dragon that was just able to pierce the seam: “Marvelous Great Sage! He changed the golden-hooped rod into a steel drill and drilled a hole on the tip of the horn. Transforming his body into the size of a mustard seed, he stuck himself inside the hole and yelled, ‘Pull the horn out! Pull the horn out!'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218).

G. Sentience

When the Dragon Queen originally suggests giving the pillar to Monkey, she tells her husband: “These past few days the iron has been glowing with a strange and lovely light [fig. 3]. Could this be a sign that it should be taken out to meet this sage?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). This might imply the weapon was aware of its new master’s imminent arrival. Later in ch. 75, Sun recites a poem speaking of the staff’s desire for flight.

Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men.
Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly,
Emitting bright strands of five-colored mist.
Enlightened Monkey took it back to the mount
To experience its pow’r for boundless change.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).

The phase “wanting to fly” (yao feiteng, 要飛騰) could be read as a metaphor for yearning to be released from the dragon treasury and/or a call for adventure. Add to this the staff’s ability to follow Sun’s wishes to grow, shrink, multiply, change form, and pick locks. Therefore, the novel depicts the staff having a certain amount of awareness. [6]

Fig. 3 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).

II. Conclusion

Journey to the West (1592) describes the Monkey King’s iron staff having the magic power to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


Update: 07-04-21

Here I present my theory on why Sun Wukong’s staff weighs 13,500 catties (17,560 lbs/7,965 kg). I believe the number is an embellishment on the weight of a stone block lifted by the bandit Wu Song in the Water Margin (c. 1400).

Notes:

1) I have changed Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) dry rendering “Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod” to the more pleasant one based on W.J.F. Jenner. Also, Yu’s original translation says “13,500 pounds”. 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 17,550 lb.

2) Here, Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating 10 Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates it in chapters six (vol. 1, p. 181) and 61 (vol. 3, p. 157).

3). For example, Monkey relies on Zhu Bajie to fight Sha Wujing when they first come across him at the Flowing-Sands River. This is when Sun admits his weakness to water:

“Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim with a laugh, “in this case I’ve really nothing to brag about, for I’m just not comfortable doing business in water. If all I do is walk around down there, I still have to make the magic sign and recite the water-repelling spell before I can move anywhere. Or else I have to change into a water creature like a fish, shrimp, crab, or turtle before going in. If it were a matter of matching wits in the high mountains or up in the clouds, I know enough to deal with the strangest and most difficult situation. But doing business in water somewhat cramps my style!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 423-424).

4) The rhinoceros demon sucks it away with Laozi’s magic steel bracelet in ch. 50 and 51. A lion spirit uses a magic wind to steal the weapons of all three pilgrims in ch. 88. In both cases, Monkey resorts to trickery to retrieve the physical staff from their respective mountain strongholds.

5) One section of Mulian’s tale reads: “With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls, / On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open” (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

6) The idea of sentient weapons is certainly not unique to Journey to the West considering that the ancient Chinese ascribed souls to noted swords. For example, Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-c.) described famed Spring and Autumn period blacksmith Ou Yezi‘s (歐冶子) treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).

Sources:

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

Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing his Mother From the Underworld With Pictures, One Scroll, With Preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 02-06-21

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (larger version). Originally found here.

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
[…]
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.

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Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subodhi said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.


Update: 12-28-19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the 108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.


Update: 02-06-21

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

The Magic Powers of the Monkey King’s Iron Staff

Sources:

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

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/25076127

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

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