Archive #26 – Bimawen, Heavenly Horses, and Dragon Horses in Chinese Literature and History

In chapter four of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), Sun Wukong is invited to heaven to serve as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the imperial horse stables (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 148). He takes the position seriously, caring for nearly 1,000 horses day and night, making sure they are all well-fed, exercised, and rested (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149) (fig. 1). But these are no ordinary horses. A poem associates them with the most famous steeds in Chinese history (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149), and most importantly, the last line states: “They tread the mist and mount the clouds with unflagging strength” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149). This suggests that they have the supernatural ability to gallop through the skies (fig. 2). Additionally, the novel refers to them as “dragon horses” (long ma, 龍馬) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 309), which brings to mind the White Dragon Horse (Bai long ma, 白龍馬) that serves as Tripitaka‘s mount throughout the journey (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328).

Monkey’s position gives him power over all horses, especially those of mortal stock.

When the horse saw [Pilgrim], its torso slackened and its legs stiffened. In fear and trembling, it could hardly stand up. For you see, that monkey had been a [Bimawen], who used to look after dragon horses in the celestial stables. His authority was such that horses of this world inevitably would fear him when they saw him (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 309). [1]

The heavenly post is a homophonous pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”), an ancient superstition where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness. For example, Essential Techniques for the Common People (Qimin yaoshu, 齊民要術, c. 544) states: 

[Horses] are often associated with macaques [mihou, 猕猴] in the horse stable. This is in order to calm the horses, repel evil, and eliminate all diseases.


The later Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu, 本草綱目, 1596) mentions this concept twice. The first reads:

The Shuowen says: The characters (for macaque) look like “mother monkey” (muhou), but it’s “bathing monkey” (muhou, i.e. macaque), not a female. Since a macaque resembles a hu-barbarian, he is also called hu-sun “grandson of a barbarian”. The Zhuangzi calls him ju. People who raise horses keep a macaque in the stables, which will ward off horse-diseases. The Hu barbarians call a macaque maliu, in Sanskrit books he is called Mosizha (makaṭa). [2]


The second explains how monkeys are believed to help the horses:

The Classic of Horses states: Domesticated macaques used in horse stables help avoid horse diseases [lit: bimawen]. Their monthly menstruation runs onto the grass, and once the horses eat it, they will never be sick.


This is insanely comical as it directly links Sun Wukong, a powerful cosmic warrior, to menstruation! This then might explain why Monkey is so enraged when enemies call him a Bimawen. As noted by my friend Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog, it challenges the Great Sage’s masculinity.


The following essay by Arthur Waley (1955), famed translator of the Journey to the West abridgement Monkey (1942), links heavenly horses to a historical breed from Central Asia, the Ferghana horse. He describes China invading the region to procure these horses by force, suggesting Emperor Wu of Han directed this action because the ruler believed the equines were dragon horses capable of transporting him to heaven. This is linked to stories of ancient Chinese rulers attaining immortality by riding horses or dragons to the celestial realm. Waley (1955) notes both the Chinese and Indians believed supernatural steeds hailed from the water, showing a link between horses and dragons.

But Creel (1982) refutes the claim that the heavenly horses were procured for purely religious reasons. He shows they were indeed used in military battles. 

Fig. 1 – A 2014 stamp featuring a scene from the classic 1960s animation Havoc in Heaven in which Sun Wukong serves as the keeper of the heavenly horses (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 2 – A photo of the famous circa 2nd-century BCE Flying Horse of Gansu (larger version). Image found here.

I. The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana

Individuals are not happy in proportion to the amount of space their persons occupy. Yet certain nations, at certain periods of their history, seem to take it for granted that the wider they spread themselves the happier they will be. China is a case in point. Why did this enormous country in the second century BC, in the first century AD and again at various later periods ruin itself by gratuitous westward expansion? Were her aims commercial or strategic? Was she defending her silk trade, or guarding against possible wars on two fronts? What part was played by the individual ambition of Emperors or generals, or by mere restlessness and love of adventure?

To answer these questions we should have to take the campaigns one by one. In doing so we should not be reduced to mere guesses. In Imperial edicts and addresses about military campaigns certain traditional pretences are, of course, kept up: ‘everything under Heaven’ belongs by right to the Chinese Emperor, and any peoples who do not think so must be chastised. Concrete and material motives for war are not always mentioned in these regal utterances, any more than an Address from the Throne (or its equivalent) in modern countries usually mentions petrol or rubber. But statesmen and officials were often quite frank about material motives for conquest: more so, I think, than is the case with us today. Thus, as justifying a proposal to secure from the Huns a strip of territory that projected into the Kansu corridor in north-western China the following reasons are given by a statesman in 8 BC: first, that it was a good source of supply for the sort of wood and feathers used in making arrows; secondly, that it would mean a large increase of Chinese territory, and lastly that it would give the general in command of the campaign a chance to win a big reputation. It is interesting to find that extension of territory is here regarded as an end in itself. Possibly supporters of the proposal might, if pressed, have pointed out as an afterthought that Chinese farmers could be settled in the new territory and that the taxes they paid would be a help to the exchequer.

The tendency of modern historians, and not only in Marxist countries, is to stress material and particularly economic motives for war, and to regard the profession of other motives as mere propaganda. In dealing with early Chinese history I do not think this view would generally lead us far astray, so long as we bear in mind the additional factor of personal ambition and the almost axiomatic belief that extension of territory was an end in itself. But I am going to deal with a case that seems to me to be exceptional. Oddly enough the early Chinese military adventure that modern scholars have most unanimously explained solely on materialist lines, seems, on closer examination, to have been to a large extent a religious quest

In 102. BC the Chinese Emperor Wu sent a huge military expedition (there had been a small and abortive one two years before) to Ta Yüan, corresponding roughly to the modern Ferghana in Russian Turkestan, to capture Heavenly Horses. Modern scholars, both Far Eastern and European, have usually assumed that the real object of the expedition was a purely practical one; namely, to secure a better type of cavalry horse. It is certain that by the middle of the second century AD the Chinese did possess two kinds of horse: a steppe-pony, with a large clumsy head, and a western type of horse, similar to that shown on Greek coins of the fourth to the second century BC, with small graceful head. It may well be that one of the results of the Ferghana expedition was the introduction of a western type of horse into China; and in the eyes of the generals and the horse-experts who accompanied them this may have been the main object as well as the result of the expeditions. But modern historians, intent on the very interesting material aspects of the episode, have tended to overlook its place (amply attested by contemporary texts) in the history of Chinese religion. Incidentally, by examining these texts more closely, I think one gets fresh light on what concretely and zoologically (as opposed to mythologically) the Heavenly Horses really were. I should mention that as a result of the expedition thirty or so ‘superior horses’ and 3,000 horses and mares of ‘middling or lower quality’ were handed over to the Chinese. How many of these survived the journey of 2,500 miles back to the Chinese capital we do not know. A few years later the king of Ferghana agreed to send two Heavenly Horses to China every year. I shall here be concerned only with the thirty ‘superior’ Or ‘Heavenly’ horses. There is no reason to suppose that the 3,000 inferior horses were of a type different from the usual Chinese horse. They may merely have been needed as remounts.

In studying what was said about the horses in contemporary Chinese literature the best point of departure is the hymn made in 101 B.C. when the horses were about to arrive at the Chinese capital :

The Heavenly Horses are coming,
Coming from the Far West.
They crossed the Flowing sands,
For the barbarians are conquered.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
That issued from the waters of a pool.
Two of them have tiger backs.
They can transform themselves like spirits.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
Across the pastureless wilds
A thousand leagues at a stretch,
Following the eastern road.
The Heavenly horses are coming.
Jupiter is in the Dragon.
Should they choose to soar aloft,
Who could keep pace with them?
The Heavenly Horses are coming;
Open the gates while there is time.
They will draw me up and carry me
To the Holy Mountain of K’un-lun.
The Heavenly Horses have come
And the Dragon will follow in their wake
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven,
I shall see the Palace of God.

This song has often been spoken of by western historians as though it were a purely secular literary poem. It is in reality one of a series of hymns written (possibly by the Emperor Wu himself, but the authorship is very uncertain) for use at the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth-sacred rituals performed by the Emperor in person. One or two of the phrases in it obviously need further explanation. Whether the people of Ferghana believed that their sacred horses ‘issued from a pool’ we do not know. But there are, apart from other instances of this belief elsewhere in Central Asia, many Chinese stories of horses coming up out of the water, the implication being that they are dragon-horses, that is to say, water-dragons who have changed themselves into horses, often retaining their dragon wings. As we shall see, the Emperor had been on the look-out for a water-born horse for some time. What is meant by ‘the Dragon will follow in their wake,’ more literally ‘they will be introducers of the Dragon’ ? The idea underlying these words is best illustrated by the following story, dating perhaps from some forty years earlier than the hymn: Recently a man who lived on the frontier lost his horse which ran away into the land of the barbarians. He was very much upset, and everyone condoled with him, except his father who remarked cheerfully, ‘This may be a blessing in disguise.’ And sure enough the lost horse came back bringing with it a ‘fine horse,’ that is to say, a horse of superior value and breed. The Emperor in this hymn hopes that the Ferghana horses would one day bring along a Dragon, a being even more magical than a Heavenly Horse.

The general implication of the hymn therefore is that the Heavenly Horses will carry the Emperor to the abode of the Immortals on the magical mountain K’un-lun. He imagines himself, I think, driving in a chariot drawn by horses rather than riding on horseback. Riding did not become common in China till the fourth century BC and was in the second century still felt ‘to be a utilitarian, unlegendary form of transport. More than this, the Ferghana horses being, as another hymn in the series says, ‘friends of the Dragon ‘ who is master of the clouds, will eventually carry him to Heaven, to the Abode of God-on-High-(Shang Ti).

The preceding hymn (No. 9 in the series), which is about the fleeting and uncertain nature of man’s life, ends with the words, ‘Why does not Tzu-huang come down to me?’ Tzu-huang was the horse with dragonwings that carried up the mythical Yellow Emperor to Heaven. There are many Chinese stories of legendary monarchs being carried up to Heaven by magic steeds; but it would be difficult to prove that any of them is older than the fourth century BC. It is interesting to compare these Chinese myths with Indian ideas about the relation of monarchs to magic steeds. In Indian legends the magic horse Valaha (‘Cloud’), is one of the ‘seven treasures’ of a great monarch. Valaha came up out of the sea, just as the Ferghana horse and others in which the Chinese were interested came up out of the water, and carried Simhala, the legendary founder of the Kingdom of Ceylon, back to India when he was on the verge of being eaten by female cannibals.

The Emperor Wu had, as I have mentioned, for some time past been on the look-out for a magic horse, ‘born from’ a stream. In 121 BC someone thought it worthwhile to report to the Court that a horse had come up out of a river to the north of the Ordos, the great square-shaped northern bend of the Yellow River. We have no details about this horse ; but in 113 BC another strange horse was not only seen but captured and sent to Court. A Chinese who in consequence of some misdemeanour had been sent to do service at the military colony near Tun-huang, on the northwest frontier, frequently saw a horse of strange appearance drinking in the river along with a number of wild horses. He tamed the strange horse by putting at the water-side a dummy figure of a man whose hands were bridle and halter. When the horse was used to this sight he substituted himself for the dummy, captured the horse and sent it to Court. In order to prove that the horse was ‘divine’ he pretended that it had come up from under the water. His story was evidently believed at the time, for this horse, too (like the Ferghana horses twelve years later), was made the subject of a hymn to be used in the Imperial sacrifices :

The Heavenly Horse comes down
A present from the Grand Unity,
Bedewed with red sweat
That foams in an ochre stream
Impatient of all restraint
And of abounding energy.
He treads the fleeting clouds,
Dim in his upward flight;
With smooth and easy gait
Covers a thousand leagues.

Historians of religion, particularly those of the Vienna school, regard as ‘the beginning of religion’ the belief in a supreme celestial deity who later becomes merely a vague memory and ultimately fades away or becomes merged in other, more concrete cults. The ‘Grand Unity‘ (or ‘Great Unique,” as one might also translate it) of this hymn has therefore particular interest as a religious phenomenon, being a supreme celestial deity whose origin (at any rate as a national cult), whose heydey and disappearance all take place before our eyes within a limited historical period. So far from belonging to a remote, ‘archaic’ past he begins, officially at any rate, in 133 B.C. Up till then the Grand Unity was a philosophic conception denoting the primal unity out of which grew the plurality of the universe as we know it. Sometimes the phrase is a synonym of Tao, the underlying principle of the Universe in Taoist philosophy. But in the second century BC a cult sprang up in which the Grand Unity figures not as a philosophic conception but as a personal divinity, the highest of all gods, worshipped with an elaborate ritual. About 133 BC a member of the Grand Unity sect prevailed on the Emperor Wu to make the whole Imperial cult centre round this deity. The Grand Unity maintained this position during several reigns and the cult was only brought to an end (along with many other religious innovations of Wu’s reign) in 32 BC.

I will leave aside for the moment the other points of interest in the Heavenly Horse hymn of 113 BC and note here that the Emperor’s search for immortality did not begin with his interest in divine horses. He had, as is well known, for long past been pursuing this quest on other lines. He had sent numerous and costly expeditions to the East in the hope of discovering islands inhabited by Immortals who might be persuaded to yield their secrets to him. He had dabbled in alchemy, in the belief that if he ate out of vessels made of alchemic gold he would live forever, or at any rate for a prodigiously long time. The expedition to fetch magic horses from the West was, it seems to me, merely a continuation of his earlier quests in the East. ‘The Emperor Wu,’ says Wen Ying in about AD 200, ‘had set his heart on immortality. He was always hoping that a Heavenly Horse would come and carry him to K’un-lun,’ the western Abode of the Immortals. At last when all his guests in the East had failed and when the Horse did not come of its own accord (as it had come to legendary Emperors in the past, both in India and in China) he determined, having known for long that the king of Ferghana had such horses, to wrest some from him by diplomacy or, if need be, by force.

We have seen, then, how the horses were regarded by the Chinese Emperor. Other people, less obsessed by magico-religious ideas, may have viewed them differently; but there is nothing in the Chinese sources to suggest that they were needed or used for military purposes. Naturally, the normal political excuses were made for the expedition. In a public proclamation the Emperor accused Ferghana of having killed two Chinese envoys on their way to the west and an Indian envoy who was on his way to China. The excuse has a familiar ring. One is reminded, for example, of the German seizure of Tsingtao in 1897, alleged to be a reprisal for the murder of the German missionaries Nies and Henle.

Another question clearly arises. How were the Heavenly Horses regarded by the king of Ferghana and what role did they play at his Court? It is generally assumed that they were battle-chargers. But I wonder whether their function was not perhaps something like that of the ten Nesaean horses ‘most gorgeously caparisoned,’ who in the procession of the Persian king Xerxes, as described in the seventh book of Herodotus, walked immediately in front of the sacred chariot of ‘Zeus’ ? ‘And it occurs to one that to this same category of ceremonial horse may very well belong the ten yellow mares of the Pazaryk grave mound, in the eastern Altai, preserved in a solid ice block. They form part of the burial gear of a semi-nomad chieftain who lived perhaps somewhere about the 5th century B.C. ‘They are,’ says the Swedish archaeologist Karl Jettmar, ‘certainly of the noblest breed. They resemble the best strains of Turkmenistan or Ferghana.’ Two of them have masks. One mask represents a deer or reindeer; the other, a composite mythological creature. They may well have been special horses used by a ruler for ritual purposes, and perhaps (as Jettmar suggests) they took part in the funeral procession, which like the Scythian funeral processions described’ by Herodotus may have travelled an immense way. Their mythological function may well have been to carry the dead Khan to Immortality, just as the horse Tzu-huang carried the legendary Chinese Yellow Emperor and as in historic times the Emperor Wu hoped to be carried by the Ferghana horses. One is reminded, again, of the ‘treasure-horses,’ blue-grey in colouring and with black heads (that is to say, descendants of the magic horse Valaha) and gorgeously caparisoned, who took part in the procession that brought the infant Buddha back from Lumbini to his father’s palace. If the function of the Heavenly Horses at the Ferghana Court was a ritual rather than a practical one it would well explain why the king was so anxious not to part with them and at one point even threatened to kill them all rather than let them fall into the hands of the Chinese.

Though the main subject of this essay is the relation between the Ferghana expeditions and the religious pre-occupations of the Chinesr Emperor, the texts we have studied do also tell us something about the physical characteristics of the Ferghana horses, and it may be worth while to close with a few remarks on this subject. The first of the two hymns mentions that two Heavenly Horses had stripy backs. Lydekker in The Horse and Its Relatives says : ‘It has been noticed that dun-coloured domesticated horses frequently show a tendency to develop … one or two transverse dark stripes across the shoulder, and another along the middle line.’ Such presumably were the two Ferghana horses, and the Chinese regarded them as ‘marked’ by heaven and consequently particularly sacred. The other physical characteristic commonly attributed to Ferghana horses is that they ‘sweated blood.’ This, as we have seen, was also said of the horse sent from near Tun-huang in 113 BC. Professor Dubs, in his valuable translation of the Han History, has suggested that the flow of blood was caused by lesions inflicted on the horses by a parasite with the intimidating name Parafilaria multipapillosa. There is in any case no question of this characteristic being merely legendary. In AD 78 the Emperor Chang gave one of his uncles ‘a Ferghana horse which bled from a small hole above its front upper leg.’ In the letter that accompanied this gift he said, ‘I had often heard the line in Emperor Wu’s song about the Heavenly Horse in which it is said that it is ‘ bedewed with red sweat,’ and I have now seen with my own eyes that this is actually the case.’ Presumably the ‘hole’ looked more like a pore in the skin than a wound, and therefore what came out of it was regarded as sweat rather than blood.

Nowhere, I think, is it said that they were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers. The only horses that the Chinese at this period call big (ta) were to be found not in Ferghana but in Parthia. ‘They have the big horse and the big bird (ostrich),’ says the Han History. But there is no record of those huge Parthian steeds (no doubt the Parthikoi of Strabo, which he says were of the same build as the huge Nesaean horses) being brought to China.

To sum up: the accepted idea about the Ferghana expeditions is that the Emperor Wu sent them in order to obtain ‘horses larger and fleeter than the small steppe breed.” It is assumed that in this he was successful and that the ‘western’ type of horse seen in some of the second century A.D. grave-reliefs corresponds to the type of horse brought back from Ferghana in 101 BC. I would re-formulate this view as follows: The Emperor sent the expeditions in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven. There is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or China: If they had been they would hardly have remained long, as it were, ‘on the secret list.’ I’m inclined, to think that their function was a ritual one, both in Central Asia and in China. About the breed of the horses that the Emperor secured we know nothing. But it is reasonable to suppose that the existence of the ‘Western’ horse in China, in the second century AD was due to Chinese intercourse with the West from the second century BC onwards and that the Ferghana expedition, as an episode in this intercourse, may well have played its part in what was perhaps a gradual process. There is no justification for saying as Tam does that ‘the origin of the Ferghana horses must have been one of the great Parthian war-horses’ or that the Ferghana horses were ‘of the great Nesaean-Parthian breed.’.

Thus though my main object was to show that this episode cannot be properly understood without taking into account more than has hitherto been done its magico-religious aspects, my conclusions about its secular, concrete aspects are also somewhat different from those of my predecessors (Waley, 1955).

II. The Role of the Horse in Chinese History

Creel (1982) successfully refutes the former’s claim that the horses were procured for only religious reasons:

Waley, “Heavenly Horses of Ferghana,” 102, takes the position that the horses of Fergana were sought by the Han Emperor Wu “in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven.” He says that “there is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or in China.” (Ibid., 102.) But in fact, as we have seen, the use of Fergana horses in fighting is mentioned in Hou-Han-shu, 110A.4b. By speaking here of “Heavenly Horses” Waley is evading the real question: were horses obtained from Fergana used in battle in Han times? The answer is that they were. Waley also says: “Nowhere, I think, is it said that they [i.e., “Heavenly Horses”] were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers.” (Ibid.) The evidence cited above certainly indicates that the Fergana horses were extremely large and that there is every reason to feel assured that they were much larger than most of the horses in China both in Han times and later. Further evidence against Waley’s view is the nature of the titles of the two men sent by the Emperor to Fergana “to select good horses.” (Shih-chi, 123.37.) These would appear to be ordinary official titles and refer to “managing horses” and “driving horses.” If the purpose had been primarily to select horses having special religious virtues, why did the Emperor not send men with religious qualifications? Certainly there was some religious aspect to this curious affair, and Waley has performed a service by emphasizing it. But in doing so he has given undue attention to a part of the evidence and neglected other parts of it entirely (p. 176 n. 66).

Please see the PDF below for the entire chapter.

Archive link

Click to access Herrlee-G.-Creel-What-Is-Taoism_-and-Other-Studies-in-Chinese-Cultural-History-1970-Ch.-8-on-Horses.pdf


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1) This power was given to Monkey by the Jade Emperor, who gives him the Bimawen post. This was pointed out to me by Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog.

2) The translation is partly based on Gulik, 1967, p. 35. I changed the Wade-Giles to pinyin.


Creel, H. G. (1982). What is Taoism?: And other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago Press.

Waley, A. (1955, February). The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana. History Today, 5, 95-103.

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

Archive #23 – “Pagan Temples in San Francisco” (1892)

I’ve previously written an article on the worship of Sun Wukong in 19th-century America. My source was Frederic J. Masters’ (1892) “Pagan Temples in San Francisco”, which appears in a collected edition of The Californian. He discusses the legends of Guan Gong (“Kwan Kung”), Hau Wong (a.k.a. “How Wong”), Mazu (“Queen of Heaven”, a.k.a. “Tin Hau”), Guanyin (“Kwan Yum”), our monkey god Qitian Dasheng (“Tsai Tin Tai Shing”), and Kum Fah, as well as mentions various other deities, such as Tudi Gong (“Earth God”), Kum Fah’s attendants, Chenghuangshen (“City God”), Heidi (“god of the North Pole”), Zhurong (“God of Fire”), and the “Holy Abbot” (Ksitigarbha?). Much of the information covered in the article isn’t new for anyone familiar with Chinese religion. But it’s easy to forget that Masters is talking about the religious practices and beliefs of immigrant Chinese workers living in 19th-century San Francisco, and this is where the article’s true value lies. Many of the temples (“Joss Houses”) are said to be the property of immigrant businesses.

Masters was a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about Chinatown. While he comments at length about the beauty of temples and the respectability of keeping the stories of noble heroes alive for centuries, he shows a marked Western Christian condescension for many Chinese beliefs. For example, he calls the worship of the monkey god “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness” (Masters, 1892, p. 737). In the beginning of the article, he makes the mistake of equating the ancient god Shangdi with the Judeo-Christian god, believing that Chinese worship of the Almighty was perverted over the millennia by outside influences. He closes the piece by saying the Chinese will return to this ancient worship with proper guidance: “The nation [China] will one day return to the worship of the Highest and the faith in the True. In the dawn of a clearer light shall vanish all that is extravagant, foolish and false” (Masters, 1892, p. 741).

The attached PDF has been cut from the original collection, which has a whopping 853 pages.

Article link:


Masters. F. J. (1892). Pagan Temples in San Francisco. In C.F. Holder (Ed.). The Californian Illustrated Magazine: June to November, 1892, vol. 2 (pp. 727-741). San Francisco, Calif.: Californian Pub. Co.

Story Idea: The Origin of Sun Wukong

Last updated: 04-20-2022

The following story sketch was originally posted on my external blog on the Historum website. The site recently switched to a new server but the blogs have yet to be migrated. I’m posting it here for posterity. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I. Story Idea #1

As a lover of Chinese mythology and a former primatology major, I’ve always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Sun Wukong. I originally wanted him to be the son of Monkey or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Sun and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of the character; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [A] a small, long-armed, arboreal ape native to Asia (fig. 1), I thought the character could be an ape immortal. It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons generally mate for life.


Fig. 1 – A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.

A rough sketch of the story is presented below. The tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes contain important information on the texts I used and why particular plot choices were made.

The Dao (道, the way) gives birth to the One (yiqi, 一氣, the first breath);
The One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang, 陰陽);
The Two gives birth to the Three (San qing, 三清, the Three Pure Ones);
The Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things.
The Ten Thousand Things carry the Yin and enfold the Yang;
Kneading gently, they create harmony. [B]

In the beginning of the universe, the Three Pure Ones, the manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. Among the first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female (fig. 2). They become the progenitors of all apes and monkeys, just like the phoenix and his mate, the next to be created, are the progenitors of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (氣), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. And Like modern apes, the pair shows a propensity for observation, watching the cyclical movement of the stars and planets and becoming aware of the ebb and flow of qi, studying the energy and cultivating its mysteries over endless eons.

Mated Gibbons

Fig. 2 – A pair of mated gibbons. A larger version can be found here.

Once their family grows to titanic proportions, the gibbons wield their arcane knowledge to create an island home, raising up Flower-Fruit Mountain (Huaguo shan, 花果山) from the ocean. There, they construct the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) from which they continue to plumb the depths of the Dao. [C] Their exploration takes them to the heights of the mountain where heaven meets earth, using the corresponding yin (earth/female) and yang (heaven/male) energy to fuel their reenactment of the creation of the cosmos through sexual union. By chance, these powerful, creative sexual energies are absorbed by a boulder atop the mountain. [D]

As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [E] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the ages. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, their song inadvertently topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the devi Nuwa (女媧) is forced to mend the heavens with five magic stones. [F] The primordial devas and spirits fear what might happen if the couple continues, so they plead with the gibbons to separate in order to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.

The immortal lovers reluctantly agree and isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [G] the male becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (東猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (Yuan jiazhang, 猿家長), while the female becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (Xi yuan xian, 西猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (Yuan nu jiazhang, 猿女家長). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. [H]

The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [I] The August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost to time.

It is during the interim when the previously mentioned boulder, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, births a stone embryo that is eroded by the elements into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of his kin had forgotten long after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under Subodhi, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, Monkey Awakened to Vacuity) (fig. 3), and achieving great magical powers with which he later uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a full-fledged god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for 600 years, Sun redeems himself by escorting the monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) to India, and for this he is rewarded with Buddhahood, becoming the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛).


Fig. 3 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (larger version). A photomanipulation by the author.

After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the primordial gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses due to the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. [J] In addition, their individual songs have grown in power, now capable of destroying anything by separating the yin and yang forces therein (fig. 4).

Gibbon yawning

Fig. 4 – A gibbon yawning. Imagine powerful sound waves emanating from its mouth. A larger version can be found here.

The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the Enlightened One, the Tathagata sends their spiritual son, the Victorious Fighting Buddha, to ask them to pacify their rage instead of using trickery to halt the onslaught. [K] After a brief reunion, the pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to the Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine the great injustice done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.

After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (Da jie, 大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element. There are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm, where they can frolic with the Victorious Fighting Buddha. This way the gibbons will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [L]

II. Background information

A) The Chinese viewed the gibbon (Yuan, 猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi. This resulted in long lives and occult powers (Geissmann, 2008).

B) This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德經), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and Wilson, 2012, p. 197. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals. See Stevens, 1997, pp. 68-70.

C) JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.

D) JTTW states the following about the boulder: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love atop of the mountain, thereby impregnating the boulder with powerful, creative energies. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (Wile, 1992, pp. 11-12 and 28-29). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.

E) Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It’s interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Lougheed, 2014).

F) The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.

G) I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey’s imprisonment and the pair’s exile, both of which are connected to mountains.

H) The Buddha’s tutelage under the gibbons happens in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subodhi because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of Sun Wukong’s spiritual parents are transmitted to him by their former student.

I) This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演義), or Investiture of the Gods. In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, 1997, p. 60).

J) The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. The pair rebels like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. That’s why I present them as living embodiments of yin and yang. Wile (1992) states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (p. 29).

K) An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to make Monkey think that he has left his palm in the seventh chapter of JTTW.

L) Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). For more information on the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind, see my article here.

Update: 01-17-21

II. Story idea #2

Last year I wrote an article that explored other stone-born figures from world mythology. In the conclusion I cautiously suggested that Wukong’s birth and later rebellion was influenced by the Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE), which appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. For example, one scholar noted similarities between Ullikummi and a later figure from Greek mythology: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (see the linked article). Anyone who has read Journey to the West will no doubt notice the striking similarities with Monkey’s tale. Therefore, I think Ullikummi’s story would be a solid basis for a more authentic origin story for the Monkey King.

While the ancient tale is named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya”, foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home.

Fig. 5 – Ullikummi as a playable character from the online video game Final Fantasy XI (larger version).

Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When the goddess Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads seventy deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with his vizier and brother Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. One scholar suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (again, see the linked article).


Fig. 6 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

Now, I’ve previously written a story sketch in which Master Subodhi’s school is actually a training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the Shaolin Temple. I speculated that Wukong’s skill in martial arts and troop movement would come from his time serving as a soldier and eventual officer in this army. Additionally, I suggested that the baddie whom the army faces is the headless monster Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 6), who originally battled the supreme god Shangdi for control of the universe and was beheaded after his defeat. Perhaps he or a figure like him follows in Kumarbi’s footsteps and beds a stone, in this case the rock on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, in an effort to create a powerful son to finish what he started. Then, he works in the shadows, influencing the direction of Monkey’s life, leading to his famous rebellion against heaven. Wukong’s defeat of the seventy-two major gods in the heavenly army [1] would mirror Ullikummi routing the seventy gods led by Astabi. Likewise, the Jade Emperor’s call to the Buddha, leading to Monkey’s defeat, mirrors Tesub’s plea to Ea and the eventual downfall of the stone monster. Thoughts?

Update: 12-10-21

I’ve posted a piece about a folk Taoist white ape god. His story overlaps with Sun Wukong just like the spiritual parents I presented above.

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double

Update: 04-20-22

III. Story Idea #3

A. Background

If viewed through the lens of modern Chinese folk religion, Monkey’s stone egg would be an extension of the earth goddess Houtu (后土, “Sovereign[ess] of the Earth”), also known as Dimu niangniang (地母娘娘, “Mother Earth Goddess”) (fig. 7), making her his mother. Her name was mentioned as far back as the Zhou Dynasty, but her feminine form (Houtu is a gender neutral term) didn’t become popular until after the Sui Dynasty (Yang, An, & Turner, 2011, pp. 135-136). Houtu also has a mythic connection to Yu the Great (Da Yu, 大禹), an ancient demigod who conqeured the world flood during times immemorial. It is said that she took pity on him during his toils and drew a map of the Yellow River, suggesting that he dredge eastward in the opposite direction to both ease his burden, as well as to ensure that he completed his monumental task. She is also said to have, along with her daughter, made food for Yu and his workers when they did not have enough to eat (Yang, An, & Turner, 2011, p. 137). The reason that this mythic connection is important is because Monkey also has ties to Yu the Great. One, as I show here, both figures are born from stone in their respective stories. Two, Sun’s magic staff was originally a tool used by Yu to drill holes and set water depths. And three, both are mythic kings and cultural heroes. I’ve noted here that Monkey has had past lives, so Yu the Great is definitely a contender. 

Fig. 7 – The “Mother Earth Goddess” idol in the author’s personal collection (larger version).

I also note here (and above) that rebellious, stone-born figures often have a heavenly father. After all, even the novel mentions that the rock from which the stone egg emerged was “nourished…by the seeds of Heaven and Earth” (meishou tianzhen dixiu, 每受天真地秀) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 101). So I imagine his pater would be a primordial sky god like Shangdi (上帝, “Supreme Deity”). This is a good choice as the deity also has ties to Yu the Great. The story goes that Shangdi was angry that the demi-god Gun (鯀), Yu’s father, had stolen magic growing earth from heaven to help combat the world flood. So he had an official execute Gun. Three years later, Yu emerged from the corpse and continued his father’s work (Yang, An, & Turner, 2011, pp. 127 and 237).

B. Narrative

Perhaps Houtu and Shangdi reward Yu for his meritorious service by reincarnating him as the Stone Monkey on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The initial plan is to allow him to frolic in a carefree land until peacefully passing in his sleep at the ripe old age of 342. [2] But the Monkey King eventually becomes aware of death and sets out to escape it. This subsequently leads to his famous adventures.


1) Koss (1981) writes: “Adding up the number of gods listed here [see Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 169] from the Twenty-Eight Constellations through the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the number arrived at is seventy-three, if 東西星斗 [dongxi xingdou, the “Stars of East and West”] is counted as two, which Yu does in his translation, or seventy two, if the latter is taken as one, which is another possible interpretation” (p. 84).

2) This is how old the ledger of life and death lists Monkey as in chapter 3: “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).


Geissmann, T. (2008). Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context. Gibbon Journal, 4, 1-38. Received from

Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (Vol. 1 and 2). (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8112445)

Laozi, & Wilson, W. S. (2012). Tao Te Ching: An All-New Translation. Boston & London: Shambhala

Lougheed, K. (2012, August 23). Helium reveals gibbon’s soprano skill. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from

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

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Wile, D. (1992). Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women’s Solo Meditation Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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

Yang, L., An, D., & Turner, J. A. (2011). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.