Is Sun Wukong FTM Trans?

Note #1: Unless cited here, all information is cited in the respective linked articles below.

Note #2: Please see the 05-19-23 update for an important message.

Last updated: 05-27-2023

Warning: This article contains adult language and content.

The notion that Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is transgender (fig. 1) became popular on English-speaking social media sometime around 2022. The central idea appears to be that the Monkey King, or I should say “Monkey Queen,” was originally born a cis-woman but magically changes to a trans-man sometime after learning the art of transformation. Whether this is true or not has two possible answers:

1) If you or a loved one are trans, identify with Monkey’s ability to transform his body, and choose to personally interpret the character or portions of his story as an allegory for transness, then yes Sun Wukong is trans. 

2) Historically and canonically speaking? No.

In this article, I will present common arguments (A) in favor of a trans Monkey King that I’ve seen on social media. I will also introduce counterarguments (CA) supported by historical oral, published, and pictorial evidence that calls any claims of canonical proof into question. If I don’t have a particular counterargument in mind, I will simply post a comment (C).

Before continuing, I want to expressly state that this piece was written for two kinds of people: 1) Those who might openly claim that Sun Wukong is canonically trans; and 2) Those who don’t know enough about the character’s history or JTTW in general and might be swayed by seemingly knowledgeable online comments. It does not pertain to those who already personally interpret Monkey as trans and/or don’t care about canon because they were first exposed to him via movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, etc.

General readers will certainly find this article interesting as it features a lot of lesser-known historical information about the simian immortal.

Fig. 1 – An accurate Sun Wukong standing in front of the trans flag (larger version). The base drawing is by my friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart). It was originally posted on this article.

1. An Important Statement

If someone claims that the Monkey King appearing in the 1592 edition of JTTW is canonically FTM trans, or they state the novel hints that he is without openly admitting that this is their own personal interpretation, that person, whether they realize it or not, is not telling you the whole truth. I don’t think they are doing this maliciously, though. It’s perfectly natural for people to want to see some of themselves in their favorite heroes. After all, who wouldn’t want to be an immortal rage wizard who can fly around the cosmos, transform into anything, lift mountains, and beat up gods and devils. I can see how it might be attractive to a trans youth to have the power to push back against authorities that wrongly vilify and strip them of their human rights. So, in that sense, I think I understand why the idea of a trans Sun Wukong is so popular. But having said that, I should highlight that anyone who goes beyond an allegorical reading of the novel by touting the reality of Monkey’s transness is either unaware of the character’s historical development or is willfully ignoring it.

2. Arguments and Counterarguments

2.1. Gender Neutral Terms 

A: ta (他; commonly “him”) and wang (王, commonly “king”) [1] are “gender neutral terms” and therefore can be used to refer to Sun Wukong as a cis-woman.

C: These are indeed gender neutral terms in dynastic material. Here are two examples from the 1592 JTTW: 1) Wang (王) appears in the royal title of the “Queen Mother” (Wangmu niangniang, 王母娘娘), the high-ranking Daoist goddess who owns the immortal peach groves; and 2) Ta (他) is used to refer to the female Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音). Part of a descriptive poem in chapter eight reads: “She is the merciful lord of the Potalaka Mountain” (Ta shi Luojiashan shang Cibei zhu, 他是落伽山上慈悲主) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 206).

However, the gender neutral status of these terms do not by themselves constitute evidence that the Monkey King is a cis-woman.

2.2. Matriarchal Primate Society

A: Real world monkey troupes are matriarchal, so it would make more sense for Sun Wukong to be a cis-woman.

CA: Real world biological concepts don’t mesh well with religious mythology. For example, Monkey is born from stone, and he later attains his authority through a test of bravery by jumping through a waterfall. So where does the primate matriarchy fit into this? Also, in chapter 11 of the 13th-century oral version of JTTW (see here and here), Sun’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), explains that, prior to becoming the primate monarch, he had been exiled to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit in the distant past for stealing immortal peaches from the Queen Mother’s heavenly garden (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). It’s important to note that the tale presents him as a supremely ancient immortal, one who has seen the Yellow River dry up nine times (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1182-1183). So, it’s not a stretch to suggest that his position as the Monkey King is related to his divinity. So I ask again: Where does the primate matriarchy fit into this?

Most importantly, mythic stories about male monkey monarchs do exist. Two such characters are Vali/Bali (Sk: वाली) and Sugrīva (Sk: सुग्रीव) from the Hindu epic Rāmāyaṇa (Sk: रामायणम्, c. 5th-century BCE). Another is the Mahākapi (Sk: महाकपि; lit: “Great Monkey,” c. 2nd-century BCE), an Indian Buddhist jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys. One 2,000-year-old carving even depicts him with testicles (fig. 2). These few examples alone challenge the idea that monkey troupes have to be matriarchal in a mythic setting.

In fact, I suggest in this article that the Mahākapi tale influenced the 13th-century oral JTTW in several ways: 1) The Great Monkey is described as the chief of his tribe, and one 3rd-century Chinese version of the story even refers to him as the “Monkey King” (Mihou wang, 獼猴王). This is a likely source for the Monkey Pilgrim’s position as the primate monarch; 2) The Great Monkey leads 80,000 monkeys. The 3rd-century Chinese version changes this number to 500 (wubai, 五百), while the later Monkey Pilgrim leads 84,000 (bawan siqian, 八萬四千). But all three numbers are used in Buddhism to refer to large numbers of things. In the case of the respective Indian and Chinese versions, the 80,000/500 monkeys are said to be the past lives of Buddhist monks. But most importantly, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) is considered shorthand for 84,000 (bawan siqian, 八萬四千), showing a possible connection between the numbers of monkeys in the Indian original and the 13th-century oral JTTW; 3) The Great Monkey and his tribe live in or around a mountainous, fruit-bearing tree. This could be one of several sources for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (see note #4 below for another); and 4) The 3rd-century Chinese version sees the Great Monkey steal from the imperial fruit garden of a human monarch. This could be one of several sources for the Monkey Pilgrim stealing immortal peaches from the Queen Mother’s heavenly garden.

See this article for the many parallels shared between the 1592 Sun Wukong and the historical Buddha.

Fig. 2 – The “Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). He is the uppermost yellow figure reaching for the green tree. Take note of his testicles. The colored and labeled elements are used in my article to describe this “continuous narrative” scene.

2.3. Feminine Title

A: Sun Wukong calls himself the “Handsome Monkey King” (Meihou wang, 美猴王), but the character for handsome, “mei (美),” traditionally means “beautiful.” So, it would make more sense for Monkey to call themself beautiful if they were a cis-woman.

CA: I think that there is a much better explanation. Recall that the 1592 JTTW depicts our hero as an ugly creature. For instance, part of a descriptive poem in chapter 44 reads:

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


In fact, Sun’s association with being ugly goes back centuries. For example, writing in the 1250s, the Song-era poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) used Monkey as a metaphor to describe his own failing appearance:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream,
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou xingzhe [“Monkey Pilgrim”] (emphasis added),
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).


Therefore, the primate monarch definitely is not “handsome” or “beautiful.”

I suggest instead that Sun refers to himself as mei (美) because of his egotistical personality. He is after all an allegory for the Monkey Mind (see the material below figure three here). This same overinflated sense of self leads him to later challenge the primacy of the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝). Monkey’s self-conceit is best illustrated by the rebellious poem that he recites to the Buddha in chapter seven. The latter part reads:

In Divine Mists Hall none should long reside,
For king may follow king in the reign of man.
If might is honor, let them yield to me.
He only is hero who dares to fight and win!”(Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 193).


2.4. Etymology of Surname

A: In chapter one, the Patriarch Subodhi (Puti zushi, 菩提祖師) relies on Monkey’s appearance to derive a surname for them. Some of the etymology mentions feminine concepts, adding support to the idea that Sun Wukong was originally a cis-woman:

The Patriarch laughed and said, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun [猢猻]). This gives me the idea of taking a surname for you from your appearance. I intended to call you by the name Hu [猢]. If I drop the animal radical [犭] from this word, what’s left is a compound made up of the two characters, gu [古] and yue [月]. Gu means aged and yue [“moon”] denotes feminine yin energy [陰], but aged yin cannot reproduce (emphasis added). Therefore, it is better to give you the surname of Sun [猻]. If I drop the animal radical from this word, what we have left is the compound of zi [子] and xi [系]. Zi means a boy and xi means a baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy. So your surname will be ‘Sun’” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115).


CA: Our hero’s association with the surname Sun predates the 1592 JTTW by centuries, appearing as early as an early-Ming JTTW zaju play. Therefore, Subodhi’s etymological breakdown is just an excuse to change husun (猢猻), one of the historical terms for the macaque, into Sun. It’s also an excuse to tie the surname to historical Daoist longevity practices.

Also, Sun has been used since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as a surname for monkeys associated with Buddhist monks. According to the Tang poet Li Shen (李紳, d. 846):

There are many monkeys in the [Lingyin and Tianzhu] monasteries. They are called the Sun group (or the group of Sun, “Sun tuan” [孫團]). They have been reared there for a long time (Shahar, 1992, pp. 202-203).

2.5. Stable Monkeys

A: It was a common historical practice to place female monkeys in horse stables because their menstruation was believed to ward off equine sickness (see my past article for a source). Hence, Sun’s time as the heavenly stable master supports the idea that he was originally a cis-woman.

CA: Just because something influenced a character in a story doesn’t mean that thing and all of its traits become the character. That’s like saying Son Goku is Superman just because Dragon Ball Z-era Akira Toriyama borrowed the “alien sent to earth” element from the Man of Steel’s mythos. But that isn’t the case since each character and their respective stories have definable differences. And it’s the same for the female stable monkeys and Sun Wukong.

After becoming the Bimawen (弼馬溫) (fig. 3), Sun dotingly cares for nearly 1,000 horses day and night, making sure that they are all well-fed, exercised, and rested. At no point does the 1592 JTTW even hint that their health is in any way tied to menstruation. But having said that, I suggest the reason that Monkey gets so upset when people call him Bimawen, what Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates as “BanHorsePlague” (vol. 1, p. 354), is because it references the homophonous term for the historical practice, Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”). Surprisingly, the latter phrase does not appear in the novel.

Fig. 3 – A 2014 stamp featuring a scene from the classic 1960s animation Havoc in Heaven in which Sun Wukong serves as the Bimawen (larger version). Image found here.

3. Final Counterarguments

3.1. Historical Male Depictions

I don’t know of any historical oral, published, or pictorial sources that portray or describe Sun as a cis-woman in their regular form. To my knowledge, he has always been depicted as a cis-man.

I won’t pretend to know the full extent of our hero’s history. But I always strive to learn more about the subject. Just look at the following as a brief survey.

3.1A. Art

The earliest art depicting the aforementioned Monkey Pilgrim shows him as either a simian cleric or soldier accompanying the monk Tripitaka. But I think the best example to present for this discussion is the 13th-century Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving (fig. 4), which portrays him as a muscular, sword-wielding protector deity.

Fig. 4 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version).

3.1B. Oral literature

The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), the aforementioned 13th-century oral version of JTTW, first introduces the Monkey Pilgrim as a “scholar dressed in a white robe” (Baiyi xiucai, 白衣秀才) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). The word translated here as scholar, “xiucai (秀才; lit: “cultivated talent”), was “[f]rom antiquity a categorical rubric under which talented men were nominated to be considered for official appointments” (Hucker, 1985, p. 284). During the Song dynasty (960-1279), when this tale was first recorded, the xiucai was an informal term for candidates of the metropolitan-level exams (Hucker, 1985, p. 284). That is to say they were educated commoners who had yet to receive an official office. Dudbridge (1970) suggests that disguising oneself as a traveling, white-robed scholar would have then “conferr[ed] anonymity on the wearer” (p. 32). [2] This means that Monkey is likely using the disguise to walk among mortals without them realizing his divine nature.

Dudbridge (1970) also notes that this disguise was used by male characters in later published media (p. 32 n. 1). These examples instead use “xiushi” (秀士; lit: “cultivated scholar”). For instance, in chapter 81 of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400), a literary version of Song Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) dresses this way in order to meet in secret with his favorite sex worker: 

Accompanied by a young eunuch, the sovereign arrived through the secret tunnel at the rear door of the courtesan’s house. He was dressed in the white garb of a scholar (emphasis added) (Shi & Luo, 1993/2021b, p.1715).

只見道君皇帝引着一個小黃門,扮做白衣秀士,從地道中逕到李師師家後門來。(Shi & Luo, 1975/2021b, p. 1104)

The male disguise even carried over into the 1592 JTTW. For example, in chapter ten, the Dragon King of the Jing River (Jinghe Longwang, 涇河龍王) takes on such a form to investigate a fortune teller with dangerously accurate predictions that threaten the fish of his kingdom: 

[H]e abandoned his sword and dismissed the clouds and the rains. Reaching the river bank, he shook his body and changed into a white-robed scholar (emphasis added) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 239).

龍王 … 遂棄寶劍,也不興雲雨,出岸上,搖身一變,變作一個白衣秀士)

3.1C. Zaju play

The early-Ming Journey to the West zaju play (Xiyou ji zaju, 西遊記雜劇) contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the 1592 JTTW. [3] But despite these parallels, there are many interesting differences. For example, in act nine (of 24), Sun Wukong is said to be the brother of several divine siblings:

We are five brothers and sisters: my older sister is the Venerable Mother of Mount Li, my younger sister is the Holy Mother Wuzhiqi, my older brother is the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, I myself am the Great Sage Reaching Heaven (emphasis added), and my younger brother is the Third Son Shuashua (based on Dudbridge, 1970, p. 110).


(That’s right! The play refers to Monkey as the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” instead of “… Equaling Heaven.”)

He also has a wife, a princess whom he had kidnapped from the “Country of the Golden Cauldron” (Jinding guo, 金鼎國) (Ning, 1986, pp. 63-66). This portion of the play draws directly from a genre of Han to Song-era tales in which magic apes kidnap young maidens in order to rape and impregnate them. [4]

The most apparent differences are the addition of bawdy elements like sex, cursing, and dirty jokes by the author, the 15th-century Mongol playwright Yang Jingxian (杨景賢). For instance, act 18 sees the pilgrims travel through the famous Woman Kingdom, where Sun, Zhu, and Sha all fall prey to temptations of the flesh. But whereas the latter two are successful in their sexual ventures, poor Monkey is struck by a bout of erectile dysfunction caused by the painful constricting of his headband:

Master, listen and I’ll tell you. There I was pinned down by a woman. My lustful nature was about to come forth, when suddenly the iron hoop on my head tightened, and the joints and bones up and down my whole body began to ache. The throbbing conjured up a bunch of vegetable names in my brain.

My head hurt so my hair stood up like radish-tops, my face turned as green as smartweed sprouts, my sweat beaded up like the moisture on an eggplant soaked in sauce, and my cock fell as limp as a salted cucumber (emphasis added). When she saw me looking for all the world like chives sizzling in hot oil, she came around, suppressed her itch and set me free (Ning, 1986, pp. 138-139).


(Notice that ta (他) is used in the quote above to refer to the girl. Refer back to section 2.1 for a reminder of the significance.)

Later in act 19, Monkey attempts to seduce Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 鐵扇公主) in order to gain access to her magic Banana leaf fan. Sun does this by reciting a poem in which he makes a veiled allusion to his penis being the right size for her vagina:

The disciple’s not too shallow,
the woman’s not too deep (emphasis added).
You and I, let’s each put forth an item,
and make a little demon
(Ning, 1986, p. 141).


When this plan fails and the Princess threatens him with her sword, Sun angrily explains that the supernatural durability of his body and penis renders him impervious to physical harm:

Why this lowdown wench has no manners at all! I am the Lord of the Crimson Cloud Cavern, the Great Sage [Reaching Heaven]! I plundered Laozi’s gold Pill of Immortality, and have endured so many alchemical transformations that my muscles are brass, my bones iron, my eyes fire, my pupils gold, my asshole lead and my prick is pewter. Why should I fear a steel [sword] slicing off my pizzle? (emphasis added) (Ning, 1986, p. 142).


I want to highlight that this play did not influence the story cycle; it only reflects characters and episodes that were common to the cycle at that time. The bawdy elements were solely added to spice up the tale, making it more entertaining for zaju audiences. Therefore, this sex-crazed, dirty-mouthed version of the Monkey King should be considered a separate entity from his counterpart in the 1592 JTTW. However, I have included him here because the play clearly establishes that the character is a cis-man.

3.1D. Other Published Literature

A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640) is an unofficial sequel to the 1592 JTTW with a trippy, time-jumping story that mentions Sun Wukong fathering children with a woman. The first reference to his offspring appears in chapter 13 when actors in a royal play describe an alternate timeline where our hero had settled down:

His wife is so beautiful, his five sons so dashing. He started out as a monk, but came to such a good end! Such a very good end! (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 114).


Later, in chapter 15, Monkey meets one of these sons, King Pāramitā (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王), on the battlefield. This general recounts his family history to the stranger, revealing that, although he’s never met his father (jiafu, 家父), he’s the son of the Great Sage and the Rakshasi (Luocha nu, 羅剎女), Princess Iron Fan (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, pp. 123-124). In addition, he suggests that he was conceived during an event from chapter 59 of the original novel: 

[Sun Wukong] changed into a tiny insect and entered my mother’s belly. He stayed there a while and caused her no end of agony. When my mother could no longer bear the pain, she had no choice but to give the Banana-leaf Fan to my father, Monkey. [5] When my father, Monkey, got the Banana-leaf Fan, he cooled the inferno at Flaming Mountain and left. In the fifth month of the next year, my mother suddenly gave birth to me, King Pāramitā. Day by day I grew older and more intelligent. If you think about it, since my uncle [the Bull Demon King] and mother had never been together, and I was born after my father, Monkey, had been inside my mother’s belly, the fact that I am his direct descendant is beyond dispute (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 124).


It should be evident from the examples presented above that the Monkey King was portrayed or described in his regular form as a cis-man throughout the long course of his character development.

This by itself should put the idea of a canonically trans Sun Wukong to rest, but there is one more counterargument that I think is even stronger.

3.2. Spiritual Gender Transitions in Buddhism

Buddhist literature actually includes instances of girls or women transforming into men upon enlightenment or rebirth. [6] The former is best exemplified by the “Dragon Girl” (Longnu, 龍女) from chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra (Miaofa lianhua jing, 妙法蓮華經; a.k.a. Fahua jing, 法華經, c. 3rd-century) (fig. 5), a work mentioned in the 1592 JTTW six times. She is first introduced to an assembly of Buddhist deities as the eight-year old daughter of the Dragon King Sāgara (Suojieluo longwang, 娑竭羅龍王) and one of an unfathomable number of dragonfolk enlightened by the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī’s (Wenshu shili, 文殊師利) lessons on the Lotus Sutra. Her teacher describes her as a great student prodigy with a deep knowledge of Buddhist Law, as well as having many advanced spiritual achievements. But this upsets some among the assembly because the notion of a young girl approaching Buddhahood so quickly flies in the face of convention, which normally calls for untold aeons of severe austerities before one can achieve awakening. Her accomplishments are called into question at first, but everyone is appeased when she offers a priceless jewel to the Buddha, and he quickly accepts it as a symbolic gesture. Then:

The girl said [to the assembly], “Employ your supernatural powers and watch me attain Buddhahood. It will be even quicker than that!” 

At that time the members of the assembly all saw the dragon girl in the space of an instant change into a man (emphasis added) and carry out all the practices of a bodhisattva, immediately proceeding to the spotless World of the south, taking a seat on a jeweled lotus, and attaining impartial and correct enlightenment. With the thirty-two features and the eighty characteristics [of a Buddha], he expounded the wonderful Law for all living beings everywhere in the ten directions (Watson, 1993, p. 188). [7]



This kind of spiritual gender transition was certainly known to the host of historical oral storytellers [8] and author-compilers who contributed to the formation of the novel due to their vast shared knowledge of Buddhist and Daoist religion and lore.

Therefore, if the Sun Wukong from the 1592 JTTW was originally intended to be trans, he would have been OPENLY portrayed as such, without the need for subtle hints, due to scriptural precedent. And the fact that he wasn’t makes this what I consider to be the most damning argument against a canonically trans Sun Wukong.

Fig. 5 – A frontispiece to a Song-era edition of the Lotus Sutra (larger version). Image found here.

4. Final Thoughts

I hope that anyone unfamiliar with the Monkey King’s history can now make an informed judgement about online comments making claims about his gender.

And for those who still might want to go beyond an allegorical reading of the novel, you need to answer two questions:

  1. Why did the 1592 JTTW hint that Sun Wukong is FTM trans despite him being depicted as a cis-man for centuries?
  2. Why were said hints used in place of scriptural examples of spiritual gender transition?

Answering these questions will require evidence, not an interpretation. I’m honestly not sure what that evidence would be since the evidence against it is so overwhelming. 

I would be willing to accept the “possibility” of a trans Sun Wukong, though, if anyone can find an analysis of the character by a pre-20th-century Chinese literary critic expounding the same view. Please do not misinterpret this as me saying that there were no trans people prior to the 20th-century. I’m sure there have been many throughout history, and I’m sure the terms applied to or used by them in the past were wildly different from the ones used today. But without some kind of historical support, the reality of a canonically trans Monkey King, beyond a personal interpretation, is nothing more than a wish. 

Update: 05-19-2023

It’s recently come to my attention that this article has upset some people, namely those who are aware of the Monkey King’s worship and those who disagree with the concept of transgender people. The first group needs to understand that, while a religious figure, Sun Wukong is far more widely known around the world as a literary figure. And since people primarily view him as a fictional character—one who is in the public domain, in fact—they are free to interpret the simian immortal however they see fit. This means that both the Monkey God and the literary Monkey King should be viewed as two separate entities.

For the second group, the trans identity is outside my area of research and personal experience. Therefore, I can’t really say anything about the subject that would affect your point of view. My advice would be to ignore political pundits and instead start a dialogue with someone in the trans community to understand their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

I’ve also learned that my article has apparently been weaponized by some on discord in an attempt to invalidate the views of trans individuals who identify with Sun Wukong. I don’t like that my work is being used to harass people. I want to make it clear that this article was not written to attack the trans community. It was solely made to place Monkey in his correct historical context. My first concern as a student of JTTW is that the history of the novel and its characters are presented accurately. But I am fully aware that perceptions of popular characters can and do evolve over time. That’s why I mentioned in the opening that viewing Sun as trans is perfectly fine as long as it’s clear that this is a personal interpretation. So, if you are a trans person and some troll presents my article as proof that your personal allegory is wrong, please have the confidence to tell them, “off you fuck.”

Update: 05-27-23

I found this lovely drawing of the Dragon Girl online (fig. 6). The image depicts her at the moment when she hands the Buddha the priceless jewel, just prior to transforming into a man.

Fig. 6 – A drawing of the Dragon Girl and the priceless jewel (larger version). Image found here.


1) One of the suggested earliest meanings for wang (王) is “big man,” and it was used as a title by the tribal chieftains that would evolve into Chinese emperors (Qi, 1991).  

2) Yes, I am aware that Dudbridge (1970) also associates white robes with female demons (p. 32 n. 3). However, the Monkey Pilgrim is expressly associated with the white clothing of the historically male xiucai scholar candidates.

3) These similar episodes include the reincarnation of a heavenly being as Tripitaka, the murder of his father, Sun Wukong stealing immortal peaches from heaven and eventually being imprisoned under a mountain, his punishment with the restricting headband, the subjugation of Zhu Bajie (here and here) and Sha Wujing, the addition of a royal dragon-turned-white horse, the ordeal at Fire Mountain, the Country of Women, etc. This shows that the centuries-old story cycle was starting to become standardized by the 14th or 15th-century.

4) One example is “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong Baiyuan Zhuan, 補江總白猿傳, c. late-7th-century). In the story, a general’s young wife is kidnapped by a mysterious force, but he and his soldiers later find her living among a large harem of women in a mountain paradise. They tell the commander that their captor is a magic white ape who uses them night after night to fuel his Daoist sexual alchemy. The women also warn him and his men that they are no match for the beast’s great power, so the captives devise a plan that eventually leads to the primate’s death. In the end, the general learns that his wife is pregnant with the spirit’s child. 

What’s interesting for the purposes of this blog is that the titular white ape shares many surprising parallels with the Sun Wukong from the 1592 JTTW. Both: 

  • Are supernatural primates possessed of human speech. 
  • Are one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts. 
  • Are masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance. 
  • Are warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army. 
  • Have a fondness for armed martial arts. 
  • Have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them. 
  • Have eyes that flash like lightning. 
  • Live in verdant mountain paradises (like the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit). 
  • Reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave). 

5) See Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129.

6) An example of the latter appears in Chapter 23 of the Lotus Sutra. Women are promised a male rebirth in paradise for having heard and practiced the scripture (Watson, 1993, pp. 287-288).

7) For the Dragon Girl’s story, see Watson, 1993, pp. 187-189.

8) The Lotus Sutra, which contains the story of the Dragon Girl, is given prominence in the 13th-century oral JTTW. It is painted as an important scripture, one even hailed in heaven. Chapter three sees the monk Tripitaka (referred to here by his historical name Xuanzang) give a detailed lecture on the sacred text:

The arhats said: “We thank the Master for coming to the [heavenly] palace today. Does the master excel in explaining sutras?” Xuanzang replied: “If it is a sutra, I can explain it. If it is not, I do not.” “Can you explain the Lotus Sutra?” the arhat asked. Xuanzang replied: “That’s easy.” (emphasis added)

Thereupon the five hundred arhats, the [king of heaven] Mahabrahma Devaraja, and in all a company of over a thousand gathered to listen to the sutra. Xuanzang recited flawlessly without pausing for breath. Like pouring water from a vase, he clarified the obscurities of the text (emphasis added). Everyone praised his marvelous delivery (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).



Dong, Y., Lin, S. F., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hucker, C. O. (1985). A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. Taipei: SMC Publishing Inc.

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju (UMI No. 8612591) [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.

Qi, W. (1991). An Inquiry into the Original Meaning of the Chinese Character for King (wang). Chinese Studies in History, 25(2), 3-16, DOI: 10.2753/CSH0009-463325023

Shahar, M. (1992). The Lingyin Si Monkey Disciples and The Origins of Sun Wukong. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 52(1), 193-224.

Shi, N., & Luo, G. (2021a). Shuihu zhuan (shang, zhong, xia) [Tale of the Water Margin (Vols. 1-3)]. Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe. (Original work published 1975)

Shi, N., & Luo, G. (2021b). Outlaws of the Marsh (Vols. 1-4) (S. Shapiro, Trans.). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)

Watson, B. (Trans.) (1993). The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

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

Interesting Facts about the Monkey King

Last updated: 08-28-2022

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

Current count: 108

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive #29 – Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (1999)

I consider one of my greatest accomplishments on this blog to be discovering the origin of Sun Wukong’s golden headband. This would not have been possible without reading about the Hevajra Tantra (8th-century) in Robert Nelson Linrothe’s (1999) Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. This amazing study analyzes Esoteric Buddhist statues and texts to trace the evolution of these guardians from mere dwarf attendants to mighty warrior gods endowed with the power of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. This is a great resource for anyone researching religious art involving wrathful guardians in Buddhism, Daoism, and of course Chinese folk religion, for the iconography of these divine warriors spread far and wide.

I am sharing a PDF of the book found on libgen for the benefit of other scholars. The black and white portions of the book appear to be based on a xeroxed copy. However, there are full color plates in the back.

Book description:

Buddhists believe that the wrathful spirits represent inherent qualities of our own, and that meditating on them can transmute the otherwise malevolent sides of our own natures into positive qualities and actions. The wrathful deities also provide precious clues as to the early development of esoteric Buddhism in India, about which few early texts survive. Through careful examination of a large body of images as well as Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Indic texts, this lavishly illustrated volume traces the evolution of the forms and the unfolding significance of the wrathful deity in esoteric Buddhist sculpture.

Archive link:

Click to access Ruthless-Compassion-Wrathful-Deities-in-Early-Indo-Tibetan-Esoteric-Buddhist-Art-1999.pdf


This work has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you enjoyed the digital version, please support the official release.


Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. London: Serindia Publ.

Sun Wukong and Martial Arts

Last updated: 08-07-2018

The Monkey King is well known for his prowess with the staff. However, the first two chapters detailing his tutelage under the Buddho-Daoist sage, Patriarch Subodhi, surprisingly do not mention him training in combat skills, what Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) calls wuyi (武藝; lit: “martial arts”). [1] In fact, the novel only briefly alludes to it later in a poem from chapter 67, part of which reads: “I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mind and perfected with him the martial arts” (身拜靈臺方寸祖,學成武藝甚全周) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243). [2] But beyond the staff, Sun Wukong comes to master boxing, a skill he displays only a few times in the novel.

For example, a poem in chapter 51 describes his unarmed battle with a rhinoceros demon:

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13)


Shahar (2008) notes that this fight “[gave] the author an opportunity to display his familiarity with the contemporary jargon of ‘postures’ (shi and jiazi), ‘Long-Range Fist’ (changquan), and ‘Close-Range Fist’ (duanquan)” (pp. 131-132).

Interestingly, many of these techniques are still known to this day, some better known by slightly different names.

I consulted with martial artist Joshua Viney to learn what each technique involves. Joshua has lived and studied folk martial arts from village masters around the noted Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) for ten years. He currently maintains the Shaolin Yuzhai Youtube channel where he posts instructional videos. Please check it out.

I. The techniques

1) Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture” (Zhuai kaida siping, 拽開大四平) – An open fighting posture where the boxer stands in the horse stance (Mabu, 馬步) with arms outstretched to his sides. Also known as “Single Whip Horse Stance” (Mabu danbian kai siping, 馬步單鞭開四平) (fig. 1), which is often associated with Taiji boxing (太極拳).

Wide open stance
2) The double-kicking feet fly up (Ti qi shuangfei jiao, 踢起雙飛腳) – Also known as “Double kicking feet” (Er qi jiao, 二起腳), this technique involves lifting up one knee to build upward momentum and then kicking high with the other (fig. 2). It is reminiscent of the “crane kick” from the Karate Kid (1984).

double jump kick

3) They pound the ribs and chests (Tao xie pi xiong dun, 韜脅劈胸墩) – Possibly referring to the “Pushing palm” (Tui zhang, 推掌) or “Splitting palm” (Pi zhang, 劈掌), which is delivered into the solar plexus and up into the rib cage (fig. 3).

Pushing - splitting palm

From Joshua’s APPLICATION of Xiao Hong Quan video.

4) “The Immortal pointing the Way” (Xianren zhilu, 仙人指路) – A double finger attack aimed at the eyes (fig. 4). The stance is often seen used in tandem with a sword.

Immortal points the way

5) “Lao Zi Riding the Crane” (Laozi qihe, 老子騎鶴) – Most likely another name for the Crane stance (fig. 5).

crane stance

6) “A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” (E hu pu shi, 餓虎撲食) – This name has been applied to many techniques. One variation known as “Fetching the moon from the seabed” (Haidi lao yue, 海底撈月) involves a powerful hip and/or palm strike to the groin/lower midline of the body (fig. 6). The force of the hip strike is powerful enough to send someone flying backwards.

Hip bump 1

Left: Setting up the attack. Right: The hit (from Joshua’s 13 Hammers of Shaolin video).

7) A Dragon Playing with Water (Jiaolong xi shui, 蛟龍戲水) – Also known as “Dragon puking water” (Jiaolong xi shuineng xiong’e, 蛟龍戲水能兇惡), this technique involves fluid, sweeping arm movements (most likely blocks or fake strikes) followed by simultaneous double fist blows (fig. 7). The technique is associated with Shaolin and Chang Family Fist (Changjia quan, 萇家拳), a martial art that influenced the development of Taiji boxing.[3]

Dragon puking water

8) “Serpent Turning Around” (Mang fanshen, 蟒翻身) – Also known as “Python turns over” (Guai mang fanshen, 怪蟒翻身), this technique involves a simultaneous chop to the throat and a pulling leg sweep, effectively knocking the opponent backwards (fig. 8).

Pythong turns

9) “Deer Letting Loose its Horns” (Lu jie jiao, 鹿解角) – A series of elbow strikes to the torso (fig. 9). One variant called “Plum blossom deer lies on a pillow” (Meihua lu wo zhen, 梅花鹿臥枕) places the fist of the attacking arm against the temple, looking as if the practitioner is propping his head up in a resting posture.


10) The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned (Qiao gen cui dilong, 翹跟淬地龍) – A shooting maneuver using the Falling stance (Pubu, 仆步) to dip below the opponent’s defenses and attack the lower extremities (fig. 10). Also known as Qiao dilong zou xiapan zhao (雀地龍走下盤找).

dragon drops

11) The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag (Niu wan na tiantuo, 扭腕拿天橐) – UNKNOWN. Mostly likely a headlock.

12) A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge (Qingshi zhangkou lai, 青獅張口來) – More commonly known as “Lion opens mouth” (Shizi dazhang zui, 獅子大張嘴), this technique has two variations. The large frame version involves shooting in low, pulling up the opponent’s knee with one hand, while simultaneously pushing on their head with the other hand, knocking them over (fig. 11). This can be used for throwing an opponent as well. The small frame version involves cupping the hands to intercept strikes.

lion opens mouth

From APPLICATION of Xiao Hong Quan

13) A carp’s snapped-back flip (Liyu die ji yue, 鯉魚跌脊躍) – This can refer to both throwing an opponent and a move commonly referred to as a “kip-up.” The latter involves the practitioner flipping up from a supine position to a standing fighting stance (fig. 12).

14) Sprinkling flowers over the head (Gai ding sa hua, 蓋頂撒花) – Also known as “Double cloud over peak” (Shuang yun ding, 雙雲頂), this technique involves flourishing the hands above the head as a means of blocking, twisting an opponent’s arm, or disengaging from combat (fig. 13).


15) Tying a rope around the waist (Rao yao guan suo, 遶腰貫索) – UNKNOWN. Possibly a circling step similar to one later used in Bagua Palm Boxing (Bagua zhang, 八卦掌) (fig. 14).

16) A fan moving with the wind (Yingfeng tie shan er, 迎風貼扇兒) – Crossed hands shooting out to intercept an opponent’s punch (fig. 15).

fan against the wind

17) The rain driving down the flowers (Ji yu cui hua luo, 急雨催花落) – Most likely a rapid succession of punches.

18) “Guanyin Palm” (Guanyin zhang, 觀音掌) – A style of palm strikes. It is listed as number 70 of the “72 Training Methods of Shaolin” (Shaolin qishi’er yi lian fa, 少林七十二藝練法) (Jin & Timofeevich, 2004, p. 229).

19) “Arhat Feet” (Luohan jiao, 羅漢腳) – A style of kicking.

20) Long-Range Fist (Chang quan, 長拳) – A family of Northern style martial arts known for their long-range punches and kicks and acrobatic movements.

21) Close-Range Fist (Duan quan, 短拳) – A family of Northern style martial arts known for their compact, short-range, yet quick attacks.

II. Battle reconstruction

What follows is Joshua’s reconstruction of the fight. He makes an interesting observation that the fight may in fact be a theatrical stage combat version of known techniques.

I think what we are seeing here is a Chinese Opera-like performance of a fight that the author saw and perhaps asked about the names or recognised. I expect it would be very contrived. After this we are not told explicitly who does what and it may not be a one for one exchange. Nevertheless looking at the wording we can make a guess.
It begins with a large fighting stance, probably the ‘single whip’ posture of holding the arms straight to the sides. Then both performers do a jumping kick towards each other to enter striking range. Given it uses the phrase 劈胸 ‘pi xiong’ (split chest) I expect they begin by using the chest splitting palm at one another and so cross hands in the center of the arena [fig. 16].
cross hands
Once they have crossed hands I think the demon grasps Monkey’s hand and attacks with the fingers of the other hand at his eyes, doing the ‘immortal points the way’ technique. Monkey defends against this by shielding his face with his forearms, then spreading his hands and kicking at the monster’s stomach. This pushes the monster away and Monkey is left with one knee suspended and arms spread to the sides in the ‘Lao Tzu rides a crane’ posture.
The Demon takes advantage of this unstable posture by rushing at him with the ‘hungry tiger pounces on prey’ technique, striking Monkey with his hips and grasping hold of him. Monkey uses the ‘dragon puking water’ technique, which erupts from below the demons arms and casts them aside, then rushes forwards again to attack with both hands. The Demon defends this by sticking close to the monkey and uses the ‘python turning its body’ technique to trip him up. But Monkey is strong and keeps his footing, counter attacking with a headbutt and multiple elbow strikes which form the ‘Deer-Horn’ technique. 
The Demon jumps away but Monkey pursues with the ‘ground dragon’ technique and attacks the demons groin, causing him to buckle over, whereby Monkey grasps his head with the ‘twisting heavens sack’ technique. The Demon defends by using the ‘Lion opens mouth lunge’ to stop Monkey and throw him down. The monkey recovers by flipping his body in the ‘carp jump’ technique. Then he withdraws from the center by a few steps ‘covering his head with the flowers’ overhead technique. The Demon similarly disengages from the center and puts up a guard, prowling slowly around Monkey with the ‘turning waist’ technique.
I think the rest is describing more how they are evenly matched and face each other down rather than any other moves. ‘Iron fan stands against the wind’ is a common technique, a guard, and ‘rain falling on flowers’ is perhaps an eye strike but could also mean the intensity of the fight is like an urgent rain of punches. ‘Guanyin palm’ and ‘Luohans feet’ are both style names. Long fist vs short fist, how can they overcome one another? 10 rounds without a victor.

He goes onto describe the physical and psychological aspects of Long-range and Close-range fist:

Long fist and Short fist are the classic methods of Shaolin shenfa [身法, “Body postures”]. In order to strike the opponent one needs momentum, both physical AND psychological. Momentum is achieved by moving the dantian [4] as the centre of mass. In Short fist the dantian is rotated to add to power. In Long fist the whole dantian is thrown in the direction of the strike instead of rotated–much more powerful but also more wild and uncontrollable. In Shaolin philosophy, mind and matter are not severed, so physical momentum and psychological momentum are intertwined; when one has physical forward momentum, one simultaneously feels more confident.

III. Similarities with other literary combat

A poem similar to that from JTTW appears in the 120 chapter version of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1594) by Yu Xiangdou (余象斗, c. 1560–c. 1640). The poem describes unarmed combat between a young man and woman.

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“Phoenix Elbow” to the heart;
“The Guard Head Cannon Stance” strikes the temples;
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag;
This girl, sprinkling flowers over the head;
This boy, tying a rope around the waist;
Two fans moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.


We can see many named techniques from Monkey’s battle appear in this poem. There are only two years between the publishing of JTTW (1592) and this version of the Water Margin. But it’s very well possible that both authors drew upon common source material.

Joshua discovered two techniques from the Water Margin poem, namely “Phoenix Elbow” (Aoluan zhao, 拗鸞肘), and “The Guard Head Cannon Stance” (Dang toupao shi, 當頭砲勢), appearing together in the same print of an edition of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi武備志c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 17). This suggests that Yu Xiangdou borrowed these moves from similar boxing or military manuals. Likewise, the author-compiler of JTTW may have also borrowed from such literature.


Fig. 17 – The print from the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi武備志c. 1621) mentioning “Phoenix Elbow” and the “Guard the Head Cannon Stance.”

Update: 05-02-2018

The available evidence suggests that Short Fist (Duanquan, 短拳; a.k.a. “Close-Range Fist”) is Monkey’s fighting style. As mentioned above, the poem in chapter 51 reads: “The ‘Long-Range Fist,’ stretching, is more slack, of course. How could it compare with the ‘Close-Range Fist’s’ sharp jabs?” (長掌開闊自然鬆,怎比短拳多緊削。) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 13). Also, after facing the rhino monster, Sun Wukong asks heavenly warriors to critique his boxing skills:

“As you watched from afar,” said Pilgrim, smiling, “how did the abilities of the fiend compare with old Monkey’s?” “His punches were slack,” said Devaraja Li, “and his kicks were slow; he certainly could not match the Great Sage for his speed and tightness'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 14).


The “speed and tightness” is of course a reference to his use of Short Fist.

In addition, earlier in chapter two, Monkey faces a demon who had taken over his Water Curtain cave in the immortal’s absence. The two resort to boxing since Monkey is unarmed:

The Monstrous King shifted his position and struck out. Wukong closed in on him, hurtling himself into the engagement. The two of them pummeled and kicked, struggling and colliding with each other. Now it’s easy to miss on a long reach, but a short punch is firm and reliable (emphasis added). Wukong jabbed the Monstrous King in the short ribs, hit him on his chest, and gave him such heavy punishment with a few sharp blows that the monster stepped aside, picked up his huge scimitar, aimed it straight at Wukong’s head, and slashed at him (Wu & Yu, 2012, Vol. 1, p. 128).


I initially thought Sun Wukong used Short Fist out of necessity as JTTW describes him being less than four feet tall. But the novel’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range was, according to Shahar (2008), “typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature” (p. 117). He continues:

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century military experts allude to various short-range styles including ‘Cotton Zhang’s Close-Range Fist’ (Mian Zhang duanda [綿張短打]), ‘Ren Family Close-Range Fist’ (Renjia duanda [任家短打]), and ‘Liu [Family] Close-Range Fist’ (Liu duanda [劉短打])” (Shahar, 2008, p. 117).

Wing Chun (Mandarin: Yong Chun, 詠春) is a close-range fighting style similar to Short fist. Although the style postdates the novel by at least two centuries, it showcases the quick, compact punches associated with Short Fist. Take this video of Jackie Chan, for example. Now imagine Monkey using similar techniques in a fight with a much larger opponent, blocking or ducking to avoid attacks and replying with sharp punches targeted at vulnerable areas.

Update: 08-07-2018

I have found a few more instances of martial arts terms, this time related to weapons. Joshua was again kind to lend his knowledge to the subject.

Chapter 17:

The compliant rod,
The black-tasseled lance.
Two men display their power before the cave;
Stabbing at the heart and face;
Striking at the head and arm.
This one proves handy with a death-dealing rod;
That one tilts the lance for swift, triple jabs.
The “white tiger climbing the mountain” extends his paws;
The “yellow dragon lying on the road” turns his back (emphasis added).
With colored mists flying
And bright flashes of light,
Two monster-god’s strength is yet to be tried.
One’s the truth-seeking, Equal-to-Heaven Sage;
One’s the Great Black King who’s now a spirit.
Why wage this battle in the mountain still?
The cassock, for which each would aim to kill! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 354)


22) “White tiger climbing the mountain” extends his paws (Baihu pashan, 白虎爬山來探爪) – Mountain climbing stance is synonymous with Gong bu (弓步), or the bow stance. The white tiger denotes an overt attack of sorts. I imagine it would look similar to this spear technique.

Gong Bu thrust

23) “Yellow dragon lying on the road” turns his back (Huanglong wo dao zhuanshen mang, 黃龍臥道轉身忙) – Possibly a retreating maneuver.

Chapter 31:

Dear Monkey King! He raised the rod above his head, with both hands, using the style “Tall-Testing the Horse.” The fiend did not perceive that it was a trick. When he saw there was a chance, he wielded the scimitar and slashed at the lower third of Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] body. Pilgrim quickly employed the “Great Middle Level” to fend off the scimitar, after which he followed up with the style of “Stealing Peaches Beneath the Leaves” and brought the rod down hard on the monster’s head. This one blow made the monster vanish completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 83).


24) “Tall-Testing the Horse” (Gao tanma, 高探馬) – Tanma (探馬) refers to a military scout, so a better translation would be the “High Scout.” This is a double-handed thrust aimed at the opponent’s face as a high fake. A corresponding fist technique, essentially a jab, is associated with Taiji boxing.

25) “Great Middle Level” (Da zhong ping, 大中平) – Holding the staff level at the navel while in the horse stance. This allows for quick defense below the waist.

26) “Stealing Peaches Beneath the Leaves” (Ye di tou tao shi, 葉底偷桃勢) – UNKNOWN. The name of this technique is normally associated with an attack to the groin, not the top of the head as implied in the quoted battle.

Based on the sequence of events described above, it seems like Monkey fakes high, blocks the strike to his body, and then attacks the top of the stooping opponent’s head (since the latter ducked the high fake and attacked low).

Here is Joshua’s interpretation:

The two weapons are stuck together: the monkey is forcing down, the demon up. The monkey releases the pressure, circling his staff below the opponents weapon, so with the release of pressure, the opponent’s weapon flings upwards but with no control. The monkey circles from this lower position, then turns over in a big circle and strikes the opponent downwards on the head.

Chapter 56:

The Great Sage walked forward and picked up the rod with no effort at all. Assuming the style of the Python Rearing its Body (emphasis added), he pointed at the bandits and said, “Your lucks running out, for you have met Old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 81).


27) Python Rearing its Body (Mang fanshen, 蟒翻身). UNKNOWN. This is a differently translated version of a similarly titled technique mentioned above. See number eight (“Serpent Turning Around”). The previous listing referred to a boxing technique, while this again is for a weapon.

In closing, I would like to quote a particular passage. While it doesn’t list a given technique, it highlights Monkey’s mastery of the staff. Chapter 33 reads:

“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat.” Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as be walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts (emphasis added). What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).



The portion that Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates as “manuals of martial arts” actually lists the names of two noted military manuals, both of which are listed among the Seven Military Classics of China. The first, the Six Secret Teachings (Liu tao, 六韜), was published during the Warring States period (c. 475 – 221 BCE) but possibly contains information from as far back as the Qi state (1046 – 221 BCE). The second, the Three Strategies (San lue, 三略), was most likely published during the Western Han period (206 BCE – 9 CE) (Sawyer, 1993).

Associating Monkey’s martial arts skill with ancient military classics only serves to further elevate his status as a great warrior and cultural hero.


1) Wuyi (武藝) was used to refer to Chinese martial arts as far back as the third-century CE. The term predates the more familiar wushu (武術) by some three centuries (Lorge, 2012, p. 10).

2) Readers may think the “Ancestor of Heart and Mind” (Fangcun zu, 方寸祖) is directly referring to Master Subodhi. However, the supreme immortal threatened Monkey with eternal torment if he ever revealed the sage had been his teacher. A more literal translation of the aforementioned figure is “Patriarch Square Inch” (Fangcun zu, 方寸祖). Square Inch (fangcun, 方寸) is a common metaphor for the “heart / mind” (xin, ), a broad concept written with a small character. This is just an interesting way of saying Monkey learned martial arts on his own via self-cultivation, thereby not revealing his true master. At the same time, it is a veiled admission of studying martial arts under the sage.

3) For more information on Chang Family Fist and its progenitor Chang Naizhou, see Wells (2005).

4) The dantian (丹田, “cinnabar field”) is an area near the navel believed to be the body’s storehouse of spiritual energy.


Jin, J. Z., & Timofeevich, A. (2004). Training Methods of 72 Arts of Shaolin. USA: Shaolin Kung Fu Online Library. Retrieved from…ts-shaolin.pdf

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Sawyer, R. D. (1993). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books.

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

Wells, M., & Chang, N. (2005). Scholar Boxer: Chang Naizhou’s Theory of Internal Martial arts and the Evolution of Taijiquan. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

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

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Last updated: 07-25-2022

The golden headband or fillet (金箍圈, jingu quan) is one of the Monkey King’s most recognizable iconographic elements appearing in visual media based on the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592). It is generally portrayed as a ringlet of gold with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like scowling eyebrows (type one) (fig. 1). A different version is a single band adorned with an upturned crescent shape in the center (type two) (fig. 2). Another still is a simple band devoid of decoration (type three) (fig. 3). Sun first earns the headband as punishment for killing six thieves shortly after being released from his five hundred-year-long imprisonment. The circlet is a heaven-sent magic treasure designed to reign in the immortal’s unruly, rebellious nature. Since Sun Wukong is a personification of the Buddhist concept of the “Monkey of the Mind” (心猿, xinyuan,), or the disquieted mind that bars humanity from enlightenment, the fillet serves as a not so subtle reminder of Buddhist restraint. Few scholars have attempted to analyze the treasure’s history. In this paper I present textual and visual evidence from India, China, and Japan that suggests it is ultimately based on a ritual headband worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. I also show how such fillets became the emblem of some weapon-bearing protector deities in China, as well as military monks in Chinese opera.

1. The Headband’s Literary Origin and Purpose

The headband is first mentioned in chapter eight when three such “tightening fillets” are given to the Bodhisattva Guanyin by the Buddha in order to conquer any demons that she may come across while searching for a monk who will bring sutras back to China from India. The “Enlightened One” explains their purpose: “If [the monster] is disobedient, this fillet may be put on his head, and it will strike root the moment it comes into contact with the flesh. Recite the particular spell which belongs to the fillet and it will cause the head to swell and ache so painfully that he will think his brains are bursting. That will persuade him to come within our fold” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 206-207). He notes that there are different spells for each piece, including “the Golden, the Constrictive, and the Prohibitive Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 206).

Sun Wukong earns the “Constrictive” band in chapter fourteen after brutally murdering six thieves who accost his master Tripitaka, the chosen scripture seeker, on the road to the west. [1] The killings cause the two to part ways, and it is during Monkey’s absence when Guanyin gives the monk a brocade hat containing the fillet and teaches him the “True Words for Controlling the Mind, or the Tight-Fillet Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 317). Sun is eventually persuaded to return and tricked into wearing the hat under the guise of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. It soon takes root, and the powerful immortal is brought under control through the application of pain. He then promises to behave and to protect Tripitaka during their long journey to the Western Paradise. [2]

The remaining two fillets are used by Guanyin to conquer other monsters in later chapters. She throws the “Prohibitive” band onto the head of a black bear demon in chapter seventeen and, after reciting the spell, he agrees to become the rear entrance guard of her Potalaka island paradise (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 365). The “Golden” band is split into five rings—one each for the head, wrists, and ankles—and used to subdue Red Boy (紅孩兒, Hong hai’er), the fire-spewing son of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan, at the end of chapter forty-two and the beginning of forty-three (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 251-252). The child demon becomes her disciple and eventually takes the religious name Sudhana. [3]

Monkey is forced to wear the fillet until he attains Buddhahood in chapter one hundred, causing it to vanish (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 4), p. 383). The band’s disappearance at the end of the novel denotes Sun’s internalization of self-control. But the treasure doesn’t disappear forever. It appears once more in the Later Journey to the West (後西游記, Hou Xiyouji, 17th-cent.), a sequel set 200 years after the original. The story follows a similar trajectory with Monkey’s descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真, “Monkey who Walks Reality”) attaining immortality and causing havoc in heaven. But this time the macaque Buddha is called in to quell the demon. Monkey quickly disarms the “Small Sage Equaling Heaven” of his iron staff and pacifies him not with trickery but with an enlightening Buddhist koan. He then places the band on Luzhen’s head to teach him restraint (see Liu, 1994).

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A type one fillet from the comedy A Chinese Odyssey 2 (1995). Fig. 2 – (Center) A type two fillet from the 1986 TV show. Fig. 3 – (Right) A  type three fillet from an 11th-century painting in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China.

2. Past Research

It appears very few scholars writing in English have attempted to trace the origins of the golden fillet. Wang Tuancheng theorizes that the idea for the headband came from two sources. First, the historical journal of Xuanzang (602-664 CE), the Tang Dynasty monk on whom Tripitaka is loosely based, details how he was challenged to a religious debate by a man in a foreign kingdom who offered his own head as the price of defeat. Xuanzang won, but instead of collecting his prize, the monk took the man as his servant. Second, Wang notes that slaves during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) wore a metal collar around their neck shaped like the Chinese character for twenty (廿, nian). He goes on to explain: “…the author transformed the metal hoop that the non-Buddhist might have worn to Sun Wukong’s headband” (Wang, 2006, p. 67). I’m not particularly persuaded by this argument since Wang doesn’t offer any evidence as to why a Han-era slave implement would still be in use during the Tang (618-907 CE) four to five hundred years later; nor does he suggest a reason for why such a collar would be moved from the neck to the head. Besides, there exists religious art featuring the fillet (see below) that predates the novel by some three centuries, meaning it wasn’t the sole invention of the author/compiler of the novel.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that the 13th-century precursor of the novel, The Story of Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, does not mention the fillet at all (this is just one of many differences between it and the final 16th-century version). Monkey is simply portrayed as a concerned individual who purposely seeks out Tripitaka to ensure his safety, as the monk’s two previous incarnations have perished on the journey to India. In other words, he comes as a willing participant, which negates the need for positive punishment via the ringlet. [4] But at least two works coinciding with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) depict Monkey wearing a band, which, again, excludes the treasure being a later invention.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 13th-century stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and, most importantly, a type one fillet on the forehead (Fig. 4). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet “recalls the band around the head of representations of Andira, the simian guardian of Avalokitesvara” (the Indian counterpart to Guanyin) (Walker, 1998, p. 70). He goes on to list similarities between the stone relief and depictions of Andira, while also suggesting said depictions are based on south and southeast Asian representations of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman:

Identical earrings (these are key iconographic features of H[anuman] in many Southeast Asian R[ama saga]s), comparable tilt of the head… which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair… flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on the forearm and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H[anuman]. (Walker, 1998, p. 70).

So as it stands, the 13th-century appears to be the furthest that the motif has been reliably traced.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 4 (Left) – The 13th-century stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China (larger version). Fig. 5 – (Center) A portion of the 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two (larger version). Fig. 6 – (Right) The 12th-century Japanese painting “Aka-Fudo” (赤不動) (larger version).

3. My Findings

While Mair suggests a Southeast Asian Hindo-Buddhist influence, I know of at least one 11th-century example from northeastern China that suggests an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist influence. The Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (東千佛洞, Dong qianfo dong) in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a Xixia dynasty (1038-1227) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank. Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. He is portrayed with a type three circlet on his head, waist length hair, and light blue-green robes with brown pants (fig. 3 and 5). This painting was completed during a time when China was seeing an influx of monks fleeing the inevitable fall of India’s Buddhist-led Pala Dynasty (750-1174) from the 10th to the 12th-century. They brought with them the highly influential Pala Buddhist art style and Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of esoteric Buddhism. The MET (2010) writes:

A mixture of Chinese-style and Vajrayana traditions and imagery was employed in the Tangut Xixia Kingdom …  which was based in Ningxia, Gansu, and parts of Shanxi … It is difficult to imagine that this “new” type of Buddhism, which not only was flourishing in Tibet in the late tenth century but was also found in the neighboring Xixia Kingdom and may have been practiced by Tibetans based in the Hexi Corridor region of Gansu Province, was completely unknown in central China until the advent of the Mongols (p. 19).

The painting of Monkey and Tripitaka was surely created by an Indian/Tibetan Buddhist monk (or at the very least a fellow Tangut/Chinese practitioner) living in the area. This suggests the imagery within the painting, such as the fillet, could have an esoteric Buddhist pedigree, and textual evidence shows such headbands were indeed worn in some esoteric rituals. For example, the Indian Buddhist Hevajra Tantra (Ch: 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 8th-cent.) instructs adherents on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka, a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles:

The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears the bone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin… (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250) (the emphasis is mine).

Furthermore, it describes how each of the ritual adornments and implements used in the ceremony represents each of the five esoteric Buddhas, as well as other religio-philosophical elements:

Aksobhya is symbolized by the circletAmitabha by the ear-rings, Ratnesa by the necklace, and Vairocana (by the rings) upon the wrists. Amogha is symbolized by the girdle. Wisdom by the khatvanga [staff] and Means by the drum, while the yogin represents the Wrathful One himself [Heruka]. Song symbolizes mantra, dance symbolizes meditation, and so singing and dancing the yogin always acts (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251) (the emphasis is mine).

As can be seen, the circlet represents Aksobhya (Sk: “Immovable”; Ch: 阿閦如来, Achurulai). This deity is known for his adamantine vow to attain buddhahood through the practice of Sila, or “morality”, the aim of which “is to restrain nonvirtuous deeds of body and speech, often in conjunction with the keeping of precepts” (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, pp. 27 and 821). So the ritual band most likely served as a physical reminder of right speech and action, making it the best candidate for the origin of Monkey’s fillet. Sun is after all the representation of the “Monkey of the Mind” (as noted in the introduction), so his inclusion in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave painting was probably meant to convey the taming of this Buddhist concept via the circlet (apart from referencing the popular tale itself).

The Hevajra Tantra, the text in which the circlet appears, was first translated into Tibetan by Drogmi (993-1074) and adopted during the 11th-century as a central text by the respective founders of the Kagyu and Sakya sects, two of the six major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Various members of the Sakya sect were invited by Mongol royalty to initiate them into the text’s esoteric teachings during the 13th-century. These include Sakya Pandita and his nephew Chogyal Phagpa, who respectively tutored Genghis Khan’s grandson Prince Goden in 1244 and Kublai Khan in 1253. The meeting between Kublai and Chogyal resulted in Vajrayana Buddhism becoming the state religion of Mongolia. The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Chinese by the Indian monk Dharmapala (963-1058 CE) in 1055 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The text, however, did not become popular within the Chinese Buddhist community like it would with the Mongols in the 13th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455). But this evidence shows how the concept of the 8th-century ritual circlet could have traveled from India to East Asia to influence depictions of Sun Wukong in the 11th-century. And the relatively unknown status of the text in China might ultimately explain why there are so very few depictions of Chinese deities wearing the fillet, or why it does not appear in the 13th-century version of Journey to the West.

While the Xixia painting (fig. 5) lacks many of the ritual adornments (apart from the fillet) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, the Quanzhou stone relief (fig. 3) includes the band, earrings, necklace, bangles, and possibly even a tiger skin apron, suggesting it too has an esoteric origin (most likely based on Chinese source material). [5] The band’s connection to esoteric Buddhism is further strengthened by a 12th-century painting from Japan. Titled Aka-Fudo (赤不動), or “Red Fudo [Myoo]”, it depicts the wrathful esoteric god seated in a kingly fashion, holding a fiery, serpent-wrapped Vajra sword in one hand and a lasso in the other (fig. 6). He wears a golden, three-linked headband (similar to the curls of type one), which stands out against his deep red body and flaming aureola. Biswas (2010) notes: “…the headband on his forehead … indicate[s], according to some, a relation to the habit of groups of ascetics who were among the strong supporters of Acalanatha” (112). His supporters were no doubt yogin practitioners in the same vein as those who worshipped Heraku and other such wrathful protector deities.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 7 – (Left) Huang Ji’s “Sharpening a Sword” (early 15th-century) (larger version). Fig. 8 – (Center) An image of the hero Wu Song wearing a jiegu (戒箍) fillet from a Water Margin TV show. Fig. 9 – (Right) A late Ming woodblock of the warrior monk Lu Zhishen with a crescent staff (larger version).

3.1. The Fillet as a Symbol of Martial Deities and Warrior Monks

It’s important to note that Monkey was not the only cultural hero of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to wear a golden fillet. Another example is Li Tieguai (李鐵拐), or “Iron Crutch Li”, the oldest of the Eight Immortals.[6] Li is generally portrayed as a crippled beggar leaning on a cane. Legend has it that his original body was cremated prematurely by a disciple while the immortal traveled in spirit to answer a summons from Lord Laozi, the high god of Daoism. Li’s spirit returned a day later to find only ashes, thus forcing him to inhabit the body of a recently deceased cripple. According to Allen and Philips (2012), “Laozi gave him in recompense a golden headband and the crutch that was to become his symbol” (p. 108). Some depictions of Li wearing the fillet predate Journey to the West. The most striking example is Huang Ji’s Sharpening a Sword (early 15th-century) (Fig. 7), which portrays the immortal wearing a type three band and sharpening a double-edged blade on a stone while staring menacingly at the viewer. [7] One theory suggests Li’s martial visage identifies him as a “spirit-guardian of the [Ming] state” (Little, 2000, p. 333). Both Monkey and Li are therefore portrayed as brutish, weapon-bearing, golden headband-wearing immortals who serve as protectors. This shows the fillet was associated with certain warrior deities during the Ming.

The fillet’s connection to religion and martial attributes culminated in the Jiegu (戒箍, “ring to forget desires”), a type two band worn by Military Monks (武僧, Wuseng) in Chinese opera to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (fig. 8). Such monks are depicted as wearing a Jiegu over long hair (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328), which contrasts with the bald heads of religious monks.[8] I would like to suggest the band’s half-moon shape may have some connection to a Ming-era woodblock print motif in which martial monks are shown wielding staves tipped with a crescent (fig. 9). The exact reason for the shape is still unknown (Shahar, 2008, pp. 97-98), but the association between the crescent and martial monks seems obvious. The use of the fillet in Chinese opera led to it being worn by Sun Wukong in the highly popular 1986 live-action tv show adaptation of the novel (fig. 2).[9]

4. Conclusion

Examples of past research into the origins of the golden fillet respectively point to a slave collar from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and circa 13th-century South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman as possible precursors. However, the first isn’t credible, and the second, while on the right track, doesn’t go back far enough. An 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave complex depicts Sun Wukong wearing a type three fillet with possible ties to a ritual circlet worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. The Hevajra Tantra, the esoteric text that mentions the band, associates it with the Aksobhya Buddha and thereby his moralistic, self-restraining practices. The text was transmitted from india to Tibet, China, and Mongolia from the 11th to the 13th-centuries, showing a clear path for such imagery to appear in East Asia. A 12th-century Japanese Buddhist painting of the guardian deity Fudo Myoo with a fillet suggests the practice of wearing circlets in esoteric rituals continued for centuries. Other non-Buddhist deities became associated with the fillet during the Ming Dynasty. A 15th-century painting of the immortal Li Tieguai, for example, depicts him as a type one circlet-wearing, sword-wielding guardian of the Ming dynasty. All of this suggests the band became a symbol of weapon-bearing protector deities. The association between the fillet and religion and martial attributes led to its use as the symbol of military monks in Chinese opera.

Update: 12-23-17

I’ve been wondering what the 8th-century version of the circlet (along with the other ritual implements) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra might have looked like. While I have yet to find a contemporary sculpture or painting, I have found an 11th to 12th-century interpretation from Tibet. Titled The Buddhist Deity Hevajra (fig. 10), this copper alloy statue somewhat follows the prescribed iconography of the god as laid out in the aforementioned text:

Dark blue and like the sun in colour with reddened and extended eyes, his yellow hair twisted upwards, and adorned with the five symbolic adornments,/ the circlet, the ear-rings and necklace, the bracelets and belt. These five symbols are well known for the purificatory power of the Five Buddhas./ He has the form of a sixteen-year-old youth and is clad in a tiger-skin. His gaze is wrathful. In his left hand he holds a vajra-skull, and a khatvahga [staff] likewise in his left, while in his right is a vajra of [a] dark hue…(Linrothe, 1999, p. 256)

Fig. 10 – The Buddhist Deity Hevajra, late 11th to early 12th-century, copper alloy (larger version). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 11 – Detail of the circlet.

The circlet here is depicted as a fitted band with crescent trim and a teardrop-shaped adornment (a conch?) (fig. 11). The statue’s iconography more closely follows that from the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries. The following information probably derives from the later part of this period:

He wields the vajra in the right hand and from his left shoulder hangs the Khatvanga [staff] with a flowing banner, like a sacred thread. He carries in his left hand the kapala [skull cap] full of blood. His necklace is beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads. His face is slightly distorted with bare fangs and blood-shot eyes. His brown hair rises upwards and forms into a crown which bears the effigy of Aksobhya. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).

Our statue has many of these features but lacks the image of the Buddha in his hair. This suggests the knob visible in the coif (fig. 10) once carried such a figure. So once again we see the importance of the Aksobhya Buddha. The statue is similar to 10th and 11th-century stone statues from India.[10]

While this doesn’t get us any closer to what the original circlet looked like, this statue adds to the mutability of the fillet imagery. The Hevajra Tantra is vague in its description, and so it is no surprise that so many variations have appeared over the centuries. The original sanskrit text uses the word cakri (circle) to refer to the band (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62). This might explain the simple type three fillet worn by Monkey in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave two painting (fig. 2).

Update: 08-16-20

I have written an article suggesting an origin for the type one headband, or as I now call it, the “curlicue headband”.

Sun Wukong’s Curlicue-Style Headband

Update: 12-12-21

One thing I figured out a while ago but never explained here was the reason why the Japanese Buddhist protector deity Aka-Fudo (赤不動) (fig. 6) is depicted with a headband. I believe this is a visual representation of the fillet’s association with the Aksobhya Buddha. This is because the fudo (Ch: budong, 不動) of Aka-Fudo and the Sanskrit meaning of Aksobhya respectively mean “immovable”. So the image of Aka-Fudo is encapsulating both his position as a protector deity and the Buddha represented by the headband. 


Update: 01-23-22

I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes the golden fillet to tighten.

The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Update: 07-25-22

I’ve written an article that explains the origins of the “crescent-style” headband.

The Monkey King’s Crescent-Style Headband


1) The type of band that is given to particular characters is explained in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 251.
2) For the entire episode, see Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 314-320.
3) The child first speaks his new name in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 354. The name Sudhana originates from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 386-387 n. 3).
4) For a complete English translation, see Wivell (1994).
5) This is just one of many relief carvings that grace the pagoda. It includes other guardian-type figures with esoteric elements but rendered in the Chinese style. See Ecke and Demiéville (1935).
6) The Eight Immortals are Daoist saints who came to be worshipped as a group starting sometime in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) (Little 2000: 319).
7) The sword is usually a symbol of the immortal Lu Dongbin, but, as noted above, it is used to identify Li Tieguai as a Ming guardian (Little 2000: 333).
8) Shahar (2008) discusses the historical differences between religious and military monks in ancient China.
9) The actor who played Monkey, Liu Xiao Ling Tong (Born Zhang Jinlai 章金萊, 1959), comes from a family who has specialized in playing Sun Wukong in Chinese opera for generations (Ye, 2016).
10) See the Heruka chapter in Linrothe (1999). He includes our statue in his study, but other sources describe it as Tibetan instead of India (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 458).


Allan, T., & Phillips, C. (2012). Ancient China’s myths and beliefs. New York: Rosen Pub.

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

Biswas, S. (2010). Indian influence on the art of Japan. New Delhi: Northern Book Centre.

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.

Donaldson, T. E. (2001). Iconography of the Buddhist sculpture of Orissa. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The twin pagodas of Zayton: A study of the later Buddhist sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Little, S. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.), Leidy, D. P., Strahan, D. K., & Becker, L. (2010). Wisdom embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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