Does the Buddha Lie in Journey to the West?

I was recently directed to an online Chinese article by Ye Zhiqiu (叶之秋) (n.d.) in which they claim that the Buddha makes “four grand, overarching lies” (sige mitian dahuang, 四個彌天大謊) throughout the course of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter). They believe this is because the literary version of the Enlightened One is a master strategist who uses lies in a calculated attempt to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. This is admittedly a fascinating idea but one that falls apart under careful analysis. Ye (n.d.) displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. In this article, I will show that there are far more plausible reasons for the Buddha’s statements than lying.

I. First Lie

The Buddha states the following about the novel’s Hindo-Buddhist cosmos (ch. 8), which features four island-like continents floating in a great sea around a cosmic mountain (fig. 1) (see the 06-25-22 update in section 1.2 here for a slightly more detailed explanation):

I have watched the Four Great Continents, and the morality of their inhabitants varies from place to place. Those living on the East Pūrvavideha revere Heaven and Earth, and they are straightforward and peaceful. Those on the North Uttarakuru, though they love to destroy life, do so out of the necessity of making a livelihood. Moreover, they are rather dull of mind and lethargic in spirit, and they are not likely to do much harm. Those of our West Aparagodānīya are neither covetous nor prone to kill; they control their humor and temper their spirit. There is, to be sure, no illuminate of the first order, but everyone is certain to attain longevity. Those who reside in the South Jambūdvīpa, however, are prone to practice lechery and delight in evildoing, indulging in much slaughter and strife. Indeed, they are all caught in the treacherous field of tongue and mouth, in the wicked sea of slander and malice. However, I have three baskets of true scriptures which can persuade man to do good (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 204-205).


Ye (n.d.) claims that the Enlightened One is lying because most of the monsters show up not in the supposedly evil continent of South Jambūdvīpa (the Land of the East, i.e. China) but in the Buddha’s home of West Aparagodānīya (India). They even provide a long list of monsters encountered there. Also, the writer theorizes that the planned scripture pilgrimage is just a ploy to spread the Buddha’s influence to the Land of the East, making him the ruler of two of four continents. The implication here is that he is slowly chipping away at the Jade Emperor’s domain.

However, the Buddha was likely referring to the people in those particular continents and not the monsters. And most importantly, his words appear to mirror the views of foreign Buddhist monks. When the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘; 602-664), on whom Tripitaka is based, planned to return home from India, his friends tried dissuading him by describing China in similarly negative terms. Brose (2021) comments:

For many of the monks he had befriended, the decision was hard to fathom. “India is the birthplace of the Buddha,” they reminded him. “Although the Great Sage is gone, his traces remain. To travel around and venerate them is enough to make one’s life content. Why would you want to give this up after having come here? China is a barbarian land where people are neglected, and the Dharma is despised. That is why no buddhas have ever been born there. The people have narrow aspirations and deep impurities, so sages do not go there. The air is cold and the land is dangerous. How can you think of returning there?” Xuanzang reportedly responded by quoting an exchange from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, where the noble layman Vimalakīrti asks Śāriputra, “Why does the sun come to Jambudvīpa?” The answer: “To illuminate it and eliminate the darkness.” If Xuanzang remained in India, the true Dharma might never be known in China (pp. 61-62).

Additionally, Xuanzang is known to have left China illegally when he first began his journey. Brose (2021) explains:

Xuanzang almost didn’t make it to India. Before setting out on his pilgrimage, his initial request for a travel permit was denied by the [Tang] court and, after traveling over five hundred miles from the capital to the westernmost Chinese city of Liangzhou, the local governor ordered him to turn back. Hiding during the day and traveling at night, Xuanzang quietly continued on to the desert outpost of Guazhou. There, he learned that the court had issued a warrant for his arrest. The local prefect, it turned out, was a pious Buddhist and urged Xuanzang to leave quickly… (p. 16).

Conversely, the monk in JTTW is portrayed as a loyal Confucian-type person. Therefore, in order to frame Tripitaka as a faithful, law-abiding citizen of China, the novel had to provide a reason for his pilgrimage, one that the Tang emperor would give his blessing to. [1]

Fig. 1 – A diagram of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk.

II. Second Lie

During Sun Wukong’s battle with the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 58) (fig. 2), the Buddha reveals the doppelganger’s true identity, noting that he and Monkey are two of four celestial primates (hunshi sihou, 混世四猴, lit: “four monkeys of havoc”) with amazing abilities:

“The first,” said Tathāgata [the Buddha], “is the Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom, [2] who

Knows transformations,
Recognizes the seasons,
Discerns the advantages of earth,
And is able to alter the course of planets and stars.

The second is the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey, who

Has knowledge of yin and yang,
Understands human affairs,
Is adept in its daily life
And able to avoid death and lengthen its life.

The third is the Tongbi Gibbon, who can

Seize the sun and the moon,
Shorten a thousand mountains,
Distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious,
And manipulate planets and stars.

The fourth is the Six-Eared Macaque who has

A sensitive ear,
Discernment of fundamental principles,
Knowledge of past and future,
And comprehension of all things.

These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth. As I see the matter, that specious Wukong must be a six-eared macaque, for even if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).


Ye (n.d.) claims the Buddha concocted the list of supernatural primates in order to hide the fact that Six Ears was an aspect of the Monkey King’s mind. They reason that the falsehood was used to avoid offending the Daoist hierarchy who couldn’t figure out the doppelganger’s true identity.

I think the author’s issue here is that the Daoist gods considered Six Ears a real figure, while the Buddha knew him to be an aspect of Sun’s mind. Something being real and illusory at the same time may seem like a big contradiction, but it’s not in the JTTW cosmos. Campany (1985) explains that, as physical threats, the monsters enable Monkey and his religious brothers to build Buddhist merit (zhenguo, 正果; lit: “right fruit”) by fighting them. At the same time, being illusory aspects of the mind, the monsters help the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, to understand that reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “Aware of Emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the journey.

Ye (n.d.) also points out that the listed powers of the Horse Monkey and Tongbi Gibbon don’t appear to be true, for they (under the guise of the commanders Ma and Liu and Beng and Ba – see section 2 here) are supposedly killed by Erlang’s forces in chapter six. They claim this proves that the two supernatural primates don’t actually exist. However, two things need to be said. One, the aforementioned underlings appear alive and well in chapter 28 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 32), meaning that they were not killed. And two, an irregularity in the story does not equate to a lie. The author hasn’t even come close to offering conclusive evidence of intent. Instead, I suggest that this is just an inconsistency born from the novel’s origin as individual oral tales that were eventually compiled, expanded, and published in book form. See, for instance, the 13th-century version of the story cycle. Therefore, irregularities are bound to pop up throughout the narrative.

But even if this lie was somehow true, how exactly does it further the Buddha’s supposed plan to take power from the Jade Emperor?

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and Six Ears battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

III. Third Lie

After the Buddha learns that the holy beasts of two bodhisattvas have escaped their respective mountain paradises and become man-eating demons on earth (ch. 77) (fig. 3), he has the following conversation with his disciples:

[…] Tathāgata left the lotus throne and went out of the monastery gate with the rest of the buddhas. There they saw Ānanda and Kāśyapa leading Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra [3] on their way to the monastery also.

As the two bodhisattvas bowed to him, Tathagata asked, “How long have your beasts of burden been gone from your mountains?” “Seven days,” replied Mañjuśrī. “Seven days in the mountain,” said Tathāgata, “are equivalent to several thousand years on earth. I wonder how many lives they have taken down there. You must follow me quickly if we are to retrieve them.” With one bodhisattva standing on each side of him, the Buddha and his followers rose into the air (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 29-30).


Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is lying about the corresponding time on earth in order to mask his guilt over not intervening sooner. As evidence, they cite the fact that the novel states “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). However, this could just be one of the aforementioned inconsistencies. One oral tradition may have said one day equals one year, while another said it equals one thousand years, and then both of these made it into the novel. But there is a more likely answer (see below).

They also claim that the respective Bodhisattvas’ mountain paradises are on earth, meaning they would be subject to the same time as the mortal world. This carries the implication that the beasts were eating people for at least a few hundred years and none of the Buddhist deities did anything to stop them. But the author clearly doesn’t understand earthly paradises like Mañjuśrī’s Mount Wutai (Wutai shan, 五臺山; lit: “Five Terrace/Platform Mountain”), which they mention by name in the article. Chou (2018) notes that a “central paradox of Mount Wutai” is that it is “both an earthly place and a Buddhist paradise (pure land)” (p. 142). Kōtatsu (Kōtatsu & Otowa, 1996) explains that Pure Lands (Jingtu, 净土) are “world[s] of another dimension” that are “temporally different from this one” (p. 45). Therefore, it seems more likely that the Enlightened One was referring to the time difference between Buddhist mountain paradises and the mortal realm. This is distinct from the Daoist heaven, which is expressly associated with the “one heavenly day = one earthly year” time dilation.

Additionally, Ye (n.d.) claims that Mañjuśrī is lying about the length of time his beast was absent because of a similar bout of guilt. It’s strange, though, that the writer’s answer for everything is “such and such Buddhist figure is being dishonest”. I’d be interested to read some of their other work to see if there’s a pattern of deconstructing Buddhism. JTTW clearly treats the religion with reverence, placing the Buddha and his disciples at the top of the novel’s cosmic hierarchy. Therefore, selectively interpreting details to support some agenda against Buddhism wouldn’t reflect positively on the author or their writing.

And again, I have to ask: How would this lie further the Buddha’s supposed plans?

Fig. 3 – Sun Wukong and his religious brothers battling the bird, elephant, and lion demons from Lion-Camel Cave (larger version). Artist unknown. Image found here. The elephant and lion are the missing holy beasts who became monsters on earth.

IV. Fourth Lie

After the Buddha captures the Great Peng (ch. 77) (fig. 4), the bird demon submits to Buddhism but stubbornly refuses to stop eating meat. The Enlightened One thinks for a moment and then offers him the following solution:

“In the four great continents of my domain,” said Tathāgata, “there are countless worshippers. I shall ask those who wish to do good to sacrifice first to your mouth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 31).


Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is deceptively bragging here in order to placate the uber powerful monster. At the same time, his statement about having dominance over the four continents is thought to be a lie since the Jade Emperor is the stated ruler of the cosmos. They reason that it’s evidence of the Enlightened One wanting to govern all four continents. But it’s important to remember that, as mentioned above, the novel takes place in a world modeled after Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which Ye (n.d.) is fully aware of. The Daoist bureaucracy of JTTW is therefore a syncretic veil that has been draped over a pre-existing Buddhist structure. In the original system, the world is overseen by the Devarāja Śakra (Sk: Śakro devānāṃ indraḥ; Ch: Dishi, 帝釋) from the heaven of the thirty-three gods atop Mount Sumeru (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 739-740 and 921-922). (Interestingly, the novel hints that the Daoist bureaucracy is located in this very same heaven – see the material above figure two here). But despite the gods’ divine lifespans, as inhabitants of the Realm of Desire, they are still subject to death and therefore susceptible to the Wheel of Reincarnation (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233). Only the Buddha can help such beings escape from the endless rounds of rebirth by leading them to enlightenment. He does this within the confines of his own domain or “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹). Buswell and Lopez (2014) explain:

[W]hen a buddha achieves enlightenment, a “container” or “inanimate” world is produced in the form of a field where the buddha leads beings to enlightenment. The inhabitant of that world is the buddha endowed with all the [qualities of an Enlightened One]. Buddha-fields occur in various levels of purification, broadly divided between pure and impure. Impure buddha-fields are synonymous with a world system (cakravāḍa), the infinite number of “world discs” in Buddhist cosmology that constitutes the universe; here, ordinary sentient beings (including animals, ghosts, and hell beings) dwell, subject to the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Each Cakravāḍa is the domain of a specific buddha, who achieves enlightenment in that world system and works there toward the liberation of all sentient beings… (p. 153).

Therefore, the JTTW cosmos is the Enlightened One’s Buddha-Field. But Ye (n.d.) appears to be aware of this fact (at least on some level), for they write: “The truth of the matter is that the Buddha is the lord of all sentient beings in the Buddhist schools of the four continents” (Zhenshi qingkuang shi, Rulai shi si dabu zhou fopai zhongsheng zhi zhu, 真實情況是,如來是四大部洲佛派眾生之主). So why would the writer still claim that the Buddha’s statement is a lie when they know it isn’t? This is a prime example of the author selectively interpreting facts.

Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of the Great Peng trapped above the Buddha’s head (larger version). Artist unknown.

V. Conclusion

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Buddha is a master strategist who makes “four grand, overarching lies” in a bid to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. But the writer demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. I show that the supposed falsehoods are instead likely based on the viewpoints of historical foreign monks, are inconsistencies within the JTTW narrative, reference Buddhist views of time, and reflect the Buddhist world system.


1) The ruler’s decision to allow said pilgrimage is associated with a subplot in chapters 11 and 12 where he learns of countless orphaned souls in the underworld and searches for a monk to release them from their torments via a grand Buddhist ceremony. Tripitaka is chosen to lead the ceremony but is later convinced by the Bodhisattva Guanyin to halt the ritual until he has retrieved more appropriate scriptures from India.

2) Source altered slightly.

3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) originally translates Puxian (普賢) as “Viśvabhadra” (vol. 4, pp. 29). I’ve changed it to “Samantabhadra” as this appears to be a more well-known version of the Bodhisattva’s name.


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

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

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

Chou, W. (2018). Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Kōtatsu, F., & Otowa, R. (1996). The Origin of the Pure Land. The Eastern Buddhist, 29(1), 33–51.

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

Ye, Z. (n.d.). Rulai fo sa de sige mitian dahuang [The Four Grand, Overarching Lies Cast by the Buddha]. Sohu.

A Quick Study of the Four Celestial Primates from Journey to the West

Last updated: 02-26-2022

Sun Wukong faces his evil double, the Six-Eared Macaque, in chapters 56 to 58 of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, JTTW hereafter). After the twin Mind Monkeys battle their way to the Western Paradise, the Buddha reveals the doppelganger’s true identity, noting that he and Monkey are two of four celestial primates (hunshi sihou, 混世四猴, lit: “four monkeys of havoc”) with amazing abilities:

“The first,” said Tathagata, “is the Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom, [1] who

Knows transformations, Recognizes the seasons, Discerns the advantages of earth, And is able to alter the course of planets and stars.

The second is the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey, who

Has knowledge of yin and yang, Understands human affairs, Is adept in its daily life And able to avoid death and lengthen its life.

The third is the Tongbi Gibbon, who can

Seize the sun and the moon, Shorten a thousand mountains, Distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious, And manipulate planets and stars.

The fourth is the Six-Eared Macaque who has

A sensitive ear, Discernment of fundamental principles, Knowledge of past and future, And comprehension of all things.

These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth. As I see the matter, that specious Wukong must be a six-eared macaque, for even if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).


In this article, I would like to explore all mentions of these magical creatures in the novel. I will focus more on the second and third primates as I’ve already written extensively about the first and fourth kind.

1. Stone Monkey

There isn’t much to write about the “Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom” (Lingming shihou, 靈明石猴) (fig. 1) as it’s clearly Sun Wukong. The term lingming (靈明) can also be translated as “Numinous Luminosity”. Both refer to spiritual wisdom. This explains why Sun Wukong attains so much power after only three years of spiritual cultivation.

Fig. 1 – A poster of the Stone Monkey of Luminous Wisdom from the film “Four Monkeys”. The name has since been changed. See update 02-20-22 below.

2. Horse Monkey and Gibbon

I’m grouping these two together because they share a close association in JTTW. The Chinese term for “Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey” (Chikao mahou, 赤尻馬猴) (fig. 2) appears three times in the novel, while “Horse Monkey” (馬猴, mahou) only appears once (see here). [2] The term “Tongbei Gibbon” (Tongbei yuanhou, 通背猿猴) appears three times, while the interchangeable term “Tongbi Gibbon” (Tongbi yuanhou, 通臂猿猴) appears once (see here and here) (fig. 3). [3] The term “ape” or “gibbon” (yuanhou, 猿猴) appears 16 times (see here), and it’s even used to refer to Monkey. For example, a poem in chapter seven calls him “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, a monstrous ape” (Qitian dasheng yuanhou guai, 齊天大聖猿猴怪) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 191). The horse monkey and gibbon are surprisingly listed among the Monkey King’s retinue:

The Handsome Monkey King thus led a flock of gibbons [猿猴], macaques, and horse monkeys [馬猴], some of whom were appointed by him as his officers and ministers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 106).


It’s actually the gibbon who reveals the truth of spiritual beings escaping the hand of death, setting Monkey on his quest for immortality:

From among the ranks a tongbei gibbon [通背猿猴] suddenly leaped forth and cried aloud, “If the Great King is so farsighted, it may well indicate the sprouting of his religious inclination. There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains.” When the Monkey King heard this, he was filled with delight, saying, “Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the comers of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama.” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 131).


Apart from this, chapter two casts both the gibbon and horse monkey as knowledgeable elders:

As they were speaking, four older monkeys came forward, two horse monkeys with red buttocks [赤尻馬猴] and tongbei gibbons [通背猿猴]. Coming to the front, they said, “Great King, to be furnished with sharp-edged weapons is a very simple matter:’ “How is it simple?” asked Wukong. The four monkeys replied, “East of our mountain, across two hundred miles of water, is the boundary of the Aolai Country. In that country there is a king who has numberless men and soldiers in his city, and there are bound to be all kinds of gold, silver, copper, and iron works there. If the great king goes there, he can either buy weapons or have them made (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 131).


Later in the chapter, they are appointed officers:

The Monkey King made the four old monkeys mighty commanders of his troops by appointing the two horse monkeys with red buttocks [赤尻馬猴] as marshals Ma [馬] and Liu [流], and the two tongbei gibbons as generals Beng [崩] and Ba [芭] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138).


These primates are mentioned in a few other chapters (see here and here).

Fig. 2 & 3 – “Four Monkeys” posters of the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey and the Tongbi Gibbon.

2.1. True Identity?

Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) calls the horse monkey a “baboon” (vol. 3, p. 115, for example), likely based on the common image of the primate having a red bottom. And while searching “馬猴” does pull up images and articles about the Mandrill, a large, colorful cousin of the baboon (example), I can’t find any reliable historical sources linking the animal with the term. Having said that, this book associates it with the ancient Chinese practice of putting monkeys in horse stables (majiu husun, 馬廄猢猻) to ward off equine sicknesses, making it a “horse’s monkey”. This naturally has connections to Sun Wukong’s time as the Bimawen, or keeper of the heavenly horses. This is the most convincing explanation for the horse monkey that I’ve seen, but I’ll make sure to update the article if any other plausible reasons arise. As for the red bottom, this is likely the sexual swelling of females. I’ll spare you a picture; just imagine a bright pink pumpkin that’s about to explode.

The gibbon and macaque (see below) are real world animals. For more information on Chinese views of the gibbon, please see this archived book.

3. Six-Eared Macaque

I’ve already written an article exploring the literary and religious origins of the “Six-Eared Macaque” (Liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴). One scholar suggests that his true identity is Monkey’s sworn brother, the Macaque King (Mihou wang, 獼猴王) (Lam, 2005, p. 168). It’s important to note that this character cavorts with Sun on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 156-157, for example).

Fig. 4 – A “Four Monkeys” poster of the Six-Eared Macaque. This version wields swords unlike his staff-brandishing literary counterpart.

4. Home of the Four Primates?

The above information shows that, at one time or another, all four of the celestial primates are present on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom (a.k.a. Sun Wukong) is born and lives as a king on the mountain. The Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey and the Tongbei/bi Gibbon serve as his advisors and officers. And the Six-Eared Macaque becomes his sworn brother and often visits him there. This might suggest that the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is the home or even birthplace of all four primates. If one magic primate can be born there, then all of them can.

Update: 02-20-22

Here’s a four minute preview for the upcoming film King of Havoc: Rise of the Great Sage (Hunshi zhi wang: Dasheng jueqi,  混世之王:大圣崛起, 2022). The Six-Eared Macaque appears in figure four wielding swords. This same character takes part in the trailer but is called the Macaque King, thereby referencing the aforementioned theory that he is Six Ears.

Update: 02-22-22

One thing I forgot to mention is that one passage suggests ALL four celestial primates are present on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit in Sun’s youth:

The Handsome Monkey King thus led a flock of gibbons [yuanhou, 猿猴], macaques [mihou, 獼猴], and horse monkeys [mahou, 馬猴], some of whom were appointed by him as his officers and ministers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 106).


There’s the Monkey King (Stone), gibbons (Tongbi/bei), macaques (Six Ears), and horse monkeys (Red-Buttocked).

Also, user Phantom86d left an astute comment suggesting that the four magical primates are not part of the 10 categories of life—as stated by the Buddha in the introduction—”[b]ecause Wukong erased their names from the book of Life and Death”. This refers to chapter three when Sun inks out his name and those of all other primates when his immortal soul is mistakenly summoned to hell. It’s important to remember that he had his own, separate book (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140), so the other magical primates likely had theirs.

Update: 02-25-22

Thanks to this dictionary, I learned that one late-Qing source, New Dialect (Xinfangyan, 新方言, early-20th-c.), associates “horse monkey” (mahou, 馬猴) with various iterations of Chinese terms for macaque monkeys:

“Bathing monkey” (muhou): “mother monkey” (muhou); mother monkey (muhou): “full monkey” (mihou) – these are called “horse monkey” (mahou), the sound of each one changing [in turn].

沐猴:母猴;母猴:彌猴,令人謂之馬猴,皆一音之轉。(the original doesn’t have punctuation)

This article explains that the second term refers not to a female primate but a macaque. The Annotation of the Shuowen jiezi (Shuowen jiezi zhu, 說文解字注, 1815) reads:

“Mother monkey” (muhou) is the name of the beast, not the female. “Bathing monkey” (muhou) and “full monkey” (mihou) are changes in dialect. The characters are wrong.


Update: 02-26-22

The Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu, 本草綱目, 1596) traces the etymology of “bathing monkey” (muhou, 沐猴):

The monkey likes to wipe its face as if bathing (mu), so it is called a “bathing (monkey)”. Later generations mistook this mu for “mother”, and then mother for “full” (mi). The meaning is lost as errors compound.


It then directly connects muhou (母猴) to stable monkeys:

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


The section later explains how macaques (muhou, 母猴) help the horses:

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



1) I will be altering Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation from this point forward to make it more accurate.

2) Ctext shows the term “Great Horse Monkey” (Da mahou, 大馬猴) pops up in chapter 28 of Dream of the Red Chamber (18th-century). It’s used to symbolize something worse than an immoral husband that would ravage a young maiden:

Next came Xue Pan. “Is it for me to speak now?” Xue Pan asked.

“A maiden is sad…”

But a long time elapsed after these words were uttered and yet nothing further was heard.

“Sad for what?” Feng Ziying laughingly asked.

“Go on and tell us at once!”

Xue Pan was much perplexed. His eyes rolled about like a bell.

“A girl is sad…” he hastily repeated. But here again he coughed twice before he proceeded.

“A girl is sad,” he said:

“When she marries a spouse who is a libertine.”

This sentence so tickled the fancy of the company that they burst out into a loud fit of laughter.

“What amuses you so?” shouted Xue Pan, “is it likely that what I say is not correct? If a girl marries a man, who chooses to forget all virtue, how can she not feel sore at heart?”

But so heartily did they all laugh that their bodies were bent in two.

“What you say is quite right,” they eagerly replied. “So proceed at once with the rest.”

Xue Pan thereupon stared with vacant gaze.

“A girl is grieved…” he added.

But after these few words he once more could find nothing to say.

“What is she grieved about?” they asked.

“When a huge horse monkey [大馬猴] finds its way into the inner room,” Xue Pan retorted (Cao & Joly, 1892, p. 62).


3) These are hard to translate terms referring to the belief that the long, agile arms of the gibbon were somehow connected (i.e. tongbi, 通臂), possibly passing through the back (i.e. tongbei, 通背) (Gulik, 1967, p. 92-93). It’s interesting to note that each are associated with a style of ape-based Chinese boxing.


Cao, X., & Joly, H. B. (1892). Hung Lou Meng: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber; a Chinese Novel – Book 2. Hongkong: Kelly & Walsh.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Lam, H. L. (2005). Cannibalizing the Heart: The Politics of Allegory and The Journey to the West. In E. Ziolkowski (Ed.). Literature, Religion, and East/West Comparison (pp. 162-178). Newark: University of Delaware Press.

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

The Monkey King’s Magic Staff: A Complete Guide

I’ve written many articles on the origins of the Monkey King’s staff over the years. Therefore, I’ve decided to combine all of the information in one location for the benefit of people wishing to learn more about the weapon and its history. This will no doubt be interesting to fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592; JTTW hereafter), as well as those of modern franchises like Dragon Ball and Lego Monkie Kid (fig. 1). Citations can be found in the articles linked below.

Fig. 1 – The Lego Monkie Kid character “MK” wielding the Monkey King’s magic staff (larger version). Copyright Lego.

1. The Literary Weapon

1.1. Staff Background

The staff first appears in chapter three of the original novel when the Monkey King goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional weapons offered to him fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun Wukong “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The weapon is said to be a “divine treasure iron” originally used to set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe ding di de shenzhen tie, 天河定底的神珍鐵) by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythic Chinese emperor and demigod.

The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron or bin steel more than 20 feet in height and as wide as a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun notices that the weapon is decorated with a golden ring on each end, as well as an inscription along the body reading: “The ‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff is immensely heavy, weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg).

Apart from the above information, a poem in chapter 75 (see section 2.3 here) highlights another name, “Rod of Numinous Yang” (Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒). In addition, the poem describes the staff being covered in “tracks of planets and stars” (i.e. astronomical charts) and esoteric “dragon and phoenix scripts” (longwen yu fengzhuan, 龍紋與鳳篆).

The novel provides two contradictory origins for the staff. The chapter 75 poem notes that it “[w]as forged in the stove by Laozi himself”. Laozi is of course the high god of Daoism. Chapter 88 instead states that it was “forged at Creation’s dawn / By Yu the Great himself, the god-man of old”.

Contrary to popular images of the Monkey King holding a regular-sized staff, his literary counterpart wields a massive weapon in battle. It is said to be 20 feet long (likely an error for 12), [1] with the width of a bowl (erzhang changduan, wankou cuxi, 二丈長短,碗口粗細) (fig. 2). I did a cursory search of bowls during the Ming (when the standard edition of JTTW was published) and found that they have a radius of between 4 to 6 inches (10.16 to 15.25 cm).

Fig. 2 – An accurate depiction of the size of Monkey’s staff (larger version). Images found here. Artwork by @真·迪绝人.

1.2. Staff Powers

The staff is shown to have multiple powers.

  1. Size manipulation – This is the weapon’s most well-known ability, growing as big or as small as Monkey wishes.
  2. Controlling the oceans –  The aforementioned poem from chapter 88 writes: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. / Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas…”
  3. Astral entanglement – Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in Hell despite the physical weapon being with his body in the world of the living.
  4. Multiplication – He can multiply his staff in the hundreds of thousands.
  5. Lock-Picking – He can open any door just by pointing it at the lock.
  6. Transformation – He can change it into tools like a straight razor or a drill.
  7. Sentience – The weapon glows in anticipation of Monkey’s arrival (fig. 3), responds to his touch, and follows his commands, denoting a certain level of sentience.

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

2. Origins

2.1. Literary Precursors

The staff found in the standard Ming edition of JTTW is actually based on two weapons from a 17-chapter storytelling prompt called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procured the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century). Sun Wukong’s precursor, an ageless immortal called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), magically transports Tripitaka and his entourage to heaven. There, the supreme god, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王; i.e. Vaiśravana), gives the monk a cap of invisibility, a khakkhara (ringed monk’s staff) (fig. 4), and a begging bowl. Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim take turns using these items throughout the journey. The staff is shown capable of shooting destructive beams of light, as well as transforming into magical creatures like an iron dragon or a giant, club-wielding Yaksha. Later, the Monkey Pilgrim also borrows an iron staff from heaven to fight a dragon.

The two staves from this tale were eventually combined by later storytellers. The rings from the first weapon were added to the ends of the second.

Fig. 4 – A beautiful, modern monk’s staff with six rings (larger version).

2.2. Influence from Religion

The Monkey Pilgrim’s magic ringed staff and begging bowl were directly influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the historical Buddha. One particular 9th to 10th-century story notes that the Saint uses the staff to unlock the gates of hell in order to save his mother (fig. 5). This is where Sun Wukong’s weapon from JTTW gets the power to open locks.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

The ringed and metal staves used by the Monkey Pilgrim are based on those historically carried by Buddhist monks in ancient China. The aforementioned ringed variety, called “tin staves” (xizhang, 錫杖) where used by religious monks and decorated with six to twelve metal rings (see fig. 4). These rings were designed to make a clanging noise to not only scare away animals on the road but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence.

Martial monks charged with protecting monasteries or deployed by the Chinese government against pirates wielded wooden or iron staves (fig. 6). The former were chosen for their diminished capacity for fatal injuries, while the latter were explicitly used for killing during times of war. Sun Wukong wielding the iron variety makes sense as he’s a martial monk charged with protecting Tripitaka from monsters and spirits.

Fig. 6 – A martial monk practicing a drunken staff-fighting form (larger version).

The term “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) from Monkey’s staff (mentioned above) is connected with a scepter used in ancient China as a symbol of religious debate and authority and, to a lesser extent, as a weapon. While it can be traced to a Hindo-Buddhist tradition in India, the scepter came to be associated with the highest gods of Daoism thanks to being decorated with a “numinous mushroom” (lingzhi, 靈芝), a real world fungi believed to bestow immortality. This mushroom scepter was at some point associated with the Buddhist Cintamani (Ruyi zhu, 如意珠), or “As-you-will jewel”. This was believed to grant any wish that one might desire. This explains why Monkey’s As-you-will staff grows or shrinks according to his commands. It’s interesting to note that some religious images of the scepter depict it with a syncretic mix of the Daoist mushroom and the Buddhist jewel (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 – An enhanced detail of the Celestial Worthy’s mushroom scepter with a flaming as-you-will jewel (larger version). See here for a fuller version of the deity.

2.3. Influence from Popular literature

The weapon’s portrayal in JTTW as an iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom comes from old stories about the immortal Xu Xun (許遜), a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province. Popular tales describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century version titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace Drives Away Evil” (Jingyang gong tieshu zhenyao旌陽宮鐵樹鎮妖) describes how he chained the flood dragon patriarch to an iron tree (tieshu, 鐵樹) and submerged it in a well, thus preventing the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm and causing trouble. Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 8). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

Fig. 8 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting the immortal Xu overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement the well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version).

As previously noted, the staff weighs 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg). This is likely based on an episode from chapter 27 of the Chinese novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block said to weigh 300 to 500 catties (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg) (fig. 9). This scene and the one from JTTW where Monkey lifts the iron pillar are quite similar. Both involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. And given the close historical and cultural ties between the two heroes, I believe the author-compiler of JTTW embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.

Fig. 9 – Wu Song lifts the stone block (larger version). Image found here.


1) Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog has suggested that the length is likely an error for 12 feet (zhanger, 丈二) since the staff was already near 20 feet when Monkey first acquired it, and he later asked it to shrink to a more manageable size.