Monkey and the Summoners of Hell: The Story and Origins of the Heibai Wuchang

Last updated: 10/29/2018

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West happens in chapter three after Sun Wukong returns from the undersea palace with his magic staff and is chosen as lord of the 72 monster kings. Following a lavish banquet in his honor, the Monkey King falls asleep and his soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld by two spirits:

In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach with a summons with the three characters “Sun Wukong” written on it. They walked up to him and, without a word, tied him up with a rope and dragged him off. The soul of the Handsome Monkey King was reeling from side to side. They reached the edge of a city. The Monkey King was gradually coming to himself, when he lifted up his head and suddenly saw above the city an iron sign bearing in large letters the three words “Region of Darkness [You mingjie, 幽冥界].” The Handsome Monkey King at once became fully conscious. “The Region of Darkness is the abode of Yama, King of Death,” he said. “Why am I here?” “Your age in the World of Life has come to an end,” the two men said. “The two of us were given this summons to arrest you.” When the Monkey King heard this, he said, “I, old Monkey himself, have transcended the Three Regions and the Five Phases [1]; hence I am no longer under Yama’s jurisdiction. Why is he so confused that he wants to arrest me?” The two summoners paid scant attention. Yanking and pulling, they were determined to haul him inside. Growing angry, the Monkey King whipped out his treasure. One wave of it turned it into the thickness of a rice bowl; he raised his hand once, and the two summoners were reduced to hash (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 139).

The two unnamed psychopomps are simply referred to in the story as “[those who] arrest the dead” (Gou siren, 勾死人). Modern media sometimes portrays these two wearing contrasting black and white uniforms with tall hats (fig. 1).

Heibai Wuchang summon Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – The summoners taking Sun Wukong’s soul in his sleep (larger version). From episode 7 of the Little Fox ESL Journey to the West series.

The Heibai Wuchang

The specific color-coded deities are known in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore as the Heibai wuchang (黑白無常), or the “Black and White [spirits of] Impermanence.” Tan (2018) describes their mythic background and religious importance:

[A] good deal of importance attaches to the worship in Malaysia and Singapore of Heibai Wuchang … popularly known as Da Er Ye (大二爺, Eldest and Second Uncles). In charge of policing the netherworld and protecting humans from evil, they are believed to be two soldiers of the Tang dynasty, General Xie [謝] and General Fan [范]. The former was tall and was hanged by the enemy, while the latter was shorter and was drowned while fighting enemies. General Xie’s image is that of a tall person with a protruding long tongue; he’s wearing a white shirt, and his high hat has the characters yijian daji ([一見大吉] “big luck on seeing me”) or yijian shengcai ([一見生財] “getting wealth on seeing me”). General Fan’s image has a dark face, and his square hat bears the characters tianxia taiping [天下太平], or “peace in the world.” Also called Qiye (七爺) and Baye (八爺), the two generals are in charge of rewarding good people and punishing evil ones. General Xie is more popular among worshippers; frightening as he is, the Elder Uncle benefits from his association with blessing wealth (p. 58).

Chen (2014) provides a different background for the two, which is commonly told in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou in Fujian province:

The Seventh Lord (七爺) and Eighth Lord (八爺) are frequently seen and are well-known in Taiwanese religious parades. These two deities were originally two brother-like friends in Fuzhou (福州). One was called Xie Bian (謝必安), and the other one was named Fan Wujiu (范無救; 范無咎). On a rainy day, they had an appointment to meet under the Nan Tai Bridge (南臺橋). Fan Wujiu was short with a dark complexion, but Xie Bian was tall with a light complexion. Fan Wujiu arrived at the meeting place earlier, waited there in spite of the heavy rain, and was drowned. Xie Bian tried to bring umbrellas for Fan Wujiu and was therefore late. When he arrived at the bridge, Fan Wujiu was already dead, so he decided to commit suicide because of his friendship and guilt. According to legends, the Heavenly Emperor (玉皇大帝) was touched by this pair of brother-like friends, and promoted their ghosts to supernatural officers from the underworld. The Seventh Lord is Bai Wuchang (白無常), and the Eighth Lord is Hei Wuchang (黑無常). Their mission is to bring dead people’s ghosts from the ordinary human world to the underworld at the moment of their deaths (p. 220).

Heibai wuchang statues - small

Fig. 2 – A depiction of the spirits taking a soul to the Chinese underworld (larger version). From the Haw Par Villa theme park in Singapore. Original picture from Baike.

Stevens (1997) goes into more detail about their function and veneration:

The pair are despatched on orders from the City God when the due date of a person’s death arrives, to seek out and identify the correct human through the local spiritual official, the Earth God [fig. 3]. They appear before the human and the Tall Demon [the white spirit] announces that the time has come. The Short Demon [the black spirit] binds the soul and drags it before the City God. The Short Demon carries the tablet of authority and the chains to arrest the soul whose due date of death has arrived [fig. 2].

The Tall Demon … receives considerable attention from devotees, often relatives of the very sick, and in a few temples he is provided with cigarettes which are to be seen continually burning having been forced in between his lips. More popularly, his mouth is smeared with a black substance to win his favour and bribe him to keep away. This used to be opium and is still said to be opium, though the substance appears to be more of a sweet sticky mess. In northern and central China, only the Tall Demon is found (p. 173).


Fig. 3 – A monumental statue of an Earth god in Taiwan (larger version).


The sources above provide two backgrounds for the spirits, historical generals or brother-like friends, all of whom died unnatural deaths. Both origins involve the tall, white figure being hanged, while the short, black figure was drowned. Both of these backgrounds have respective ties to religious beliefs of the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties. It was common practice during the Han for generals, especially those slain by the enemy, to be deified as gods. This concept of deified mortals carried over into the Song Dynasty when tutelary gods were popular. Those deified were often pious or loyal people who died unnatural deaths. But most importantly, these individuals were deified by the very communities in which they lived, meaning they were worshiped as the protector of the specific locale and its people (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 164).

These tutelary cults find their origin in earth gods (tudishen, 土地神) worshiped as early as the Han. Just like people of the Song worshiped the worthy among their fallen community members, people of the Han worshiped the gods believed to inhabit the very earth on which their communities were established. Considering the dead were buried underground, these earth gods also served the function of “escort[ing] the deceased to the world of the afterlife” (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 165). Remember above that Stevens described the tall and short spirits relying on the local earth god to help locate the correct soul being summoned. Therefore, our spirits appear to be a combination of deified mortals (generals/worthy citizens) and earth gods who escorted the deceased to the afterlife. But there may be more to the story.

Wuchang (無常), or “impermanence”, is the Chinese term for the sanskrit Anitya. This is one of the “Three Marks” (Sk: Trilaksana) of existence in Buddhism, the other two being suffering (Duhkha) and non-self (Anatman) (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 47-48). The fact Wuchang is associated with these spirits suggests there is an added Buddhist influence. As I’ve written before, the Chinese underworld presented in Journey to the West is an amalgam of local Chinese and foreign Buddhist beliefs. In short, the Chinese Underworld consists of ten courts in which a soul is punished and sent on to the next until their karma is cleansed. The concept of purgatory and the Ten Kings or Judges of hell are products of 7th-century Chinese Buddhism. Prior to this, souls of the dead were kept en masse in a sort of Daoist city of the dead. So our two summoners were no doubt absorbed into this new Buddhist worldview. The spirits in effect could be viewed as personifications of Buddhist impermanence.

The contrasting black and white color scheme has at least two origins. One, it may have evolved from the belief that each performed duties at different times. Maspero (1981) writes, “The most famous of [the City God’s] subordinates are Master White (Bai laoye [白老爺]) and Master Black (Hei laoye [黑老爺]), who perceive everything that goes on within the constituency, the former during the day and the latter during the night” (p. 110). Two, it may draw from the dualistic nature of Chinese philosophy. Baptandier (2008) comments their color is a “personification of the yin and yang principles of life” (p. 146).

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Fig. 4 – A wall mural depicting the Ba Jiajiang (Eight Generals), including General Xie (white) with the phrase “Big Luck” (daji, 大吉) on his hat (larger version) and to his left General Fan (black) with a square hat. Taken by the author in Taipei, Taiwan.


Both General Xie (the tall, white spirit) and General Fan (the short, black spirit) figure among the Ba Jiajiang (八家將), or “Eight Generals” (fig. 4). These spirit generals are considered protectors of the City God (as well as other popular folk deities) and destroyers of evil. They consist of our two spirits, two more underworld figures called Generals Gan (甘) and Liu (柳), as well as four other figures known as the Four Seasons (Siji, 四季). These generals are personified during festivals by temple parade dance troupes called Jiajiang (家將). Members paint their faces according to the prescribed wrathful iconography for each general (fig. 5) and perform all sorts of choreographed militaristic dances while wielding weapons (video 1). These performances serve to exorcize evil spirits.

National Akau Mazu’s Cup of Youth Ba-Jia-Jang and Guan-Jang-Shou Competition, Ci Feng Mazu Temple, Pingtung City, Taiwan

Fig. 5 – The facepaint of General Xie, the tall, white spirit. A larger version can be seen on this blog. Original picture by Rich J. Matheson.

The tradition originated in Fuzhou but later spread to Taiwan by the 1870s, making it a rather recent phenomenon (Sutton, 1996).

Video 1 – A Ba Jiajiang performance.

Update: 10/29/2018

Sutton (1996) explains the ceremonial procession of the Eight Generals is modeled after yamen officials making an arrest in dynastic China. In this case, the otherworldly generals would be sent to arrest evil spirits:

The performers seen on the march—excluding the Four Seasons—represent a process, though it is never ritually played out: arrest by yamen underlings. In principle the punishment bearer warns, the messengers search out, the stave bearers pursue, Erye and Daye [the Black and White Spirits] take into custody, and the justices at the rear interrogate and record (p. 215).

In video 1, the man dressed in civilian attire and carrying the strange, yoke-like device on his shoulders (visible at 00:26) is performing the part of the punishment bearer, which I take to mean a symbol of those previously arrested and used as warnings to the evil spirits being pursued.


1) The Three Realms are Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and the Five Phases are the elements of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. The point being that he is beyond the control of the three realms and the effects of the elements because he has achieved immortality.


Baptandier, B. (2008). The lady of Linshui: A Chinese female cult. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Chen, Y. (2014). Cinematic visualization of spiritual lesbianism in Monkia Treut’s Ghosted: countering essentialist concerns about Li Ang’s literary works In Y. Chen (Ed). New modern Chinese women and gender politics: The centennial of the end of the Qing Dynasty (pp. 210-222).

Maspero, H. (1981). Taoism and Chinese religion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Sutton, D. S. (1996). Transmission in Popular Religion: The Jiajiang Festival Troupe of Southern Taiwan in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (Ed.) Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 212-249). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Tan, C. B. (2018). Chinese religion in Malaysia: Temples and communities. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Von Glahn, R. (2004). The sinister way: The divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

The Origins and Evolution of Sha Wujing

Did you know Sha Wujing can be traced to an obscure Chinese desert spirit who was venerated as a minor Buddhist protector deity in Japan? This god is first mentioned in a 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang, a.k.a. Tripitaka, titled Da Tang Daciensi Sanzang Fashi Zhuan (大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳, A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty). According to the text, Xuanzang spilled his surplus of water while in the deserts near Dunhuang, and after several days without drink, he had a fevered dream in which a tall, halberd-wielding spirit chastised him for sleeping instead of continuing his journey to retrieve scriptures from India. The monk immediately awoke and mounted his horse, which took him to an oasis with green grass and fresh water (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 18-19).

I. Close ties with Japan

The Tang Sanzang ji (唐三藏記, Record of the Tang Monk Tripitaka), a book of seemingly unknown date appearing in an 11th-century Japanese collection of tales known as Jōbodai shū (成菩堤集), states Xuanzang was magically provided food and drink by a deva while in the “Flowing Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) desert, a term commonly used for the harsh environment of China’s northwestern region. [1] The compiler of the Jōbodai shū explains: “This is the reason for the name Spirit of the Deep Sands (Shensha shen, 深沙神)” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). After returning from a pilgrimage to China (838-839), the Japanese Buddhist monk Jōgyō (常曉, d. 865) wrote a report which describes Tripitaka’s fabled exchange with the deity, as well as equates Shensha shen with King Vaiśravaṇa, one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. [2] Therefore, the Tang Sanzang ji most likely hails from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Jōbodai shū also states the god manifested itself before the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (法顯, 337-c. 422) during his pilgrimage to India. Shensha shen describes himself thus:

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

Monk Jōgyō’s aforementioned 9th-century report on Shensha shen appears to have initiated veneration of the spirit as a Buddhist guardian (no doubt thanks to his association with King Vaiśravaṇa). This deity was at some point given the title Jinja Taishō (深沙大將, “General of the Deep Sands”) and appeared in late Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) period art (Wong, 2002, pp. 61 and 63). One 12th-century ink on paper painting follows the iconography from the Jōbodai shū and depicts his legs with demonic elephant knees and bird-like talons (fig. 1). This same depiction most likely served as the basis for an exquisite wooden statue from the Kamakura period (fig. 2). The god never lost his association with Xuanzang, for one well-known 14th-century painting of the monk depicts him wearing Jinja Taisho’s necklace of skulls (fig. 3 and 4). Another painting of the same period depicts the pair standing on either side of a celestial crowd paying reverence to the Buddha. [3] It appears to be based on an earlier Chinese Song Dynasty painting (Fig. 5, 6, and 7). Regarding the Japanese image, Wong (2002) notes:

Even though Xuanzang, of human origin, and Shensha shen, a demonic figure, were of low status in the Buddhist hierarchy, they are represented because of their role in the transmission of the Heart Sutra, and become elevated in rank by being shown with the deities and bodhisattvas that protect the sacred text (p. 63).

Sha Wujing Origins - 1

Fig. 1 – 12th-century Japanese ink on paper painting (larger version); Fig. 2 – 13th to 14th-century Japanese Kamakura wooden statue (larger version); Fig. 3 – Famous 14th-century Kamakura painting of Xuanzang (larger version); Fig. 4 – Detail of the skull necklace (larger version); Fig. 5 – Chinese Song Dynasty painting of the Buddha’s heavenly retinue, including Shensha shen (bottom center left) and Xuanzang (bottom center right) (larger version); Fig 6 – Detail of Shensha shen (larger version); Fig. 7 – Detail of Xuanzang (larger version).

II. Mention in Chinese literature

The concept of Shensha shen was well enough established in China by the 13th-century to be included in the eighth chapter of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the earliest version of Journey to the West. But instead of being a benevolent deity, he is portrayed as a bloodthirsty monster who had several times eaten Xuanzang’s past reincarnations. The demon tells him, “I am the one who devoured you twice before, monk. Slung from my neck are all your dry bones!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). The monster only helps the monk and his retinue cross the “Deep Sands” via a magical golden bridge once he is threatened with heavily retribution. Memorial poems therefore note that Tripitaka releases the spirit from a five hundred-year-long curse, and Pilgrim (Sun Wukong) promises to speak highly of him when they finally meet the Buddha.

Sha Wujing first appears in the 22nd chapter of the final 1592 edition as an ogre-like beast living in the “Flowing Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河), a callback to the similarly named desert from earlier sources .

A head full of tousled and flame-like hair;
A pair of bright, round eyes which shone like lamps;
An indigo face, neither black nor green;
An old dragon’s voice like thunderclap or drum.
He wore a cape of light yellow goose down.
Two strands of white reeds tied around his waist [fig. 8].
Beneath his chin nine skulls were strung and hung;
His hands held an awesome priestly staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 422).

Like The Story, Sha Wujing is persuaded to help the group cross the river, but this time it is after Xuanzang takes him as his third and final disciple (he had previously been pacified and converted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin). The water spirit takes off his skull necklace and, with the aid of a heaven-sent magic gourd, transforms the accoutrements into a boat on which Tripitaka rides to the other side.


Fig. 8 – A modern depiction of Sha Wujing by Tianwaitang on deviantart (larger version).

III. Origin of Shensha Shen and Sha Wujing’s skull necklace

The skull necklace (Sanskrit: muṇḍamālā) can be tied to Esoteric Buddhism. For instance, the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries, describes the wrathful protector deity Hevajra (fig. 9) wearing such a necklace:

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 [Fig. 10]. 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 [Buddha]. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).

This attire is traceable to that worn by adherents of Heruka, another wrathful deity, as prescribed in 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-century): “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). Compare this description with, for example, the Song Dynasty painting of Shensha shen (fig. 6). Many of the elements are present.

Statue with necklace detail

Fig. 8 – The Buddhist Deity Hevajra, late 11th to early 12th-century, copper alloy (larger version). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 9 – Detail of the necklace (larger version).

IV. Conclusion

Sha Wujing is traceable to an obscure Chinese desert spirit first mentioned in an embellished 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang’s travels. This and later accounts portray him as a benevolent guardian watching over the monk and providing Tripitaka with subsistence on his journey through the harsh “Flowing Sands” desert of northwestern China. The Japanese Monk Jōgyō wrote a 9th-century report in which he mentioned the deity and associated him with King Vaiśravaṇa. This appears to have led to his veneration in Japan, for sources from the 11th-century onward not only provide him with the titles Shensha shen (“Spirit of the Deep Sands”) and Jinja Taisho (“General of the Deep Sands”), but also lay out a prescribed iconography for him. He is generally portrayed in late 12th to 14th-century Japanese art as a fierce warrior with flame-like hair, a necklace of skulls, serpent arm adornments, demonic knees, and (sometimes) bird-like talons.

This spirit appears in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (13th-century), the earliest version of Journey to the West, but is instead portrayed as a bloodthirsty desert demon who revels in having eaten Xuanzang’s last two incarnations. A necklace of dry bones serves as proof of his murderous hobby. He only decides to help the monk pass the Deep Sands when threatened with heavenly retribution. This episode served as the basis for Sha Wujing’s origin in the final 1592 version of the novel. He is similarly portrayed as a flesh-craving, skull necklace-wearing demon. Even his home, the aquatic realm of the “Deep Sands River”, is based on the former’s desert home. But after helping Tripitaka cross the river, Sha Wujing differentiates himself from his literary precursor by serving as the monk’s disciple and stalwart protector.

The skull necklace can be traced to wrathful Esoteric Buddhist deities and their accoutrements. For example, an 11th-century esoteric text describes the deity Hevajra wearing a “necklace…beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads”. This is ultimately based on one of the five kinds of ritual adornments worn by Indian Buddhist yogin adherents of the wrathful deity Heruka during the 8th-century.


1) The original source says “Moving sands” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19 n. 3), but I have changed the wording to conform with that commonly used in various English translations of the tale.

2) Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 19-20. It’s interesting to note that King Vaiśravaṇa influenced another character from Journey to the West, Heavenly King Li Jing. Li Jing (李靖, 571-649) was a historical Tang dynasty general who won many battles in China and Central Asia. Shahar (2013) notes Li was deified after his death, and that the cult centered around him existed into the Song Dynasty. Most importantly, “The general [was] celebrated in a large body of oral and written fiction, which gradually associated him with the Indian god [Vaiśravana].” He continues, “Storytellers and playwrights [eventually] merged the Tang general with the martial Heavenly King” (28). This merging may have happened as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (Shahar & Kieschnick, 2013, p. 224 n. 18).

3) I unfortunately couldn’t find a high res version of this painting. All those I could find were either too blurry or to small for focusing on specific areas for details. The above linked webpage with the Song Dynasty variant includes a low res version of the Japanese painting.


Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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

Shahar, M., & Kieschnick, J. (2013). India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shahar, M. (2013). Indian mythology and the Chinese imagination: Nezha, Nalakubara, and Krshna. In Meir Shahar and John Kieschnick. India in the Chinese imagination: Myth, religion, and thought (pp 21-45). University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wong, D. C. (2002). The making of a saint: Images of Xuanzang in East Asia. Early Medieval China 8, pp. 43-95.

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

The Connection Between Monkey’s Spiritual Training and Historical Daoist Internal Alchemy

Did you know Monkey’s early spiritual training in chapter one is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? After becoming a student of the great immortal Subhuti in India, Sun receives a private lesson in which his master recites an instructional poem, part of which reads:

This bold, secret saying that’s wondrous and true:
Spare, nurse nature and life—there’s nothing else.
All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit;
Store these securely lest there be a leak.
Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!
Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive.
Hold fast oral formulas so useful and keen
To purge concupiscence, to reach pure cool;
To pure cool
Where the light is bright.
You’ll face the elixir platform, enjoying the moon.
The moon holds the jade rabbit, the sun, the crow;
The tortoise and snake are now tightly entwined.
Tightly entwined,
Nature and life are strong.
You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames.
Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth—
When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subhuti warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak”, he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178). “You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace. The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal spirit embryo (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179). The third stage involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A diagram of the organs and energy pathways in the human body (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Right) A Daoist sage subduing a tiger with his magic powers (larger version). Photos from Kohn (2008).

Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180) (fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.

Various facets of the aforementioned Song-era practices, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Wu and after the hour of Zi” (before noon and after midnight). [1] This time-based practice is described in the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄): “always practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84). [2] So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to forge his immortal spirit body.


1) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). I’ve changed the quote because this is most likely an error. See below.

2) There is a glaring contradiction between what the novel says (before Zi and after Wu) and what Daoist practice prescribes (before Wu and after Zi). I think this is a transcription error in the original text.


Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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

The Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.

In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), an island that lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches a stone egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.

The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for nearly four centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisers notes that only Daoist immortals and Buddhist saints can avoid death, and so he suggests the king find a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life. Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years, adopting human dress and language along way. His quest takes him to the Western Aparagodāniya continent where he is finally accepted as a student by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey who realizes sunyata“. The sage teaches him the seventy-two methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

Sun eventually returns to his island home and faces a demon whom had taken control of it during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he needs a weapon to match his celestial power, and so his adviser suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, to find such a weapon. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythical king of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), to set the depths of the fabled world flood, as well as to calm the seas. Named the “‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim—as small as a needle or as tall as the sky—thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.

Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he shows off his new weapon by turning into a frightful cosmic giant and commanding the staff to grow, with the top touching the highest heaven and the bottom the lowest hell. This display of power prompts demon kings of the seventy-two caves to submit to his rule and host a drunken party in his honor. Soon after falling asleep, Sun is visited by two psychopomps who drag his soul to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he is no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.


Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).

Both the Eastern Dragon King and King Yama submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court adviser, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the August Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial position of “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” (Bimawen, 弼馬温) in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey accepts and steadfastly performs his duties, that is until he learns from an assistant that he’s not a full-fledged god but a glorified stable boy. He immediately storms out of the heavenly gates and returns home to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) in rebellion. Heaven mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Prince Nezha (哪吒), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the August Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s wishes, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to be the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”.

Sun tours the heavenly orchard housing the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years. The sweet aroma of his charge is too much for him to resist, and so he eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits. His theft is soon discovered when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), an ancient primordial goddess, arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. It is from these fairies that Monkey learns he has not been invited due to his rough nature. Enraged, Sun then incapacitates the fair maidens with magic and crashes the party before the guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), the supreme god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived pills of immortality, thus increasing his level of invincibility.

Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up seventy-two heavenly generals, comprising the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods, and 100,000 celestial soldiers. In response, Monkey mobilizes his own army comprising the demon kings of the seventy-two caves and all manner of animal spirits, including his own monkey soldiers. But soon after the battle commences, the demon kings fall to the heavenly forces, forcing Sun to take on three heads and six arms and multiply his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical steel bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.

Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his rendered remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, having found protection in the wind element (xun, 巽). But intense smoke inside the furnace had greatly irritated his eyes, refining his pupils the color of gold and giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles, as well as to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, Sun demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain, yet the Enlightened One explains that the baneful spirit had never left his palm. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.

Fig. 2 – (Left) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong”, October 10, 1889 (larger version). Fig 3. – (Right) Son Goku (孫悟空) from the Dragonball Franchise (larger version).

Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.

A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.

Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, 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), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.

Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.

Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball (Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).