A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 11-04-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru. The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another (see the 02-14-23 update below). This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see the 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise (see the 11-04-23 update below). However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).

Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where:

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


After he awoke and mounted his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by Guanyin (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs… (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?

Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

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).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [4] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

But since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think that the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [5]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.

Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [6]


As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.

Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya (Sk: संयुक्त निकाया; Ch: Xiang ying bu, 相應部, c. 250 BCE) notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.

Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).


This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.

Update: 02-14-23

Above, I mentioned that Japan or Taiwan would be good candidates for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, but I now feel that I didn’t give enough context. As I explain in this article (and briefly in sec. 1.1 above), Buddhist cosmic geography portrays the world as four cardinal continents surrounding a great mountain. Journey to the West changes the original system by associating China with the southern continent and moving India to the western continent. If we continue this trend by associating the other two continents with real countries, the north would be Russia or Mongolia and the east would be Korea (fig. 8). And since the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is said to be an island east of the eastern most continent, Japan would be the best choice (fig. 9). This means Sun would be a Snow Macaque.

 Fig. 9 – A top view of Buddhist cosmic geography overlaid with the names of real world countries (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxi. Fig 10 – Detail from a map of East Asia (larger version). Map found here.

Update: 08-26-23

Tumblr user digitalagepulao has drawn lovely versions of the JTTW pilgrims (fig. 11). This is for their own “Expedition to the West au” (JTTW alternate universe) storyline based on the info presented above in the original article. They explain their design choices based on the countries where the disciples are recruited:

Sha Wujing (435cm): His outfit is mostly inspired by Mongolian clothes since he’s found in the Gobi desert stretch of the journey. His bangles are made of fossil bone, and he can use the waist cloth as a headwrap during adverse weather. His markings are inspired by African Lungfish and Mudfish fins, as they are species that exist somewhere between water and dry air. The beasts on his knees are an extension of him, and he can see and speak through them as needed. His beard and long hair can have Ghibli physics depending on his mood and emotions.

Zhu Wuneng (~300cm): Inspired by Northern Tibetan clothes, as that’s the region the group recruits him. Traditional clothes tend to have way more accessories and golden details so I had to simplify a bit. His features are a mix of wild boars and Indonesian babirusa, with the iconic bristles on his head. I leaned on ceremonial Tibetan swords and necklace beads for the decorations on his rake. His vest can be closed, he just prefers not to most of the time.

Sun Wukong (125cm): I’ve already commented on his design over here, but I’ll elaborate that the yellow shirt is the one he gained from Tripitaka soon after he was released, while the pants and red half-robe were the garments he was given by Guan Yin. The hoops on his feet and purple beads were reacquired back in Huaguoshan when he first fled the pilgrimage, heading to his family instead of Ao Guang’s palace. (A-ma and Jinju gave them to him so he’ll always have something to home to remember them by, as well as where he first started, as the beads were gained during his lessons with Subodhi.)

Tripitaka (163cm): This is but one of his many outfits since travel can be rough on clothes, and even more so when you get kidnapped by demons and thrown off your horse all the time. He wears the usual orange monk robes, with some kind of travel clothes over them. He gains some fur boots from Boquin for cold weather but usually prefers sandals most of the time. He seldom uses the cassock and crown he received from Guan Yin, save for when he pays respects to temples and holy sites, but the staff is a constant companion.

Ao Lie (167cm, 130cm at the shoulder as horse): Being effectively in exile until the journey is complete, he wears less fancy clothes than he usually would as a prince, but his status still shows. I tried to balance more casual hanfu of the era with some armor parts, like the waist guard and armored boots. He was given the skill to shapeshift into a horse by Guan Yin when she commanded him to wait for the chosen pilgrim monk, so he can shift at will, but preferably when the tack has been taken off. Speaking of, tack is lost and replaced multiple times during the journey, so I didn’t depict any specific one.

Fig. 11 – Digitalagepulao’s JTTW character designs (larger version). Used with permission.

Update: 11-04-2023

Above, I stated: “They [Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing] would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise.” But I’ve never really liked the idea that Monkey would forever abandon his people. This is especially true since his rebellion led to heaven decimating the monkeys and burning their cave (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). So, I think a better ending for this historical version would be for the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (fig. 12) to return to the Mountain of Flower and Fruit, where he transforms it into his own Pure Land (Jingtu, 淨土). The monkeys killed in years passed would be reborn there, and everyone would receive periodic lessons on the dharma between bouts of play. It would be a paradise even grander than when the Great Sage was at the height of his power.

Fig. 12 – A religiously accurate drawing of Monkey as the Yuddhajaya Buddha by NinjaHaku21 (larger version).


1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

5) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

6) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.


Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Vols. 1-2). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

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

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Story Idea: The REAL Reason Sun Wukong is Expelled from Subodhi’s School

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Last Updated: 08-27-2022

Sun Wukong is kicked out of Patriarch Subodhi‘s (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) school in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) for showing off his transformation skills to his less-accomplished religious brothers. Upon their request, he changes into a perfect pine tree that’s completely indistinguishable from a real one. The subsequent applause greatly disturbs the Master, who reprimands and expels the Monkey King under the pretense of saving his life from those who would harm him to learn his heavenly secrets (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 123-125). [1]

This event is a turning point in Sun’s life, for he transitions from an inward pursuit of spiritual cultivation to an external quest for power, ending with an attempt to unseat the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang shangdi, 玉皇上帝). This ultimately leads to the Buddha imprisoning the seditious primate beneath Five Elements Mountain and punishing him to a hellish diet for 600 plus years.

Here, I would like to prepose a different reason, one that makes more sense and better aligns with some of my previous story ideas.

I. The story so far

Last year I posted a story prompt to reddit to inspire writers looking for a Xianxia (仙俠, “immortal hero”) plot. It serves as a good summation of my past ideas:

The novel briefly mentions that Sun Wukong lives for ten years in the mountain home of the Buddho-Daoist sage Master Subodhi. The first seven are spent as a junior Daoist monk doing menial tasks and learning basic religious or life skills. However, the last three years are spent as a close disciple of Subodhi, learning elixir arts, magic, and combat skills. The novel glosses over his early cultivation in order to jump directly into the action. But imagine a Xianxia story focusing on those three years.

Drama with fellow disciples could arise from Monkey’s supernatural aptitude for quickly learning and mastering a skill. After all, it only takes him three years to go from a mere stone monkey to a powerful immortal capable of going toe-to-toe with gods and demons with millennia of cultivation and combat experience. Think of the resulting battles between our hero and his jealous senior religious brothers and sisters frustrated with his great progress.

In addition, given Sun’s demonstrated knowledge in boxing, weapons, and troop movement, I came up with the story idea that Subodhi’s school is the training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the famous Shaolin temple. Shaolin was mobilized by the Chinese government during the 16th-century to battle pirates attacking the coast. Records indicate that one historical Shaolin monk was made the leader, and he was later forced to singlehandedly defend himself against eight individuals vying for his position. Likewise, I imagine heaven calls up Subodhi’s army to battle some demonic evil, and Monkey might quickly rise through the ranks. This would naturally lead to more tension with his fellow disciples, causing him to defend his position. All of these challenges, plus any action seen by the monastic army in heavenly battles, would explain how Sun Wukong became such a seasoned fighter in such a short time.

Plus, there is the added bonus of Subodhi’s army being called upon to fight Sun during his rebellion against heaven. He might have far surpassed his religious brothers and sisters in skill at this point.

II. Additions

In chapter one, Subodhi is shown to have 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the students of his religious lineage, three of which were historically used by Daoism. [2]

  1. Guang (廣)
  2. Da (大)
  3. Zhi (智)
  4. Hui (慧)
  5. Zhen (真)
  6. Ru (如)
  7. Xing (性)
  8. Hai (海)
  9. Ying (穎)
  10. Wu (悟)
  11. Yuan (圓)
  12. Jue (覺) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

Monkey is part of the tenth generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). This means that all of Subodhi’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name. Perhaps Sun trains with his fellow Wu cohort but quickly moves on to older generations as his skill rapidly progresses.

This leads me to my next point. Above, I mentioned that Subodhi’s army might be called to bear against Monkey during his rebellion. But wouldn’t they recognize him? This feeds into a common question asked around the internet:

Why doesn’t Wukong run into any fellow disciples on the journey?

Well, the simple answer is that this isn’t important to the plot. But I’ve considered two ideas to work around this: One, his younger religious brothers are likely still studying under the Master. And two, the older generations⁠—the ones serving in the monastic army⁠—probably don’t know what Monkey looks like because advanced disciples, within the present story, are made to wear a host of fierce, multi-colored masks (fig. 1) as a way to forsake their identity and subsume the self into deep spiritual and martial cultivation. They would represent the negative thoughts and emotions that keep humans trapped in the illusionary world of Saṃsāra and chained to the wheel of rebirth. Perhaps the face becomes more human and peaceful-looking as the students progress through their training. 

Monk in dharmapala mask performs a mystery dance of Tantric Tibetan Buddhism  on Cham Dance Festival Photograph by Oleg Ivanov

Fig. 1  – “Monk in dharmapala mask performs a mystery dance of Tantric Tibetan Buddhism on Cham Dance Festival” (larger version). Photo by Oleg Ivanov. Image found here.

Also, in my version of the story universe, all immortals and deities attain a halo upon achieving divine status. Here, for example, is a photomanipulation of a haloed Sun Wukong by Elijah McTaggart and myself. Take note of the fiery aureola engulfing the halo. This will come into play shortly (fig. 2). I imagine that these halos/aureolas respectively spin and shine brighter when a divinity’s spiritual power is used.

Fig. 2 – The Monkey King with a halo (larger version). As seen on deviantart. Based on my original photomanipulation.

III. Why he is really kicked out

The reason I’ve devised is connected to one of the aforementioned fights between Monkey and his older religious brothers or sisters. Perhaps Sun is attacked by multiple powerful assailants at once (just like the historical Shaolin monk), and when they start to overwhelm him, his anger ignites his halo, which begins to furiously spin and produce a radiant splendor. Instantly, he takes on a titanic cosmic form, growing 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall and stomping on his assailants. At the same time, his docile-looking mask cracks and reverts to it’s original, fierce form. This, combined with a fiery aureola, gives him the appearance of a giant Dharmapala (Ch: Fahu, 法護), a wrathful “Protector of the Dharma” (Buddhist Law) (fig. 3) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 249-250). This display of raw, untamed spiritual power frightens his older religious brethren. Subodhi himself is also taken aback as Monkey exhibits a great, fiery anger, while also manifesting advanced cultivation techniques that haven’t even been taught to him yet⁠—a testament to his great spiritual intelligence. The Master fears that this rage, combined with Monkey’s demonstrated talent for exponential spiritual growth and perhaps a problem with controlling this power (given Sun’s short years of study), will lead him down the path to villainy. 

This brings us back to the pine tree incident. Perhaps the fight causes Subodhi to uncharacteristically allow Monkey a chance to visit his generational cohort. And when Sun acquiesces to their requests to see his transformation powers, the Master uses this as an opportunity to expel his student.  

Fig. 3 – A modern thangka of the Six-Armed Mahakala dharmapala (larger version). Image found here.

IV. My thoughts

I like this idea because it foreshadows Sun’s cosmic transformations throughout the novel (ch. 3, 6, 61, and 97). It also foreshadows his later mischief throughout the cosmos and eventual rebellion. 

Update: 05-16-22

I imagine Master Subodhi’s mask-wearing monastic army would have an ominous feel to them just like the stylized Persian “immortals” from the film 300 (2006) (fig. 4). 

Fig. 4 – The Persian Immortals from 300 (2006) (larger version).

Update: 05-20-22

On second thought, a better mask would emulate the six paths of reincarnation in Buddhist cosmology:

As before, each would indicate the level of a disciple’s spiritual attainment. Perhaps Master Subodhi’s army would have different units of each category, each one being more powerful than the last.

Update: 05-24-22

Some readers might question why I’ve included so many Buddhist elements if Master Subodhi is a Daoist immortal. While this is true, I choose instead to refer to him as a “Buddho-Daoist Sage” as he preaches aspects of both religions in his lectures: 

With words so florid and eloquent
That gold lotus sprang from the ground.
The doctrine of three vehicles he subtly rehearsed,
Including even the laws’ minutest tittle.
The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance:
His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven.
For a while he lectured on Dao;
For a while he spoke on
To harmonize the Three Parties is a natural thing.
One word’s elucidation filled with truth
Points to the birthless showing nature’s mystery (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 122) (emphasis mine).

He even advocates for his students to become Buddhas. For example, the poem that Subodhi uses to reveal the secret of immortality to Monkey ends with: “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

It’s also important to remember that Master Subodhi is based on Subhuti, a historical disciple of the Buddha.

Update: 08-27-23

Above, I suggested that Subodhi’s advanced students could wear masks similar to the Tibetan Cham dancers. Well, someone on Facebook posted lovely images of said dancers by the photographer “JKBoy” Jatenipat Ketpradit (fig. 5-7). I just wanted to share some of them so that readers will have a better understanding of what the students might look like.

Fig 5 (top) – The monks performing the Cham dance (larger version). Fig. 6 (middle) – The dancers with their masks off (larger version). Fig. 7 (bottom) – A portrait of a Cham dancer (larger version). Images found here. Copyright Jatenipat Ketpradit.


1) I quote the scene of his expulsion below:

“You, Wukong, come over here! I ask you what sort of exhibition were you putting on, changing into a pine tree? This ability you now possess, is it just for showing off to people? Suppose you saw someone with this ability. Wouldn’t you ask him at once how he acquired it? So when others see that you are in possession of it, they’ll come begging. If you’re afraid to refuse them, you will give away the secret; if you don’t, they may hurt you. You are actually placing your life in grave jeopardy.” “I beseech the master to forgive me,” Wukong said, kowtowing. “I won’t condemn you,” said the Patriarch, “but you must leave this place.” When Wukong heard this, tears fell from his eyes. “Where am I to go, Teacher?” he asked. “From wherever you came,” the Patriarch said, “you should go back there.” “I came from the East Purvavideha Continent,” Wukong said, his memory jolted by the Patriarch, “from the Water-Curtain Cave of the Flower-Fruit Mountain in the Aolai Country.” “Go back there quickly and save your life,” the Patriarch said. “You cannot possibly remain here!” “Allow me to inform my esteemed teacher,” said Wukong, properly penitent, “I have been away from home for twenty years, and I certainly long to see my subjects and followers of bygone days again. But I keep thinking that my master’s profound kindness to me has not yet been repaid. I, therefore, dare not leave.” “There’s nothing to be repaid,” said the Patriarch. “See that you don’t get into trouble and involve me: that’s all I ask.” Seeing that there was no other alternative, Wukong had to bow to the Patriarch and take leave of the congregation. “Once you leave,” the Patriarch said, “you’re bound to end up evildoing. I don’t care what kind of villainy and violence you engage in, but I forbid you ever to mention that you are my disciple. For if you but utter half the word, I’ll know about it; you can be assured, wretched monkey, that you’ll be skinned alive. I will break all your bones and banish your soul to the Place of Ninefold Darkness [Jiuyou zhi chu, 九幽之處], from which you will not be released even after ten thousand afflictions!” “I will never dare mention my master,” said Wukong. “I’ll say that I’ve learned this all by myself.” Having thanked the Patriarch, Wukong turned away, made the magic sign, pulled himself up, and performed the cloud-somersault (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 124-125).

2. Ter Haar (2021) provides a list of such generational names:

Table 1. The use affiliation characters by People of the Way

Dao 道 (Huzhou, Jiaxing, Taizhou, Suzhou) (13 cases) – The Way
Zhi 智 (Huzhou, Jiaxing) (6 cases) – Wisdom
Yuan 圓 (Huzhou, Jiaxing, Taizhou) (5 cases) – Complete
Pu 普 (Taicang, Taizhou, Huating) (4 cases) – Universal
Miao 妙 (Deqing, Jiaxing) (3 cases) – Wondrous
Jue 覺 (Huating) (1 case) – Awareness (p. 39)


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

Ter Haar, B. (2021). The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Netherlands: Brill.

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

Story Idea: The Reason for Sun Wukong’s Rebellion

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.

I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins. 

During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數). [1] It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:

The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).

They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)

Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).

Fig. 1 – The “72 Killer Deities” (Qi shi er Shashen, 七十二煞神) folk print from the Anne S. Goodrich Collection (larger version).

In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.


1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).


Doré, H., & Kennelly, M. (1916). Researches into Chinese superstitions: Vol. 3 – Superstitious practices. Shanghai: T’usewei Printing Press. Retrieved from https://ia800709.us.archive.org/2/items/researchesintoch03dor/researchesintoch03dor.pdf

Meulenbeld, M. (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

Pas, J. F., & Leung, M. K. (1998). Historical Dictionary of Taoism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (1993). Outlaws of the Marsh. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Story Idea: Master Subodhi’s Curriculum II – Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some Fun Monkey King Fanfiction Speculation

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Last Updated: 05-15-2022

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subodhi teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subodhi’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subodhi’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).


Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subodhi’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subodhi expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subodhi had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subodhi’s monastery.



Update: 09-18-21

Sun is originally expelled from Subodhi’s school for flaunting his newfound powers of transformation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 123-124). But given Monkey’s ability to acquire amazing powers in just three short years, perhaps Subodhi fears his student’s potential for exponential spiritual growth. Whether this is because he sees a spark of malice in his disciple or he’s just plain jealous (the former seems more likely), Subodhi could just use the transformation as an excuse to halt his progression. But imagine Sun after another three years! I imagine high-level cosmic beings like the Buddha would be interested in keeping an eye on his progress.

Update: 05-15-22

I’ve posted an article that expands on the ideas from above.

Story Idea: The REAL Reason Sun Wukong is Expelled from Subodhi’s School


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

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

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