Review of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong

There have been a number of Monkey King adaptations in mainstream and indie Western comic books over the decades. I’ve been aware of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong for a number of years now, but I feel compelled to finally write something after having reviewed DC Comics’ Monkey Prince. Sun’s tale is laid out in several publications, including four tie-ins from the “Fear Itself” (2011) crossover event, four issues of Avengers World (2014-2015), one tie-in from the “Secret Empire” (2017) crossover, and two tie-ins from the “War of the Realms” (2019) event. Sun’s story arc follows him from a greedy crime lord to a heroic demigod who sacrifices his life in an attempt to help save the world. He is comparable to Shazam (a.k.a. Captain Marvel) as he gains his abilities via divine empowerment.

Sun appears as a minor character in several disparate storylines. It would take way too long to summarize each narrative here, so I will only be discussing the events in which he appears. However, the linked articles and notes below should help the uninitiated get up to speed.

A more accurate, cartoonish version of Sun Wukong appears in two issues of Tarot: Avengers/Defenders (2020) (Davis, 2020a; 2020b). But I won’t be covering that depiction here as it is separate from the aforementioned superhero.

1. Character arc

1.1. Iron Man 2.0 #5-7 (2011)

Sun’s story opens in the Eighth City, a hellish dimension that serves as a prison for the evils of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. [1] He is first seen enjoying a meal meant for the winner of a demonic fighting tournament. When challenged by the intended recipient and his henchmen, Sun leaps from a tall rampart and soundly beats the monstrous gang, all while touting his superiority based on the pedigree of his magic staff (which can separate into three sections) and past deeds as the historical Monkey King (fig. 1). But this triumphant moment is disturbed when one of the “Seven Hammers of the Worthy” punches through the heart of Beijing, China and breaches the dimensional barrier separating hell from earth, thus allowing demons to spill into the human world. [2] Sun attempts to retrieve the weapon but can’t lift it (similar to the enchantment on Thor’s hammer) as he isn’t the intended wielder (Spencer, 2011a).

The third Worthy, “Skirn: Breaker of Men” (Titania), leads the Absorbing Man to hell so he can become the next Worthy. But Sun greedily boasts that the hammer is his property, along with everything else he sees, much to her annoyance. Skirn then attacks the “little thief” and incapacitates him with a blow of her hammer (Spencer, 2011b, p. 14). Moments later, the Immortal Weapons and War Machine happen upon the scene while attempting to close the dimensional rift. However, despite a brief struggle, they too fall to Skirn’s mighty power, allowing the Absorbing Man to become the sixth Worthy, “Greithoth: Breaker of Wills” (Spencer, 2011b).

When the earthly heroes recover from the attack, they awaken to find Sun standing over them with his staff. The Monkey King bemoans the loss of his hammer and claims that the two Worthies have run away from his martial might. But before turning to leave, he acknowledges the Immortal Weapons as heroes, while also noting a dark aura surrounding one of them, the Immortal Iron Fist (Spencer, 2011c).

Fig. 1 – Sun beating up the winner of the demonic fighting tournament (larger version). Art by Ariel Olivetti. From Spencer, 2011a, p. 8. Copyright Marvel Comics.

1.2. Fear Itself: The Monkey King (2011)

Sun’s eponymous tie-in issue opens on the story of the Buddha‘s wager that the historical Monkey King cannot leap clear of his palm. The imp takes up the challenge by flying a thousand miles across the sky until he reaches a set of five stone pillars. But when Sun returns to gloat, he soon realizes it was all an illusion and that he had never actually left the Enlightened One’s palm. The Buddha then clamps his hand shut, trapping Monkey inside (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 3-4).

Flashforward to present day Beijing, the modern Monkey King reminisces about his origins while fighting his way through a villain’s army of henchmen and women. Fifteen years ago, our hero was a greedy crime lord who referred to himself as and affected the persona of the Monkey King. After a brief fight over poker, the rival crime lord “Lion” attempts to appease Sun by bringing him to a cave in the Wudang Mountains. Sun initially shows no interest, but after his companion reveals it to be the “final resting place of the REAL Monkey King” and his magic staff (Fialkov, 2011, p. 10), the crime lord immediately stakes his claim on the cavern like a selfish child. Lion then plays on his ego by saying that he’s probably not skilled enough to bypass the booby traps protecting the weapon, which lies just inside the cave mouth. Sun answers the challenge by leaping in headfirst, deftly avoiding projectiles with gymnastic grace, and taking possession of the polearm. But this was all a part of Lion’s plan; the rival crime lord activates a button hidden in the rock face, causing the ground beneath Sun to literally engulf him like an octopus attacking prey (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 4-14).

He falls into a deep chasm where he’s confronted by a titanic apparition of the historical Monkey King. The simian god admonishes Sun for stealing the staff but grudgingly admits his abilities: “Only the greatest thief who walks the earth could actually hold onto my dearest Ruyi Jingu Bang” (Fialkov, 2011, p. 14). So the Monkey King presents him with a wager: If he has a clean soul, he’ll receive freedom and the deity’s staff and powers to do with however he wishes; but if he has an unclean soul, he’ll be damned to an eternity in the Eighth City. After agreeing to the bet, the crime lord naturally finds himself banished to the hellish realm, but (for some reason) he still gets the powers and staff, as well as (for some reason) a heroic costume. The narrative then briefly recaps his confrontation with Skirn and the Absorbing Man and eventual escape via the dimensional rift, before circling back to present day (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 14-15).

Sun finally confronts the sought-after villain, who turns out to be Lion. He magically transports him to the same cave mouth and reveals how he survived by gaining the Monkey King’s powers and memories, as well as how his time in the Eighth City led him to repent his criminal past. Sun ultimately punishes Lion to a similar fate by tossing him into the hell realm (Fialkov, 2011, pp. 16-22). The issue ends with Sun standing in a heroic pose and exclaiming: “From this day forth, I will fight for good and truth and peace and honesty … and, uh … all that stuff! With the powers of Sun Wukong, I will bring honor to my country and peace to my city, for I am… the handsome Monkey King!” (fig. 2) (Fialkov, 2011, p. 22).

Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong’s heroic pose (larger version). Art by Juan Doe. From Fialkov, 2011, p. 22. Copyright Marvel Comics.

1.3. Avengers World #7, 10, 13, and 14 (2014)

Sun next appears as a member of the newly-minted Chinese superhero team, the Ascendants, led by the Weather Witch. S.P.E.A.R. deploys the team to reinforce the Avengers as they fight to protect Hong Kong against the attack of an island-sized dragon controlled by the villain Gorgon (Spencer, 2014/2019a). [3] Instead of being a lone wolf, Sun is shown working in tandem with the team (Spencer, 2014/2019a, pp. 156 and 159; 2014/2019b, p. 211; 2019c, pp. 277-278). During their battle, he single-handedly stops one of many vehicle-sized dragons, thrashes it to the left and right, and finally throws it into a building (fig. 3) (Spencer, 2014/2019c, pp. 274-275). A flashback reveals the Weather Witch had hand-picked Sun, who joined the superhero team only on the promise of adventure (Spencer, 2014/2019c, p. 276). [4]

Fig. 3 – Sun stops the dragon with a single hand (larger version). Art by Raffaele Ienco (lines) and Andres Mossa (color). From Spencer, 2014/2019c, p. 274. Copyright Marvel Comics.

1.4. Captain America: Steve Rogers #18 (2017)

A flashback shows Sun (for some reason) crouching on a glowing hover disc while he and the Ascendants prepare themselves to repel an on-coming attack of their airborne base by Hydra ships in southern China (fig. 4) (Spencer & Cates, 2017, p. 15). This happens during a worldwide pushback against Hydra’s attempt at global domination (Spencer & Cates, 2017).

Fig. 4 – Sun standing on the glowing hover disc alongside the Ascendants (larger version). Art by Javier Pina/Andres Guinaldo (lines) and Rachelle Rosenberg (color). Copyright Marvel Comics.

1.5. War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas #3 and 4 (2019)

Sun appears as one of three Asian superheroes giving updates to Amadeus Cho about their respective efforts in Tokyo, Manila, and Beijing to battle the armies of the fire giantess Sindr, who has claimed Asia as her new empire. He reports the Ascendants will protect Beijing, while he plans to attack her fire soldiers in northern China (Pak, 2019a, pp. 5-6). But when Cho asks him to wait for his team, the New Agents of Atlas, Sun snaps at him, noting the situation requires godly powers. Cho then assures him that he has a plan involving their resident goddess Pele (Pak, 2019a, pp. 6).

Sun next appears (for some reason) on horseback in northern China where he meets with the New Agents of Atlas. The head of Atlas asks Shang Chi to give the group a crash course in martial arts ahead of their battle. But when Sun scoffs at the idea of taking directions from a mortal, Shang Chi proves his skill by effortlessly disarming him of his staff and knocking him back with a punch to the chest (Pak, 2019a, pp. 20-21). Thus humbled, the Monkey King accepts this as a learning opportunity: “The Great Sun Wukong is always up for learning something new” (Pak, 2019a, pp. 21).

Sun is among the vanguards who lead the charge against Sindr when she arrives in northern China, but even he is beaten back by her power (Pak, 2019a, pp. 8-9). However, after a brief confrontation with Pele, who turns out to be a robot designed to battle magic beings, a large portion of Sindr’s mystical energy is drained, leaving her open to attack. Sun takes this as an opportunity to sacrifice his life so the New Agents of Atlas have a better chance of defeating her. He leaps into the air and stabs her in the back with his staff before succumbing to the intense heat of her flames (Pak, 2019b, pp. 13-15). His last words are: “Behold, the Great Monkey King, Sun Wukong! I’ll save this word … And I’ll see you in the next! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!” (fig. 5) (Pak, 2019b, p. 14).

Fig. 5 – Sun’s death scene (larger version). Art by Gang Huk Lim/Moy R./Pop Mhan (lines) and Federico Blee/Andres Mossa (colors). From Pak, 2019b, p. 14. Copyright Marvel Comics.

2. References to Journey to the West

During Sun’s battle with the demonic gladiators in the Eighth City, he refers to his staff as an ocean-calming pillar and recalls his past adventures, including stealing immortal peaches and wine from heaven, stealing his name from the books of life and death, and acquiring a feathered cap from the Dragon Kings of the four oceans (Spencer, 2011a, pp. 7-8). All of these are mentioned in one form or another in the novel, [5] but I must make a few corrections. Instead of Sun stealing his name from the infernal legers, he crosses it out with ink (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 141). And instead of “defeat[ing] the Four Dragon Kings” to acquire the feather cap (Spencer, 2011a, p. 8), he simply threatens to beat one of them up (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 136). Also, the cap is only one part of a set of golden armor and boots that he strong-arms from the royal brothers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 136-137).

The Buddha’s wager with the Monkey King recalls the exact event from chapter seven. But instead of trapping the imp in his hand, the Enlightened One transforms the appendage into Five Elements Mountain and imprisons Sun Wukong beneath it.

Sun transforms into a hawk (Spencer, 2011a, p. 5; Fialkov, 2011, p. 18), a gecko (Fialkov, 2011, p. 6), and a lion (Fialkov, 2011, p. 17) in the early part of his story. This recalls Monkey’s famous 72 transformations, which are best exhibited during his battle with Erlang in chapter six (video 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 182-184).

Video 1 – The magic battle of transformations between Sun and Erlang. From the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

3. Problems with the writing and art

As I previously stated in my review of DC Comics’ Monkey Prince, an adaptation of Journey to the West, or in this case the Monkey King, has to be super accurate or just different enough for me to find it fresh and interesting. This adaptation is neither accurate nor uniquely different. Sun Wukong has simply been grafted onto a modern, human superhero and in the worst possible way. He is depicted as a Chinese man wearing the queue (bianzi, 辮子) hairstyle, a cleanly shaven scalp adorned with a long braid hanging from the crown (refer back to fig. 3). I get the distinct feeling that Sun’s creators, (writer) Nick Spencer and (artist) Ariel Olivetti, were influenced by Hong Kong wire-fu media of the 1990s in which heroic martial artists, played by the likes of Jet Li and Donnie Yen, sported the queue while fighting injustice. So in that sense, the character could be considered an homage to cinematic folk heroes like Wong Fei-hung and Hung Hei-gun. But the problem is that the creators clearly didn’t take note of the hairstyle’s historical context. Such films are set during the foreign-ruled Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

Historically the Manchu forced their traditional hairstyle on the Chinese as a sign of subjugation after conquering the Middle Kingdom in the mid-17th-century. The Chinese resisted, not because of the braid—long hair was after all a Chinese fashion—but because of the requirement to shave the scalp. Those who refused were put to death (Godley, 2011). The disgust for this style was perfectly summed up by leaders of the Taiping Rebellion in 1853:

The Chinese have Chinese characteristics; but now the Manchus have ordered us to shave the hair around the head leaving a long tail behind, thus making the Chinese appear to be brute animals … You are all Chinese people; how can you be so stupid as to cut your hair and follow the demons? (Godley, 2011).

Students and laborers who traveled abroad were still required to wear the queue up into the early 20th-century. But by then the hairstyle had already become antiquated on the world stage (Godley, 2011). For example, writing in 1903, the nationalist Zou Rong lamented: “When a man with a queue and wearing Manchu clothes loiters about in London, why do all the passers-by say ‘Pig-tail’ or ‘savage’? And if he loiters about in Tokyo, why do all the passers-by say ‘Chanchanbotsu’ [slave with a tail]?” (Tsou & Lust, 1968, p. 79; cf Godley, 2011).

This antipathy for braid-wearing Chinese had already for decades been mirrored in Western “Yellow Peril” propaganda of the late 19th-century. For instance, “Immigration East and West” (1881) (fig. 6), a two-page political cartoon by George Frederick Keller, depicts the concept of “Chinese Immigration” as a monstrous serpent arriving in the “West” (western US) with fangs bared and large, clawed hands threatening to attack a defeated-looking Lady Liberty [6] and a cowering California Grizzly. The serpent’s queue whips in the air overhead, spelling “Asia”, and spots on its body are labeled with afflictions such as “immorality”, “smallpox”, and “ruin to white labor” (Bierce, 1881, p. 173), symbolizing the then prominent fear that the Chinese would overrun the United States with cheap labor and diseases (Lyman, 2000). This is in contrast to the adjoining image, which depicts Lady Liberty [7] welcoming throngs of bustling European immigrants to the “East” (eastern US), who bring with them virtues such as “art”, “labor”, and “agriculture” (Bierce, 1881, p. 172).

So the hairstyle was originally a sign of subjugation forced on the Chinese by foreign rulers under penalty of death. And it later served as a symbol for racist, economic-based fears of Chinese immigration in the West. Therefore, I feel confident in saying that depicting Sun Wukong with a queue was not a well-thought-out idea. In fact, this lack of forethought is indicative of the lazy writing that plagues the rest of the Monkey King’s character arc.

Fig. 6 – “Immigration East and West” (1881) (larger version). It first appeared in volume seven of The Wasp (Bierce, 1881, pp. 172-173), a satirical magazine from San Francisco, California, USA.

Fear Itself: The Monkey King (2011) is the worst perpetrator of this lackadaisical approach. For starters, how did Lion and Sun travel to the Wudang Mountains and why are they still wearing their everyday street clothes instead of thick coats and hiking boots? How does Lion even know the location of this ancient cave and why does he alone know it’s the final resting place of the historical Monkey King? Shouldn’t this be a well-guarded secret only known to a select few? This is even more puzzling considering that, in Journey to the West, Sun Wukong retires to the Buddha’s Western Paradise in India (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, pp. 381-383), so why would he resettle in China? How does Lion know about the trigger hidden in the rock face and why does he know the ground will engulf Sun? Why is the Monkey King’s magic staff just sitting out in the open and how does Sun effortlessly pick it up despite weighing 17,550 lbs. (7,960 kg) in the novel? [8] Sure, the historical Monkey King says, “Only the greatest thief who walks the earth” can hold the weapon (Fialkov, 2011, p. 14), but why is that even a requirement, especially when he ends up sentencing the crime lord to hell for having an unclean soul? Why does Monkey give him the powers and the staff even after judging him to be unworthy? Why does he give him a superhero costume upon sending him to hell? Where does the modern Monkey King get the different superhero costume upon escaping from hell? None of this is answered. This is just frustratingly lazy writing by Joshua Hale Fialkov.

Oh, and the lazy streak continues. Sun Wukong’s ability to fly on clouds from the novel is briefly alluded to in Fear Itself: The Monkey King (Fialkov, 2011, p. 4). But this power is completely forgotten in the very same issue, for the modern hero has to magically transform into a hawk in order to fly (Fialkov, 2011, p. 18; see also Spencer, 2011a, p. 5). In addition, this avian transformation is also forgotten in later appearances, for Sun is shown standing on a glowing hover disc in Captain America: Steve Rogers #18 (2017) (Spencer & Cates, 2017, p. 15). And War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas #3 (2019) depicts him traveling northern China on horseback (Pak, 2019a, pp. 19). Furthermore, the storyline seems to forget that the character has super strength. In Avengers World #13 (2014) he’s capable of stopping a dragon with a single hand (refer back to fig. 3) (Spencer, 2014/2019c, pp. 274-275), but in War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas #3 Shangi Chi, who does not have super strength, easily snatches away his staff (fig. 7 & 8) (Pak, 2019a, pp. 20-21). Ugh.

Fig. 7 – Shang Chi grabs Sun’s staff (larger version). Fig. 8 – Shang simultaneously disarms Sun and punches him (larger version). Art by Gang Huk Lim (lines) and Federico Blee/Andres Mossa/Erick Arciniega (colors). Copyright Marvel Comics.

Beyond the laziness, another problem with the writing is Sun’s negative characterization. He comes off as a boastful, greedy, and thoroughly unlikable person, so this leads me to believe that he was never intended to be a top-tier superhero. In fact, I dare say that he was designed as a throwaway character. His quick, pointless death is the “smoking gun”. Sun isn’t given a chance to evolve as a character—i.e. a series of stories in which he reflects on his flaws and strives to be a better person—and there’s no prolonged battle with a running internal monologue in which he deems his sacrifice a necessary outcome. He just rushes to an empty death that serves no purpose as the fire giantess Sindr continues to fight even after the hero goes up in smoke (Pak, 2019b, p. 18). Next, there are several instances where Sun touts his abilities or fame and subsequently gets knocked off his pedestal, making him the butt of a joke. First, he boasts of his fighting skill but is easily defeated by Skirn, and after she and her companion leave, he claims: “They … ran away like cowardly, lying dogs. I begged them to stay and fight, but they knew better” (Spencer, 2011c, p. 4). This reads less like Sun Wukong and more like a delusional person. Second, he trumpets his fame as the Monkey King, stating everyone knows his name, but Iron Fist comically shrugs his shoulders in confusion (Spencer, 2011c, p. 4). However, given Iron Fist’s training in K’un-lun (a magic city in China) and Sun Wukong’s centuries-long popularity throughout Asia, [9] this makes as much sense as someone in Metropolis saying they’ve never heard of Superman. Third, Sun continually flaunts his godly powers and looks down on mortals, but, as noted before, Shang Chi takes away his weapon (Pak, 2019a, pp. 20-21). This slap to his ego is preceded by the head of S.P.E.A.R. telling Sun, “[A]ll your magic won’t be enough … without training”, suggesting the hero relies solely on the mystical arts (Pak, 2019a, p. 20). But this doesn’t make any sense considering that he’s shown to be a capable fighter in previous issues (refer back to fig. 1) (Spencer, 2011a, pp. 6-9, for example), not to mention the fact that, in Journey to the West, the Monkey King is depicted as a master of unarmed boxing.

The art throughout Sun’s character arc ranges from the divine (Ariel Olivetti) to the demonic (Juan Doe). But here I’d like to focus on the Character design. Beyond the problematic queue, the costume first appearing in Iron Man 2.0 #5 (2011) isn’t bad, it just doesn’t suit the character. Nothing about it says “Monkey King”. Sun is depicted wearing a form-fitting red top with black accent lines on his chest, back, and arms; grey gauntlets with three golden stripes; a black sash belt; a gray apron and baggy pants; and black boots (refer back to fig. 1). The lower half of his costume was likely influenced by period clothing from the aforementioned wire-fu films of the 90s. However, I do have a problem with Sun’s shirt. It is almost exactly the same as the upper half of Shang Chi’s body suit, which is also red with black accent lines on the chest, back, and arms. Shang also has gauntlets with three sections. The similarities are apparent when the characters share the same scene (fig. 9). The only difference is that Shang’s black accents don’t go all the way down his chest, and those on his arms break up into stacked arrows. I think it would have been a smarter move to differentiate the two.

The only other critique I have for Olivetti’s design is the Monkey King’s staff. It is depicted as a gray metal bar with a strange finial. The tip features a cutesy, grinning monkey with half moon-shaped ears on a spherical head. A tail spirals down from the top like a corkscrew (fig. 10). It looks like something straight out of Hello Kitty. This simian ornament next appears in Fear Itself: The Monkey King but only on the cover (fig. 11). The finial within the issue looks more like the gnarled end of a red and black walking stick (Fialkov, 2011, p. 16, for example). Interestingly, the monkey isn’t present in Sun’s later comic book appearances.

Lastly, the superhero costume appearing in Fear Itself: The Monkey King is terrible. It’s so bad in fact that it never appears again in another comic. The overall suit is black with red trim on the chest, arms, apron, and legs. The top features layered shoulder pads, a silver monkey symbol on the chest, and wrapped forearms. It totally looks like something a villain from the Mad Max franchise would wear. And to top it all off, Sun sports a black mask with a molded monkey nose on the front and a hole in the back to accommodate his queue braid (refer to fig. 11). This is another example where the costume just doesn’t suit the Monkey King concept. Juan Doe should have at least tried to mirror some of the elements from Sun Wukong’s literary armor.

Fig. 9 – The similarities between the costumes of Shang Chi and Sun (larger version). From Pak, 2019a, p. 20, panel #4. Fig. 10 – A detail of the monkey finial on Sun’s staff (larger version). From Spencer, 2011a, p. 8. Fig. 11 – The Cover of Fear Itself: The Monkey King (2011) (larger version). Art by Juan Doe. Copyright Marvel Comics.

4. My rating

There are aspects of this character that differ wildly in quality, so I feel like I have to rate them separately. As I stated above, the costume designed by Olivetti isn’t bad, just not suitable for the character. I would give it 3 out of 5 stars. Having said that, everything else, especially Fialkov’s writing and Doe’s art, gets a hard 0 out of 5 stars. It’s painfully clear that no actual thought or research went into the Monkey King’s development or story beyond a lazy read of the Wikipedia article.

Before continuing, I feel I must apologize to Editor Jessica Chen, writer Gene Luen Yang, and artist Bernard Chang for being overly harsh in my previous review of DC’s Monkey Prince. They obviously put more effort into one eight-page story than went into all 11 comics from Marvel’s failed attempt.

5. What I would change

I would completely do away with the queue-wearing crime lord and replace him with a modern spirit-medium (Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; literally: “divining child”) from Chinese folk religion. Such individuals are believed to channel the spirit of the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖), the celestial title of Sun Wukong. While inhabited by the monkey god, the spirit of the human host is believed to reside in heaven or some temple-based holy object (Chan, 2006, pp. 59-60; Graham, 2013, p. 330). Therefore, the person would be for all intents and purposes the Monkey King for the duration of the story. As a medium, the character wouldn’t wear a superhero costume. Instead, he would be bare-chested apart from a ritual stomacher (dudou, 肚兜) and a tri-panel dragon-tiger apron (longhu qun, 龍虎裙) over everyday pants and shoes (or no shoes). Such ritual attire is usually decorated with auspicious symbols and, sometimes, the Chinese name of the deity, in this case the Great Sage (fig. 12).

I would also like to make some changes that might seem weird for an adaptation of Sun Wukong. But I’m torn between pandering to the wants of comic book fans and my desire to portray an authentic East and Southeast Asian spirit-medium. The former would involve the character wielding the magic staff, but in the case of the latter, I’ve noticed that few mediums involve the polearm in their public performances. Those who do only use it to enhance the theater of their portrayal of the Great Sage. The weapon serves no ritual function. The latter would involve the character wielding the “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (jitong wubao, 乩童五寶), a set of ritual weapons consisting of a spiked ball on a rope, a spiked club, a sawfish nose sword, a crescent moon ax, and a double-edged sword engraved with seven stars (fig. 13) (Chan, 2006, p. 73). Mediums use these weapons during a ritual dance in which they inflict wounds on their body. This self-mortification is believed to serve two purposes. One, holy energy from the weapons help the medium prepare “for a particularly difficult battle” by “supercharg[ing] him with spirit power” (Chan, 2006, pp. 108-109). And two, the resulting holy blood—for it is considered the blood of the god, not the host—is believed to have demonifugic properties. It can be used to write paper sigils commanding heavenly forces to attack demonic spirits (Chan, 2006, p. 108). Now, I’ll admit that this would no doubt be off-putting to the average comic book reader. So herein lies the dilemma. The only compromise that I can think of would be to use them both but more so in one case and sparingly in the other. An enchanted brass pole, like those used by Great Sage mediums during performances (fig. 14 & 15), would be the character’s main weapon. But when he runs into trouble, he could summon the aforementioned treasures to “supercharge” himself—he could even empower himself further by taking damage from an opponent’s weapon—and, if needed, he could draw blood in order to call on heavenly forces. This leads me to my next change.

Fig. 12 – An entranced spirit-medium wearing the stomacher and apron (larger version). Picture taken by the author in Tainan, Taiwan. Fig. 13 – The “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (larger version). Found on Facebook and slightly modified. Here, the original biological sawfish nose sword (photo by author) has been replaced by two modern, metal, single and double-edged versions. Fig. 14 – An example of a brass pole used by Great Sage mediums (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of joss paper and joss sticks attached to the pole (larger version). Pictures taken by the author in Jiayi, Taiwan.

Despite the Monkey King’s immeasurable strength in Journey to the West, I wouldn’t want to make the character an unstoppable powerhouse like, say, the Sentry. I would instead make him moderately powerful for a few reasons. First, there’s no fun in an invincible hero who one-shots all his foes; there has to be some struggle in order to make the character more interesting and relatable. Second, spirit-mediums only protect their local community and, therefore, not an entire country or planet like more powerful characters. And third, there are many Great Sage spirit-mediums across East and Southeast Asia. What’s interesting about this concept is that each medium is believed by their respective communities to be the Great Sage. For example, one very small temple I visited in Taiwan has an astounding seven Great Sage mediums. This means that, if a particularly nasty evil befalls the earth, an entire army of Great Sages, who in turn command their own heavenly forces, can be called on to deal with the villain! This would not only be authentic, but also reference Sun Wukong’s magic power of creating endless doubles of himself. [10] And the best part? The story could follow a series of different spirit-mediums in different countries. So the “character” wouldn’t be limited to a single person. The medium could be Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Singaporean, basically any person of Chinese descent who practices spirit-mediumship. And they can be young, old, and even female, too. That’s right, there are female Great Sage mediums! (video 2).

Notes:

1) A portal leading to this hell realm was first discovered centuries ago by inhabitants of the hidden city of K’un-lun. The Immortal Weapons of old were tasked with rounding up the world’s evils and forcing them inside (Swierczynski, 2009).

2) These hammers are mystical uru weapons called forth by Serpent (a.k.a. Cul Borson), the Asgardian god of fear and the deposed brother of Odin. Once rained across the earth, superpowered beings who come into contact with the weapons are immediately transformed into the “Worthy”, apocalyptic generals who lay waste to everything around them, thus enabling Serpent to regain his youth by feeding on the resulting fear and discord.

3) Sun is introduced in Spencer, 2014/2019a, p. 155.

4) Sun only appears at the end of Avengers World #14 on a splash page just above Black Widow (top right) (Spencer, 2014/2019d, p. 300).

5) For example, regarding Sun’s weapon, a poem in chapter 88 states: “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” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 201). In addition, the Monkey King steals immortal peaches and wine in chapter five (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162, 165, and 167).

6) As Liberty’s crown shows, she symbolizes the “Pacific States” (Bierce, 1881, p. 173).

7) Here, Liberty’s crown says “NY” (New York), symbolizing the eastern states (Bierce, 1881, p. 172).

8) Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this.

[9] Sun’s story cycle has existed since at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Stories of his adventures were celebrated in Korea during the 14th-century. Journey to the West was translated into Japanese during the 19th-century and became so wildly popular that it influenced the creation of Son Goku from the Dragon Ball franchise (Chien, 2017, pp. 2 and 21-22).

10) For example, chapter two reads:

Plucking a handful of hairs from his [the Monkey King’s] own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces and then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).

Sources:

Bierce, A. (Ed.). (1881). The Wasp (Vol. 7). San Francisco: Wasp Pub. Co. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/waspjulydec188107unse/page/n171/mode/2up?view=theater

Chan, M. (2006). Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki – Chinese Spirit Medium Worship. Singapore: Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University.

Chien, P. (2017). A Journey to the Translation of Verse in Five English Versions of Xiyouji [Master’s thesis, National Taiwan Normal University]. DSpace at National Taiwan Normal Univ. http://rportal.lib.ntnu.edu.tw/bitstream/20.500.12235/95894/1/060025002l01.pdf

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Davis, A. (2020b). Tarot: Avengers/Defenders, (4) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Tarot-4-Alan-Davis-ebook/dp/B082TMS1TJ/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Tarot+%282020%29+%234&qid=1622886726&s=digital-text&sr=1-2

Elvin, M. (2004). The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Fialkov, J. H. (2011). Fear Itself: The Monkey King [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Itself-Monkey-King-1-ebook/dp/B00ZMR2O2I/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Fear+Itself%3A+The+Monkey+King&qid=1622537141&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Godley, M. (2011). The End of the Queue: Hair as Symbol in Chinese History. China Heritage Quarterly. http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/features.php?searchterm=027_queue.inc&issue=027

Graham. F. (2013). Vessels for the Gods: Tang-ki Spirit Mediumship in Singapore and Taiwan. In J. Hunter & D. Luke (Eds.)., Talking With Spirits: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Spirit Mediumship (pp. 327-348). Brisbane: Daily Grail Press.

Lyman, S. (2000). The “Yellow Peril” Mystique: Origins and Vicissitudes of a Racist Discourse. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 13(4), 683-747. Retrieved June 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20020056

Pak, G. (2019a). War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas, (3) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/War-Realms-New-Agents-Atlas-ebook/dp/B07NHR9NCZ/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=War+Of+The+Realms%3A+New+Agents+Of+Atlas+%282019%29+%233&qid=1622856262&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Pak, G. (2019b). War Of The Realms: New Agents Of Atlas, (4) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/War-Realms-New-Agents-Atlas-ebook/dp/B07PTCRP7Q/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=War+Of+The+Realms%3A+New+Agents+Of+Atlas+%282019%29+%234&qid=1622856335&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Spencer, N. (2011a). Iron Man 2.0, (5) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ZMZKZ94?notRedirectToSDP=1&ref_=dbs_mng_calw_4&storeType=ebooks

Spencer, N. (2011b). Iron Man 2.0, (6) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ZMZKZ44?notRedirectToSDP=1&ref_=dbs_mng_calw_5&storeType=ebooks

Spencer, N. (2011c). Iron Man 2.0, (7) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ZMZKZF8?notRedirectToSDP=1&ref_=dbs_mng_calw_6&storeType=ebooks

Spencer, N., & Cates, D. (2017). Captain America: Steve Rogers, (18) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Captain-America-Steve-Rogers-2016-2017-ebook/dp/B06XTC762K/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Captain+America-Steve+Rogers+%2318&qid=1622816005&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Spencer, N. (2019a). Avengers World, (7). In M. D. Meazley (Ed.), Avengers World: The Complete Collection (pp. 139-159) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Avengers-World-Complete-Collection-2014-2015-ebook/dp/B07PHL8RGM/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Avengers+World%3A+The+Complete+Collection+%28Avengers+World+%282014-2015%29%29&qid=1622695934&s=digital-text&sr=1-1 (Original work published 2014)

Spencer, N. (2019b). Avengers World, (10). In M. D. Meazley (Ed.), Avengers World: The Complete Collection (pp. 202-222) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Avengers-World-Complete-Collection-2014-2015-ebook/dp/B07PHL8RGM/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Avengers+World%3A+The+Complete+Collection+%28Avengers+World+%282014-2015%29%29&qid=1622695934&s=digital-text&sr=1-1 (Original work published 2014)

Spencer, N. (2019c). Avengers World, (13). In M. D. Meazley (Ed.), Avengers World: The Complete Collection (pp. 261-281) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Avengers-World-Complete-Collection-2014-2015-ebook/dp/B07PHL8RGM/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Avengers+World%3A+The+Complete+Collection+%28Avengers+World+%282014-2015%29%29&qid=1622695934&s=digital-text&sr=1-1 (Original work published 2014)

Spencer, N. (2019d). Avengers World, (14). In M. D. Meazley (Ed.), Avengers World: The Complete Collection (pp. 282-300) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Avengers-World-Complete-Collection-2014-2015-ebook/dp/B07PHL8RGM/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Avengers+World%3A+The+Complete+Collection+%28Avengers+World+%282014-2015%29%29&qid=1622695934&s=digital-text&sr=1-1 (Original work published 2014)

Swierczynski, D. (2009). Immortal Iron Fist, (25) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Marvel Comics. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Immortal-Iron-Fist-2006-2009-25-ebook/dp/B00ZMP33LG/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Immortal+Iron+Fist+%282006-2009%29+%2325&qid=1622602352&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Tsou, J., & Lust, J. (1968). The Revolutionary Army: A Chinese Nationalist Tract of 1903. The Hague: Mouton.

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

Review of DC Comics’ The Monkey Prince

Last updated: 06/16/21

Warning: This post contains spoilers

A follower on social media asked me to write an article about DC Comics’ new character the Monkey Prince, appearing in the story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” (Yang, 2021). He is part of a lineup of new and existing Asian characters in their DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021). I was aware of the Monkey Prince prior to the request, and while I wasn’t a fan of his costume (more on this later), I was optimistic about the story as I’m a big fan of writer Gene Luen Yang’s masterful graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006). This new comic is 100 pages [1] and features art ranging from dark and gritty to bright and cute. It includes short episodes for many characters, including Batgirl (Cassandra Cain), Green Lantern (Tai Pham), Green Arrow (Connor Hawke), Super-Man (Kong Kenan), Robin (Damian Wayne), Cheshire Cat (Lian Harper), Grace Choi (an Asian Amazon), Red Arrow (Emiko Queen), Katana (Tatsu Toro), Atom (Ryan Choi), and of course the Monkey Prince. What’s interesting is that, while he doesn’t appear among the heroes on the front cover of the standard edition, our supernatural simian is given top billing: “Featuring the first appearance of the Monkey Prince!” (fig. 1) (Chen, 2021, p. 1). There’s even a variant cover featuring the character (fig. 2).

DC editor Jessica Chen states the character was her idea, but that she worked with Gene Yang and artist Bernard Chang to craft “the origin and the essence of Monkey Prince together” (Aguilar, 2021). She also explains her close connection to Sun Wukong and her yearning to make a comic book based on him: “Monkey King was kind of my first superhero, and after being at DC Comics, I’ve always wanted to somehow introduce Monkey King as a superhero because his origin story just kind of writes itself” (Aguilar, 2021). She was finally given the go ahead for this “passion project” last year by DC Editor-in-Chief Marie Javins (Aguilar, 2021).

Fig. 1 – The front cover of the standard edition of DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021) (larger version). Fig. 2 – The variant cover with the Monkey Prince (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

I. Story description

The story opens in an abandoned warehouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, where the evil Dr. Sivana has captured Shazam (a.k.a. Captain Marvel) and plans to slice him open with a laser a la Goldfinger (1964). However, unlike the Bond villain, Sivana uncharacteristically boasts about the prospect of cooking and eating the demigod’s heart, much to the disgust of his henchman and woman standing nearby. A broken, blue on white, Yuan-era vase in the foreground foreshadows Shazam’s deduction that the doctor has in fact been possessed by an ancient Chinese spirit hell-bent on eating the hero’s heart to gain immortality. While Sivana is visibly disturbed by this inference, Shazam is kind enough to tear open his own chest with an object retrieved from his ear. But instead of a warm, beating heart gushing blood, loads of large, multi-colored Valentine’s Day heart candies stamped “You suck” comically fall from the cavity. And with the added revelation of a wayward tail, the reader learns the demigod is actually the transformed Monkey Prince and the item is his magic staff. The young hero then flies into action to save the hench people from a large explosion caused from their careless shooting. The blast separates the spirit from Sivana.

“Shifu Pigsy”, a master of magic and martial arts, arrives by cloud to chastise his young disciple’s sloppy work. We learn through subsequent conversations that the Monkey Prince is bitter towards his estranged father, the original Monkey King, leading him to quickly correct anyone who confuses him for his pater. With the help of a magic powder blown into his eyes by Shifu Pigsy, the Prince discovers the invisible, disembodied spirit is a large, armored deer demon. The latter tries to justify his lust for immortality by stating the need to rule humanity for the damage they’ve caused to the earthly realm. But when the real Shazam shows up and the spirit tries to attack him, the Monkey Prince is caught off guard and punched to the ground. This causes him to revert back to his human form, showing that his magical transformation is connected to his mental state. Shifu Pigsy calms his mind with sage advice, allowing the Prince to spring back into action.

Having survived the explosion, Dr. Sivana shoots Shazam with a ray gun but to no effect. The demigod attempts to apprehend his foe, but the spirit sneaks up behind him and bites down on his head. Luckily, the adamantine nature of Shazam’s magic body protects him from the attack long enough for the Monkey Prince to land a devastating blow with his staff, thus vanquishing the deer demon. Shazam, however, threatens to arrest the Prince because, unaware of the invisible spirit, he confused the simian character for his attacker. But the Monkey Prince preemptively strikes the demigod so hard that the impact destroys public property. This causes Shifu Pigsy to activate the golden headband on the young hero’s mask, which painfully constricts to tame his rage. Once again, the Monkey Prince reverts to his human form and we learn the mask is used to protect his true identity.

Upon returning home to a Philadelphia suburb, we learn the Prince’s adopted parents are actually the two hench people whom he had saved earlier that night (they are seemingly unaware of his magic heritage). Later at school, we not only learn that his human name is “Marcus”, but that also one of his few friends just so happens to be Billy Batson, the kid alter-ego of Shazam. Billy tries to interest Marcus in a video of Shazam’s latest battle, but the latter refuses on the grounds that “superheroes suck” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). The Monkey Prince’s problem with superpowered beings is illustrated earlier during his confrontation with the demigod:

You superheroes think you’re better than everyone else! You think your powers and fancy capes make you the sole arbiters of right and wrong! Well, you know what? I am the mother-flipping Monkey Prince! And I actually am better than everyone else! I can beat you or any of your doofy superhero friends from here to next Sunday! (Yang, 2021, p. 80).

The story ends with a note suggesting that our hero will be getting his own comic: “The adventures of the Monkey Prince continue later this year!” (Yang, 2021, p. 82).

2. References to Journey to the West

There are several things from the story that call back to elements from the classic novel. The need to eat holy flesh to gain immortality refers to the many demons who attempt to cheat the cosmic hierarchy by trying to eat the monk Tripitaka. The Prince keeping his extending staff in his ear refers to the same thing his father does throughout the novel. Him tearing open his chest to reveal multiple hearts refers to one of the Monkey King’s tricks from ch. 79:

“In that case,” said the spurious Tang Monk [a transformed Monkey King], “bring me the knife quickly, so that I may cut open my chest. If I have a black heart, I’ll be pleased to present it to you.” Delighted, the befuddled king thanked him and asked the attendant to the throne to hand the spurious monk a curved dagger. Taking the dagger, the monk untied his robe and stuck out his chest. As he rubbed his belly with his left hand, he plunged the dagger into himself with his right hand and, with a loud ripping noise, tore open his own chest. A mass of hearts rolled out, so terrifying the onlookers that the civil officials paled in fright and the military officers turned numb. When he saw that, the royal father-in-law said in the hall, “This is a monk of many hearts!”

The spurious monk took those bloody hearts and manipulated them one by one for all to see: a red heart, a white heart, a yellow heart, an avaricious heart, a greedy heart, an envious heart, a petty heart, a competitive heart, an ambitious heart, a scornful heart, a murderous heart, a vicious heart, a fearful heart, a cautious heart, a perverse heart, a nameless obscure heart, and all kinds of wicked hearts. There was, however, not one single black heart! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 49-50).

The Monkey Prince’s inability to transform his tail refers to his father’s weakness from the novel. This is best illustrated during his fight with Lord Erlang:

Rolling down the mountain slope, he [Sun Wukong] squatted there to change again—this time into a little temple for the local spirit. His wide-open mouth became the entrance, his teeth the doors, his tongue the Bodhisattva, and his eyes the windows. Only his tail he found to be troublesome, so he stuck it up in the back and changed it into a flagpole (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 183).

Of course Pigsy, or Zhu Bajie/Wuneng (豬八戒/悟能), is a main character from the original novel. Like his comic book counterpart, he knows martial arts and magic. The name Pigsy is a nickname used in place of the original Chinese name from Arthur Waley’s famed abridgement, Monkey (1942). The golden headband is exactly like the one used by Tripitaka to rein in the Monkey King’s unruly nature. In the case of the Monkey Prince, his band is activated when his master recites the name of the Amitabha Buddha (Yang, 2021, p. 80). And the Prince’s angry, egotistical nature and boastful statements of superiority are just like his father. This is what leads to Sun Wukong’s rebellion against heaven and subsequent imprisonment by the Buddha.

3. Problems with the story and character design

One problem any adaptation of Journey to the West is going to face is lack of originality. It’s all been rehashed before endless times. An adaptation has to be super accurate or just different enough for me to find it fresh and interesting. An example of the former is the 2011 TV show, while the latter is the Korean drama Hwayugi (2017-2018). For me, this story falls in the perilous middle ground. The Monkey Prince’s power set/weaknesses are just carbon copies of his father, and yet an effort has been made to differentiate both characters. Marcus is not an immortal monkey protecting a holy monk en route to the Western Paradise of ancient India, but a brooding, teenaged, half-human-half-monkey spirit demigod navigating a normal life in the modern United States, while also attempting to master heavenly arts and fight evil. Mr. Yang explains in an interview why he made the character a teenager:

Pretty early on, we knew we wanted the Monkey Prince to be a teenager. I think there’s something about the American conception of adolescence that ties very well with the character of the Monkey King from the original stories. He’s trying to figure himself out, he’s trying to gather power to himself, he’s really arrogant, but then he also has these moments of self-doubt. Even in the original, 500 years ago (Ching, 2021).

But this portrayal of the Monkey Prince is the first of several problems that I have with the present narrative. While I’m willing to keep an open mind for future comic issues, the current story structure is not original. It seemingly draws upon formulaic tropes from other young adult literature with teenaged demigods angry at their estranged fathers (e.g. Percy Jackson). And the fact that the Monkey Prince was transplanted onto this formula and has been so heavily marketed over other Asian heroes, reads less like a bid at expanding diversity in comics and more like a ploy to drum up business in East Asia, where the Monkey King is insanely popular.

Second, the Monkey Prince’s addition to existing canon doesn’t feel natural. Mr. Yang claims making Marcus a teenager with a mystical background made it easier to connect him to Billy Batson, who’s also “a teenager with mythological ties” (Ching, 2021). But this connection is just way, way too forced. To recap, the young hero’s adopted parents just so happen to be the hench people of Dr. Sivana. This isn’t even acknowledged by Marcus, even after saving them. He just notes: “Because of my parents’ jobs, we move around a lot” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). The Prince also just so happens to go to the same school and is friends with Billy Batson. The story even mentions Billy is one of his few friends: “Not many kids here are nice to me. Heck, not many know I even Exist. Billy Batson is one of the few who do” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). So the Monkey Prince wasn’t just shoe-horned into canon, he was hammered in whether it made sense or not.

Third, the comic doesn’t explain why Sun Wukong would take a human Chinese wife after becoming a Buddha in the Western Paradise of India at the end of the novel. I hope this gaping plot hole will be addressed in later issues.

Fourth, making Zhu Bajie a sagely teacher to the Monkey Prince is not a well-thought-out idea. Zhu is the very symbol of gluttony and sloth throughout the novel. After reaching the Western Paradise, the Buddha tells him: “Although you protected the sage monk on his way, you were still quite mischievous, for greed and lust were never wholly extinguished in you” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). When Zhu asks why he’s only promoted to an altar cleaner while the rest of his companions became Buddhas and arhats, the Enlightened One replies: “Because you are still talkative and lazy, … and you retain an enormous appetite” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). So he’s definitely not teacher material. [2]

Fifth, the term “Shifu Pigsy” is just grating to my inner reading voice. Why mix two languages when you could just call him “Zhu Shifu” or “Master Pig”? [3]

Sixth, Pigsy’s design, while similar to some Chinese depictions, is too cutesy. His description in the novel is far more grotesque: “He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). The first drawing of Pigsy in the comic does portray him with large ears, but this is said to be a magic transformation that allows for better control when flying (Yang, 2021, p. 76).

Seventh, the golden fillet disappears when Marcus is in his everyday human attire. This goes against the point of the band. In the novel, it can’t be removed and thus serves as an ever-present reminder of self-restraint (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 319-320). Maybe this will be addressed later.

The eighth and biggest problem is the Monkey Prince’s design (refer back to fig. 2). His golden headband is bent into a subtle “M” (for Monkey), which likely borrows from the double “W” motif on Wonder Woman‘s chest. He even wears a vigilante-type mask and sports a large “M” logo on his chest. And the most egregious of all, he wears basketball sneakers! Mr. Yang explains this costume and the Monkey Prince’s secret identity tie him to other heroes in the DC Universe. He also states the logo is “not really an ‘M’ [but] a graphic presentation of Flower Fruit Mountain” where the monkey king was born (Ching, 2021). But this symbology doesn’t agree with the internal story details. Marcus is adamant in his hatred for superheroes, so why dress him like one? It just doesn’t make any sense.

The character designer Mr. Chang explains his reasoning for the final look:

Monkey Prince Is all about attitude and character. My initial reaction to the original Monkey King character is that he’s a rebel, a mischievous figure who defied the gods and wanted to do things his way. So, bringing that element into the design was a key factor. There are already a ton of previous adaptations of this great story, so I wanted to find a balance between the traditional uniform elements (in reflection for previous fans of the mythological hero) and our modern-day superhero elements you would find in heroes in the DC Universe and form that into a new, authentic variation for our times and story.

I was also initially drawn towards the curlicue motif, with it also representing clouds or wind, which the monkey would fly around on, and you can see that throughout his armor. I balanced the traditional deep red, for blood and family, with an old gold, for history and flashiness, and teal, a more modern and hip variation of traditional green or jade (Ching, 2021).

While I like some of the golden armor elements and the use of ruyi (如意) / lingzhi (靈芝) mushrooms (the “curlicue motif“), the red undershirt, striped teal paints, and, especially, the sneakers just look tacky. Moreover, the design appears to be recycled from previous characters. Several people have commented online that the Monkey Prince is just a combination of Beast Boy‘s hair and body (fig. 3) and an altered version of Tim Drake‘s red and green Robin costume (fig. 4). I also see touches of Damian Wayne’s costume, specifically the red tri-panels with yellow borders at his waist (fig. 5).

Now, I have to address the sneakers. Why, why, why would a Chinese monkey demigod wear basketball sneakers? Well, according to Mr. Chang, it’s because a high school teenager like Marcus is bound to wear something with “some hotness to it” (Ching, 2021). Additionally, the designer admits it’s also because he’s trying to (shamelessly) plug his own brand of shoes (Ching, 2021).

Fig. 3 – Detail of an advertisement featuring the design for Beast Boy in Fortnite (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 4 – Tim Drake’s costume (larger version). Take note of the staff. Image found on Wikimedia commons. Fig. 5 – Damian Wayne’s costume (larger version). Take note of the waist panels. Image found here. Copyright DC Comics.

4. My rating

Overall, I would give “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” 2 out of 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars (see the 06/16/21 update below). [4] I gave extra points for comical story elements and the technical proficiency of the art. But I just can’t overlook problems with the writing and character design. This is a weak showing for the creative team involved. I think part of the problem is that not all parties had an intimate familiarity with Journey to the West. Mr. Chang admits that he only heard a few stories as a child and doesn’t know how the novel ends (Ching, 2021). Editor Chen says her parents also told her stories (Aguilar, 2021), but I don’t know if she has ever read the novel. As for Mr. Yang, I’m sure he knows the story forwards and backwards. So I’d like to think he was forced to sacrifice authenticity while working within certain constraints set by DC Comics.

Having said that, I’m honestly interested to see where the Monkey Prince story goes in future issues of his comic book. I will update this article as the narrative progresses.

5. What I would change

I would do away with the Monkey King taking a human Chinese wife centuries after he became a Buddha. Instead, the son could be born during the Tang Dynasty to Princess Iron Fan, the rakshasi wife of the Bull Demon King. Though seemingly impossible, there is precedent for this idea. An early 15th-century zaju play predating the novel describes Sun Wukong’s delight upon learning that the Princess is unmarried (Ning, 1986, pp. 139-140). He then resorts to seduction in an attempt to gain the iron fan needed to extinguish Flaming Mountain. For example, he recites a poem to her chocked full of sexual innuendo: “The disciple’s not too shallow. / the woman’s not too deep. / You and I, let’s each put forth an item, / and make a little demon” (Ning, 1986, p. 141). In addition, a 17th-century sequel to Journey to the West even describes the Monkey King having a number of sons with Princess Iron Fan. He faces one of his offspring, King Paramita (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王), during a final battle between all the armies of the world (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, pp. 123-124). In our story, the son could have been conceived during ch. 60 of the original novel when Monkey shares a tender moment with the Princess while disguised as the Bull Demon King (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 144).

Being a half-monkey spirit-half-rakshasa demigod, [5] I’d like to think the Prince’s base form would be more monkey-like. This would mean any lapse in concentration would cause him to revert to this state instead of a human form like in the original comic story.

I can already hear someone ask: “How can the Monkey Prince still be a teenager by the start of the story if he was born hundreds of years ago?” Well, this leads me to my next change. Instead of Zhu Bajie, it would make much more sense for his teacher to be the Bodhisattva Guanyin. After all, she tutors the children of several characters from the novel, including Muzha (木吒), 2nd son of Heavenly King Li Jing, and Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), son of the Princess Iron Fan and Bull Demon King. [6] Already having a son under the goddess’ tutelage would make it easier for the Princess to send another child to learn from her. Also, Guanyin helped subdue both Monkey and Red Boy with golden fillets (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 316-320; vol. 2, pp. 251-252). Perhaps the Monkey Prince has a temper like his father and half-brother, so the goddess would make him wear Wukong’s fillet as it’s no longer needed once the latter attains Buddhahood (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 383). Most importantly, the bodhisattva lives on the earthly paradise of Potalaka Mountain. The novel explains one day in heaven equals one year on earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). A similar constricting of time would no doubt happen in Guanyin’s holy land. Therefore, the Monkey Prince would still be a teenager even after hundreds of years have passed on earth.

Next, I would completely do away with the tacky superhero costume. As a disciple of Guanyin, he would just wear a monk’s robe, the golden fillet, and possibly even sport a tiger skin skirt (like his father) since he would technically be a heavenly guardian. There’d be no unnecessary logos, recycled costumes, or cursed sneakers. And the best part, this attire wouldn’t contradict the Monkey Prince’s hatred for superheroes, provided that was still a necessary plot element. Perhaps this hatred could be born from the fact that heroes like Shazam are given their powers (or happen upon them by accident), while the Prince’s abilities are the hard-won product of long years of spiritual cultivation.

My changes are less confident, however, when it comes to naturally fitting the Monkey Prince into existing canon. The first thing that comes to mind would involve the Shazam villain Sabbac, a hellish demon, causing havoc in Philidephlia’s Chinatown. Perhaps his assault could be related to the deplorable reports of Covid-related violence against Asians. A devotee of the goddess could pray to her in their time of need, and then the Monkey Prince is sent in her stead to exorcize the evil. But Shazam arrives while the Prince is battling the demon, and not knowing one from the other, he attacks them both. This might add fuel to the Monkey Prince’s dislike for Shazam.

I personally think the secret teen identity is a bit much. But if it is a necessary plot element, Guanyin could assign the Monkey Prince to watch over her flock in Philadelphia (and the rest of America?), [7] and at the same time allow him to experience a slice of modern teen life. And, again, if necessary, we can borrow from the original story and have the Prince attend high school, where he feels drawn to Billy Batson because of his godly aura. A local earth god (tudi gong, 土地公) and his wife (tudi po, 土地婆) (fig. 6) could be tasked by heaven to act like his grandparents to keep up the appearance of a normal human family.

Fig. 6 – A colossal Taiwanese statue of the earth god (larger version on Wikimedia commons).


Update: 05/21/21

Last time I suggested changes to the Monkey Prince’s costume. One thing I forgot to mention was his hair. In order to be more authentic, there are two choices: 1) he can be bald (like his father in the original novel) since he’d be a Buddhist monk; or 2) he can have long hair since he’d be a martial monk (wuseng, 武僧). It’s interesting to note that religious statues of Sun Wukong sometimes depict him as a martial monk, complete with the golden fillet and long hair (fig. 7). This is heavily influenced by Chinese opera (fig. 8) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178).

Fig. 7 – Detail of a religious statue of Sun Wukong as a martial monk (larger version). See the full version here. Photo taken by the author at one of the many temples in Taiwan dedicated to the Monkey King. Fig. 8. – A detail of the literary hero and martial monk Wu Song from a Chinese opera about his adventures (larger version). Full version available on Wikimedia Commons.


Update: 06/16/21

I’ve just posted my review of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong character. Reading the comic book equivalent of a train wreck has allowed me to view the Monkey Prince in a new, more positive light. I have therefore decided to increase my previous review score.

https://journeytothewestresearch.com/2021/06/16/review-of-marvel-comics-sun-wukong/

Notes:

1) Though, the online version I bought through Google Play only has 84 pages.

2) Zhu Bajie and his brothers do briefly take students in ch. 88, but they only teach them how to wield weapons (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 198-203). This is not the same as the sagely teacher of magic presented in the comic.

3) Admittedly Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) does use “Master Zhu” (vol. 4, p. 199), but that is far more accurate than mixing “Shifu” with “Pigsy”, a nickname used in place of the proper Chinese from the English abridgement Monkey (1942).

4) I’m willing to revise this in the future as the narrative progresses.

5) Muzha (a.k.a. Hui’an, 惠岸) is already Guanyin’s disciple by the start of Monkey’s rebellion. In ch. 6, the goddess sends him to help in case his skills are needed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 175). Red Boy is taken in by her at the end of ch. 42 and beginning of ch. 43 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 251-252).

6) Though a rakshasi, the Princess Iron Fan has attained human form through self-cultivation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 162).

7) I’ll have to wait and see how far the Monkey Prince’s adventures take him in his ongoing comic.

Sources:

Aguilar, M. (2021). Jessica Chen Talks Returning Favorites and the Monkey Prince’s Debut in Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration. Comic Book. https://comicbook.com/comics/news/dc-festival-of-heroes-the-asian-superhero-celebration-jessica-chen/

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Chen, J. (Ed.). (2021). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ

Ching, B. A. (2021). Meet the Monkey Prince: Yang and Chang Introduce DC’s Newest Hero. DC. https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2021/05/12/meet-the-monkey-prince-yang-and-chang-introduce-dcs-newest-hero

Dong, Y., Lin, S., & 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.

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8612591)

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

Yang, G. L. (2021). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ

The Magic Powers of the Monkey King’s Iron Staff

I’ve written several articles on Sun Wukong’s iron staff, including its origin from religious and martial staves used by historical Buddhist monks, the meaning of its inscription (“‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,550 lb” (7,960.54 kg)), the real world metal that it is made from, its ties to Yu the Great and flood control, its ties to the Buddhist Saint Mulian, its possible ties to a Hindu monument, and modern day misconceptions about its ability to weigh down the entire Milky Way galaxy. Now, I’d like to briefly survey the magic powers associated with this weapon. This will by no means be exhaustive.

I. Powers

A. Size Manipulation

Sun travels to the Eastern Sea Dragon King’s underwater kingdom in ch. 3 to acquire a celestial weapon. But when the immortal fails to find a suitably heavy armament, the Dragon Queen suggests that they give him a black iron pillar from their treasury. It is described as 20 feet (6.096 m) in height and the width of a barrel. Only when Monkey lifts the pillar and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable does it comply with his wishes:

Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The ‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,550 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). [1]

Later in the chapter, Sun shows off the new weapon to his children by shrinking it to the size of a needle and then expanding it to a literal pillar of heaven.

He held the treasure [the staff] in his hands and called out, “Smaller, smaller, smaller!” and at once it shrank to the size of a tiny embroidery needle, small enough to be hidden inside the ear. Awestruck, the monkeys cried, “Great King! Take it out and play with it some more.” The Monkey King took it out from his ear and placed it on his palm. “Bigger, bigger, bigger!” he shouted, and again it grew to the thickness of a barrel and more than twenty feet long. He became so delighted playing with it that he jumped onto the bridge and walked out of the cave. Grasping the treasure in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be one hundred thousand feet tall, [2] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138).

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey grows his staff to touch heaven as he performs a cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

B. Controlling the oceans

Prior to giving Monkey the staff, the Dragon King tells his wife, “That…was the measure with which [Yu the Great] fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). Later, in ch. 88 our hero recites a poem in which he gives more detail about the weapon’s origins and history. The first few lines discuss its power over water:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
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,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 201).

Despite the staff’s influence on bodies of water both great and small, it paradoxically doesn’t grant Sun an advantage when traveling through the aquatic realm or fighting water-based demons. [3] I’ll just chalk this up to inconsistencies born from oral storytelling.

C. Astral entanglement

Ch. 3 shows that Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in the underworld even when the physical weapon is back with his body in the world of the living.

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.” … 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.

[…]

[After reprimanding the 10 judges for bringing his soul to hell, Sun says,] “All I want is to erase my name [from the ledgers of life and death]. Bring me a brush.” The judge hurriedly fetched the brush and soaked it in heavy ink. Wukong took the ledger on monkeys and crossed out all the names he could find in it [fig. 2]. Throwing down the ledger, he said, “That ends the account! That ends the account! Now I’m truly not your subject.” Brandishing his rod, he fought his way out of the Region of Darkness.

[…]

While our Monkey King was fighting his way out of the city, he was suddenly caught in a clump of grass and stumbled. Waking up with a start, he realized that it was all a dream (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 139).

Sun’s ability to use the weapon as a disembodied spirit implies that it has some power of astral projection and entanglement (i.e. it goes where his soul goes). However, to my knowledge, this only happens once in the story, and the novel clearly demonstrates that he can’t use the weapon if it is physically taken away from him. [4] This is likely another inconsistency from oral storytelling.

Fig. 2 – Monkey holds his staff as he strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

D. Multiplication

The weapon is shown capable of creating manifold copies of itself. For example, in ch. 4, Monkey multiplies his staff to accommodate his monstrous, multi-armed form while fighting Prince Nezha: “Dear Great Sage! He shouted, ‘Change!’ and he too transformed himself into a creature with three heads and six arms. One wave of the golden-hooped rod and it became three staffs, which were held with six hands” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 155). Later in ch. 50, he rains staves down on a demonic army.

Using the tip of his lance to point at the ground, the demon king shouted for the little imps to attack together. All those brazen fiends, wielding swords, scimitars, staffs, and spears, rushed forward at once and surrounded the Great Sage Sun completely. Entirely undaunted, Pilgrim only cried, “Welcome! Welcome! That’s exactly what I want!” He used his golden-hooped rod to cover his front and back, to parry blows east and west, but that gang of fiends refused to be beaten back. Growing more agitated, Pilgrim tossed his rod up into the air, shouting, “Change!” It changed immediately into iron rods by the hundreds and thousands; like flying snakes and soaring serpents, they descended onto the fiends from the air” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 372).

E. Lock-Picking

Sun demonstrates the staff’s magic lock-picking ability in ch. 25.

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 468-469).

Admittedly, this passage could be read two ways: 1) The staff opens the lock; 2) Monkey uses the staff as a conduit for his own lock-picking magic. But I’m choosing the first interpretation as this ability was likely influenced by Saint Mulian unlocking the gates of hell with his staff. [5]

F. Transformation

In ch. 46, during a competition of Buddhist and Daoist prognostication, Sun magically disguises himself as a Daoist lad’s ritual master and convinces the boy to let him shave his head: “He changed his golden-hooped rod into a sharp razor, and hugging the lad, he said, ‘Darling, try to endure the pain for a moment. Don’t make any noise! I’ll shave your head.’ In a little while, the lad’s hair was completely shorn” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In ch. 65, Sun turns the staff into a drill in order to escape from a pair of magic cymbals, using the tool to bore a hole in the horn of a dragon that was just able to pierce the seam: “Marvelous Great Sage! He changed the golden-hooped rod into a steel drill and drilled a hole on the tip of the horn. Transforming his body into the size of a mustard seed, he stuck himself inside the hole and yelled, ‘Pull the horn out! Pull the horn out!'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218).

G. Sentience

When the Dragon Queen originally suggests giving the pillar to Monkey, she tells her husband: “These past few days the iron has been glowing with a strange and lovely light [fig. 3]. Could this be a sign that it should be taken out to meet this sage?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). This might imply the weapon was aware of its new master’s imminent arrival. Later in ch. 75, Sun recites a poem speaking of the staff’s desire for flight.

Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men.
Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly,
Emitting bright strands of five-colored mist.
Enlightened Monkey took it back to the mount
To experience its pow’r for boundless change.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).

The phase “wanting to fly” (yao feiteng, 要飛騰) could be read as a metaphor for yearning to be released from the dragon treasury and/or a call for adventure. Add to this the staff’s ability to follow Sun’s wishes to grow, shrink, multiply, change form, and pick locks. Therefore, the novel depicts the staff having a certain amount of awareness. [6]

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).

II. Conclusion

Journey to the West (1592) describes the Monkey King’s iron staff having the magic power to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.

Notes:

1) I have changed Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) dry rendering “Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod” to the more pleasant one based on W.J.F. Jenner. Also, Yu’s original translation says “13,500 pounds”. However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lb.

2) Here, Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating 10 Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates it in chapters six (vol. 1, p. 181) and 61 (vol. 3, p. 157).

3). For example, Monkey relies on Zhu Bajie to fight Sha Wujing when they first come across him at the Flowing-Sands River. This is when Sun admits his weakness to water:

“Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim with a laugh, “in this case I’ve really nothing to brag about, for I’m just not comfortable doing business in water. If all I do is walk around down there, I still have to make the magic sign and recite the water-repelling spell before I can move anywhere. Or else I have to change into a water creature like a fish, shrimp, crab, or turtle before going in. If it were a matter of matching wits in the high mountains or up in the clouds, I know enough to deal with the strangest and most difficult situation. But doing business in water somewhat cramps my style!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 423-424).

4) The rhinoceros demon sucks it away with Laozi’s magic steel bracelet in ch. 50 and 51. A lion spirit uses a magic wind to steal the weapons of all three pilgrims in ch. 88. In both cases, Monkey resorts to trickery to retrieve the physical staff from their respective mountain strongholds.

5) One section of Mulian’s tale reads: “With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls, / On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open” (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

6) The idea of sentient weapons is certainly not unique to Journey to the West considering that the ancient Chinese ascribed souls to noted swords. For example, Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-c.) described famed Spring and Autumn period blacksmith Ou Yezi‘s (歐冶子) treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).

Sources:

Elvin, M. (2004). The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing his Mother From the Underworld With Pictures, One Scroll, With Preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1-4. 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.

n8mflz

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).