A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 01-29-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru (see section 1, #1 here). The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another. This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).


Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] in his hands. [4] The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

即於睡中夢一大神長數丈,執戟麾曰:「何不強行,而更臥也!」

After waking up and mounting his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by the bodhisattva (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

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

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?


Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

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).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [5] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

Since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [6]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.


Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [7]

那怪攜著行者,一直行到洞裡深遠密閉之處。卻從口中吐出一件寶貝,有雞子大小,是一顆舍利子玲瓏內丹。行者心中暗喜道:「好東西耶。這件物不知打了多少坐工,煉了幾年磨難,配了幾轉雌雄,煉成這顆內丹舍利。今日大有緣法,遇著老孫。」

As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.


Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.


Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).

因我萬聖老龍生了一個女兒,就喚做萬聖公主。那公主花容月貌,有二十分人才。招得一個駙馬,喚做九頭駙馬,神通廣大。前年與龍王來此,顯大法力,下了一陣血雨,污了寶塔,偷了塔中的舍利子佛寶。公主又去大羅天上,靈霄殿前,偷了王母娘娘的九葉靈芝草,養在那潭底下,金光霞彩,晝夜光明。

This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.

Note:

1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) The translation also included “and a flag” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28), but the Chinese version I have access to does not mention a flag. I have therefore left it out.

5) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

6) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

7) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.

Source:

Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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

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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Story Idea: The REAL Reason Sun Wukong is Expelled from Subodhi’s School

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Last Updated: 05-24-2022

Sun Wukong is kicked out of Patriarch Subodhi‘s (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) school in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) for showing off his transformation skills to his less-accomplished religious brothers. Upon their request, he changes into a perfect pine tree that’s completely indistinguishable from a real one. The subsequent applause greatly disturbs the Master, who reprimands and expels the Monkey King under the pretense of saving his life from those who would harm him to learn his heavenly secrets (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 123-125). [1]

This event is a turning point in Sun’s life, for he transitions from an inward pursuit of spiritual cultivation to an external quest for power, ending with an attempt to unseat the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang shangdi, 玉皇上帝). This ultimately leads to the Buddha imprisoning the seditious primate beneath Five Elements Mountain and punishing him to a hellish diet for 600 plus years.

Here, I would like to prepose a different reason, one that makes more sense and better aligns with some of my previous story ideas.

I. The story so far

Last year I posted a story prompt to reddit to inspire writers looking for a Xianxia (仙俠, “immortal hero”) plot. It serves as a good summation of my past ideas:

The novel briefly mentions that Sun Wukong lives for ten years in the mountain home of the Buddho-Daoist sage Master Subodhi. The first seven are spent as a junior Daoist monk doing menial tasks and learning basic religious or life skills. However, the last three years are spent as a close disciple of Subodhi, learning elixir arts, magic, and combat skills. The novel glosses over his early cultivation in order to jump directly into the action. But imagine a Xianxia story focusing on those three years.

Drama with fellow disciples could arise from Monkey’s supernatural aptitude for quickly learning and mastering a skill. After all, it only takes him three years to go from a mere stone monkey to a powerful immortal capable of going toe-to-toe with gods and demons with millennia of cultivation and combat experience. Think of the resulting battles between our hero and his jealous senior religious brothers and sisters frustrated with his great progress.

In addition, given Sun’s demonstrated knowledge in boxing, weapons, and troop movement, I came up with the story idea that Subodhi’s school is the training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the famous Shaolin temple. Shaolin was mobilized by the Chinese government during the 16th-century to battle pirates attacking the coast. Records indicate that one historical Shaolin monk was made the leader, and he was later forced to singlehandedly defend himself against eight individuals vying for his position. Likewise, I imagine heaven calls up Subodhi’s army to battle some demonic evil, and Monkey might quickly rise through the ranks. This would naturally lead to more tension with his fellow disciples, causing him to defend his position. All of these challenges, plus any action seen by the monastic army in heavenly battles, would explain how Sun Wukong became such a seasoned fighter in such a short time.

Plus, there is the added bonus of Subodhi’s army being called upon to fight Sun during his rebellion against heaven. He might have far surpassed his religious brothers and sisters in skill at this point.

II. Additions

In chapter one, Subodhi is shown to have 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the students of his religious lineage, three of which were historically used by Daoism. [2]

  1. Guang (廣)
  2. Da (大)
  3. Zhi (智)
  4. Hui (慧)
  5. Zhen (真)
  6. Ru (如)
  7. Xing (性)
  8. Hai (海)
  9. Ying (穎)
  10. Wu (悟)
  11. Yuan (圓)
  12. Jue (覺) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

Monkey is part of the tenth generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). This means that all of Subodhi’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name. Perhaps Sun trains with his fellow Wu cohort but quickly moves on to older generations as his skill rapidly progresses.

This leads me to my next point. Above, I mentioned that Subodhi’s army might be called to bear against Monkey during his rebellion. But wouldn’t they recognize him? This feeds into a common question asked around the internet:

Why doesn’t Wukong run into any fellow disciples on the journey?

Well, the simple answer is that this isn’t important to the plot. But I’ve considered two ideas to work around this: One, his younger religious brothers are likely still studying under the Master. And two, the older generations⁠—the ones serving in the monastic army⁠—probably don’t know what Monkey looks like because advanced disciples, within the present story, are made to wear a host of fierce, multi-colored masks (fig. 1) as a way to forsake their identity and subsume the self into deep spiritual and martial cultivation. They would represent the negative thoughts and emotions that keep humans trapped in the illusionary world of Saṃsāra and chained to the wheel of rebirth. Perhaps the face becomes more human and peaceful-looking as the students progress through their training. 

Monk in dharmapala mask performs a mystery dance of Tantric Tibetan Buddhism  on Cham Dance Festival Photograph by Oleg Ivanov

Fig. 1  – “Monk in dharmapala mask performs a mystery dance of Tantric Tibetan Buddhism on Cham Dance Festival” (larger version). Photo by Oleg Ivanov. Image found here.

Also, in my version of the story universe, all immortals and deities attain a halo upon achieving divine status. Here, for example, is a photomanipulation of a haloed Sun Wukong by Elijah McTaggart and myself. Take note of the fiery aureola engulfing the halo. This will come into play shortly (fig. 2). I imagine that these halos/aureolas respectively spin and shine brighter when a divinity’s spiritual power is used.

Fig. 2 – The Monkey King with a halo (larger version). As seen on deviantart. Based on my original photomanipulation.

III. Why he is really kicked out

The reason I’ve devised is connected to one of the aforementioned fights between Monkey and his older religious brothers or sisters. Perhaps Sun is attacked by multiple powerful assailants at once (just like the historical Shaolin monk), and when they start to overwhelm him, his anger ignites his halo, which begins to furiously spin and produce a radiant splendor. Instantly, he takes on a titanic cosmic form, growing 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall and stomping on his assailants. At the same time, his docile-looking mask cracks and reverts to it’s original, fierce form. This, combined with a fiery aureola, gives him the appearance of a giant Dharmapala (Ch: Fahu, 法護), a wrathful “Protector of the Dharma” (Buddhist Law) (fig. 3) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 249-250). This display of raw, untamed spiritual power frightens his older religious brethren. Subodhi himself is also taken aback as Monkey exhibits a great, fiery anger, while also manifesting advanced cultivation techniques that haven’t even been taught to him yet⁠—a testament to his great spiritual intelligence. The Master fears that this rage, combined with Monkey’s demonstrated talent for exponential spiritual growth and perhaps a problem with controlling this power (given Sun’s short years of study), will lead him down the path to villainy. 

This brings us back to the pine tree incident. Perhaps the fight causes Subodhi to uncharacteristically allow Monkey a chance to visit his generational cohort. And when Sun acquiesces to their requests to see his transformation powers, the Master uses this as an opportunity to expel his student.  

Fig. 3 – A modern thangka of the Six-Armed Mahakala dharmapala (larger version). Image found here.

IV. My thoughts

I like this idea because it foreshadows Sun’s cosmic transformations throughout the novel (ch. 3, 6, 61, and 97). It also foreshadows his later mischief throughout the cosmos and eventual rebellion. 


Update: 05-16-22

I imagine Master Subodhi’s mask-wearing monastic army would have an ominous feel to them just like the stylized Persian “immortals” from the film 300 (2006) (fig. 4). 

Fig. 4 – The Persian Immortals from 300 (2006) (larger version).


Update: 05-20-22

On second thought, a better mask would emulate the six paths of reincarnation in Buddhist cosmology:

As before, each would indicate the level of a disciple’s spiritual attainment. Perhaps Master Subodhi’s army would have different units of each category, each one being more powerful than the last.


Update: 05-24-22

Some readers might question why I’ve included so many Buddhist elements if Master Subodhi is a Daoist immortal. While this is true, I choose instead to refer to him as a “Buddho-Daoist Sage” as he preaches aspects of both religions in his lectures: 

With words so florid and eloquent
That gold lotus sprang from the ground.
The doctrine of three vehicles he subtly rehearsed,
Including even the laws’ minutest tittle.
The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance:
His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven.
For a while he lectured on Dao;
For a while he spoke on
Chan
To harmonize the Three Parties is a natural thing.
One word’s elucidation filled with truth
Points to the birthless showing nature’s mystery (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 122) (emphasis mine).

He even advocates for his students to become Buddhas. For example, the poem that Subodhi uses to reveal the secret of immortality to Monkey ends with: “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

It’s also important to remember that Master Subodhi is based on Subhuti, a historical disciple of the Buddha.

Notes:

1) I quote the scene of his expulsion below:

“You, Wukong, come over here! I ask you what sort of exhibition were you putting on, changing into a pine tree? This ability you now possess, is it just for showing off to people? Suppose you saw someone with this ability. Wouldn’t you ask him at once how he acquired it? So when others see that you are in possession of it, they’ll come begging. If you’re afraid to refuse them, you will give away the secret; if you don’t, they may hurt you. You are actually placing your life in grave jeopardy.” “I beseech the master to forgive me,” Wukong said, kowtowing. “I won’t condemn you,” said the Patriarch, “but you must leave this place.” When Wukong heard this, tears fell from his eyes. “Where am I to go, Teacher?” he asked. “From wherever you came,” the Patriarch said, “you should go back there.” “I came from the East Purvavideha Continent,” Wukong said, his memory jolted by the Patriarch, “from the Water-Curtain Cave of the Flower-Fruit Mountain in the Aolai Country.” “Go back there quickly and save your life,” the Patriarch said. “You cannot possibly remain here!” “Allow me to inform my esteemed teacher,” said Wukong, properly penitent, “I have been away from home for twenty years, and I certainly long to see my subjects and followers of bygone days again. But I keep thinking that my master’s profound kindness to me has not yet been repaid. I, therefore, dare not leave.” “There’s nothing to be repaid,” said the Patriarch. “See that you don’t get into trouble and involve me: that’s all I ask.” Seeing that there was no other alternative, Wukong had to bow to the Patriarch and take leave of the congregation. “Once you leave,” the Patriarch said, “you’re bound to end up evildoing. I don’t care what kind of villainy and violence you engage in, but I forbid you ever to mention that you are my disciple. For if you but utter half the word, I’ll know about it; you can be assured, wretched monkey, that you’ll be skinned alive. I will break all your bones and banish your soul to the Place of Ninefold Darkness [Jiuyou zhi chu, 九幽之處], from which you will not be released even after ten thousand afflictions!” “I will never dare mention my master,” said Wukong. “I’ll say that I’ve learned this all by myself.” Having thanked the Patriarch, Wukong turned away, made the magic sign, pulled himself up, and performed the cloud-somersault (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 124-125).

2. Ter Haar (2021) provides a list of such generational names:

Table 1. The use affiliation characters by People of the Way

Dao 道 (Huzhou, Jiaxing, Taizhou, Suzhou) (13 cases) – The Way
Zhi 智 (Huzhou, Jiaxing) (6 cases) – Wisdom
Yuan 圓 (Huzhou, Jiaxing, Taizhou) (5 cases) – Complete
Pu 普 (Taicang, Taizhou, Huating) (4 cases) – Universal
Miao 妙 (Deqing, Jiaxing) (3 cases) – Wondrous
Jue 覺 (Huating) (1 case) – Awareness (p. 39)

Sources:

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

Ter Haar, B. (2021). The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Netherlands: Brill.

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

The Monkey King’s Magic Staff: A Complete Guide

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

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

1. The Literary Weapon

1.1. Staff Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.2. Staff Powers

The staff is shown to have multiple powers.

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

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

2. Origins

2.1. Literary Precursors

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

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

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

2.2. Influence from Religion

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

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.3. Influence from Popular literature

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

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

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

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

Note:

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

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.

Story Idea: The Reason for Sun Wukong’s Rebellion

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins. 

During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數). [1] It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:

The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).

They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)

Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).

Fig. 1 – The “72 Killer Deities” (Qi shi er Shashen, 七十二煞神) folk print from the Anne S. Goodrich Collection (larger version).

In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.

Notes:

1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).

Sources:

Doré, H., & Kennelly, M. (1916). Researches into Chinese superstitions: Vol. 3 – Superstitious practices. Shanghai: T’usewei Printing Press. Retrieved from https://ia800709.us.archive.org/2/items/researchesintoch03dor/researchesintoch03dor.pdf

Meulenbeld, M. (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

Pas, J. F., & Leung, M. K. (1998). Historical Dictionary of Taoism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (1993). Outlaws of the Marsh. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.