Interesting Facts about the Monkey King

Last updated: 08-28-2022

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

Current count: 108

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hercules vs Sun Wukong Death Battle Analysis

Last updated: 07-08-2022

DEATH BATTLE! is a youtube show that pits famous fictional and (now) mythological characters against one another to see who is the strongest. The outcome of each fight, usually ending in death, is supposedly based on research comparing the combatants’ respective canonical strengths and weaknesses. There are in total nine seasons with 161 episodes. The 162nd episode (episode 7 of season 9) will feature a battle between the hero Hercules from Greco-Roman myth and Sun Wukong from the Chinese Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, JTTW hereafter) story cycle. I only learned about this upcoming fight a little over a week ago when I noticed via my website analytics that a DEATH BATTLE! staff member had linked to my research blog on their external site. Very little concrete information about the battle was released until a few days ago, so I’ve been scrambling to finish this article in preparation for the episode on June 20th, 2022. It can be watched here:

This may not seem very important to some of my followers and lurkers, but DEATH BATTLE! has 5.05 million subscribers, and their last video received 1.7 million views in just a week and the one before got 5 million in just 3 weeks! Therefore, the battle is likely to introduce many, many people to the Monkey King. For example, the primate hero’s fighter preview gained nearly 220,000 views in the first 24 hours, 260,000 as of June 18th, 2022. And as of the same date, Hercules’ fighter preview has 287,000 views.

Win or lose, the purpose of this article is to present accurate information about Sun Wukong. I will correct any mistakes that appear in the video. I will also present a list of surprising parallels shared between Hercules and Sun Wukong, suggesting that they might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. See also my articles comparing Monkey with the Water Margin hero Wu Song and the historical Buddha.

Before continuing, I want to note that I know the original name is Heracles (or Herakles), but I will use Hercules throughout as this is the name chosen by the staff of DEATH BATTLE!

1. Analysis

1.1. The Death Battle

It’s official, Sun Wukong WON the fight. I will add my comments and corrections (in blue) to the official battle transcript:

An ancient scroll unfurls onscreen as a painted mountain manifests. An unseen narrator begins his story.

1. This was an interesting concept.

Muse: Our tale begins up top a great mountain, where the mighty Heracles sought a gift from the Gods.

As narrated, the legendary demigod finishes his trek up the mountain and calls out to the nearby Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who is sitting atop his Nimbus cloud and holding a divine fruit in his hand.

2. Just a tiny nitpick: The Nimbus cloud is not from JTTW but the Dragon Ball franchise. The novel refers to this skill as the Cloud-Somersault.

Hercules: Ho there! I’m in need of that apple. Relinquish it.

Wukong turns to face the hero and explains his own need for it.

Sun Wukong: Sorry, I’m supposed to find my master some vegetarian food.

3. I really like that the fight starts over fruit. As I note below (sec. 2, #12), both characters steal supernatural fruit (golden apples vs immortal peaches) from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera vs the Queen Mother of the West). So this was a nice nod to both myths.

But in hindsight, Monkey stealing the golden apples to feed his master doesn’t make much sense considering: 1) they are located in a land that’s much further west than the scripture monk’s final western destination, India; and 2) I don’t recall reading that the golden apples were anything other than treasures. To my knowledge, none of the associated myths treat them as foodstuff. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

However, the explanation is ignored. His short temper kicking in, Hercules draws his sword from its scabbard and threatens Wukong.

Hercules: You’ll find it… elsewhere.

With a shrug and groan of annoyance, Wukong passes the apple to Hercules, who catches it.

Muse: But Heracles was not so easily fooled.

4. Legitimate question: Is Hercules known for having supernatural perception? Are there examples of him seeing through illusions in his original mythos? If anyone knows, please leave a comment.

The hero’s satisfaction turns to indignation as he crushes the illusory fruit in his hand, revealing it to merely be strands of Wukong’s hair. With his scheme discovered, the trickster god pulls out a miniaturized Ruyi Jingu Bang from his ear and enlarges it to its standard size. Laughing with glee, he leaps from his cloud and clashes with Hercules’ sword,

5. Another tiny nitpick: The “standard size” in the animation was not large enough. The novel states that Monkey fights with the staff when it’s around 12 feet (3.65 m) long [1] and the width of a bowl (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135, for example). [2] This illustration (fig. 1) shows how big the staff should be in relation to Sun’s body size.

Fig. 1 – Monkey and his religious brothers on patrol (larger version). Artwork by @真·迪绝人 (see here and here). Image found here.

Muse: The Monkey King’s strike rang true, but he’d not so easily overwhelm the God of Strength.

Locked in a clash of weapons, Hercules slashes at Wukong, who dissipates into smoke. The monkey flies behind Hercules on his Nimbus and jabs the hero in the gut with his staff, sending him flying into a cliff below. The mighty demigod is hardly phased though and springs back with a powerful dropkick against the advancing Wukong, sending them down another level.

6. I personally thought Monkey relied far too much on turning into a puff of smoke. I think he instead would have preferred to meet Hercules head-on.

As they both land, Hercules attempts to slash him with his sword once again, but Sun Wukong disappears in a smoke cloud and strikes Hercules with his Ruyi Jingu Bang. As Hercules lies on the ground, the Monkey King extends the staff and brings it down on the hero, who raises his sword to block the strike, only for the blade to shatter. Quickly recovering, Hercules grabs the Ruyi Jingu Bang and pulls on it, bringing Sun Wukong down to him.

Hercules: I am Heracles!

With a single mighty punch to the jaw, Heracles sent the Monkey King soaring through the sky, hitting the edge of the scroll and forcing it to go higher up before landing on a nearby cloud. Before the Monkey King has time to even breathe, Hercules shoots an arrow at him, only narrowly missing.

Sun Wukong: Yikes!

As the hero continues his assault, Wukong begins to jump through the clouds in order to avoid all of his shots, and after beginning to fly with one of them, summons several clones with his hairs to try and reach Hercules. However, the God of Strength manages to shoot down almost all of the clones. One of them climbs onto the cloud Wukong is riding and grabs his tail. Wukong spins him around and launches himself and the clone at Hercules. The Wukongs turn into birds to reach Hercules faster, before turning into snakes to restrict his arms. Tired of the monkey’s shenanigans, Hercules breaks free and grabs his rattles.

7. Legitimate question: Does Hercules have unlimited arrows? Please let me know.

Regarding the transformations, this seemed so out of place during the battle as Monkey never uses animal forms offensively. He instead uses them for stealth or, most famously, to hide from from an opponent

Hercules: Die, demon!

The loud noise echoes through the skies, destroying every single Wukong clone. Reeling in pain from the noise, Wukong’s snake transformation comes undone as he tumbles down the mountain into the forest below.

Sun Wukong: Agony, agony!

8. Why would the rattles have any effect on Monkey? I don’t recall his ears being a weakness

Update: 06-24-22

A redditor explained the following: “It’s not so much that Wukong is weak to sound, more so that the krotalas [rattles] are so loud that the noise causes pain to whatever hears them…”

But the original sources don’t make this claim. For example, the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius reads: 

“For not even could Heracles, when he came to Arcadia, drive away with bow and arrow the birds that swam on the Stymphalian lake. I saw it myself. But he shook in his hand a rattle of bronze and made a loud clatter as he stood upon a lofty peak, and the birds fled far off, screeching in bewildered fear” (2.1052).

The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

“Heracles then received a Command to drive the birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art and by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country round-about. Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them” (4.13.2).

And Pausanias writes:

“There is a story current about the water of the Stymphalus, that at one time man-eating birds bred on it, which Heracles is said to have shot down. Peisander of Camira, however, says that Heracles did not kill the birds, but drove them away with the noise of rattles” (8.22.4).

As can be seen, no mention is made of the implements being painfully loud to anything other than the birds (please provide an example if you know otherwise). While uncertain of the true reason why the rattles appear in the story, Aston (2021) posits that they could reference cultic practices or even just the “noisy rattle[s] or clapper[s] … used by farmers to scare birds from their crops (p. 102).

I can understand the rattles working if Monkey was still in bird form, but the clone attacking Hercules had already transformed into a snake at the point. And the rattle subsequently affects all of the clones. This doesn’t make any sense.

The scroll unfurls further, revealing the spot where the Monkey King landed, as he begins to laugh.

Muse: The Monkey King fell into a strange forest, in awe of such a wondrous fight. But should he mistake his fear, he might lose his head.

Hercules comes crashing down, instantly crushing Wukong’s head with his club. But to his shock, the beheaded body of the Great Sage gets right back up.

9. Crushing Monkey’s head would not be possible with the olive club, for it would break over his adamantine crown like when Hercules broke the weapon over the Nemean Lion‘s head (sec. 2, #3). Sun’s crown is one of the hardest parts of his body, easily taking direct blows from even sharp weapons wielded by demons with no issue (sec. 1.2, #3).

It think it would have made more sense for both heroes to have, at some point, exchanged blows with their respective blunt weapons (sec. 2, #4). But, again, the club wouldn’t have lasted long. This brings me back to my previous question about the number of Hercules’ arrows. If he ran out, then he would be weaponless after both his sword and club are destroyed.

So, I think at this point Sun would have placed his staff in his ear and offered to have a boxing match with the Greek hero. Something similar happens twice in JTTW. In chapter two, Monkey confronts a demon that had been terrorizing his children during his quest for immortality. But when the monster sees that the primate is not only small but also unarmed, he offers to fight him barehanded in order to avoid criticism from other demon kings. Sun ends up beating him so badly that the monster rushes to defend himself with his sword (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). And in chapter 51, another demon uses a powerful treasure stolen from heaven to take away Monkey’s staff, leading the latter to challenge the monster to unarmed combat to show that he isn’t useless without his weapon. A poem describing the subsequent battle states that the combatants use real-world punching and kicking techniques, many of which are known and still practiced today. And while said poem claims that they are equally matched, all of the heavenly commanders agree that Monkey’s technique is faster and more polished (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-14)

Seeing Hercules and Sun duke it out, causing the earth to shake and mountains crumble, would be much more entertaining than the latter’s game of hopscotch among the clouds from the video.

Sun Wukong: I haven’t had such fun since I fought all of Heaven! Change!

Wukong transforms into a taller, three-headed and six-armed version of himself, with three separate Ruyi Jingu Bangs included.

Sun Wukong: Behold me, the Immortal Monkey King!

Hercules stares at his opponent’s transformation and laments his misfortune.

Hercules: Huh… Multiple heads. Of course.

10. A nice nod to the Lernean Hydra.

Both warriors begin to trade blows, Hercules managing to avoid a few of Wukong’s strikes before being disarmed of his club and becoming a victim of a staff combo before being kicked away. He shoots out three more arrows at the Monkey King, which seemingly manage to damage him, before his three-headed form dissipates into smoke, and the real Wukong jumps right back up to the clouds, before sending out his staff to hit Hercules once more. The hero merely watches before the staff suddenly grows into an enormous size mere inches away from his face.

11. Monkey does indeed use deceptive magic doubles in battle. One example happens in chapter 4 during his fight with Prince Nezha

“They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, ‘Change!’ It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind [Nezha] and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha] … heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

Hercules: Huh?

He is suddenly crushed underneath the Ruyi Jingu Bang as Wukong sits on top of it and laughs. But the staff suddenly begins to shake, as Hercules begins to lift it from underneath.

Hercules: You’ve had your fun, beast, but I’ve had enough!

Hercules throws the staff away, forcing Wukong to get off it before changing its size once more, and preparing to strike a finishing blow. Hercules sees this and charges towards the Monkey King, clashing with the staff with only his fist. But as the blows make contact, two blue, divine versions of the two warriors can be seen holding the scroll, before preparing their weapons for a clash of their own. The club of Hercules’ celestial body leaves a trail of constellations, while the celestial Ruyi Jingu Bang leaves a trail of names of Four Symbols written in Chinese in its wake.

Muse: The gods watched their earthbound selves, and so joined in battle. The God of Strength mustered the heart of Olympus, while the Great Sage harnessed power equal to Heaven! Thus…

The two celestial bodies swing at each other, with the force of the blows turning the screen a blinding white. Slowly, the light fades away to reveal that Hercules’ celestial body has been impaled by the Ruyi Jingu Bang. The scroll floats back into view, covering the screen once more.

12. I think I understand what the Death Battle staff was going for when they portrayed each character in their celestial form. But this contradicts their promise to not use the heroes’ post-apotheosic versions. Therefore, this also seemed extremely out of place during the fight.

Muse: The Monkey King emerged victorious!

Returning back inside the scroll, Wukong’s attack manages to overpower Hercules, and its might destroys the God of Strength leaving nothing behind.

Sun Wukong: Wow, would you look at that! I struck him so hard he was reduced to nothingness!

13. I think this would have only killed Hercules’ mortal half, releasing the god within and prolonging the fight. While sources vary on what caused his apotheosis (virtus vs the 12 Labors vs Gigantomachy deeds), it’s clear that the son of Zeus become a god upon his fiery death (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275).

Wukong laughs once more and grabs the apple, leaving the forest to rejoin his master.

Muse: With a formidable foe slain, stricken against the mountain’s breast, so ends our great tale of East and West.

14. I was honestly underwhelmed by the ending. It seemed like the staff ran out of time, money, or interest and decided to stop the episode prematurely. It should have gone on much longer since Hercules and Sun Wukong are the first two mythological characters to be featured. I also thought Hercules was splattered way too easily. I’m sure there could have been a different way to end the fight. It would have been more respectful to both pantheons if the heroes had simply come to a draw and, having developed a newfound respect for each other’s skills, parted as bond brothers.

But considering that the show is called “Death Battle!”, somebody needs to die (the fans would otherwise be upset). So, baring that in mind, I thought of an idea five days before the episode aired, but I must admit that it’s not very respectful to the Greek hero. In my scenario, Sun seemingly disappears, but he actually turns into an insect and flies into Hercules’ mouth and crawls into his stomach. There, Monkey beats him up from the inside using the iron staff or even his fists. Then he instantly takes on his 100,000 foot (30,480 m) tall cosmic form, causing Hercules’ mortal body to explode. This “attack from within” tactic appears in chapters 59, 75, and 82 of JTTW, [3] as well as chapter 11 of the late-13th-century version of the story cycle

Lasty, I didn’t think the sprite animation was appropriate for such a mythic showdown. I personally would have liked more dynamic, hand-drawn animation like that from the Omni-man vs Homelander episode.

Update: 06-24-22

The same redditor from above also explained that the show apparently has budgetary constraints on episode length and art style. This explains the seemingly abrupt ending and the sprite animation. Hand drawn animation is apparently only reserved for the very tip of the top-most requested matchups.

This still doesn’t change my opinion, though. This was their first battle between extremely famous mythological characters. The fight should have been more grand.

But this information still doesn’t change my opinion of the episode. Rooster Teeth should have allotted a larger budget and made the episode longer.

1.2. The Results

I will do the same for the official fight result transcript:

Boomstick: Talking about a herculean matchup.

Wiz: Heracles was among the greatest heroes in myth, but the Great Sage Equal to Heaven held many more advantages.

Boomstick: You’d think Sun might not measure up to the God of Strength… you know, strength, but he totally could. remember he carried Sumeru on his back, the mountain holding up the infinite celestial sky, like how Heracles held up the infinite celestial sphere.

1. The Death Battle researchers likely learned about this feat from my article. But nowhere do I write that the mountain upheld the sky. The Abhidharmakośa (Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century) contains an overview of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, and it states that the sun, moon, and stars orbit half way down the exposed portion of the mountain [4] in a whirlpool-like ring of wind (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 460; Sadakata, 1997, p. 38-40). But the source doesn’t associate this ring with any weight.

Conversely, native Chinese mythology views the sky as a solid object that must be propped up by mountains. And if one of these earthly pillars is damage, it will cause the sky to tilt and even tear, requiring divine repair. See, for example, the legend of Nuwa mending the sky (Birrell, 1999, pp. 69-72 and 96-97). But this has no baring on the discussion at hand as Journey to the West expressly describes the world according to Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography.

Therefore, Sun’s feat should be scaled accordingly. But I’m not sure how this would be possible as the Buddhist and Greek concepts of the sky appear to be fundamentally different. I’ll have to read more on the latter concept to be sure.

Update: 06-25-22

I was contacted by a reader who said that the episode’s Sun Wukong researcher responded to me on the Death Battle discord, stating:

“To clarify, the basis for what Sumeru supports comes from the Buddhist cosmology lectures sourced in the character sheet. Though the article Jim wrote was what made me initially take note of the feat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6agAavZTEK0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMQeFiwacbQ” (per a screenshot emailed to me). 

But I’ve watched the videos and they don’t contradict what I wrote. The problem is that the researcher didn’t make a distinction between the “sky” (as stated in the Death Battle video) and “heaven”. I’ve already described the wind ring in which the celestial bodies orbit the midpoint of Mt. Sumeru. So, now I will give a brief and very simplified overview of the Buddhist cosmos to help readers form a better picture of what I’m arguing. As the axis mundi, Mt. Sumeru is located at the center of our earthly realm, with a ring of seven smaller mountains circling it. This landmass is surrounded by four island-like continents, one for each face of Sumeru, that float in a great sea resting on a disc of golden earth (kāñcanamaṇḍala). This is then supported by a disc of water (jalamaṇḍala) and finally a disc of wind (vāyumaṇḍala), each layer generally becoming larger as one descends. This grand creation is thought to float in “space” (ākāśa) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 25-30), sometimes translated as “sky” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 26). There are indeed various layers of heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru, but they appear to be separate from this space/sky (fig. 2). The first two heavens, that of the Four Great Kings and the 33 Gods, are respectively located at the midpoint and summit of Mt. Sumeru. But the following four heavens float above it at varying heights (fig. 3) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 56-62). Therefore, by running with Mt. Sumeru on one shoulder (and Mt. Emei on the other), Monkey would have supported both the landmass and the two earthly heavens, a monumental task to be sure. But he doesn’t support the four floating heavens above or, most importantly, the space/sky that they are located in. 

Having written the above, I want to note that I’m not claiming Hercules’ feat is stronger by default. I just want to present accurate information. I will at some point post an update with info about ancient Greek concepts of the sky.

Fig. 2 – A diagram of the Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk. It’s the most simplistic, eye-catching version I’ve seen. The column of red, blue, and purple rings on the bottom represent the various layers of Hell. Fig. 3 – A diagram of the various heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru (larger version). From Sadakata, 1997, p. 60.

Wiz: As befitting heroes of myth they were on par in that they were both incomprehensibly strong, however, Wukong’s healing abilities meant he could bounce back from Heracles deadliest blows, whereas Heracles did not have a similar option.

Boomstick: But Heracles did have one way of putting the Monkey King down, his arrows dipped in hydra poison.

Wiz: The hydra poison threatened even the gods of Olympus, similar to the scorpion sting. Whether or not it would be fatal is questionable but it could have incapacitated Wukong, similar to how it affected Heracles himself.

2. The novel presents concepts with elemental states beyond heaven and earth. A prime example is Red Boy‘s Samādhi fire, which is considered more powerful than normal or even divine flames. [5] Likewise, the scorpion’s “horse-felling poison” (daoma du, 倒馬毒) likely falls into this separate category, for it was able to hurt even the Buddha! The bodhisattva Guanyin explains:

“Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

The aforementioned monastery is located in the Western Paradise. This suggests that she might have been imbued with “dharma power” [6] over a certain period of time, making her a super powerful foe. Even the bodhisattva Guanyin fears her sting (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72). 

I conjecture that the scorpion’s sting may be stronger than the hydra’s heavenly poison. [7] Therefore, I question if the latter would have the same effect on the Monkey King.

Boomstick: But that is one very specific win condition and we’re looking at this with every possible option in mind.

Wiz: With his variety of clones, transformations and numerous other spells, Wukong’s arsenal was far more versatile.

Boomstick: Like, there was nothing stopping him from making thousands of clones of himself and just sitting back, while they beat up Herc for him. Unsporting been like? Sure. In character? Absolutely.

Wiz: Even then, those arrows would have to actually strike Wukong, which would be extremely difficult. Yes, in some depictions Heracles could potentially shoot the sun of Helios, his arrows flying 90 times the speed of light. However, in his contest with the Buddha, Wukong leap to the edge of the universe in a single second. To do so he had to be moving over 1.4 quintillion times faster than light.

3. But even if the hydra venom was equally potent, there is no guarantee that Hercules’ arrows could pierce Sun’s adamantine hide. The novel is clear that Monkey’s frame is nearly indestructible. For instance, upon his capture, heaven fails to execute him:

“They then slashed him with a scimitar, hewed him with an ax, stabbed him with a spear, and hacked him with a sword, but they could not hurt his body in any way. Next, the Star Spirit of the South Pole ordered the various deities of the Fire Department to burn him with fire, but that, too, had little effect. The gods of the Thunder Department were then ordered to strike him with thunderbolts [lei xie ding, 雷屑釘, lit: “nails of thunder”], but not a single one of his hairs was destroyed”. (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 188).

This invincibility follows him throughout the novel. For example, in chapter 75, Sun agrees to a demon lord’s offer to set the monk free if he can survive a blow to his head with a scimitar:

“‘When he heard this, Pilgrim smiled and said, ‘Fiend! If you have brush and paper in your cave, take them out and I’ll sign a contract with you. You can start delivering your blows from today until next year, and I won’t regard you seriously!’ Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

Someone may argue that the scorpion’s sting pierced his face, but refer back to what I wrote about dharma power in comment #2, and see also note #6 below.

Also, the Death Battle crew lists astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated (I make the same critic of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog in my 06-19-22 update). These figures mean absolutely nothing without some sort of explanation.

But since the numbers are used in reference to Monkey’s feat of leaping out of the Buddha’s palm, I want to explain its significance for those who don’t understand (per this reddit post). Sadakata (1997) writes: “[Sun’s feat] reflects the world of the Flower Garland Sutra, where every phenomenon is located within the buddha-world” (p. 155). He goes on to discuss the Cosmic Buddha Vairochana, noting how Buddhist art from all over the world depicts the myriad Buddhas as his emanations. One Javanese example features images of the Five Dhyani Buddhas encircling a stupa dedicated to Vairochana, thereby “express[ing] the Mahayana idea that the buddhas emanate from Mahavairocana and penetrate the universe, that the ‘one’ is at the same time the ‘many'” (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 156-157). Therefore, in essence, the Buddha’s palm in the novel represents the universe.  

Update: 06-25-22

Another redditor wrote:

“[T]he Hydra venom doesn’t need to ‘pierce’ your body to make effect, it just needs to have skin contact, referring to the time Hercules died because he was tricked into using a robe with some hydra venom on it”.

I responded:

“I’m aware of how Hercules dies, but there’s still the question of whether or not the venom would be absorbed into Sun Wukong’s nearly indestructible skin. I don’t recall any similar episode where a substance is absorbed through his skin in JTTW. So assuming that it could is not the same as citing evidence that it would. I’m not trying to split hairs. I’m just a stickler for details”.

But I will concede that artistic license and the need to raise the stakes of the battle could warrant the venom effecting him even if the arrows can’t penetrate his skin. 

Boomstick: Making him way faster than Herc could ever hope to be.

Wiz: Heracles held might of mythic proportions, but barring a lucky shot. Sun Wukong’s versatile magic, similar strength and absolutely absurd speed overcame this foe fitting for heaven’s equal.

Boomstick: When fighting Sun Wukong, Heracles mythed his chance.

Wiz: The winner is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

2. List of Parallels

(As of 07-03-22, I’ve added more quotes and similarities. The total stands at 16.)

Here is a list of parallels shared by Hercules/Herakles and Sun Wukong. I noticed several of these myself, but I am also indebted to the similarities posted on the DEATH BATTLE! Wiki.

1) Origins – Both are born of masculine heavenly forces. Hercules is the half-human son of ZeusHesiod‘s Shield of Heracles reads:

But the father of men and gods [Zeus] wove another design in his mind, how he might fashion for gods and wheat-eating men a protector against disaster. He arose from Olympos by night, pondering a deception in his spirit, longing for sex with a fine-waisted woman. Quickly he came to Typhaonion, and from there Zeus the Counselor trod the peak of Mount Phikion. Taking his seat, he planned wondrous deeds in his heart. On that very night he slept with the slender-ankled daughter of Elektryon [Alkmene]; he fulfilled his desire […] She bore him [Herakles] by submitting to the son
of Kronos, lord of the dark clouds (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 153 and 154; see also Pache, 2021).

The Monkey King is born from a stone seeded by heavenly energies. Chapter one of JTTW reads:

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Hinsch (2011) explains that Chinese works as far back as the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (pp. 157-158).

2) Temper – Both are quick to anger. In his youth, Hercules killed his music teacher for punishing him. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

Linus [of Thrace] also, who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyras, and Orpheus. Of these three Heracles, who was learning to play the lyre, was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul, and once when he had been punished with rods by Linus he became violently angry and killed his teacher with a blow of the lyre (3.67.2; Pache, 2021, p. 10).

Sun pushes over a magical, one-of-a-kind Ginseng Tree (Renshen shu, 人參樹) in retaliation for verbal abuse at the hands of some immortal youths. Chapter 25 of JTTW reads:

When the immortal lads found out the truth, they became even more abusive in their language; the Great Sage became so enraged that he ground his steel-like teeth audibly and opened wide his fiery eyes. He gripped his golden-hooped rod again and again, struggling to restrain himself and saying to himself, “These malicious youths! They certainly know how to give people a lashing with their tongues! All right, so I have to take such abuse from them. Let me offer them in return a plan for eliminating posterity: and none of them will have any more fruit to eat!” Dear Pilgrim! He pulled off a strand of hair behind his head and blew on it with his magic breath, crying “Change!” It changed at once into a specious Pilgrim, standing by the Tang Monk, Wujing, and Wuneng to receive the scolding from the Daoist lads. His true spirit rose into the clouds, and with one leap he arrived at the ginseng garden. Whipping out his golden-hooped rod, he gave the tree a terrific blow, after which he used that mountain-moving divine strength of his to give it a mighty shove (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465-466).

3) Skins – Both wear the skins of big cats. Hercules wears the skin of the Nemean Lion. TheocritusIdylls (25) reads:

The fight ended, I fell to pondering how I could strip the shaggy hide from the dead brute’s limbs—a troublesome task indeed, for when I tried, I could not cut it either with iron or with stone or [otherhow]. But then some god put in my mind the thought to sever the lion’s skin with his own claws; and with these I flayed it speedily and wrapped it about my body to guard me from the rents and hurts of war (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 213; see also March, 2021).

Monkey wears the skin of a mountain tiger. Chapter 14 of JTTW reads:

He [Sun] pulled off one strand of hair and blew a mouthful of magic breath onto it, crying, “Change!” It changed into a sharp, curved knife, with which he ripped open the tiger’s chest. Slitting the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece. He picked it up and tried it for size, and then said, “It’s a bit too large; one piece can be made into two.” He took the knife and cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

4) Weapons – Both are knowledgeable in multiple armaments but often wield blunt weapons in their adventures. Hercules uses an olive wood club (I’m unsure if it has an actual name). Theocritus’ Idylls (25) reads:

I set forth, taking my pliant bow, a hallow quiver filled with arrows, and in my other hand a club, made from a spreading wild olive, close-grained, with bark and pith intact, which I had found under holy Helicon and had pulled up entire with all it’s tangle of roots.

[…]

And I, holding in front of me with one hand my arrows … with the other raised my seasoned club over my head and brought it down on [the lion’s] skull; and full on the shaggy head of that invincible brute I broke the tough olive clean in two (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 209 and 211).

Sun uses a black iron staff. Chapter three of JTTW reads:

[After a magic iron pillar followed his wish to shrink] He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “As-You-Will Gold-Banded Staff. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” [8] … See how he displayed his power now! He wielded the rod to make lunges and passes, engaging in mock combat all the way back to the Water-Crystal Palace. The old Dragon King was so terrified that he shook with fear, and the dragon princes were all panic-stricken (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135).

5) Strength – Both are immensely strong. Hercules (in one version of the myth) holds up the sky. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere<he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should> put a pad on his head [fig. 2]. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Fig. 2 – A lovely Olympian Temple of Zeus metopes portraying Hercules (middle) resting the uplifted sky on his cushioned back. Athena (left) aids him in this task. Atlas (right) is shown with the golden apples (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Monkey runs at great speed while bearing the weight of two mountains on his shoulders, one of which is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos and the abode of the gods. Chapter 33 of JTTW reads:

Knowing how to summon mountains, he [a demon being carried by Sun] resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 108-109).

6) Submission – Both are subdued with a blow by deities. Hercules is knocked out with a rock by Athena during his murderous rage. EuripidesHeracles reads:

Then in wild gallop he starts to slay his aged father; but there came a phantom [Athena], as it seemed to us on-lookers, of Pallas, with plumed helm, brandishing a spear; and she hurled a rock against the breast of Heracles, which held him from his frenzied thirst for blood and plunged him into sleep (1000-1006).

Sun is dazed by Laozi‘s magic bracelet during his rebellion, allowing the primate to be captured by heaven. Chapter six of JTTW reads:

[Laozi] rolled up his sleeve and took down from his left arm an armlet, saying, “This is a weapon made of red steel, brought into existence during my preparation of elixir and fully charged with theurgical forces. It can be made to transform at will; indestructible by fire or water, it can entrap many things. It’s called the diamond cutter or the diamond snare … After saying this, Laozi hurled the snare down from the Heaven Gate; it went tumbling down into the battlefield at the Flower-Fruit Mountain and landed smack on the Monkey King’s head. The Monkey King was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Seven Sages and was completely unaware of this weapon, which had dropped from the sky and hit him on the crown of his head. No longer able to stand on his feet, he toppled over (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

7) Punishment – Both are given difficult tasks in order to atone for past transgressions. For killing his family, Hercules is tasked with serving King Eurystheus and completing the 12 Labors. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten [plus two] labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal (2.4.12; see also Hsu, 2021).

Monkey is directed to guard the Buddhist monk Tripitaka for rebelling against heaven. Chapter eight of JTTW reads:

Tathagata deceived me,” said the Great Sage, “and imprisoned me beneath this mountain. For over five hundred years already I have not been able to move. I implore the Bodhisattva to show a little mercy and rescue old Monkey!” “Your sinful karma is very deep,” said the Bodhisattva. “If I rescue you, I fear that you will again perpetrate violence, and that will be bad indeed.” “Now I know the meaning of penitence,” said the Great Sage. “So I entreat the Great Compassion to show me the proper path, for I am willing to practice cultivation.”

[…]

“If you have such a purpose, wait until I reach the Great Tang Nation in the Land of the East [China] and find the scripture pilgrim. He will be told to come and rescue you, and you can follow him as a disciple. You shall keep the teachings and hold the rosary to enter our gate of Buddha, so that you may again cultivate the fruits of righteousness. Will you do that?” ”I’m willing, I’m willing,” said the Great Sage repeatedly (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 215).

8) Heavenly aid – Both are aided by goddesses. Hercules is helped by Athena. For example, Homer‘s Illiad reads”

[B]ut my [Athena] father Zeus is mad with spleen, ever foiling me, ever headstrong and unjust. He forgets how often I saved his son [Hercules] when he was worn out by the labors Eurystheus had laid on him. He would weep till his cry came up to heaven, and then Zeus would send me down to help him; if I had had the sense to foresee all this, when Eurystheus sent him to the house of Hades, to fetch the hell-hound from Erebos, he would never have come back alive out of the deep waters of the river Styx (8.366; See also Deacy, 2021).

Sun is helped by the Bodhisattva Guanyin. For example, the goddess tells him the following in chapter 15 of JTTW:

If on your journey you should come across any danger that threatens your life, I give you permission to call on Heaven, and Heaven will respond; to call on Earth, and Earth will prove efficacious. In the event of extreme difficulty, I myself will come to rescue you. Come closer, and I shall endow you with one more means of power.” Plucking three leaves from her willow branch, the Bodhisattva placed them at the back of Pilgrim’s head, crying, “Change!” They changed at once into three hairs with lifesaving power. She said to him: “When you find yourself in a helpless and hopeless situation, you may use these according to your needs, and they will deliver you from your particular affliction.” After Pilgrim had heard all these kind words, he thanked the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy and Compassion. With scented wind and colored mists swirling around her, the Bodhisattva returned to Potalaka (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 328-329).

9) Enemies – Both face similar enemies: A) supernatural lions (Nemean Lion vs Lion demon); B) opponents that regrow their heads once severed but are eventually defeated with fire (Lernaean Hydra vs Bull Demon King); C) supernatural deer (Ceryneian Hind vs Great Immortal Deer Strength); D) supernatural boars (Erymanthian Boar vs Zhu Bajie); E) supernatural birds (Stymphalian birds vs Great Peng of 10,000 Cloudy Miles); and F) supernatural bulls (Cretan Bull vs Bull Demon King).

10) Horses – Both tame supernatural horses. Hercules tames the man-eating Mares of Diomedes. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

The next Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes, the Thracian. The feeding-troughs of those horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men. Heracles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control (4.15.3; see also Ogden, 2021b).

Monkey serves as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. Chapter four of JTTW reads:

Never resting, the [Sun] oversaw the care of the horses, fussing with them by day and watching over them diligently by night. Those horses that wanted to sleep were stirred up and fed; those that wanted to gallop were caught and placed in the stalls. When the celestial horses saw him, they all behaved most properly and they were so well cared for that their flanks became swollen with fat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

11) Women lands – Both visit locations peopled entirely by women. Hercules visits the Amazons to get the heavenly war belt (zoster) of their Queen Hippolyte. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

The ninth labour he [Eurystheus] enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they reared the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be trammelled by them in throwing the javelin, but they kept the left breasts, that they might suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail …

[After taking part in a small war elsewhere, Hercules finally arrived at his destination]

… Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and touched at Troy (2.5.9; see also Mayor, 2021).

Monkey and the other pilgrims travel through the “Woman Kingdom of Western Liang” (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國) in chapter 53 on their way to India (both Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant from drinking magic water while there). In chapter 54, the group enters the capital in order to have their travel rescript signed by the queen, but she has other plans for the head monk:

The queen said, “This man from the Land of the East [China] is a royal brother of the Tang court. In our country, the rulers of various generations since the time when chaos divided had never seen a man come here. Now the royal brother of the Tang emperor has arrived, and he must be a gift from Heaven. We will use the wealth of an entire nation to ask this royal brother to be king; we are willing to be his queen. Such a sexual union will produce children and grandchildren, and the perpetuity of our kingdom will be assured (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 49).

Sun helps arrange the marriage with the veiled purpose of ensuring that their travel rescript is signed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 52-53).

12) Theft of fruit – Both steal supernatural fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses. Hercules (in one version of the myth) steals Queen Hera‘s Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Monkey steals the Queen Mother‘s immortal peaches. Chapter five of JTTW reads:

One day he saw that more than half of the peaches on the branches of the older trees had ripened, and he wanted very much to eat one and sample its novel taste. Closely followed, however, by the local spirit of the garden, the stewards, and the divine attendants of the Equal to Heaven Residence, he found it inconvenient to do so. He therefore devised a plan on the spur of the moment and said to them, “Why don’t you all wait for me outside and let me rest a while in this arbor?” The various immortals withdrew accordingly. That Monkey King then took off his cap and robe and climbed up onto a big tree. He selected the large peaches that were thoroughly ripened and, plucking many of them, ate to his heart’s content right on the branches. Only after he had his fill did he jump down from the tree. Pinning back his cap and donning his robe, he called for his train of followers to return to the residence. After two or three days, he used the same device to steal peaches to gratify himself once again (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162).

13) Underworld – Both travel to the land of the dead. Hercules goes to Hades to acquire Cerberus. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated … [He sought ritual purification for his past misdeeds] … And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it … [He fended off the empty attacks of shades, rescued Theseus, sated the various ghosts with blood, and won a wrestling match against Menoetes] …When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found him at the gates of Acheron, and, cased in his cuirass and covered by the lion’s skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended through Troezen … [A]nd Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried him back to Hades (2.5.12; see also Hanesworth, 2021).

Sun travels to the Land of Darkness at least twice. For instance, in chapter 97, he goes to the underworld to retrieve the spirit of a recently deceased benefactor:

With a series of cloud somersaults, that Great Sage went to the Region Below and crashed right into the Hall of Darkness … Pilgrim said, “Which one of you took away the soul of Kou Hong, the person who fed the monks in the Numinous Earth District of the Bronze Estrade Prefecture? Find out instantly and bring him to me.”

[…]

[After being led out] Kou Hong, who, on seeing Pilgrim, cried out, “Master! Master! Save me!” “You were kicked to death by a robber,” said Pilgrim. “This is the place of the Bodhisattva King Kṣitigarbha in the Region of Darkness. Old Monkey has come especially to take you back to the world of light so that you may give your testimony. The Bodhisattva is kind enough to release you and lengthen your age for another dozen years. Thereafter you’ll return here.” The squire bowed again and again.

Having thanked the Bodhisattva, Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave the house of darkness and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 338-339).

14) Heavenly war – Both take part in battles with heaven but on opposing sides. Hercules fights alongside the Olympian gods during the Gigantomachy. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But Earth, vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the giants, whom she had by Sky. These were matchless in the bulk of their bodies and invincible in their might; terrible of aspect did they appear, with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet. They were born, as some say, in Phlegrae, but according to others in Pallene. And they darted rocks and burning oaks at the sky. Surpassing all the rest were Porphyrion and Alcyoneus, who was even immortal so long as he fought in the land of his birth. He also drove away the cows of the Sun from Erythia. Now the gods had an oracle that none of the giants could perish at the hand of gods, but that with the help of a mortal they would be made an end of. Learning of this, Earth sought for a simple to prevent the giants from being destroyed even by a mortal. But Zeus forbade the Dawn and the Moon and the Sun to shine, and then, before anybody else could get it, he culled the simple himself, and by means of Athena summoned Hercules to his help. Hercules first shot Alcyoneus with an arrow, but when the giant fell on the ground he somewhat revived. However, at Athena’s advice Hercules dragged him outside Pallene, and so the giant died (1.6.1; see also Salowey, 2021).

Monkey fights against the Buddho-Daoist gods a few times. For instance, chapter four of JTTW reads:

Each displaying his divine powers, the Third Prince [Nezha] and Wukong battled for thirty rounds. The six weapons of that prince changed into a thousand and ten thousand pieces; the golden-hooped rod of Sun Wukong into ten thousand and a thousand. They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, “Change!” It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind Nata and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha], still performing his magic, heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain. Breaking off his magic and gathering up his six weapons, he returned to his camp in defeat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

15) Godhood – Both become deities at the end of their respective story cycles. Hercules joins the gods of Olympus after death. Reasons given for this apotheosis include his his 12 Labors, his Gigantomachy deeds, or simply his virtus (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275). One account from the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

… Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself [due to exposure to hydra venom], ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him too put torch to the pyre. And when no one had courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed.

After this, when the companions of Iolaus came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.

[Description of the kinds of sacrifices that the various Greek states made to Heracles as a hero and god following his death/ascension]

We should add to what has been said about Heracles, that after his apotheosis Zeus persuaded Hera to adopt him as her son and henceforth for all time to cherish him with a mother’s love, and this adoption, they say, took place in the following manner. Hera lay upon a bed, and drawing Heracles close to her body then let him fall through her garments to the ground, imitating in this way the actual birth; and this ceremony is observed to this day by the barbarians whenever they wish to adopt a son. Hera, the myths relate, after she had adopted Heracles in this fashion, joined him in marriage to Hebe (4.38.4-4.392; see also Romero-Gonzalez, 2021).

Sun is elevated to Buddhahood at the journey’s end. The Buddha says the following to Monkey in chapter 100 of JTTW:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife [Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

16) Worship – Both are (were) worshiped. Hercules was worshiped by the ancient Greeks and Romans, while Sun is worshiped as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” in modern Chinese folk religion. It’s interesting to note that both deities are are believed to ward off evil.

These similarities might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. For example, the skin of big cats have symbolized strength in many cultures. Scholars have suggested that Hercules has ties to ancient heroes of the Near East (Ogden, 2021a, pp. xxiv-xxv), so perhaps the Indic practices that would come to influence the Monkey King’s iconography were also influenced by the same ancient Indo-European sources.

3. When heroes meet

Hercules and Sun Wukong have technically met before. In the 13th-century version of the story cycle, Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), changes a magic golden-ringed monk’s staff (Sk: khakkhara; Ch: xizhang, 錫杖) into a titanic, divine warrior while facing a white tiger spirit:

Monkey Pilgrim transformed his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel [jiangmochu, 降魔杵]. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam shot forth a hundred yards long” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189).

The titan eventually crushes the spirit with his weapon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). His “demon-subduing cudgel” is another name for a pestle-like ritual weapon with pronged tips called the vajra (Sk: “diamond” or “thunderbolt”; Ch: jingang, 金剛), which represents “power, indestructibility, and immutability, especially in tantric Buddhism” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 952). The vajra is traditionally the weapon of Vajrapāni (Ch: Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩; lit: “Bodhisattva Holding the Vajra”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955; Huntington & Bangdel, 2003, pp. 197-199). So what does this have to do with Heracles?

Religious depictions of Vajrapāni as a muscular, club-wielding protector were influenced by depictions of Heracles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara (modern Pakistan/Afghanistan) (Hsing & Crowell, 2005). In fact, some carvings even portray Heracles as a protector of the Buddha (fig. 3)!

Fig. 3 – A stone carving of Heracles protecting the Buddha, Gandhara, 2nd-century (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Also, Sun Wukong briefly interreacts with Vajra warriors based on Vajrapāni in the standard version of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 357, for example). So the above Death Battle is not a stretch at all. I’d like to see someone write a story where the divine Greek and Chinese heroes meet, perhaps some centuries after Zeus tasks Heracles/Vajrapāni with protecting the Buddha. After a brief fight, Heracles and Monkey become bond brothers. This would open the door to Monkey appearing in Greek tales!

In addition, Sun Wukong and Vajrapāni are associated with each other in Shaolin Monastery myth. The latter was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows that the deity’s vajra-club had been changed to a Chinese staff (fig. 4) (Shahar, 2008, p. 84). Vajrapāni’s Yaksha-like Nārāyana (Naluoyan(tian), 那羅延(天)) form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding “Kimnara Kings” from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to “Kimnara King” (Jinnaluo, 緊那羅) (Shahar, 2008, p. 87). One version of the story about his creation of the staff method takes place during the Yuan Dynasty‘s Red Turban Rebellion. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant tall enough to straddle both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi, which are five miles (8.046 km) apart. The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kimnara King in disguise (Shahar, 2008, pp. 87-88). Shahar (2008) suggests that mythical elements of the story were borrowed from the Monkey King’s adventures. He compares the worker’s transformation in the stove with Sun’s time in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace (Bagua lu, 八卦爐), their use of the staff, and the fact that Monkey and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions (Shahar, 2008, p. 109). [9]

Fig. 4 – The 1517 Shaolin stele showing a titanic Vajrapāni defending the monastery from rebels (larger version). From Shahar, 2008, p. 84.


Update: 06-19-22

I’ve been notified by several people that the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog has posted a prediction. This blog is independent from the actual content creators. In a 7 to 6 split, the blog predicts Hercules will win, explaining that he is stronger and faster. While seemingly thorough, portions of their analysis make no sense. For example, the section on speed reads:

As far as speed goes, the demigod also comes out on top. Taking into account Wukong growing his staff from Earth to the Underworld and the Heavens, then scaling that back to his speed, he could potentially move at 800 quadrillion times the speed of light. However, Heracles scaling to Zeus surpasses this by dozens of times, with him being able to send shockwaves across the entire firmament by simply nodding his head. Zeus nodding his head is an act that should have been done with extreme ease – at least more ease than Zeus actually wrestling Heracles – meaning that Heracles should reasonably scale. As the firmament and Olympus are on the outer sphere of the cosmos, which encircle each other, this would have had to cross the entire diameter, putting the feat at 29 quintillion times the speed of light, over 36 times faster than Wukong …

They scale Sun Wukong’s speed not by his Cloud-Somersault (a metaphor for instantaneous travel) or his ability to carry mountains with meteoric speed but by the magic growth of his staff into a pillar of heaven. Why? They also provide astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated, a very common problem with such versus discussions.

In addition, they wrongly state that the 72 Transformations grant Monkey immortality. He actually first attains immortality via Daoist elixir arts. Furthermore, they claim that Sun’s immortality can be taken away from him, referencing his turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace. While the extreme heat was meant to extract the elixir from his body, it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an “intended result” with an “actual result”. But even if the heat could complete the job, how exactly is Hercules going to defeat Sun’s immortality. Does he also carry around a heavenly furnace? This is never explained in the analysis.

I don’t have time to analyze the entire article. I will reserve this space for the actual fight results.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.


Update: 06-23-22

I have finished adding my comments to the official fight and result transcripts of the battle (sec. 1.1 and 1.2). If any new evidence comes to light, I will make sure to further update the page.

I’m thrilled to announce that the episode has 1.1 million views after only two days! 925,000 plus of those were in the first 24 hours! I knew this fight would attract a lot of attention. I hope more and more people will finally read the novel and fall in love with Monkey’s adventures like I did oh so long ago.


Update: 06-26-22

When I originally watched the video, I skipped the character analysis straight to the fight. I only just now got around to reading the official transcript for the beginning, and I’m sorry to report that Monkey’s section is riddled with errors. Whomever wrote it has definitely never read the book. It would be like me writing a Death Battle transcript about Harry Potter based on a very lazy read of Wikipedia. I tried correcting the mistakes onsite, but my edits were reverted and I was told that the transcript is off limits. Therefore, I’ve decided to add my corrections and comments here (in blue) like I did above.

But before continuing, I want to note that I’m upset because it appears that info from my research blog was likely used in the video and Death Battle wiki website without the specific articles being linked to. Sure, my general blog URL was added twice to an external site (here and here), but this is not the same as linking to the actual articles on the video/wiki so people can see where Death Battle got their information from. Make no mistake, this has little to do with publicity; my blog generates zero money for me. It’s just fair that my work be recognized if it’s being used, especially if it contributed to a video currently making money for its creators

4. Sun Wukong’s character analysis

Wiz: There once was a mighty monkey warrior, born of a mystic stone from the energy of the sun and moon. Upon birth, he graciously bowed to the cardinal directions and-

1. The stone was “nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 101). 

Boomstick: Shot lasers from his eyes! Strap in folks, this one’s a doozy.

2. This feat is likely based on the birth of the historical Buddha. See parallel #2 on this article.

Wiz: This monkey soon befriended a band of other primates and, rather narcissistically, named himself their handsome Monkey King.

3. Sun doesn’t just proclaim himself king, though the addition of “handsome” is pure ego on his part (he’s actually really ugly). He proves himself in a test of bravery by jumping through a waterfall to discover a long-forgotten immortal’s grotto-heaven (see the opening of this article).

Boomstick: But after a few centuries of monkeying about, he got a taste of the dreaded… midlife crisis!

Wiz: You see, the Monkey King was fierce and brave, yet he feared death, so he ventured to new lands in search of immortality.

4. Brave? Yes. Fierce? Not yet a warrior.

Boomstick: Turns out, he’d find a lot of it.

Wiz: Training under the Taoist master, Puti, he earned his first method of immortality and a new name. He would be the Monkey Awakened to the Void, spoken as: Sun Wukong.

5. Subodhi is a Buddho-Daoist sage with heavy Buddhist associations despite his normal portrayal as an immortal.

Boomstick: He also learned a bunch of magic. He can ride clouds, make thousands of clones, heal from fatal wounds like decapitation, and transform into basically anything: a bird, some vapor, a pitchfork, even an incredible fighting temple!

Popup: Though this technique is called “72 Earthly Transformations”, the scope of Sun Wukong’s shapeshifting is limited only by his imagination. The number actually references a collection of stars that the power is associated with.

6. Example #1 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. And the actual name for the technique is the “Multitude of the Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu地煞數). [10]

Wiz: With his famous cloud somersault, he could traverse the world at incredibly high speed. At first, a single somersault could carry him 180,000 li [a typo for 108,000], li being a traditional Chinese unit equal to about 500 meters, making one somersault move 54,000 kilometers per second, fast enough to circle the entire Earth in one leap.

7. Example #2 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. I note this ability to encircle the earth in the opening paragraph here.

Boomstick: And he’d only get faster from there. Monkey would do whatever it took to prove he was the best of the best.

Wiz: When fighting the mighty deity Prince Nezha, his foe transformed into a more powerful visage with three heads and six arms.

8. This doesn’t happen until chapters later when Monkey first rebels. I’m not sure why they would introduce this fight so early.

Boomstick: But Sun was like, “Hey, I can do that too,” and then did just that.

Wiz: Sun Wukong eventually returned to his simian subjects and, with his newfound power, amassed a veritable army. However, he felt no weapon in their arsenal suited him.

Boomstick: So he barged into the Dragon King‘s palace and demanded he hand over a weapon worthy of a king who can match the power of Heaven. Yeah, Sun was pretty full of himself. But, he wound up taking a pillar, originally designed to measure the depths of the ocean.

Popup: Some translations claim this “golden-hooped rod” measured or held up the galaxy, but these are incorrect. It was originally used to gauge the depth of the Great Flood, a story regarding the rise of dynastic China.

9. Example #3 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. Here I discuss the error in translation that led to this common misconception.

Wiz: What seemed like a worthless rod to the Dragon King was actually the perfect weapon for Wukong. Weighing nearly eight tons, the Ruyi Jingu Bang can change size at his whim. It can shrink to the size of a needle or grow long enough to pierce the heavens.

10. The pillar was not “useless”. He considered it an item of great importance:

“‘That,’ said the Dragon King, ‘was the measure with which the Great Yu fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood. It’s a piece of magic iron, but of what use could it be to him [Monkey]?'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

And later, he even refers to it as a “divine treasure” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 142).

But the Dragon Queen suggests giving it to the rude and very powerful immortal anyway so that he will leave their kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

Also, the staff weighs nearly nine tons.

Boomstick: The same heavens that got pretty mad with Sun after he crossed his name out of the Ledger of Death, making himself double immortal! Wait, how does that work?

Wiz: And even more mad when he demanded to be formally acknowledged as “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven”.

11. This doesn’t happen until after serving as the Bimawen and subsequently rebelling. Again, they introduce something too early.

Boomstick: Okay, we got a headstrong goofball who quickly masters new powers and wants a fancy title. This is just Shonen anime!

Wiz: Now, the Monkey King may have lashed out, but it was because when he requested a place in Heaven, a place he truly believed he deserved, the Jade Emperor‘s court reduced him to a stable boy.

12. He didn’t request a place in heaven. The celestial bureaucracy just gave him a position to keep his unruly adventures in check (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 143). Monkey only later “lashes out” upon learning of his low rank (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

Boomstick: Beneath all his antics, what Sun wanted most was to prove himself.

Wiz: Even with all the shenanigans, the Jade Emperor remained cautious and willing to placate Wukong.

Boomstick: By making him the watchdog of the Garden of Immortal Peaches. He totally ate that shit, didn’t he, Wiz?

13. It’s only at this point when Monkey battles Nezha, and when he proves too powerful, heaven placates him with the aforementioned sagely title and the above position (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 155-159).

Wiz: Oh yeah, Wukong got hammered, ate most of the peaches, ran around the Jade Palace in a fit, and found five gourds of immortality pills… which he promptly swallowed. All of them.

Boomstick: Ok, so that makes… how many layers of immortality now?

Wiz: I’d say a few… hundred? Thousand? If you count each individual peach and pill. When he sobered up, he knew he was in serious trouble, so naturally… he prepared for war.

14. This glosses over the reason for why Sun was drunk in the first place. He crashes the long-awaited immortal peach banquet and drinks all of the heavenly wine. Only then does he drunkenly stumble into Laozi’s laboratory and eat all of the alchemical pills (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 165-166).

Boomstick: Wow, that escalated quickly! What are they gonna do? Kill him? So, the Monkey King proved too strong for Heaven. He battled all their best fighters, and even matched Erlang Shen blow-for-blow in an epic battle of transformations! He’s that guy with the third eye.

Wiz: And Heaven’s greatest holy warrior. Yet, no matter Erlang’s form, Wukong always had a counter. Until Laozi threw in a convenient plot MacGuffin that captured the monkey. But even with Wukong in chains, Heaven had a problem.

15. Sun has no problem fighting Erlang, that is until his beloved monkey army is routed. He thereafter loses heart and flees, using a number of animal/structural transformations to escape (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 181-184). This is obviously different from the scenario described above. See this article by my friend Irwen Wong over at Journey to the West Library to learn how Erlang wins the majority of their encounters. 

Also, Laozi’s Diamond snare doesn’t capture Monkey. It simply hits Sun on the head, dazing him long enough for heaven to capture him (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

We cut to Boomstick.

Boomstick: He just wouldn’t die! Lightning, fire, even Laozi’s de-immortalizing furnace just made the monkey stronger!

16. The purpose of the Eight Trigrams furnace is not to remove one’s immortality but to produce the intense heat needed to manufacture alchemical elixirs (see section III of this article). This is an important distinction.

Laozi suggests that the reason why Monkey has a nearly indestructible body is because all of the immortal peaches and alchemical pills were likely refined in his lower elixir field. He then offers a possible solution:

“It would be better, therefore, if [he is placed] in the Brazier of Eight Trigrams, where he will be smelted by high and low heat. When he is finally separated from my elixir, his body will certainly be reduced to ashes” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 188-189).

But as I note in my 06-19-22 critique of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog,

“…it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace. But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an ‘intended result’ with an ‘actual result'”.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.

Wiz: Now, Wukong is not invincible. He has been hurt by the Scorpion Demoness’ poison, which could even harm the Buddha, an awaken divine being liberated from the cycle of life and death entirely.

17. Please see what I wrote about the scorpion above (sec. 1.2, #2)

[Random skit removed for brevity]

Boomstick: Ugh… But even after all that, Sun had one more challenger to contend with; the Buddha himself!

Wiz: Buddha approached Wukong with a contest: leap out of his hand, and he could have the Jade Emperor’s throne for himself.

Boomstick: Having no impulse control, the monkey agreed, and in an instant, somersaulted to the very edge of Heaven.

Wiz: But he had already lost. Because Buddha achieved Nirvana, he transcended the world, literally holding all of existence. So even at the edge of the universe, Wukong technically never left his hand.

18. This matches what I wrote above about the Buddha and the universe (sec. 1.2, #3).

Boomstick: For his rebellion, Sun was put in time out, sealed under a mountain for 500 years.

19. This is an understandable mistake as the phrase “500 years” is thrown around a lot in the novel. But as I explain here, chapter 14 states that the mountain trapped Monkey during the rein of a historical usurper (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 306), revealing that his imprisonment actually lasts somewhere between 617 to 649 years.   

Wiz: But even Sun Wukong would find a chance at redemption. In his case, he was tasked with escorting and protecting a monk, Tang Sanzang, or Tripitaka, on a journey to the west.

Boomstick: With additional companions Pigsy and Sandy. The trip was a tough one, and Monkey abandoned it more than once. But through it all, he always returned to shine as the group’s powerhouse, saving Tripitaka’s life many, many times. Seriously, this guy could not stay out of trouble. It’s like Wiz on a blind date.

Wiz: Ahem. Wukong has cracked apart mountains, slayed hundreds of monsters, and survived the Yellow Wind Demon‘s storm that could destroy the universe. As in Heaven, Earth, the 18 layers of Hell, and more!

Popup: The storm is depicted differently across translations, but the original Chinese text uses “乾坤”, meaning “universe”, or more literally “every manifestation of nature”.

Boomstick: That’s cool and all, Wiz, but let’s answer the real question. Can he beat Goku?

Wiz: Um… maybe! During his journey, Wukong performed possibly his most legendary feat: holding up Mount Sumeru which, in traditional Mahayana Buddhism, is a mountain supporting the infinite cosmic sky.

Boomstick: And Sun just hauled it around on one shoulder. Just one! Because on his other shoulder… was a whole other mountain!

Popup: The other mountain was Mount Emei, one of the Sacred Mountain of China.

20. Example #4 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. This material of course comes from here.

Wiz: After 14 years of travel, the journey was complete, and Wukong had finally accomplished a truly great deed. For this, he was given his long-awaited place among the heavens.

Boomstick: As the Victorious Fighting Buddha! Now that’s got to be an anime.

Wiz: After so much time as a rebel, an outcast, and a truly unstoppable warrior, Sun Wukong had, at last, found his home.


Update: 06-28-22

I previously referenced Sun’s turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace but stated that this should not be used as an anti-feat since the flames never actually hurt him (due to taking shelter in a cooler portion of the brazier) (06-19-22 update & sec. 4, #16). I also referenced Red Boy’s spiritually-cultivated Samādhi fire, noting that it is more powerful than earthly or even heavenly fire (sec. 1.2, #2). Regarding the latter, remember that Monkey easily survives an attempted execution by this celestial flame (sec. 1.2, #3). But it’s important to highlight that, in chapter 41, the combination of Samādhi fire and intense smoke is shown to override Monkey’s famous fire-protection spell:

His whole body covered by flame and smoke, the Great Sage found the intense heat unbearable and he dove straight into the mountain stream to try to put out the fire. Little did he anticipate that the shock of the cold water [11] was so great that the heat caused by the fire was forced inward into his body and he fainted immediately (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 231).

And I was recently reminded of an additional episode where Sun has another brush with supernatural flames. In chapter 75, an ancient demon king places Monkey in a small, unassuming vase for execution, but the latter comments on the cool temperature inside. However, it turns out that this is an ultra powerful treasure “governed by the double primal forces of yin and yang” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368), and the second that he speaks, the vessel assaults Sun first with fire, then biting snakes, and finally fire dragons. The first round of fire has no effect on him (nor do the snakes) but the fire dragons produce flames so hot that they also override the fire-protection spell:

He had hardly finished speaking when he felt some pain on his shanks. Rubbing them hurriedly with his hand, he found his shanks were turning flaccid because of the fire. More and more anxious, he thought to himself, “What’s to become of me? Even my shanks are weakened by the fire. I’ll be reduced to a cripple!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369)

What’s interesting is that the vase’s various torments are said to be “activated by the seven jewels, the eight trigrams, and the twenty-four solar terms” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368) (emphasis mine). These are the same eight trigrams as Laozi’s furnace. So, this suggests that Sun’s time in the brazier would have actually hurt his body. While this might even destroy his form, the novel hints that, besides providing a surplus of extra heads, the 72 Transformations also grant Monkey extra lives just like a video game (see the 06-12-22 update here). But this “respawning” is never officially shown in the novel. So what would happen if Sun had been trapped inside the Eight Trigrams furnace in direct heat? Would he just keep regenerating over and over again until his extra lives were spent (or he escaped), or would the supernatural flames simply destroy his body once and for all? I’m not sure. Make of this what you will.

But my original point still stands: Hercules would not have been able to overcome Monkey’s immortality unless he was carrying around a heavenly furnace and managed to force and keep the primate hero inside for a given time.


Update: 07-01-22

I forgot to mention something regarding the various fire-related episodes in the last update: Sun Wukong’s abilities are presented inconsistently throughout the novel. This is best illustrated by two episodes. As mentioned above, in chapter 75, Monkey cries that he’ll be a cripple if the supernatural fire continues to burn his ankles. But he previously demonstrated the ability to heal using his immortal breath in Chapter 46:

With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).

Prior to this, he quoted a fun poem about his abilities:

Cut off my head and I still can speak,
Sever my arms, I still can beat you up!
My legs amputated, I still can walk.
My belly, ripped open, will heal again,
Smooth and snug as a wonton people make:
A tiny pinch and it’s completely formed.
To bathe in boiling oil is easier still;
Like warm liquid cleanse me of dirt it will (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 307).

This inconsistency is likely due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, it’s important to remember that Monkey is only as fast, strong, or invulnerable as the story calls for him to be. This serves to heighten the drama, making the story more compelling.


Update: 07-03-22

I’ve updated section three (“When heroes meet”) with new information. The section was more of an after thought when I was originally rushing to finish the article.


Update: 07-08-22

I’ve been thinking of more plausible ways in which the Monkey King and the original Greek Heracles might come into conflict. The two I have in mind require “what if” scenarios that change the original Journey to the West (1592) story in one way or another. The first involves Guanyin calling on Heracles/Vajrapāni instead of Erlang to deal with the primate immortal in chapter six. (As a dharma protector and embodiment of the Buddha’s power, Heracles/Vajrapāni would naturally be imbued with dharma power, the penultimate power in the novel’s cosmos. This means that he would eventually prevail over Monkey but come to respect Monkey’s strength and skill, especially since the primate only studied spiritual cultivation and martial arts for three years prior to his adventures.) This would make the reason for their fight more natural, but creating an extended narrative where the hero befriends Sun and introduces him to the Greek pantheon would be difficult as the journey—i.e. escorting the monk to India—still needs to take place.

The second involves the end of the novel when the Buddha orders the eight Vajra warriors to escort the pilgrims to China in chapter 100. Perhaps, in our version, Heracles/Vajrapāni is among them or he even replaces the eight. Knowing of Monkey’s great power, he might invite him to have a friendly sparring match. But this seems like a bad time to pick a fight, making their confrontation less natural. But considering that this happens at the end of the journey, it opens the door to introducing Sun to the Greek gods. This would naturally occur after Monkey achieves Buddhahood, removing any chance that he would struggle against a Grecian foe.

As I write this, I thought of a third that’s a mix of the two. Heracles/Vajrapāni is still called on to halt Sun’s rampage, and after the latter is promoted in spiritual rank, the Buddha charges the guardian with escorting the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” through the Greek world system—i.e. the Greek pantheon. I really like the idea of Heracles/Vajrapāni visiting his old pantheon as his Vajra weapon is analogous to Zeus’ thunderbolt. It serves the same function under the Hindu storm god Indra, who is sometimes associated with Zeus in Greco-Buddhist art.

The first Greeks arrived in India during the reign of Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) and later Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Just like American Gods, these merchants, artisans, farmers, and mercenaries would have brought their religion with them, allowing the Greek pantheon to learn of the Buddha. And just like the “Enlightened One” conversed with the Vedic gods atop Mt. Sumeru, he too might visit Olympus and talk with the Greek gods. This would lead Zeus assigning his son, the “god of strength”, to guard the Buddha, forming a link between the Greek and Buddhist pantheons.

Notes:

1) JTTW uses two measurement units when referring to the staff, the chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese foot”; 12.52 in / 31.8 cm) and the zhang (丈; 1 = 10 chi) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). Monkey is said to fight with the staff at two lengths, “two zhang” (erzhang, 二丈, i.e. 20 chi) in chapter three and “12 or 13 chi” (丈二三) in chapter 88 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135; vol. 4, p. 196). But twenty is likely a typo for 12 (zhanger, 丈二, 3.82 m / 12.53 ft.) since the pillar was already close to the former size when Sun first saw it in the dragon treasury. Therefore, this correction agrees with the latter measurement.

2) Translation slightly altered. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) writes that it’s the size of a “rice bowl” (vol. 1, p. 135), but this doesn’t appear in the original Chinese.

3) In chatper 59, for example, he invades the stomach of his former bond brother‘s wife in an attempt to procure a magic weapon needed to clear his master’s path to the west:

“I’m now having a little fun in my esteemed Sister-in-law’s stomach! I am, as the saying goes, seeing right through you! I know how thirsty you must be, so let me send you a ‘sitting bowl’ to relieve your thirst” Suddenly he shoved his foot down hard and unbearable pain shot through Rākṣasī’s lower abdomen, sending her tumbling to the floor and moaning. “Please don’t refuse me, Sister-in-law,” said Pilgrim, “I’m presenting you with an added snack for your hunger.” He jerked his head upward, and unbearable pain coursed through Rākṣasī’s heart. She began to roll all over the ground, the pain turning her face yellow and her lips white. All she could do was to cry out, “Brother-in-law Sun, please spare my life!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129).

4) Mt. Sumeru is said to be 160,000 yojanas (1 yojana = roughly 8 miles/12.87 km) tall, with 80,000 below a great ocean and 80,000 exposed above (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 454).

5) Three lines from a poem in chapter 41 read: “It’s not fire from Heaven, / Nor is it a wildfire. / It’s the realized samādhi fire born of the demon’s self-cultivation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 225).

6) “Dharma power” (fali, 法力) is the strongest form of magic in Journey to the West. See this paper for an explanation of the novel’s Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy, which places Buddhist deities at the top.

7) The hydra is the nigh-immortal offspring of the Titanic monsters Typhon and Echidna (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 52).

8) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) uses “pounds” instead of the original jin (斤, a.k.a. catty) (vol. 1, p. 135). During the Ming dynasty when the novel was compiled, one jin equaled approximately 590 grams (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). I will therefore alter Yu’s translation to reflect more accurate measures.

9) Yes, this information comes from Wikipedia, but I’m the one who originally added it under the screenname “Ghostexorcist”. See this edit history, for example.

10) I follow the translation used in Meulenbeld (2019). Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) simply translates this as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude” (vol. 1, p. 122).

11) This sounds like a case of thermal shock.

Sources:

Aston, E. (2021). Labor VI: The Stymphalian Birds. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 95-106). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Deacy, S. (2021). Heracles between Hera and Athena. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 387-394). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Hanesworth, P. (2021). Labor XII: Cerberus. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 165-180). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Hesiod, & Powell, B. B. (2017). The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Herakles. United States: University of California Press.

Hinsch, B. (2011). Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hsing, I.T., & Crowell, W. G. (2005). Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China. Asia Major, 18(2), 103–154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41649907

Hsu, K. L. (2021). The Madness and the Labors. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 13-25). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code: Da Ming Lü. United States: University of Washington Press.

March, J. (2021). Labor I: The Nemean Lion. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 29-44). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Mayor, A. (2021). The Girdle of the Amazon Hippolyte. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 124-134). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Meulenbeld. (2019). Vernacular “Fiction” and Celestial Script: A Daoist Manual for the Use of Water Margin. Religions10(9), 518. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/rel10090518

Ogden, D. (2021a). Introduction. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. xxi-xxxi). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Ogden, D. (2021b). Labor VIII: The Mares of Diomede (and Alcestis). In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 113-123). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Pache, C. (2021). Birth and Childhood. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 3-12). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Romero-Gonzalez, D. (2021). Deianeira, Death, and Apotheosis. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 266-280). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Sadakata, A. (1997). Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Japan: Kosei Publishing Company.

Salowey, C. (2021). The Gigantomachy. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 235-250). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Salapata, G. (2021). Labor XI: The Apples of Hesperides. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 149-164). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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

Theocritus, & Gow A. S. F. (1952). Theocritus (Vol. 1-2). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

Vasubandhu (2014). Abhidharmakosabhasyam of Vasubandhu (Vol. 2) (L. de La Vallee Poussin & L. M. Pruden, Trans.). United States: Jain Publishing Company.

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

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

The Weight of the Monkey King’s Staff: A Literary Origin

Sun Wukong’s magic staff is famed in popular culture for its ability to grow and shrink but less so for its great weight. The latter quality is best demonstrated in chapter 56 when human bandits attempt and fail to pick up the 8.8 ton weapon:

Sticking the rod into the ground, Pilgrim said to them, “If any of you can pick it up, it’s yours.” The two bandit chiefs at once went forward to try to grab it, but alas, it was as if dragonflies were attempting to shake a stone pillar. They could not even budge it half a whit! This rod, you see, happened to be the “As-you-will” gold-banded cudgel, which tipped the scale in Heaven at thirteen thousand, five hundred catties [yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,560 lbs. / 7,965 kg]. [1] How could those bandits have knowledge of this? The Great Sage walked forward and picked up the rod with no effort at all. Assuming the style of the Python Rearing its Body, he pointed at the bandits and said, “Your luck’s running out, for you have met old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 81).

I suggested in one of my earliest articles that the weight of Monkey’s staff had a connection to Chinese numerology:

Thirteen thousand five hundred is divisible by nine, which Chinese numerology considers to represent “infinity”. So it’s possible the number (infinity multiplied) was meant to convey that the staff was heavy beyond comprehension, something that only a divine hero such as Monkey would be able to wield.

While I still agree the great weight cements his position as a superior hero, I no longer believe the number is connected to numerology.

1. Connection to the Water Margin

I now suggest the weight of the weapon was directly influenced by a scene in chapter 27 of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). [2] It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block:

“You mean I haven’t got my strength back? All right. How heavy is the stone block [shi dun, 石墩] I saw in front of the Heavenly King Temple yesterday?” [3]

[Shi En, a young admirer] “Probably three to five hundred catties [san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg].” [4]

“Let’s take a look. I wonder whether I can move it.”

“Please have some food and wine first.”

“There’ll be time enough for that when we come back.”

The two men walked to the Heavenly King Temple. The prisoners on the grounds bowed and hailed them respectfully. Wu Song shook the stone slightly. He laughed.

“This soft life is spoiling me. I’ll never be able to pick it up!”

“You shouldn’t scoff,” said Shi En. “That stone weighs three to five hundred catties!”

Wu Song grinned. “You really think I can’t lift it? Get back, you men, and watch this.”

He slipped off his tunic and tied the sleeves around his waist. Embracing the stone, he raised it easily [fig. 1], then tossed it away with both hands. It dropped with a thud, sinking a foot into the earth. The watching prisoners were astonished.

Wu Song grasped the stone with his right hand and lifted. With a sudden twist, he flung it upwards. It sailed ten feet into the air. He caught it in both hands as it came down and lightly put it back in its original place. He turned and looked at Shi En and the prisoners. His face wasn’t flushed, he wasn’t even breathing hard, his heart beat calmly (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1999, pp. 845-847).

Fig. 1 – Wu Song lifts the stone block (larger version). Image found here.

Now compare it to the scene in chapter three of Journey to the West where Monkey procures his magic staff:

“Take it [the staff] out and let me see it,” said Wukong. Waving his hands, the Dragon King said, “We can’t move it! We can’t even lift it! The high immortal must go there himself to take a look.” “Where is it?” asked Wukong. “Take me there.”

The Dragon King accordingly led him to the center of the ocean treasury, where all at once they saw a thousand shafts of golden light. Pointing to the spot, the Dragon King said, “That’s it—the thing that is glowing.” Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod [tie zhuzi, 鐵柱子] more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands [fig. 2], 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, “’As-you-will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: thirteen thousand five hundred catties [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒,重一萬三千五百斤] [fig. 3].” He thought to himself in secret delight, “This treasure, I suppose, must be most compliant with one’s wishes.” As he walked, he was deliberating in his mind and murmuring to himself, bouncing the rod in his hands, “Shorter and thinner still would be marvelous!” By the time he took it outside, the rod was no more than twelve feet in length and had the thickness of a rice bowl (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). [5]

Fig. 2 – Monkey lifts the iron pillar (larger version). Fig. 3 – Sun looks at the inscription, including the weight (larger version). Screenshots from the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

2. Comparison

Both scenes involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of 一萬 and 千, respectively (fig. 4). [6] Now, someone might say the numbers are meaningless as “three to five hundred” is a common estimate for lengths, distances, and people used throughout the Water Margin (some examples). But the proposed connection is strengthened when you take into account the many similarities shared by Monkey and Wu. I show in this article that both are reformed supernatural spirits previously trapped under the weight of magic mountains, slayers of tigers, Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim”, monastic masters of martial arts, wearers of moralistic golden headbands, and wielders of bin steel weapons. Therefore, given the close historical and cultural ties between the two characters, I believe the author-compiler of Journey to the West embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.

Fig. 4 – The weight of Monkey’s staff where the red characters represent additions to the weight of Wu Song’s stone in black.

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 (Wu & Jenner, 2001, p. 56). Also, Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, 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. 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 17,560 lbs.

2) The scene happens in chapter 28 of the English translation (see Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1999).

3) The English translation doesn’t mention the specific name of the temple appearing in the original Chinese version. I’ve corrected this.

4) The English translation says “four or five hundred catties” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1999, pp. 845-847), whereas the Chinese says “three to five hundred catties” (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤). I’ve corrected this.

5) Again, I have slightly modified Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation. Also, both the original Chinese and the translation say the staff was shrunk to “no more than twenty feet in length” (zhiyou er zhang changduan, 只有二丈長短) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135), but it was close to 20 feet from the start. This is likely an error (thanks to Irwen Wong for pointing this out).

6) These mean “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. When combined with the character for three, the latter becomes “3,000” (sanqian, 三千).

Sources:

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

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (1999). Outlaws of the Marsh (Bilingual ed.). Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press.

Wu, C., & Jenner, W.J.F. (2001). Journey to the West (vol. 1). Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press.

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

Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

Last updated: 07-17-2022

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of tens of thousands of arms. [1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

I. Explanation

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this pattern to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the Big Dipper pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping, three pace-style walking pattern. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.

(Note 06/15/19: Feng Dajian of Nankai University notified me via Twitter that he disagrees with Anthony C. Yu’s 2012 revised translation (cited above) associating the “True Sayings” with the Buddhist Dharani. This is because he feels the ritual is overtly Daoist, noting that the religion also has its own True Sayings.)

Pratisara_Mantra1

Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hard-won “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of hours or minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008). This suggests that, beyond super strength, the ritual also gives them some form of immortality.

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few days, hours, or minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.

II. Similarities to Comic Book Heroes

The princes in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. Gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods and sages through the medium of a divine wizard.

4139607-160

Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known colloquially as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.

III. Conclusion

This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few days, hours, or minutes. The princes come away from the ritual with superhuman strength and likely some form of immortality.


Update: 07-17-22

I’ve posted an article that explores the abilities of Monkey’s immortal breath (used in the ritual above).

A Survey of Sun Wukong’s Magic “Immortal Breath” and Its Abilities

Notes:

1) The original English translation says “a thousand arms”, but the Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation has been corrected

2) Andersen (2008) notes that the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).

Sources:

Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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

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

Sun Wukong’s Greatest Feat of Strength: An Allegory for Cultural or Religious Conflict?

Last updated: 07-03-2022

Now that I’ve written an entry debunking the idea that Sun Wukong’s staff anchored the Milky Way, I now want to write a piece about his greatest feat of strength in Journey to the West. This feat takes place in chapter 33 after Zhu Bajie has been captured by two demon brothers, Kings Goldhorn (Jinjiao Dawang, 金角大王) and Silverhorn (Yinjiao Dawang, 銀角大王). King Silverhorn, the younger of the two, then sets out to capture Tripitaka but is forced to resort to trickery when he learns the monk is protected by Sun Wukong. He transforms himself into an elderly Daoist laying by the roadside with a broken leg. The monk takes pity and forces Monkey to carry him on his back. However, the immortal sees through the disguise and plans to throw his charge off a cliff. But…

As the Great Sage was about to do this, the monster knew instantly of his plan. Knowing how to summon mountains, he resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” Exerting his spirit even more, he recited another spell and sent up the Tai Mountain to press down on Pilgrim’s head. With this magic of the Tai Mountain Pressing the Head, the Great Sage was overpowered as his strength ebbed and his tendons turned numb; the weight was so great that the spirits of the Three Worms inside his body exploded and blood spurted from his seven apertures (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 108-109).

We see here Monkey is able to successfully carry the weight of both the Sumeru and Emei mountains, while running after his master “with the speed of a meteor”. That’s quite impressive, even if he is eventually crushed under the weight of a third mountain (fig. 1). Attention should be given to the particular mountains used in this episode. Let’s start with Sumeru since this is the first one mentioned.

1950s Illustrated Saiyuki - Detail of Monkey crushed under 3 mountains (small)

Fig. 1 – Monkey trapped under the three mountains as King Silverhorn abducts Tripitaka, the dragon horse, and Sha Wujing (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West (1950), a Japanese children’s book.

Buswell and Lopez (2014) describe Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山) as:

The central axis of the universe in Buddhist cosmology; also known as Mount Meru. Mount Sumeru stands in the middle of the world as its axis and is eight leagues high …  The slopes of Sumeru are the abode of demigods, and its upper reaches are the heavens of the four heavenly kings. At the summit of the mountain is the heaven of the thirty-three, ruled by the king of the gods, Sakra. Above Mount Sumeru are located the remaining heavens of the sensuous realm [fig. 2] (p. 896).

[Note: The portion that has been struck through appears to be a typo. Please see the 06-19-22 update below.]

A poem in chapter four of Journey to the West describes what Monkey sees when he first comes to live in heaven as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. A portion reads, “Thirty-three mansions were found up here, / With names like the Scattered Cloud, the Vaisravana, the Pancavidya, the Suyama, the Nirmanarati…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 146). Translator Anthony C. Yu notes, “The verse here is alluding to the Indra heaven with it’s thirty-three summits (trāyastriṃśa) [fig. 2] and the six heavens of desire (devalokas)”, which are located atop Mount Sumeru (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 510, n. 1). Therefore, the heaven described in the novel is located on the same cosmic mountain as that from Hindo-Buddhist cosmology, meaning Monkey successfully supports the axis of the universe on one shoulder.

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Fig. 2 – Mount Sumeru indicated in gold. The location of the aforementioned 33 heavens/mansions are indicated in pink. A great cosmic ocean is indicated in blue (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. xxxii.

Mount Emei (Emei shan, 峨嵋山; 峨眉山) is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. It is considered extremely important as Chinese tradition believes, upon entering the Middle Kingdom from India, Buddhism spread from this very mountain during the eastern Han Dynasty and proliferated throughout China. The mountain is 10,167 feet high, making it over 3,000 feet taller than the other sacred Buddhist mountains. This place is believed to be the heavenly abode of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, making him the patron saint of Emei (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 282-283).

I want to reiterate the fact that both Sumeru and Emei are important to Buddhism. Not only does Monkey support the very axis of the Buddhist universe on one shoulder, he supports on the other the very mountain from which the religion is believed to have spread into China. I’m not sure if this was the author-compiler’s original intent, but it seems as if this feat of strength could be symbolism for Monkey literally “supporting” Buddhism by protecting his master on their journey to India. After all, the historical Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664) on whom Tripitaka is based is considered to be one of, if not the, most prolific translators of Buddhist texts in the history of Chinese Buddhism (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 1015-1016).

I turn now to Mount Tai (Taishan, 泰山), the mountain that ultimately overwhelms Sun Wukong’s supernatural strength. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China, which differ from the four Buddhist counterparts mentioned above. Mount Tai was the epicenter of a state cult in Ancient China, one in which Sage-Kings and emperors of millennia past traveled there to perform sacrifices to heaven, thereby gaining the right to rule or attaining eternal life. An entry in the Classic of History (Shujing, 書經, 4th-c. BCE) suggests the practice goes all the way back to the Sage-King Shun (3rd millennia BCE) (Poo, 2011, pp. 20-21). Due to its great cultural and historical significance, the mountain came to be recognized as an adamantine monolith, the very name of which was used as a metaphor for something unfathomably heavy, whether it be a physical measure of weight or philosophical importance. For example, Warring States philosopher Mozi took part in a debate over the plausibility of his school of thought taking center stage in Chinese society. His opponent claimed, “As we see it, one can no more put it into practice than one can pick up Mount Tai and leap over a river with it!” Mozi highlighted the irrelevant nature of the metaphor by replying, “As for picking up Mount Tai and leaping over rivers with it, no one from ancient times to the present, from the beginning of humankind to now, has ever succeeded in doing that!” (Watson, 1999a, p. 71). Another example comes from the Han historian Sima Qian who wrote, “A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it” (pp. 371-372). Therefore, the mountain represented the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. It’s no wonder then that not even Monkey could withstand its weight.

The idea of Mount Tai symbolizing a heavy object influenced the name of a 17th-century technique related to the development of Taiji boxing called “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai” (Taishan yading, 泰山壓頂) (fig. 3), which involved climbing onto an opponent (Henning, 2009, pp. 78 and 82). Incidentally, the name of this technique is also a common chinese saying referring to someone being under a lot of stress (Gao, Wang, & Weightman, 2012, p. 191).

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Fig. 3 – “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai”. From Henning, 2009, p. 78 (larger version).

I find it interesting that, after easily bearing the weight of two Buddhist mountains, Mount Tai is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Mount Tai represents native Chinese history and culture, while Sumeru and Emei represent Buddhism, a non-native religion from India. Therefore, this episode could be read as a struggle between the domestic and foreign aspects of Chinese culture. Considering the monsters are later revealed to be Daoist attendants of Laozi sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145), it’s possible the conflict is between Daoism, a native Chinese religion, and Buddhism.

This is obviously not a perfect theory, though. For instance, Laozi reveals that it was actually the Bodhisattva Guanyin who requested the lads be sent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). Does this explain why a Daoist spirit would summon two Buddhist mountains to crush Monkey? I’m interested in what others think.

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Fig. 4 – A modern painting of Hanuman lifting the mountain (larger version). All credit goes to the original artist S. Keerthi. 

Lastly, I would like to note Sun Wukong’s feat of lifting mountains recalls an episode in the Ramayana (4th-c. BCE) in which the monkey god Hanuman carries back a mountain laden with magical herbs to heal the wounds of his master‘s brother Lakshmana (fig. 4). Hanuman is the living embodiment of strength (shakti) in India (see for example Alter, 1992). Monkey is believed to be loosely based on Hanuman (Walker, 1998), so there could be a connection between both instances of mountain lifting.


Update: 08-10-18

Monkey’s feat appears to be based on a native Chinese story and not the Ramayana. This is first hinted at in chapter 33 when the demon exclaims the Great Sage “truly knows how to pole mountains [dan shan, 擔山]!” A poem spoken by Sun Wukong in chapter 67 confirms the connection:

Purvavideha was my ancestral home,
I did cultivation on Mount Flower-Fruit.
I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mind
and perfected with him the martial arts.
I can tame dragons, stirring up the seas;
I can tote mountains to chase down the sun.
In binding fiends and demon’s I’m the best;
Moving stars and planets, I scare ghosts and gods.
Stealing from heav’n and Earth gives me great fame,
Of boundless change, Handsome Stone Monkey’s my name (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 243).

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Fig. 5 – Erlang poling the mountains (larger version). Artist unknown.

“I can tote mountains to chase down the sun” (shan hui dan shan gan ri tou, 善會擔山趕日頭) is a clear allusion to the ancient tale “Erlang carries mountains to chase the suns” (Erlang dan shan gan taiyang, 二郎擔​​山趕太陽). The tale describes how the ancient earth was plagued by many suns that scorched the land, making it impossible for the people to grow anything. Vowing to end this plight, the hero Erlang shoulders two mountains hanging from a tree and, with the aid of magical shoes, chases down each sun [fig. 5], using the weight from both landmasses to overwhelm and crush the superfluous celestial bodies (担山赶太阳, n.d). Apart from the feat of lifting two mountains, Erlang’s fleet pursuit of each sun (gan taiyang, 趕太陽) foreshadows Monkey “giv[ing] chase to his master with the speed of a meteor” (fei xing lai gan shifu, 飛星來趕師父).

It’s interesting to note that “Erlang Carrying Mountains” (Erlang dan shan, 二郎擔山) is a common Shaolin stance, and a staff variant even appears in the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 6). The staff obviously recalls the pole (or in this case tree) that Erlang uses to bear the weight of the mountains.

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Fig. 6 – The “Erlang Carrying Mountains” staff stance (larger version).


Update: 06-23-21

One thing I forgot to stress was the speed with which Sun Wukong is able to run while carrying the mountains. The novel reads: “Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor!” (Kan ta tiaozhe liang zuo dashan, feixing lai gan shifu, 看他挑著兩座大山,飛星來趕師父) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 109). According to this page, meteors (feixing, 飛星; lit: “flying stars”) enter the atmosphere between 25,000 to 160,000 mph (40,226 to 257,451 km/h). So Monkey would be traveling at mach 32 to 208(!) while carrying the weight of the aforesaid mountains. Pretty impressive, no? This puts the Flash to shame (fig. 7). I wonder if Superman has ever carried something this heavy while running.

Fig. 7 – DC Comics’ the Flash running at super speed (larger version). Found randomly online.


Update: 03-11-22

I recently archived the Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang baojuan, 二郎寳卷, 1562), a baojuan that venerates and records the various deeds of the immortal demi-god. The work states that the Monkey King was “pressed under the base of Mt. Tai” (yazai, taishan gen, 壓在太山根) (PDF page 46) (fig. 8). This might also explain why Mt. Tai overwhelms Monkey in chapter 33.

Fig. 8 – The Mt. Tai sentence is indicated in red (larger version).

Update: 03-25-22

My friend Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog was kind enough to provide me time-stamped links to the aforementioned episode in the various JTTW TV shows. I will list them in order of year.

Journey to the West (1986) – live action

Even though this is my favorite show, it did a poor job of representing the mountain. It’s little more than a boulder.

Journey to the West: Legends of the Monkey King (2000) – animated 

This cartoon just has monkey trapped by a single mountain.

New Journey to the West (2010) – live action

This version uses all three mountains and really steps up the special effects. This is no surprise given the differences in time and budget between it and the 1986 edition.

Journey to the West (2011) – live action

This is my favorite depiction of the episode. The special effects are top notch. I will say the elongated arms on the Taoist are a bit odd. But Irwen suggests it’s likely a visual representation of “poling” mountains (as discussed above).

Each of these iterations have their own charm. But all of them depart from the novel by showing Monkey struggling to carry the first two mountains. I remind the reader that the literary character runs “with the speed of a meteor!” while carrying the load (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 108). I guess that would have been hard to depict, even with modern computer graphics.


Update: 06-19-22

Sun Wukong’s feats are on the minds of many people as the Death Battle TV show is set to feature a fight between Hercules and our monkey hero. I’ve seen a few blogs where people try to calculate the size of Mount Sumeru. I cited a source above stating that the landmass is “eight leagues high” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 896), but this appears to be a typo, for other sources multiply this estimate by thousands of times. For example, Sadakata (1997) explains that, according to the Abhidharmakośa (Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century): “Sumeru has a height of 160,000 yojanas, of which half is under water. The half above water is therefore 80,000 yojanas high” (pp. 26-27). The yojana (youxun, 由旬) is approximately eight miles (12.87 km), or the distance that one can travel in one day on a cart driven by a team of oxen. But estimates also range between four and ten miles (6.43 and 16.09 km) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1036). If eight miles is used, then Mt. Sumeru would an astounding 1,280,000 miles (2,059,960.32 km) tall. 


Update: 07-03-22

I should note that Journey to the West does not depict Monkey’s strength consistently throughout the novel. As mentioned, he can carry two mountains (one of them the cosmic axis) on his shoulders while running with meteoric speeds. But apart from Mt. Tai, the novel describes another object that he can’t pick up. Chapter 42 reads:

[T]he Bodhisattva grew terribly angry, crying, “How dare that brazen fiend [Red Boy] change into my image!” As she cried, she flung into the ocean the immaculate porcelain vase set with precious pearls which she held in her hand …

[…]

[After her turtle emerges from the sea with the vase on its back, she orders Monkey to retrieve it for her.] Pilgrim went forward at once to pick up the vase. Alas! He could not do so at all! It was as if a dragonfly attempted to rock a stone pillar-how could he even budge it? Pilgrim approached the Bodhisattva and knelt down, saying, “Your disciple cannot pick it up.” “Monkey head,” said the Bodhisattva, “all you know is how to brag! If you can’t even pick up a small vase, how can you subdue fiends and capture monsters?” “To tell you the truth, Bodhisattva,” said Pilgrim, “I might be able to do it ordinarily, but today I just can’t pick it up. I must have been hurt by the monster-spirit, and my strength has weakened.” The Bodhisattva said, “Normally it’s an empty vase, but once it has been thrown into the ocean, it has traveled through the three rivers, the five lakes, the eight seas, and the four big rivers. It has, in fact, gathered together from all the aquatic bodies in the world an oceanful of water, which is now stored inside it. You may be strong, but you don’t possess the strength of upholding the ocean. That’s why you cannot pick up the vase…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 243 and 244).

But there may be an underlying religious reason for this. For instance, while Sun can’t lift it, the goddess does so easily, as does her holy sea turtle (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 243). Most importantly, the story suggests that Guanyin will send her holy disciple, the “Dragon Girl Skilled in Wealth” (Shancai longnu, 善財龍女), to carry it for him (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 244). So, this could mean that Monkey, at this point in the story, lacks the Buddhist spiritual attainments necessary to lift the vase. “Dharma Power” (fali, 法力) is considered the penultimate power in the novel’s universal hierarchy, even outclassing that wielded by high Daoist deities. 

Sources:

Alter, J. S., & OUP. (1992). The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

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

Gao, W., Wang, A., & Weightman, F. (2012). A Handbook of Chinese Cultural Terms. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford On Demand Pub.

Henning, S. (2009). Taijiquan: Symbol of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Culture. Journal of Chinese Martial Arts, 1, pp. 76-83.

Poo, M. (2011). Preparation for the Afterlife in Ancient China. In Olberding, A., & Ivanhoe, P. J. (Ed.), Mortality in Traditional Chinese Thought (pp. 13-36). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sadakata, A. (1997). Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Japan: Kosei Publishing Company.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or Foreign? A Look at the Origins of Monkey Hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

Watson, B. (1999a). Mozi: Utility, Uniformity, and Universal Love. In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Eds.), Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 64-76). New York: Columbia University Press.

Watson, B. (1999b). The Great Han Historians. In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Eds.), Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 367-374). 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.

担山赶太阳. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://baike.baidu.com/item/担山赶太阳