An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.
Note: The additional archived translations have been moved to a new location. See the 08-09-23 update below.
Last updated: 08-09-2023
Here I present PDFs comprising the complete four volume 2012 revised edition of The Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu. This is considered THE most accurate translation of the tale available. I hope those who read and enjoy the digital version will support the official release.
Anthon C. Yu (October 6, 1938 – May 12, 2015) was Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature in the Chicago Divinity School. I shared a long email correspondence with Prof. Yu, during which we became friends. He was always quick to answer my many questions. His translation remains a treasure trove of explanatory notes and sources.
1. Book blurb
Anthony C. Yu’s translation of The Journey to the West, initially published in 1983, introduced English-speaking audiences to the classic Chinese novel in its entirety for the first time […] With over a hundred chapters written in both prose and poetry, The Journey to the West has always been a complicated and difficult text to render in English while preserving the lyricism of its language and the content of its plot. But Yu has successfully taken on the task, and in this new edition he has made his translations even more accurate and accessible. The explanatory notes are updated and augmented, and Yu has added new material to his introduction, based on his original research as well as on the newest literary criticism and scholarship on Chinese religious traditions. He has also modernized the transliterations included in each volume, using the now-standard Hanyu Pinyin romanization system. Perhaps most important, Yu has made changes to the translation itself in order to make it as precise as possible (source).
Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.
1. Ancient Depictions
Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century CE.  But the further we go back in time, the less familiar the recorded material becomes, and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling,  records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.
One example, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province, contains a late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century CE) mural of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.
Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.
A second example, Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu, contains a late-Xixia wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).
Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).
A third example is the 1237 CE stone relief carving from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears a headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing,佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.
Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).
Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:
A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream, Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”, A face even uglier than Hou xingzhe [“Monkey Pilgrim”], Verse more scanty than even He Heshi (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).
Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.
I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is theThe Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures(c. late 13th-century CE), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as the Monkey King, the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).
The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. I think that these were likely influenced by early stage plays, which would obviously entail a human actor taking on the role.
Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.
In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:
The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408).
(Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)
His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27:
“But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24).
(Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)
Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).
Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34:
The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).
In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:
A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing; A round head and a hairy face with sunken cheeks; Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly; He looks more strange than the thunder god […] (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).
In chapter 67, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:
You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, sunken cheeks, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).
In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:
“You come over here,” said the old demon, “and act as my chopping block first. If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang Monk go past. But if you can’t, you’d better tum him over quickly to me as a meal.”
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).
We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry face with sunken cheeks, fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).
Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry face with sunken cheeks, a broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.
2.2 Clothing and Accessories
The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.
The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter three:
“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold.” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of purple gold,” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).
Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with “mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century CE scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).
“Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed (emphasis added). What shall we do?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 188).
Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late-16th to early-17th-century CE).
The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙). After killing the beast in chapter 14:
He 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).
Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu, 金箍; a.k.a. jingu, 緊箍, lit: “tight fillet”), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 12th to 13th-century CE Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 17). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 18). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.
Fig. 17 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 12th to 13th-century CE) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 18 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237 CE) (larger version).
As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:
His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his blondish-brown hair, a pair of fiery eyes with golden irises, a monk’s robe on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a gold-banded iron staff in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots on his feet (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
Two things about this passage require explanation. First, Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) originally translated huangfa (黃髮) as “brownish hair” (vol. 3, p. 105). But huang (黃) traditionally means “yellow.” If you refer back to figures six, eight, and nine, you will see that macaque monkeys have a light brown to blond coloring, so I changed the translation to reflect this.
Second, he translates mianbu zhiduo (綿布直裰) as “silk shirt” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105). However, a better translation is “silk cloth zhiduo robe.” The zhiduo robe is known colloquially in English as “Buddhist monk” or “Taoist monk” robes. Also called haiqing (海青), such garments reach almost to the ground and have long, broad sleeves. The robe is closed by a tie on the right side of the torso (fig. 19).
Woodblock prints of Monkey from the original 1592 CE Journey to the West vary from page to page, but one is pretty accurate. He wears the robe (with tied cuffs), the tiger skin kilt, and boots (fig. 20).
There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century CE example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.
2.3. The Staff
Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:
Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden ring at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the rings was the inscription, “The As-You-Will Gold-Banded Staff. Weight: 17,560 pounds” (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). 
A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols. Part of it reads:
The rod of bin steel nine cyclic times refined Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself. King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth. In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars, Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold. Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts; On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn. Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang, Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men […] (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)
So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.
Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 21 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (Xiao Zhuan, 小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Emperor Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.
Fig. 21 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).
As for “the tracks of stars and planets,” I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.
3. Popular Depictions
The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.
3.1. The Least Accurate
1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 22). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.
1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 25).
3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 27).
Fig. 27 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).
The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk monk’s robe, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.
As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.
I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes Sun Wukong’s golden headband to tighten. Similar to the above article, I had artists and fanfiction authors in mind when I wrote it.
I previously noted a 16th-century CE woodblock print that shows Sun Wukong naked upon escaping Laozi’s furnace (refer back to fig. 16). A woodblock print from the original 1592 CE Journey to the West also depicts him in his birthday suit (fig. 29). This adds to the evidence that Monkey doesn’t wear his armor during the entirety of the journey.
This supports the suggestion that Monkey’s armor was removed before heaven tried to execute him.
1) The 15th-century CE zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.
2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.
3) Saturn (Tuxing, 土星; lit: “Earth Star”) is mentioned here because the stellar deity is known for having a thickly-bearded face (see figure one on this article). The reference is saying that Monkey’s sunken cheeks are hairless.
4) Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,560 lbs.
Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.