What is the Oldest Known Media of Sun Wukong the Monkey King?

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara),
the Monkey-disciple [1] presses on,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).


The tribute references elements that would later appear in 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, c. late-13th-century), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.

Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

1.2. Oldest known depictions

The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音). [2] Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.

Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his hands (which are missing) are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version).  Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.

But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).

Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.

The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra (fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).

Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.

The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.

Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.

Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).

Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.

The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).

Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.

There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:

From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra),
Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛].
To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim].
In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival
He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). [3]

The poem is openly critical of Buddhism, [4] showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.

And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:

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

This shows that even by the mid-13th-century, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.

3.2. Oldest known depiction

The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.

Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.

Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.

This elevation may have something to do with the fact that the Monkey King’s cult began in Fujian. While concrete references to his worship date to the 17th-century (see section III here), this carving may be an indicator that he was revered at an earlier time. The area is known to have worshiped monkeys as far back as the Tang period (see the material below fig. 3 here, as well as the 08-17-2019 update).

Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.

4. First appearance? 

To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). [5]

The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.

Fig. 19 (top) – Detail of an urban storytelling (jie, ; lit: “explanation”) stall from the famed 12th-century painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (larger version). Fig. 20 (bottom) – A detail of the detail showing a close up of the people intently listening to the storyteller (larger version). The images are screenshots taken from this digital version of the painting on Wikimedia. A big thank you to Borrdahl (2002) for pointing out the storytelling stall.

5. Conclusion



1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).

3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).

5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).


Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.

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

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

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Wei, W., & Zhang, L. (2019). Xiyouji bihua yu Xuanzang qujing tuxiang [Journey to the West Wall Murals: Images of Xuanzang Procuring the Scriptures]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House.

Origin of the White Bone Spirit

Last updated: 04-29-2022

The twenty-seventh chapter of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) features a mountain spirit who resorts to magic disguises in an attempt to eat Tripitaka. Commonly referred to as the “White Bone Spirit” (Baigujing, 白骨精), she is one of a family of ghouls active in White Tiger Mountain (Baihu ling, 白虎嶺) who have long told legends of the monk’s immortality-bestowing flesh. She resorts to subterfuge because alone she is not powerful enough to contend with the holy man’s present disciples, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing.

The spirit first disguises herself as a peerless beauty described as having “ice-white skin hid[ing] jade-like bones” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 18). She comes bearing a vegetarian meal, claiming it to be food intended for her pious husband toiling in the fields on the other side of the mountain. She instead decides to feed Tripitaka as this would allow her to keep her family’s vow of supporting monks. But before she can kidnap the monk, Sun Wukong returns from picking peaches for his master and sees through the magic facade, seemingly killing the young girl with his magic staff. The monster, however, is able to escape in spirit at the last second using the “Magic of Releasing the Corpse” (Jieshi fa, 解屍法), [1] leaving behind a fake body in her place. The innocent-looking food is then revealed to be bewitched frogs, toads, and maggots. Despite this, Zhu Bajie convinces their master that Monkey is trying to conceal the murder with magic, leading to the monk using the Tight-Fillet spell as punishment.

She subsequently disguises herself as the girl’s elderly mother searching the mountain for her daughter. Sun again sees through the disguise and seemingly kills her with his staff. This again leads to his punishment with the Tight-Fillet spell. The White Bone Spirit’s last disguise is that of the elderly father looking for his wife and daughter. But this time Monkey calls on local deities to guard any possible escape routes, and this time he succeeds in killing her. The spirit’s true form is revealed to be a “pile of flour-white skeletal bones” with the name “Lady White Bone” (Baigu furen, 白骨夫人) engraved on her spine (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 26).

White Bone Spirit drawing - small

Fig. 1 – A lovely cosplay of Lady White Bone (larger version). More pictures can be seen here

Origin in oral literature

The precursor of the White Bone Spirit can be traced to a demon appearing in chapter six of 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, c. late 13th-century), the earliest known printed edition of Journey to the West, which likely served as a prompt for ancient storytellers.

Chapter six: Passing Long Ditch and Great Serpent Peak (Guo changkeng dashe lingqu, 過長坑大蛇嶺處)

The pilgrims arrived at the valley of the fire-spitting White Tiger Spirit (Huo lei ao baohu jing, 火類坳白虎精). Coming closer they encountered a great ditch. The four steep entrances were pitch-black and they heard a roar of thunder. They could not advance. The Dharma Master [Fashi, 法師, i.e. Tripitaka] held up his [magic] golden-ringed staff and, flourishing it toward the distant heavenly palace, yelled: “Devaraja! Help us in our afflictions!” Suddenly a shaft of light shot out from the staff five tricents long. It slashed through the long ditch and soon they were able to get across.

Next they came to Great Serpent Peak. There they saw a gigantic serpent like a dragon. It likewise was not harmful to humans. Then they crossed the pit of the fire-spitters. Down, down into the fiery pit they looked and saw a pile of dry bones over forty tricents long. The Dharma Master asked Monkey Pilgrim [Hou xingzhe, 猴行者]: “What are those white withered bones piled up there like snow on a mountain?” Monkey Pilgrim replied: “This is the place where the Heir Apparent, Ming Huang…changed his bones.” [2] The Dharma Master, hearing this, joined his palms and bowed his head in reverence.

Next they suddenly came to a prairie fire which reached to the heavens. It sent off such a huge amount of smoke and sparks that the pilgrims could not proceed. The Dharma Master shone the light of his [magic] begging-bowl toward the fire and yelled: “Devaraja!” The fire died out immediately and the seven pilgrims crossed this pit. When they were halfway across, Monkey Pilgrim said: “Master, did you know this peak is inhabited by a white tiger spirit? It often appears as a vixen, demon, or goblin and even eats people.” The Master replied: “I didn’t know!” After a while they could see a spume of ominous-looking smoke rising behind the peak and from the cloud thus…fell a mixture of rain, snow, and sleet. In the cloudy mist there was a woman dressed all in white.

She wore a white bodice of gauze, a white gauze skirt with a white belt, and held in her hands a single white peony. [3] Her face was as pretty as a white lotus, her ten fingers like precious jades. Observing the form of the ogress, Monkey Pilgrim had his suspicions confirmed. “Master, don’t go any farther,” said Monkey Pilgrim. “It’s surely an ogress. Wait till I go up and ask who she is.” Monkey Pilgrim took one look at her and shouted in a loud voice: “What place are you from, demon? What shape is beneath your facade? If you are a sprite or goblin, why don’t you hurry back to your lair? If you are an ogress, hurriedly hid your traces. But, if you are the daughter of a human being, then tell me your name and surname. And be quick about it! If you procrastinate and don’t speak, I shall reduce you to dust and power!” Hearing the pilgrim’s ferocious tone of voice, the white-clad woman slowly advanced, smiled coyly, and inquired whither the master and his disciples were going. Monkey Pilgrim said: “Ask no more! We travel for the sake of the sentient beings of the Eastern Lands. And you must be none other than the White Tiger Spirit of the Fire-spitting Pit.”

Hearing this, the woman’s mouth gaped open and she screamed loudly, while at the same moment her skin burst open revealing claws, long fangs, a tail, and a feline head. She was fifteen feet long. In another instant the whole mountain was filled with white tigers. Monkey Pilgrim transformed his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yaksa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam shot forth a hundred yards long. At the same time, the White Tiger Spirit advanced with a roar to do battle, but she was repulsed by the Monkey Pilgrim. After a short while, Monkey Pilgrim asked if the tiger spirit was ready to submit. She replied, “Never!” Monkey said: “If you will not submit, you will find an old monkey in your stomach!”

The tiger spirit heard what he said yet did not surrender right away. But no sooner had he yelled “Monkey!” than a monkey in the White Tiger Spirit’s stomach responded. The tiger spirit was forced to open her mouth and spit out the monkey. When it landed on the ground in front of her, it became twelve feet long with flashing eyes. The White Tiger Spirit spoke: “I still will not submit!” Monkey replied: “Then you will find another in your stomach!” Again, he caused the tiger spirit to open her mouth and spit out another monkey which landed in front of her. And again the tiger spirit said: “I still do not submit!” Monkey replied: “There are countless old monkeys in your stomach now, and even if you spit them out all day today until the next, all this month until the next, all this year until the next, all this life until the next, you will not be rid of them!” This made the tiger spirit angry. She was again afflicted by the Monkey when he transformed himself into a great stone in her stomach which gradually grew in size. Though she tried to spit it out, she couldn’t. Her stomach split asunder and blood poured from her seven orifices. [4] Monkey called upon the yaksa to slaughter the big White Tiger Spirit ruthlessly, and the yaksa pulverized its bones and obliterated its last vestiges.

The [Monkey Pilgrim], having withdrawn [his] magic, rested for a time before [the group] continued the journey. They left a poem:

The pit of fire-spitters and the White Tiger Spirit,
All that lot are vanquished, and peace and safety reign.
Now, the supernatural power of Monkey Pilgrim is displayed,
Protecting the monkish pilgrims across the great ditch (Wivell, 1994).

The chapter has a number of details that naturally led to the development of the White Bone Spirit.

  1. The demon is a White Tiger Spirit, hence the White Tiger Mountain mentioned in the novel.
  2. The “piles” of the future emperor’s bones recall the “piles” of the White Bone Spirit’s bones (her true form) after she is killed by Wukong.
  3. The White Tiger Spirit’s hunger for flesh and ability to take on any form (like “a vixen, demon, or goblin”) recalls the White Bone Spirit’s pursuit of Tripitaka and use of magic disguises.
  4. The White Tiger Spirit’s initial disguise as a beautiful woman with a “white lotus” face and jade-like fingers recalls the White Bone Demon’s “ice-white skin” and “jade-like bones.”

Here is the full length animated feature Sun Wukong Three Times Fights the White Bone Demon (孫悟空三打白骨精, 1985), which was produced twenty years after the highly popular Uproar in Heaven (大鬧天宮, 1965).

Update: 04-29-22

Shao (1997) writes: “Monkey kills the Cadaver demon three times as she manifests herself in three different forms in the symbolic sense of three cadavers which the Taoists hold accountable for voluptuary impulses” (p. 145). This makes the bone spirit an embodiment of the Three Corpses (Sanshi, 三尸).


1) This is related to an ancient Daoist concept called “Release by means of a corpse” (Shijie, 尸解). As far back as the Han, immortals are described as leaving a fake corpse (sometimes a magically disguised object) behind while they ascended in secret to heaven (Kirkland, 2008).

2) This changing of bones most likely refers to some type of realized spiritual cultivation that resulted in a new, pure body for the future emperor.

3) The color white is associated with death in Chinese culture.

4) Sun Wukong defeats several monsters in Journey to the West by invading their stomach. See, for example, chapters 59, 75, and 82.


Kirkland, R. (2008). Shijie In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 2) (pp. 896-897). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of how the monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 2). Chicago, Ill: 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 Subodhi (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey who realizes sunyata“. The sage teaches him the seventy-two methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to rein 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).