I learned in April via a private Thai Monkey King Facebook group that a limited run of colored resin, plain brass, painted brass, and gold-plated brass idols were to be made to raise funds to buy land on which would be built a temple to the Great Sage in Lam Narai, Lopburi province, Thailand. I procured the services of a local woman who contacted the religious organization building the temple, “The Equaling Heaven Academy (Altar) of Lam Narai” (Thai: Săm-nák chĕe tiian dtŭua lam-naa-raai, สำนักฉีเทียนตั๋วลำนารายณ์; Ch: Qitian tan Nannalai, 齊天壇南那來), and reserved a statue for me. Once the idols were cast (over several months), she shipped mine and it arrived on August 31st, 2022. Here, I’d like to briefly describe and compare the idol to other statues that I’ve seen or own.
A fiery halo embellished with an inner circle of stylized ruyi-pattern mushrooms sits behind the Monkey King’s head. This shares similarities with a Monkey Buddha statue from a temple in Fujian province, China (fig. 7), the home of his cult. His bald head is adorned with the famous “curlicue-style” golden headband topped with a flaming Cintāmaṇi jewel, as well as a pair of slithering dragons wrapping around the back and sides of his crown. His visage is intense, with eyes opened wide and the corners of his mouth drawn downwards, forming a subtle “w” shape. A line marking the boundary of his forehead, the sides of his face, and just above his chin is slightly raised, giving the impression that he’s wearing a covering over his head and neck. This represents the pink facial patch, either covering the whole face or just a mask around the eyes, that often appears on gilded Monkey King statues in Thailand (fig. 8).
Fig. 7 (top) – A stature of Sun Wukong as a Buddha at the Yufeng Equaling Heaven Palatial Ancestor Hall of Pingshan (Yufeng Qitian fu Pingshan zudian, 玉封齐天府屏山祖殿) in Fuzhou City, Fujian (larger version). Picture by Saie Surendra of Hanumovies.com. Fig. 8 (bottom) – An example of a golden Thai Monkey statue with a pink patch on the face (larger version). Picture originally posted here.
Both arms are bent at the elbow and held out palm up towards the viewer. His left hand holds an immortal peach, while the right cups the handle of a ruyi-pattern scepter resting on his shoulder. The peach is a common element of his iconography all around the world (fig. 9 & 10); however, the scepter imagery seems to be more popular in Southeast Asia. See, for instance, the trinity from the syncretic “Three Teachings” cult of Malaysia and Singapore. Monkey holds the ruyi-scepter in the same manner (fig. 11).
Fig. 9 – A Taiwanese Monkey statue holding an immortal peach in the left hand (larger version). Fig. 10 – A Singaporean statue with an immortal peach in the left hand (larger version). Both are in my personal collection. See also figure twelve below. Fig. 11 – The “Three Teachings” trinity of Southeast Asia (larger version). Take note of Monkey’s ruyi-scepter. Picture originally posted here.
He wears a knotted neckerchief over a war coat with scale-pattern armor on his shoulders and the flap of cloth between his legs, a military girdle at his stomach and waist adorned with a dragon face, scale-pattern armored pants, and war boots with blocky, up-turned toes. His clothing and armor are adorned with various ruyi-pattern mushrooms. The Monkey King’s iconography commonly shows him wearing armor (fig. 12).
Fig. 12 – Detail of a Taiwanese Great Sage statue wearing armor (larger version). Take note of the armored Monkey statue behind him. Also notice that, like figures nine and ten, the lead idol is holding a peach in the left hand. All statues are in my personal collection.
He sits in a traditional dragon chair. More kingly depictions of the Great Sage commonly portray him seated (fig. 12 & 13). But this element is rare compared to the number of statues showing him standing (refer back to fig. 12; see also my other statues here).
Fig. 12 – The idol from figure nine is also shown seated in a dragon chair (larger version). Fig. 13 – The statue from figure ten is seated in a similar chair but replaces the dragon elements with lotuses (larger version).
Infront of the chair is a step on which his boots rest. It’s labeled in Chinese “大聖佛祖” (Dasheng fozu), or “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch“. I show in this article that the phrase is sometimes transliterated into Thai as “ต้าเชิ่งโฝจู่” (Dtâa chêrngfŏh jòo) and “ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว” (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow”). Both the chair and step sit on a rectangular base adorned with simplistic stone lions to his left and right. I haven’t seen lions in any of his other imagery. The front of the base is labeled:
“The Equaling Heaven Academy (Altar) of Lam Narai”.
The reverse of the backrest features a large symbol for “Buddha” (Fo, 佛), and below this (between the back legs) is a cloud and thunder-pattern lined placard reading:
รุ่น-ซื้อที่ดิน – จัดสร้างโดย คณะม้าทรงพระบู๊ตระกลูหลี่ จลพบุรี (คณะศิษย์จัดสร้างถวาย) 2565 (Thai: rûn séu têe din jàt sâang doi ká-ná máa song prá bóo ต rá gloo-lèe jà-lóp bù-ree (ká-ná sìt jàt sâang tà-wăai))
“The Young Generation Buys Land – Created by the Royal Horse Riding Troupe Raklu Li, Lopburi Province (a group of students made an offering), 2022”. 
This Thai statue is a welcome addition to my ever-growing collection of Great Sage idols. It’s certainly the biggest metal Monkey statue that I’ve found so far.
1. Thank you to “Nattida” for transcribing and translating the Thai text for me.
I first learned of Great Sage worship in Thailand when Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project showed me a Monkey King statue on a Thai Facebook group. Since then, I’ve noticed an explosion in social media posts (mainly on Facebook and Instagram) highlighting his veneration in the “Land of Smiles”. Here, I’d like to record what I’ve learned so far.
Please revisit the page for future updates.
I. Names for the Monkey King
เห้งเจีย (Hêng jiia, or just “Heng Jia/Chia” = Xingzhe, 行者, “Pilgrim”).  This appears to be the most popular of his Thai names. This should come as no surprise, though, as Xingzhe (行者) is used FAR more to refer to Monkey in Journey to the West (4,335 times) than Wukong (悟空) (512 times). 
ซุนหงอคง (Sun ngŏr kong, or just “Sun Ngokong” = Sun Wukong, 孫悟空) (see here).
ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow” = same as above)
Various Thai Facebook groups post pictures of the same kinds of monkey god statues found in East and Southeast Asia. These range from armored warriors wielding the magic staff to serene buddhas on lotus thrones (consult the third paragraph after video one here for a description of Monkey’s traditional iconography). But I’ve noticed that one flavor of Thai Great Sage statue is almost entirely gilded (or draped with gold cloth) except for a pink/red mask around the eyes, the latter being similar to his Chinese opera depictions. Said statues tend to feature a golden headband with very tall curlicues (fig. 1).
Fig. 1 – An example of a golden Thai monkey statue with a pink mask and a high curlicue headband (larger version). Originally posted here.
I’ve also noticed an abundance of Dizang-like Monkey Buddha statues, similar to those found in Singapore (I haven’t seen many such depictions in Taiwan). This may be of Fujian influence (see here). He is sometimes portrayed wearing an ornate crown (with or without the golden headband) and monk’s robes and seated on a lotus throne. One hand is held in a mudra, while the other clasps a ruyi scepter (or more rarely a fly whisk). I recently purchased such a statue with an amulet pressed in the bottom (fig. 2 and video #1).
Fig. 2 – My 20cm colored resin Thai Monkey Buddha statue (larger version). Take note that the lotus throne sits on a pile of gold coins and ingots. Picture by the original seller.
Video #1 – Video by the original seller.
Buddhist amulets (Th: prá krêuuang, พระเครื่อง) are immensely important to Thai devotees. Marcus (2018) explains that they are believed to “endow wearers with supernatural faculties”. He continues: “Some amulets are thought to bring success and happiness. Others are believed to protect the wearer against disease, witchcraft, and misfortune” (Marcus, 2018). It’s no different for worshipers of the Monkey King. I’ve seen countless examples on Facebook ranging from Monkey Buddhas to Monkey warriors. See four examples below (fig. 3-6).
Like East and Southeast Asia, Thailand also has Great Sage spirit-mediums (Ch: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; lit: “Divining Child”) (consult the paragraph after figure six here for more information about these ritual specialists). One temple medium seen on the ไปดีมาดี Channel1928 YouTube channel employs white, black, and gold headbands with the aforementioned high curlicue design. The color used appears to depend on which monkey god takes over the medium. I can’t comment on any rituals particular to the Thai religious sphere. But I have seen the medium perform self-mortification in order to create paper talismans (video #2). This is a normal function of spirit-mediums even in East and Southeast Asia. See my twitter post for pictures of a similar Taiwanese ritual.
I’m hoping to gather more information on Thai Great Sage spirit-mediumship in the future.
Video #2 – HEADPHONE WARNING!!!The Thai Great Sage medium cuts his tongue to create paper talismans.
I just learned from this webpage that there is a Thai language book about the history of the Monkey King. Here’s the citation:
Also, I’ve learned the name and location of a small monkey god temple in Bangkok, Thailand (fig. 8-10 and video #3). It is claimed to be at least 200 years old(!), suggesting that Heng Jia has been worshiped by Chinese-Thai for several centuries:
ศาลเจ้าพ่อเห้งเจีย (Săan-jâo-pôr Hêng-jiia) – “Shrine of Heng Jia”
66 Rama IV Rd, Talat Noi, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10500, Thailand
A fellow member of the Taoism Singapore and the Local Gods and their Legends Facebook groups was kind enough to let me post pictures of a Thai Monkey God amulet that he received in San Francisco around the year 2000. The top notes that it’s from the Tanglai Temple (Tanglai gong, 唐來宮), the first two characters being a term used in Journey to the West to indicate that the pilgrims have “come from China” in the east. The characters on the left and right sides combine to read “I submit to the Buddha Amitabha” (Namo Amituofo, 南無阿彌陀佛). The Thai at the bottom reads “Reverend Monk Heng Jia” (lŭuang bpòo hêng-jiia, หลวงปู่เห้งเจีย) (fig. 11). The reverse depicts the eight trigrams encircling a Taiju symbol (fig. 12), indicating that the amulet is Buddho-Daoist.
Ellis (2017) mentions a “monument” to Heng Jia in Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (ศาลเจ้าพ่อเขาใหญ่) (p. 86). Mr. Ellis told me in a personal communication that the cave “is on Ko Si Chang island off the coast of Pattaya“. The address is:
5R94+7MM, Tha Thewawong, Ko Sichang District, Chon Buri 20120, Thailand
The small Monkey shrine is located in the interior, and it is surrounded by a forest of red prayer sheets (fig. 13). See here for a video touring the cave. The section featuring Heng Jia starts around minute 3:16.
Munier (1998) notes that this cave is the “only one” dedicated to Monkey in Thailand (p. 170)(see the 09-11-22 update below). A big thank you to Mr. Ellis for providing this information. Please check out his blog.
Also, here’s a Thai prayer to Hengjia (video #4). It’s called “Prayer to the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Bòt sùuat mon dtâi sìia húk-jôh, บทสวดมนต์ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว), and the video labels it in Chinese as “Scripture of the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu jing, 大聖佛祖經).
This page mentions the benefits of worshiping Heng Jia (based on Google Translate):
If anyone worships Lord Tai Sia Huk Zhou, it will make everything smooth, turning bad into good, making it possible to do anything without obstacles. This includes family and friends, doing business, selling progress, keeping anything bad from coming into our lives. The believer must behave well, think positively, and never think ill of others. All blessings will bear fruit. Life will be truly happy and business will progress more and more.
If worshipers are free from evil and have health, intelligence, tact, and courage, they will be able to always find a solution to their problems. Therefore, [Heng Jia’s faith] is very popular among business operators that need to find a solution to every obstacle and problem.
My friend posted a picture of a Thai Great Sage shrine to Facebook. It shows a stone monkey statue, behind which is a large silver and gold staff. Whereas the literary weapon is “如意金箍棒” (Ruyi jingu bang), the “As-you-will Gold-Banded Staff”, the shrine version is labeled “如意金剛榜” (Ruyi jingang bang), “As-you-will Vajra staff” (fig. 17 and 18).  The Vajra (jingang, 金剛) is a heavenly weapon closely associated with the Buddhist guardian deity Vajrapāni (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩, lit: “The Vajra-Bearing Bodhisattva”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955). Therefore, the name change strengthens Sun Wukong’s association with Buddhism.
Fig. 17 – The Great Sage shrine with a stone monkey statue and the silver and gold staff (larger version). Fig. 18 – Detail of the Chinese characters on the staff (larger version).
I’ve written an article about a large brass Monkey King statue that I received from Thailand (fig. 19).
Figures one, nine, and ten above show gilded Monkey King statues with a pink mask over their eyes. I’ve found another variant that covers the entire face (fig. 20). Hints of this appear on my recently acquired Monkey King statue from Thailand. It lacks the color but includes a raised line around the face marking the boundary of said pink patch (fig. 21).
One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West happens in chapter three after Sun Wukong returns from the undersea palace with his magic staff and is chosen as lord of the 72 monster kings. Following a lavish banquet in his honor, the Monkey King falls asleep and his soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld by two spirits:
In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach with a summons with the three characters “Sun Wukong” written on it. They walked up to him and, without a word, tied him up with a rope and dragged him off. The soul of the Handsome Monkey King was reeling from side to side. They reached the edge of a city. The Monkey King was gradually coming to himself, when he lifted up his head and suddenly saw above the city an iron sign bearing in large letters the three words “Region of Darkness [You mingjie, 幽冥界].” The Handsome Monkey King at once became fully conscious. “The Region of Darkness is the abode of Yama, King of Death,” he said. “Why am I here?” “Your age in the World of Life has come to an end,” the two men said. “The two of us were given this summons to arrest you.” When the Monkey King heard this, he said, “I, old Monkey himself, have transcended the Three Regions and the Five Phases ; hence I am no longer under Yama’s jurisdiction. Why is he so confused that he wants to arrest me?” The two summoners paid scant attention. Yanking and pulling, they were determined to haul him inside. Growing angry, the Monkey King whipped out his treasure. One wave of it turned it into the thickness of a rice bowl; he raised his hand once, and the two summoners were reduced to hash (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 139).
The two unnamed psychopomps are simply referred to in the story as “[those who] arrest the dead” (Gou siren, 勾死人). Modern media sometimes portrays these two wearing contrasting black and white uniforms with tall hats (fig. 1).
The specific color-coded deities are known in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore as the Heibai wuchang (黑白無常), or the “Black and White [spirits of] Impermanence.” Tan (2018) describes their mythic background and religious importance:
[A] good deal of importance attaches to the worship in Malaysia and Singapore of Heibai Wuchang … popularly known as Da Er Ye (大二爺, Eldest and Second Uncles). In charge of policing the netherworld and protecting humans from evil, they are believed to be two soldiers of the Tang dynasty, General Xie [謝] and General Fan [范]. The former was tall and was hanged by the enemy, while the latter was shorter and was drowned while fighting enemies. General Xie’s image is that of a tall person with a protruding long tongue; he’s wearing a white shirt, and his high hat has the characters yijian daji ([一見大吉] “big luck on seeing me”) or yijian shengcai ([一見生財] “getting wealth on seeing me”). General Fan’s image has a dark face, and his square hat bears the characters tianxia taiping [天下太平], or “peace in the world.” Also called Qiye (七爺) and Baye (八爺), the two generals are in charge of rewarding good people and punishing evil ones. General Xie is more popular among worshippers; frightening as he is, the Elder Uncle benefits from his association with blessing wealth (p. 58).
Chen (2014) provides a different background for the two, which is commonly told in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou in Fujian province:
The Seventh Lord (七爺) and Eighth Lord (八爺) are frequently seen and are well-known in Taiwanese religious parades. These two deities were originally two brother-like friends in Fuzhou (福州). One was called Xie Bian (謝必安), and the other one was named Fan Wujiu (范無救; 范無咎). On a rainy day, they had an appointment to meet under the Nan Tai Bridge (南臺橋). Fan Wujiu was short with a dark complexion, but Xie Bian was tall with a light complexion. Fan Wujiu arrived at the meeting place earlier, waited there in spite of the heavy rain, and was drowned. Xie Bian tried to bring umbrellas for Fan Wujiu and was therefore late. When he arrived at the bridge, Fan Wujiu was already dead, so he decided to commit suicide because of his friendship and guilt. According to legends, the Heavenly Emperor (玉皇大帝) was touched by this pair of brother-like friends, and promoted their ghosts to supernatural officers from the underworld. The Seventh Lord is Bai Wuchang (白無常), and the Eighth Lord is Hei Wuchang (黑無常). Their mission is to bring dead people’s ghosts from the ordinary human world to the underworld at the moment of their deaths (p. 220).
Stevens (1997) goes into more detail about their function and veneration:
The pair are despatched on orders from the City God when the due date of a person’s death arrives, to seek out and identify the correct human through the local spiritual official, the Earth God [fig. 3]. They appear before the human and the Tall Demon [the white spirit] announces that the time has come. The Short Demon [the black spirit] binds the soul and drags it before the City God. The Short Demon carries the tablet of authority and the chains to arrest the soul whose due date of death has arrived [fig. 2].
The Tall Demon … receives considerable attention from devotees, often relatives of the very sick, and in a few temples he is provided with cigarettes which are to be seen continually burning having been forced in between his lips. More popularly, his mouth is smeared with a black substance to win his favour and bribe him to keep away. This used to be opium and is still said to be opium, though the substance appears to be more of a sweet sticky mess. In northern and central China, only the Tall Demon is found (p. 173).
Fig. 3 – A monumental statue of an Earth god in Taiwan (larger version).
The sources above provide two backgrounds for the spirits, historical generals or brother-like friends, all of whom died unnatural deaths. Both origins involve the tall, white figure being hanged, while the short, black figure was drowned. Both of these backgrounds have respective ties to religious beliefs of the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties. It was common practice during the Han for generals, especially those slain by the enemy, to be deified as gods. This concept of deified mortals carried over into the Song Dynasty when tutelary gods were popular. Those deified were often pious or loyal people who died unnatural deaths. But most importantly, these individuals were deified by the very communities in which they lived, meaning they were worshiped as the protector of the specific locale and its people (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 164).
These tutelary cults find their origin in earth gods (tudishen, 土地神) worshiped as early as the Han. Just like people of the Song worshiped the worthy among their fallen community members, people of the Han worshiped the gods believed to inhabit the very earth on which their communities were established. Considering the dead were buried underground, these earth gods also served the function of “escort[ing] the deceased to the world of the afterlife” (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 165). Remember above that Stevens described the tall and short spirits relying on the local earth god to help locate the correct soul being summoned. Therefore, our spirits appear to be a combination of deified mortals (generals/worthy citizens) and earth gods who escorted the deceased to the afterlife. But there may be more to the story.
Wuchang (無常), or “impermanence”, is the Chinese term for the sanskrit Anitya. This is one of the “Three Marks” (Sk: Trilaksana) of existence in Buddhism, the other two being suffering (Duhkha) and non-self (Anatman) (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 47-48). The fact Wuchang is associated with these spirits suggests there is an added Buddhist influence. As I’ve written before, the Chinese underworld presented in Journey to the West is an amalgam of local Chinese and foreign Buddhist beliefs. In short, the Chinese Underworld consists of ten courts in which a soul is punished and sent on to the next until their karma is cleansed. The concept of purgatory and the Ten Kings or Judges of hell are products of 7th-century Chinese Buddhism. Prior to this, souls of the dead were kept en masse in a sort of Daoist city of the dead. So our two summoners were no doubt absorbed into this new Buddhist worldview. The spirits in effect could be viewed as personifications of Buddhist impermanence.
The contrasting black and white color scheme has at least two origins. One, it may have evolved from the belief that each performed duties at different times. Maspero (1981) writes, “The most famous of [the City God’s] subordinates are Master White (Bai laoye [白老爺]) and Master Black (Hei laoye [黑老爺]), who perceive everything that goes on within the constituency, the former during the day and the latter during the night” (p. 110). Two, it may draw from the dualistic nature of Chinese philosophy. Baptandier (2008) comments their color is a “personification of the yin and yang principles of life” (p. 146).
Fig. 4 – A wall mural depicting the Ba Jiajiang (Eight Generals), including General Xie (white) with the phrase “Big Luck” (daji, 大吉) on his hat (larger version) and to his left General Fan (black) with a square hat. Taken by the author in Taipei, Taiwan.
Both General Xie (the tall, white spirit) and General Fan (the short, black spirit) figure among the Ba Jiajiang(八家將), or “Eight Generals” (fig. 4). These spirit generals are considered protectors of the City God (as well as other popular folk deities) and destroyers of evil. They consist of our two spirits, two more underworld figures called Generals Gan (甘) and Liu (柳), as well as four other figures known as the Four Seasons (Siji, 四季). These generals are personified during festivals by temple parade dance troupes called Jiajiang (家將). Members paint their faces according to the prescribed wrathful iconography for each general (fig. 5) and perform all sorts of choreographed militaristic dances while wielding weapons (video 1). These performances serve to exorcize evil spirits.
Fig. 5 – The facepaint of General Xie, the tall, white spirit. A larger version can be seen on this blog. Original picture by Rich J. Matheson.
The tradition originated in Fuzhou but later spread to Taiwan by the 1870s, making it a rather recent phenomenon (Sutton, 1996).
Video 1 – A Ba Jiajiang performance.
Sutton (1996) explains the ceremonial procession of the Eight Generals is modeled after yamen officials making an arrest in dynastic China. In this case, the otherworldly generals would be sent to arrest evil spirits:
The performers seen on the march—excluding the Four Seasons—represent a process, though it is never ritually played out: arrest by yamen underlings. In principle the punishment bearer warns, the messengers search out, the stave bearers pursue, Erye and Daye [the Black and White Spirits] take into custody, and the justices at the rear interrogate and record (p. 215).
In video 1, the man dressed in civilian attire and carrying the strange, yoke-like device on his shoulders (visible at 00:26) is performing the part of the punishment bearer, which I take to mean a symbol of those previously arrested and used as warnings to the evil spirits being pursued.
1) The Three Realms are Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and the Five Phases are the elements of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. The point being that he is beyond the control of the three realms and the effects of the elements because he has achieved immortality.
Baptandier, B. (2008). The lady of Linshui: A Chinese female cult. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
Chen, Y. (2014). Cinematic visualization of spiritual lesbianism in Monkia Treut’s Ghosted: countering essentialist concerns about Li Ang’s literary works In Y. Chen (Ed). New modern Chinese women and gender politics: The centennial of the end of the Qing Dynasty (pp. 210-222).
Maspero, H. (1981). Taoism and Chinese religion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.
Sutton, D. S. (1996). Transmission in Popular Religion: The Jiajiang Festival Troupe of Southern Taiwan in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (Ed.) Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 212-249). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Tan, C. B. (2018). Chinese religion in Malaysia: Temples and communities. Leiden; Boston: Brill.
Von Glahn, R. (2004). The sinister way: The divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volumes 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.
Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.
1. Ancient Depictions
Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century.  But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling,  records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.
Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.
Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.
Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains a late-Xixia wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).
Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).
Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 12th-century[Note (08-14-22): see my new article exploring the oldest media of Sun Wukong]. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.
A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.
Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).
Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:
A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”, A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim], Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)
Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.
I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is theThe Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures(c. late 13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).
The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted this size could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.
2. What the novel says
2.1. Physical appearance
The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subodhi, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].”  After he returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).
In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Golden/Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [the Rhesus macaque]” (p. 148). I also suggest that the hue of his eyes are based on the golden pupils of macaques (fig. 6).
Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.
In chapter 20, the reader learns that Monkey’s head is bald (fig. 7). An old man asks him: “…why did you shave your hair to become a monk?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).
In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:
The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)
His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)
Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).
Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).
In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:
A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing; A round head and a hairy face jowl-less; Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly; He looks more strange than [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).
In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).
In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:
A hairy face, a thunder god beak, An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s; Two forked ears on a big, broad head, And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:
“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … 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).
In chapter 77, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:
You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).
We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).
Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.
2.2 Clothing and accessories
The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.
The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:
“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).
Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with “mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).
Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers in chapter six: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:
Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)
Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace in chapter seven, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “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]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One late-Ming woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).
The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 17). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:
[Slit] 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 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).
Fig. 17 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.
Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 11th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 18). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 19). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.
Fig. 18 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 19 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237) (larger version).
As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:
His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.
There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.
2.3. The staff
Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:
Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [wutie, 烏鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,560 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). 
A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:
The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.  King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍] To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth. In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars, Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold. Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts; On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn. Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒], Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)
So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.
Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 20 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.
Fig. 20 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).
As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.
3. Popular depictions
The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.
3.1. The least accurate
1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 21). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.
1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 20).
3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 26).
Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).
The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.
I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.
My friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information (fig. 27). As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.
As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact”. I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.
I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes Sun Wukong’s golden headband to tighten. Similar to the above article, I had artists and fanfiction authors in mind when I wrote it.
1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.
2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.
3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).
4) 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.
5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).
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.
Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Elvin, M. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.
Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.
Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.
Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of how the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
The Monkey King is well known for his prowess with the staff, but the first seven chapters detailing his early life, attainment of immortality, and rebellion against heaven surprisingly do not mention him training in martial arts. It’s generally understand, however, that he learns the art of combat while studying under the immortal sage Subodhi. Beyond the staff, Sun Wukong comes to master boxing, a skill he displays only a few times in the novel. A poem appearing in chapter 51 describes his unarmed battle with a rhinoceros demon. Martial historian Meir Shahar (2008) notes it “[gave] the author an opportunity to display his familiarity with the contemporary jargon of ‘postures’ (shi and jiazi), ‘Long-Range Fist’ (changquan), and ‘Close-Range Fist’ (duanquan)” (pp. 131-132).
Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!
Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13)
Interestingly, many of these techniques are still known to this day, some better known by slightly different names. I consulted with martial artist Joshua Viney to learn what each technique involves. Joshua has lived and studied folk martial arts from village masters around the noted Shaolin Monastery (少林寺) for ten years. He currently maintains the Shaolin Yuzhai Youtube channel where he posts instructional videos. Please check it out.
1) Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture” (Zhuai kaida siping, 拽開大四平) – An open fighting posture where the boxer stands in the horse stance (Mabu, 馬步) with arms outstretched to his sides. Also known as “Single Whip Horse Stance” (Mabu danbian kai siping, 馬步單鞭開四平) (fig. 1), which is often associated with Taiji boxing (太極拳).
2) The double-kicking feet fly up (Ti qi shuangfei jiao, 踢起雙飛腳) – Also known as “Double kicking feet” (Er qi jiao, 二起腳), this technique involves lifting up one knee to build upward momentum and then kicking high with the other (fig. 2). It is reminiscent of the “crane kick” from the Karate Kid (1984).
3) They pound the ribs and chests (Tao xie pi xiong dun, 韜脅劈胸墩) – Possibly referring to the “Pushing palm” (Tui zhang, 推掌) or “Splitting palm” (Pi zhang, 劈掌), which is delivered into the solar plexus and up into the rib cage (fig. 3).
4) “The Immortal pointing the Way” (Xianren zhilu, 仙人指路) – A double finger attack aimed at the eyes (fig. 4). The stance is often seen used in tandem with a sword.
5) “Lao Zi Riding the Crane” (Laozi qihe, 老子騎鶴) – Most likely another name for the Crane stance (fig. 5).
6) “A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” (E hu pu shi, 餓虎撲食) – This name has been applied to many techniques. One variation known as “Fetching the moon from the seabed” (Haidi lao yue, 海底撈月) involves a powerful hip and/or palm strike to the groin/lower midline of the body (fig. 6). The force of the hip strike is powerful enough to send someone flying backwards.
7) A Dragon Playing with Water (Jiaolong xi shui, 蛟龍戲水) – Also known as “Dragon puking water” (Jiaolong xi shuineng xiong’e, 蛟龍戲水能兇惡), this technique involves fluid, sweeping arm movements (most likely blocks or fake strikes) followed by simultaneous double fist blows (fig. 7). The technique is associated with Shaolin and Chang Family Fist (Changjia quan, 萇家拳), a martial art that influenced the development of Taiji boxing.
8) “Serpent Turning Around” (Mang fanshen, 蟒翻身) – Also known as “Python turns over” (Guai mang fanshen, 怪蟒翻身), this technique involves a simultaneous chop to the throat and a pulling leg sweep, effectively knocking the opponent backwards (fig. 8).
9) “Deer Letting Loose its Horns” (Lu jie jiao, 鹿解角) – A series of elbow strikes to the torso (fig. 9). One variant called “Plum blossom deer lies on a pillow” (Meihua lu wo zhen, 梅花鹿臥枕) places the fist of the attacking arm against the temple, looking as if the practitioner is propping his head up in a resting posture.
10) The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned (Qiao gen cui dilong, 翹跟淬地龍) – A shooting maneuver using the Falling stance (Pubu, 仆步) to dip below the opponent’s defenses and attack the lower extremities (fig. 10). Also known as Qiao dilong zou xiapan zhao (雀地龍走下盤找).
11) The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag (Niu wan na tiantuo, 扭腕拿天橐) – UNKNOWN. Mostly likely a headlock.
12) A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge (Qingshi zhangkou lai, 青獅張口來) – More commonly known as “Lion opens mouth” (Shizi dazhang zui, 獅子大張嘴), this technique has two variations. The large frame version involves shooting in low, pulling up the opponent’s knee with one hand, while simultaneously pushing on their head with the other hand, knocking them over (fig. 11). This can be used for throwing an opponent as well. The small frame version involves cupping the hands to intercept strikes.
13) A carp’s snapped-back flip (Liyu die ji yue, 鯉魚跌脊躍) – This can refer to both throwing an opponent and a move commonly referred to as a “kip-up”. The latter involves the practitioner flipping up from a supine position to a standing fighting stance (fig. 12).
14) Sprinkling flowers over the head (Gai ding sa hua, 蓋頂撒花) – Also known as “Double cloud over peak” (Shuang yun ding, 雙雲頂), this technique involves flourishing the hands above the head as a means of blocking, twisting an opponent’s arm, or disengaging from combat (fig. 13).
15) Tying a rope around the waist (Rao yao guan suo, 遶腰貫索) – UNKNOWN. Possibly a circling step similar to one later used in Bagua Palm Boxing (Bagua zhang, 八卦掌) (fig. 14).
16) A fan moving with the wind (Yingfeng tie shan er, 迎風貼扇兒) – Crossed hands shooting out to intercept an opponent’s punch (fig. 15).
17) The rain driving down the flowers (Ji yu cui hua luo, 急雨催花落) – Most likely a rapid succession of punches.
18) “Guanyin Palm” (Guanyin zhang, 觀音掌) – A style of palm strikes. It is listed as number 70 of the “72 Training Methods of Shaolin” (Shaolin qishi’er yi lian fa, 少林七十二藝練法) (Jin & Timofeevich, 2004, p. 229).
19) “Arhat Feet” (Luohan jiao, 羅漢腳) – A style of kicking.
What follows is Joshua’s reconstruction of the fight. He makes an interesting observation that the fight may in fact be a theatrical stage combat version of known techniques.
I think what we are seeing here is a Chinese Opera like performance of a fight that the author saw and perhaps asked about the names or recognised. I expect it would be very contrived. After this we are not told explicitly who does what and it may not be a one for one exchange. Nevertheless looking at the wording we can make a guess.
It begins with a large fighting stance, probably the ‘single whip’ posture of holding the arms straight to the sides. Then both performers do a jumping kick towards each other to enter striking range. Given it uses the phrase 劈胸 ‘pi xiong’ (split chest) I expect they begin by using the chest splitting palm at one another and so cross hands in the center of the arena [fig. 16].
Once they have crossed hands I think the demon grasps Monkey’s hand and attacks with the fingers of the other hand at his eyes, doing the ‘immortal points the way’ technique. Monkey defends against this by shielding his face with his forearms, then spreading his hands and kicking at the monster’s stomach. This pushes the monster away and Monkey is left with one knee suspended and arms spread to the sides in the ‘Lao Tzu rides a crane’ posture.
The Demon takes advantage of this unstable posture by rushing at him with the ‘hungry tiger pounces on prey’ technique, striking Monkey with his hips and grasping hold of him. Monkey uses the ‘dragon puking water’ technique, which erupts from below the demons arms and casts them aside, then rushes forwards again to attack with both hands. The Demon defends this by sticking close to the monkey and uses the ‘python turning its body’ technique to trip him up. But Monkey is strong and keeps his footing, counter attacking with a headbutt and multiple elbow strikes which form the ‘Deer-Horn’ technique.
The Demon jumps away but Monkey pursues with the ‘ground dragon’ technique and attacks the demons groin, causing him to buckle over, whereby Monkey grasps his head with the ‘twisting heavens sack’ technique. The Demon defends by using the ‘Lion opens mouth lunge’ to stop Monkey and throw him down. The monkey recovers by flipping his body in the ‘carp jump’ technique. Then he withdraws from the center by a few steps ‘covering his head with the flowers’ overhead technique. The Demon similarly disengages from the center and puts up a guard, prowling slowly around Monkey with the ‘turning waist’ technique.
I think the rest is describing more how they are evenly matched and face each other down rather than any other moves. ‘Iron fan stands against the wind’ is a common technique, a guard, and ‘rain falling on flowers’ is perhaps an eye strike but could also mean the intensity of the fight is like an urgent rain of punches. ‘Guanyin palm’ and ‘Luohans feet’ are both style names. Long fist vs short fist, how can they overcome one another? 10 rounds without a victor.
He goes onto describe the physical and psychological aspects of Long-range and Close-range fist:
Long fist and Short fist are the classic methods of Shaolin shenfa [身法, “Body postures”]. In order to strike the opponent one needs momentum, both physical AND psychological. Momentum is achieved by moving the dantian  as the centre of mass. In Short fist the dantian is rotated to add to power. In Long fist the whole dantian is thrown in the direction of the strike instead of rotated–much more powerful but also more wild and uncontrollable. In Shaolin philosophy, mind and matter are not severed, so physical momentum and psychological momentum are intertwined; when one has physical forward momentum, one simultaneously feels more confident.
Similarities with other literary combat
A poem similar to that from Journey to the West appears in the 120 chapter version of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1594) by Yu Xiangdou (余象斗, c. 1560–c. 1640). The poem describes unarmed combat between a young man and woman.
Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“Phoenix Elbow” to the heart;
“The Guard Head Cannon Stance” strikes the temples;
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag;
This girl, sprinkling flowers over the head;
This boy, tying a rope around the waist;
Two fans moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
We can see many named techniques from Monkey’s battle appear in this poem. There are only two years between the publishing of Journey to the West (1592) and this version of the Water Margin. However, I am unsure if either source borrowed from the other, especially since Journey to the Westwasn’t in its final form upon its initial publishing. But it’s very well possible that both authors drew upon common source material. Joshua discovered two techniques from the Water Margin poem, namely “Phoenix Elbow” (Aoluan zhao, 拗鸞肘), and “The Guard Head Cannon Stance” (Dang toupao shi, 當頭砲勢), appearing together in the same print of an edition of the Collection of Military Works(Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 17). This suggests Yu Xiangdou borrowed these moves from similar boxing or military manuals. Likewise, given “his familiarity with the contemporary jargon”, as noted earlier by Shahar, the author of Journey to the West may have also borrowed from such literature.
Fig. 17 – The plate mentioning “Phoenix Elbow” and the “Guard the Head Cannon Stance”.
The available evidence suggests Short fist is Monkey’s fighting style. As mentioned above, the poem in chapter three reads: “The ‘Long-Range Fist,’ stretching, is more slack, of course. How could it compare with the ‘Close-Range Fist’s’ sharp jabs?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 13). Furthermore, after facing the rhino monster, Sun Wukong asks heavenly warriors to critique his boxing skills: “‘[H]ow did the fiend’s ability compare with Old Monkey?’ ‘His punches were slack’, said Devaraja Li, ‘and his kicks were slow; he certainly could not match the Great Sage for his speed and tightness'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 14).
Earlier in chapter one, Monkey faces a demon who had taken over his Water Curtain cave in the immortal’s absence. The two resort to boxing since Monkey is unarmed.
The Monstrous King shifted his position and struck out. Wukong closed in on him, hurtling himself into the engagement. The two of them pummeled and kicked, struggling and colliding with each other. Now it’s easy to miss on a long reach, but a short punch is firm and reliable. Wukong jabbed the Monstrous King in the short ribs, hit him on his chest, and gave him such heavy punishment with a few sharp blows that the monster stepped aside, picked up his huge scimitar, aimed it straight at Wukong’s head, and slashed at him (Wu & Yu, 2012, Vol. 1, p. 128). (emphasis mine)
I initially thought Sun Wukong used Short fist out of necessity as he is described being less than four feet tall. But the novel’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range “is typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature”, as noted by Shahar (2008). He continues, “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century military experts allude to various short-range styles including ‘Cotton Zhang’s Close-Range Fist’ (Mian Zhang duanda [綿張短打]), ‘Ren Family Close-Range Fist’ (Renjia duanda [任家短打]), and ‘Liu [Family] Close-Range Fist’ (Liu duanda [劉短打])” (p. 117).
Wing Chun (Mandarin: Yong Chun, 詠春) is an example of Short fist. Although the style postdates the novel by at least two centuries, it showcases the quick, compact punches associated with Short fist. Take this video of Jackie Chan, for example. Now imagine Monkey using similar techniques in a fight with a much larger opponent, blocking or ducking to avoid attacks and replying with sharp punches targeted at vulnerable areas.
I have found a few more instances of martial arts terms, this time related to weapons. Joshua was again kind to lend his knowledge to the subject.
The compliant rod,
The black-tasseled lance.
Two men display their power before the cave;
Stabbing at the heart and face;
Striking at the head and arm.
This one proves handy with a death-dealing rod;
That one tilts the lance for swift, triple jabs. The “white tiger climbing the mountain” extends his paws; The “yellow dragon lying on the road” turns his back.
With colored mists flying
And bright flashes of light,
Two monster-god’s strength is yet to be tried.
One’s the truth-seeking, Equal-to-Heaven Sage;
One’s the Great Black King who’s now a spirit.
Why wage this battle in the mountain still?
The cassock, for which each would aim to kill! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 354) (emphasis mine)
22) “White tiger climbing the mountain”extends his paws (Baihu pashan, 白虎爬山來探爪) – Mountain climbing stance is synonymous with Gong bu (弓步), or the bow stance. The white tiger denotes an overt attack of sorts. I imagine it would look similar to this spear technique.
23) “Yellow dragon lying on the road” turns his back (Huanglong wo dao zhuanshen mang, 黃龍臥道轉身忙) – Possibly a retreating maneuver.
Dear Monkey King! He raised the rod above his head, with both hands, using the style “Tall-Testing the Horse.” The fiend did not perceive that it was a trick. When he saw there was a chance, he wielded the scimitar and slashed at the lower third of Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] body. Pilgrim quickly employed the “Great Middle Level” to fend off the scimitar, after which he followed up with the style of “Stealing Peaches Beneath the Leaves” and brought the rod down hard on the monster’s head. This one blow made the monster vanish completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 83). (emphasis mine)
24) “Tall-Testing the Horse” (Gao tanma, 高探馬) – Tanma (探馬) refers to a military scout, so a better translation would be the “High Scout”. This is a double-handed thrust aimed at the opponent’s face as a high fake. A corresponding fist technique, essentially a jab, is associated with Taiji boxing.
25) “Great Middle Level” (Da zhong ping, 大中平) – Holding the staff level at the navel while in the horse stance. This allows for quick defense below the waist.
26) “Stealing Peaches Beneath the Leaves” (Ye di tou tao shi, 葉底偷桃勢) – UNKNOWN. The name of this technique is normally associated with an attack to the groin, not the top of the head as implied in the quoted battle.
Based on the sequence of events described above, it seems like Monkey fakes high, blocks the strike to his body, and then attacks the top of the stooping opponent’s head (since the latter ducked the high fake and attacked low).
Here is Joshua’s interpretation:
The two weapons are stuck together: the monkey is forcing down, the demon up. The monkey releases the pressure, circling his staff below the opponents weapon, so with the release of pressure, the opponent’s weapon flings upwards but with no control. The monkey circles from this lower position, then turns over in a big circle and strikes the opponent downwards on the head.
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 lucks running out, for you have met Old Monkey! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 81). (emphasis mine)
27) Python Rearing its Body (Mang fanshen, 蟒翻身). UNKNOWN. This is a differently translated version of a similarly titled technique mentioned above. See number eight (“Serpent Turning Around”). The previous listing referred to a boxing technique, while this again is for a weapon.
In closing, I would like to quote a particular passage. While it doesn’t list a given technique, it highlights Monkey’s mastery of the staff.
“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat”. Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as be walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts [六韜三略, Liu Tao San Lue]. What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105). (Emphasis mine)
The portion that Anthony Yu translates as “manuals of martial arts” actually lists the names of two noted military manuals, both of which are listed among the Seven Military Classics of China. The first, the Six Secret Teachings (Liu tao, 六韜), was published during the Warring States period (c. 475 – 221 BCE) but possibly contains information from as far back as the Qi state (1046 – 221 BCE). The second, the Three Strategies (San lue, 三略), was most likely published during the Western Han period (206 BCE – 9 CE) (Sawyer, 1993). Associating Monkey’s martial arts skill with ancient and historically important manuals serves to further elevate his status as a great warrior and cultural hero.
The only reference to Monkey actually studying martial arts that I know of appears in a poem in chapter 67:
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). (emphasis mine)
Readers may think the Ancestor of Heart and Mind (Fangcun zu, 方寸祖) is referring to Sun’s teacher, Master Subodhi. However, the supreme immortal threatened Monkey with eternal torment if he ever revealed the sage had been his teacher. A more literal translation of the aforementioned figure is “Patriarch Square Inch” (Fangcun zu, 方寸祖). Square Inch (fangcun, 方寸) is a common metaphor for the “heart / mind” (xin, 心), a broad concept written with a small character. This is just an interesting way of saying Monkey learned martial arts on his own via self-cultivation, thereby not revealing his true master. At the same time, it is a veiled admission of studying martial arts under the sage.
The above passage uses the term Wuyi (武藝), which was used to refer to Chinese martial arts as far back as the third-century CE. The term predates the more familiar Wushu (武術) by some three centuries (Lorge, 2012, p. 10).
1) For more information on Chang Family Fist and its progenitor Chang Naizhou, see Wells (2005).
2) The dantian (丹田, “cinnabar field”) is an area near the navel believed to be the body’s storehouse of spiritual energy.
3) Adapted from the original Chinese text: 拽開大四平，踢起雙飛腳。/ 仙人指路，老子騎鶴。/ 拗鸞肘出近前心，當頭砲勢侵額角。/ 翹跟淬地龍，扭腕擎天橐。/ 這邊女子，使個蓋頂撒花；/ 這裏男兒，耍個遶腰貫索。兩個似迎風貼扇兒，無移時急雨催花落 (水滸傳 (120回本)/第104回, n.d.)。