Review of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong

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

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

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

1. Character arc

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

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

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

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

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

1.2. Fear Itself: The Monkey King (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. References to Journey to the West

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

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

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

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

3. Problems with the writing and art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. My rating

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

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

5. What I would change

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

5) For example, regarding Sun’s weapon, a poem in chapter 88 states: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 201). In addition, the Monkey King steals immortal peaches and wine in chapter five (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162, 165, and 167).

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

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

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

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

10) For example, chapter two reads:

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of DC Comics’ The Monkey Prince

Last updated: 06/16/21

Warning: This post contains spoilers

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

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

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

I. Story description

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. References to Journey to the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Problems with the story and character design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. My rating

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

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

5. What I would change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 05/21/21

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

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


Update: 06/16/21

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

Dong, Y., Lin, S., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

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

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

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

The Worship of Sun Wukong the Monkey King: An Overview

I’ve written several articles on the worship of the Monkey King. I’ve decided to post a succinct overview for those not familiar with the subject. Unless cited here, all information is cited in the respective linked articles below.

Warning: Self-mortification and blood below!

Sun Wukong is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, and areas of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, and even Thailand, as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (fig. 1). Variations of this title often include “Lord” (ye, 爺) or “Buddha” (fozu, 佛祖). He is very rarely addressed as the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛), which is taken from the end of Journey to the West (1592) when our hero is bestowed Buddhahood for protecting the monk Tripitaka. This is the name of a real world deity that was only later associated with Monkey in literature. I’ve even seen one temple that mixed such titles to call him the “Fighting Sage Buddha” (Dou zhan sheng fo, 鬥戰聖佛).

Fig. 1 – An awesome gourd-bearing Great Sage statue from Taiwan (larger version). It is one of a trinity. Photo by the author.

The Great Sage’s worship can be traced to Fujian province, China, from where it spread out to other countries, including 19th-century America. Published references to his worship in Fujian go back to at least the 17th-century, though one 13th-century stone pagoda depicts Monkey as a sword-wielding protector deity, among other heavenly guardians, bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks, suggesting that he may have been revered in earlier times. His worship was so well-known in Fujian during the early Qing-period that it was criticized in the famed Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi, 聊齋誌異, 1740), a collection of popular stories.

My friend has visited several Great Sage temples in Fujian. I’ve visited 14 temples in Taiwan (so far). I even discovered a holy scripture associated with the monkey god titled “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven’s True Scripture of Awakening People and Enlightening the World” (Qitian Dasheng xingren jueshi zhenjing, 齊天大聖醒人覺世眞/真經). A brief analysis of the scripture by my friend can be seen here.

Much like Sun Wukong can multiple his body, his religion recognizes multiple Great Sages, each with their own holy and/or administrative function. Although, temples apparently believe each Great Sage is an emanation of the singular deity. This multiplicity of usually 3 to 5 figures (with dozens of soldier monkeys) may be traced to different sources. For instance, an early 15th-century play predating the novel describes Monkey as one of three brothers and two sisters. It surprisingly refers to Wukong, the middle brother, as the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖), while the older brother is called the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. The youngest, the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎/爽爽三郎), appears as a white-faced figure among a color-coded trinity in one Fujian tradition (fig. 2). The Great Sage Reaching Heaven graces the trinity with a black face. Rounding out the group with a red face, the Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage (Danxia dasheng, 丹霞大聖), a separate figure not from the play, appears in a 17th to 18th-century pious novel which describes his evil deeds, punishment, and rehabilitation by a Fujian goddess. Therefore, the multiple Great Sages share a connection to theater and religious literature.

The 3 monkey gods

Fig. 2 – An example of the Three Great Sages (larger version). Image found here.

As mentioned, various soldier monkeys serve in the Great Sage’s spiritual army. He leads five heavenly generals, representing the Chinese cardinal directions, each with their own armies. The demon queller, the “Third Prince” (San taizi, 三太子; a.k.a. Nezha), serves as his vanguard. The Third Prince can often be seen positioned on a table in front of the main altar, or riding a palanquin and leading the way during religious processions. At least in Taiwan, the power of this spiritual army needs to be replenished during a yearly trip south to the island’s oldest monkey god house of worship, Wanfu Temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵), which is considered a fount of pure energy. This is done by retrieving scoops of holy incense ashes from the main incense pot and bringing them back to the home temple pot. I saw one temple protect the ashes in a small, metal, building-shaped altar sealed with blood-consecrated paper talismans (fig. 3). It was then shaded with two processional flags and an eight trigrams umbrella (fig. 4). I was told exposing the ashes/soldiers to sunlight was considered highly disrespectful.

Fig. 3. – The metal altar housing the Great Sage’s spirit soldier incense ashes (larger version). Fig. 4 – Protecting the incense ashes from sunlight (larger version). Photos by the author.

While considered a full-fledged god or even Buddha, the Great Sage is not a supreme deity. In fact, Buddho-Daoist folk religion considers him to be an intermediary for higher-ranking figures. For example, in some traditions he is a subordinate of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. [1] One temple in Taiwan even believes he answers to the martial god Guan Yu. Either way, he is considered the exorcist par excellence and a protector of children. The little ones whom he takes as his godchildren are known in Singapore as “dedicated children” (khoe-kia). Those under his protection are believed to grow up to become well-behaved adults.

Religious statues of the Great Sage are generally portrayed as a seated or standing protector deity wearing golden armor, a feather cap, and sometimes the golden headband. The seated and standing postures are taken to represent his defensive and offensive functions, respectively. The former sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed, holding a golden staff or fly-whisk in his right hand and a hu-gourd or immortal peach at chest or waist-level with his left (refer back to fig. 1). The latter stands on his left leg (sometimes supported by clouds) with the other bent high at the knee, while holding a staff in his right hand. The left holds a gourd (sometimes overhead and pointed at the viewer), or it shields his eyes like a sailor searching the horizon. This hand is positioned with the thumb near the left eye, or the arm wraps under the chin and the hand bends at the wrist to shield the eyes in a contorted manner. (Of course there will always be variations on these patterns.) The gaze of the monkey god is generally fierce, sometimes with golden pupils, and his likeness ranges from human-like to generally more primate-like. Baring white, black, and red examples based on the aforementioned Fujian trinity, the Great Sage’s face is generally flesh-toned with kisses of red but can sometimes be painted with a red, three leaf clover-like design similar to Wukong’s depictions in Chinese opera (fig. 5). But I’ve seen a few rare examples in Taiwan with harsh face patterns similar to plague gods (Stevens, 1997, p. 114). Many statues are carved with horn-like “ear-pressing tufts” on the sides of his head, giving him a wild appearance. This can be accentuated with carved and painted or applied hair on the head and sides of the face. Some statues acknowledge the link between Chinese religion and theater by depicting him as a martial monk (wuseng, 武僧) with long hair that hangs down to his chest (refer back to fig. 5). [2] While such examples generally portray him in the aforementioned armor, I’ve seen at least one figure from Singapore wearing a golden monk’s robe open at the chest. In contrast to the brightly-colored and gilded statues mentioned above, some Great Sage figures are dark and ashen. These tend to be decorated with ornate metal headdresses and flashy imperial capes and sashes (fig. 6). The rarest statue I’ve ever seen depicts the Great Sage with three heads and six arms wielding a staff in each hand (fig. 7).

Fig. 5 – (Top left) Detail of a Great Sage statue with the red, three leaf clove-like face pattern and the long hair and golden fillet of a martial monk (larger version). See the full version here. Fig. 6 – (Top Right) Dark, wooden Great Sage statues with bright ornamentation (larger version). Photos by the author. Fig. 7 – (Bottom left) A three-headed, six-armed monkey god (larger version). Seen on Facebook. Fig. 8 – (Bottom right) A spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage. He smiles in defiance after flogging his head with a spiked ball (larger version). Original photo by Cai Zhizhong (蔡志忠) (used with permission).

Spirit-mediums (Taiwanese Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; literally: “Divining Child”) play a large part in the Great Sage’s religion. They are believed to channel his spirit to interact with believers, generally answering their questions, blessing them or their belongings with paper talismans, or prescribing medicine. On special occasions, they also perform a complex self-mortification ceremony; for instance, the mediums of one Taiwanese temple walk a pattern in between five ritual fires representing heavenly generals of the five directions, while flogging themselves with the “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (jitong wubao, 乩童五寶): a seven-star sword (qixing jian, 七星劍), a crescent moon ax (yue fu, 月斧), a spiked club (tong gun, 銅棍; a.k.a. lang ya bang, 狼牙棒, “wolf-tooth club”), a sawfish nose sword (shayu jian, 鯊魚劍), and a spiked ball (ci qiu, 刺球) (fig. 8). However, I’ve found that self-mortification tends to be more extreme in Southeast Asia, with mediums piercing their cheeks and bodies with lances, swords, hooks, and even bicycles! The ritual serves several purposes. First, hacking, skewering, and poking the body with various weapons is considered a form of self-sacrifice. Second, the weapons that pierce the flesh are believed to imbue the mediums with spiritual power needed in their battle with demonic forces that pervade every corner of daily life. Third, the resulting blood is believed to have demonifugic properties, hence the reason it is smeared on paper talismans and clothing. Overall, the ritual is performed to exorcize evil spirits that cause bad luck and mental and physical illnesses.

Mediums wear ritual bibs normally associated with babies in Asian culture. As noted above, the Hokkien/Chinese word for spirit-medium means “Divining Child”. This refers to the centuries-old belief that children were the mouthpieces of gods. In fact, the mediums are known to speak in a shrill voice known as “shen (神, god) language”. The fact that their back is bare refers to ancient ShangZhou period rituals in which a sacrificial victim was exposed to the elements. However, it should be noted that, since the 1980s, more and more mediums in Singapore have taken to wearing flashy, Chinese opera-inspired costumes, including the golden fillet. [3] I’ve seen one such medium that even wears a faux fur cowl and gloves during performances.

When not consulting a spirit-medium, the presence of the Great Sage can be determined by a glass vessel called the “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶). It comprises a normal glass container (sometimes a soda bottle or something more elegant) filled with “noon water” (wushi shui, 午時水) and topped with a special bulbous glass stem. The bottle is believed to make a characteristic “ping-pong” (乒乓) chime upon the deity’s arrival in a temple or home, usually around 12 noon but also other times. I’ve heard of the vessel’s use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The Great Sage’s religious birthday is celebrated on different dates according to the location. It is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore, the 23rd (Fuzhou) or 25th day (Putian) of the 2nd lunar month in Fujian (sources vary), and the 12th day of the 10th lunar month in Taiwan. The celebration usually involves gifts of fruit, sweets, and liquor; self-mortification rituals by spirit-mediums; chanting performances by Daoist associations (see this video by me, for example); the burning of effigies and spirit money; group prayer; and sometimes lion/dragon dance performances by local martial arts clubs. Regarding this last note, martial artists have revered Wukong for centuries. He was even channeled by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion during the 19th-century.

Fig. 9 – Drawings of the japsang effigies of Korea. The first four figures are commonly associated with Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing (larger version). However, contemporary sources sometimes named the first figure Wukong. This would make since as he’s wearing armor.

I should point out that Great Sage worship is not unique to people of Chinese descent. He was at some point absorbed into the religion of the Qiang ethnic group. The Qiang people revere a golden, stone-born monkey that is believed to have both stolen fire from the celestial realm and helped recover lost religious knowledge by creating a drum from the skin of a goat that had eaten their sacred scriptures. Wukong is sometimes equated with the monkey deity given the similarities in their respective lithic origins and penchant for stealing from heaven. The Great Sage is particularly worshiped by the red shamans as their patron deity, or “father god” (abba mula), for his skills in exorcizing evil. He is also sometimes equated with the ancestor from Qiang myth, who is believed to be a monkey-turned-man who married a heavenly goddess and fathered the human race.

Interestingly, Sun Wukong is even revered in Korea. While not officially worshiped as a deity (at least not by people of non-Chinese descent), he appears with a host of other mythological animals on the roof-hips of royal palaces to guard such important structures against fires and evil spirits (fig. 9). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). [4]

Note:

1) I’ve had a few people ask me how a Buddha can be below a Bodhisattva. Normally, this isn’t the case, but Guanyin is just so incredibly popular in Asia. Her adoration in the east predates the Monkey King’s cult by many hundreds of years.

2) Martial monks in Chinese opera are portrayed with long hair and a golden fillet with an upturned crescent-shaped accent in the middle (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178).

3) For more info on Asian spirit-mediums, see Chan (2006).

4) I’m currently writing an article on the japsang. I will post it in the coming weeks.

Source:

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

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

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Origin of the Six-Eared Macaque and the Character’s Influence on Black Myth: Wukong

The Six-Eared Macaque (Liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴) (fig. 1) is one of the most interesting villains that Sun Wukong faces in Journey to the West. He is an example of the evil twin archetype from world mythology. But unlike modern media which sometimes differentiates evil twins with goatees,—think of Evil Spock from the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror“—this malicious spirit is an exact duplicate of Monkey with the same features, voice, clothing, and fighting abilities. He’s so similar in fact that no one in the cosmos, save the Buddha, can differentiate him from Wukong. But who is he really and where did he come from?

In this article, I suggest that the Six-Eared Macaque is based on Buddhist concepts of mind and nonduality (Sk: advaya; Ch: bu’er, 不二). In addition, I discuss the character’s origin within the book as a former friend of the Monkey King, explain the significance of the six ears to Buddhism, and detail references to him in a 17th-century sequel to Journey to the West. Finally, I describe the character’s influence on the upcoming Chinese video game Black Myth: Wukong (2023).

Fig. 1 – The Six-Eared Macaque by Zhang Ji (larger version here).

1. Description of the episode

In chapter 56, Monkey magically disguises himself as a 16-year-old monk and comes to the rescue of Tripitaka, who had been captured by mountain bandits demanding money for safe passage. The bandits let the priest go under the pretense that his young disciple has money. However, Wukong murders the two bandit chiefs with his iron cudgel, causing the remaining thirty or so men to flee in terror. That night, the pilgrims find lodging with an old couple. But they soon discover that the couple’s son is one of the bandits routed by Monkey earlier in the evening. The son returns home with his gang late at night and, upon learning of the monks, hatches a plan to attack them in their sleep. But the old man alerts the pilgrims to the danger and allows them to escape out a back gate. The bandits take chase, catching up to them at sunrise, only to meet their death at Wukong’s hands. Monkey finds the old couple’s son and beheads him as punishment for disrespecting his parents. All of this killing horrifies Tripitaka, who recites the tight-fillet spell (jin gu zhou, 緊箍咒) and banishes Wukong from the group.

In chapter 57, Wukong travels to Guanyin’s island paradise to complain about Tripitaka casting him out from the pilgrimage. He asks the goddess if he can be released from monkhood and return to his old life, but she instead uses her eyes of wisdom to foresee a future event in which Monkey will need to rescue his master. Meanwhile, Tripitaka asks his remaining disciples to find him food and drink. However, in their absence, Wukong attacks the priest, knocking him unconscious with the staff and stealing the group’s belongings containing the travel rescript (tongguan wendie, 通關文牒). [1] Sha Wujing is sent to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to retrieve their things, but Monkey refuses to return the rescript as he wishes to win all of the merit and fame by finishing the quest on his own. Wujing points out that the Buddha will only give the holy texts to the chosen scripture seeker. Wukong, however, shows that he’s prepared for this outcome by parading doppelgangers of Tripitaka, Zhu Bajie, Sha, and the white dragon horse. Wujing kills his double (which is revealed to be a transformed monkey spirit) and attempts to attack Monkey but is forced to retreat. He flees to Guanyin only to attack Wukong once more when he finds him sitting next to the goddess. Guanyin stays his hand and explains that Monkey has been with her the entire time. She then sends them both back to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to investigate the double.

In chapter 58, upon seeing the impostor, Wukong rushes forward to attack the double, who defends himself with his “Acquiescent Iron Pole Arm” (Suixin tie gan bing, 隨心鐵桿兵). [2] The two battle their way through the sky to Guanyin’s island paradise in order to determine who is the real Monkey. But when she attempts to weed out the impostor by reciting the tight-fillet spell, both Wukong’s drop to the floor in pain. In the face of failure, Guanyin sends them up to the celestial realm in the hopes that the deities who fought Monkey centuries ago will be able to tell one from the other. Both of them fight their way into heaven and gain an audience with the Jade Emperor, but not even the imp-reflecting mirror (zhao yao jing, 照妖鏡) [3] can tell them apart. The two then battle their way back to earth, and when Tripitaka’s use of the tight-fillet spell fails, they fight down to the underworld. There, the judges are unable to find the impostor in their ledgers, but Investigative Hearing (Diting, 諦聽), the omniscient celestial mount of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, finally solves the riddle. However, the creature is reluctant to reveal the false Wukong for fear he will use his powers to disrupt the underworld. The bodhisattva therefore sends them to the Western Paradise in India to stand before the Buddha, who instantly recognizes the impostor. The Enlightened One gives Guanyin a short lecture on four spiritual primates that fall outside of the ten categories of mortal and immortal life in the cosmos: 1) the intelligent stone monkey (ling ming shihou, 靈明石猴, i.e. Sun Wukong); 2) the red-buttocked baboon (chikao mahou, 赤尻馬猴); 3) the bare-armed gibbon (tongbi yuanhou, 通臂猿猴); and 4) the six-eared macaque (liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴). When the Buddha identifies the doppelganger as the fourth kind, the fake Monkey attempts to flee in the form of a bee but is trapped under the Enlightened One’s alms bowl. In the end, Wukong kills the macaque with his cudgel.

2. Origin

2.1. Background in the novel

Lam (2005) reveals that the Six-Eared Macaque is actually Monkey’s sworn brother, the Macaque King (Mihou wang, 獼猴王) (fig. 2), from his younger days as a demon (p. 168). [4] He explains:

The latter’s other agnomen, “the Great Sage Informing Wind” (Tongfeng dasheng, 通風大聖 …) [5] suggests further that its ears are as good as the six-eared macaque’s in information gathering. Despite all these archaic or anachronistic traces, however, Monkey never comes to recognize the six-eared macaque as his old sworn brother as is the case with the Bull Demon King” (Lam, 2005, p. 168).

This should come as no surprise considering the spirit copies Monkey’s life, including his early years as a king. Interestingly, Wukong is a macaque himself.

The novel doesn’t mention the original home of the Macaque King, only that Wukong “made extensive visits to various heroes and warriors” while “tour[ing] the four seas and disport[ing] himself in a thousand mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). The Macaque King could live on anyone of these thousand mountains.

Fig. 2 – A Zbrush rendering of the Macaque King by Zcool user Nerv99 (larger version here).

2.2. Significance of the six ears

Yu suggests the macaque’s six ears come from the Buddhist saying “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear [i.e., the third pair or person]” (fa bu zhuan liu er, 法不傳六耳) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 387 n. 7). He continues: “This idiom is already used in chapter 2 when Monkey assured Patriarch Subhodi that he could receive the oral transmission of the secret formula for realized immortality because ‘there is no third party [sixth ear] present'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 387 n. 7). This phrase refers to a closely guarded secret that must be kept at all cost, something that can only be passed from a qualified teacher to an initiated disciple.

In this case, the Six-Eared Macaque is the second set of ears, for the Buddha states: “[E]ven if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115). Who knows how long this creature listens in on Monkey’s life before he makes an appearance. Perhaps he hears Subhuti’s secret teachings. This might explain why the impostor has similar abilities to our hero.

As the embodiment of the “sixth ear”, the Six-Eared Macaque also represents heterodoxy (waidao, 外道; pangmen, 旁們, lit: “side door”), for someone eavesdropping on esoteric secrets without full initiation into a tradition would have an incomplete understanding. And any supernatural gifts derived from subsequent practice, though powerful as they may be, would just be pale imitations of that achieved by true disciples. This concept is featured in chapter 46 when three animal spirits-turned-Daoist priests challenge Wukong to contests of torture, but each dies because their magic is not as strong as Monkey’s. The novel stresses this is because their training was only partially completed under a teacher. [6] Wukong is more powerful because he completed his training under Subhuti.

2.3. The Ramayana vs. Buddhist philosophy

Hoong (2004) claims the concept of two identical apes fighting each other “evolved from the well-known episode of the Ramayana where Rama was unable to distinguish between [Vali] and the monkey king Sugriva … when the twin brothers were fighting hand to hand” (p. 36 n. 32). This is an enticing suggestion, and indeed the episode is paraphrased in a collection of Buddhist jataka tales translated into Chinese in the third-century, [7] showing that the story existed in China for centuries prior to the publication of the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. However, I should point out that the jataka doesn’t mention the pugilistic primates being identical. In fact, they’re not even brothers. It simply reads, “The following day the monkey fought with his uncle. The [human] king bent the bow and took out arrows … Though far off, the uncle shuddered with horror. He was mighty afraid. He wandered about [a while] and ran away” (Mair, 1989, p. 677). That’s not to say the author-compiler of Journey to the West wasn’t influenced by the tale and independently came upon the idea of twin monkeys. It’s just that I think there are other avenues open to research.

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and his impostor battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

In Chapter 58, the Buddha gives his congregation a sermon on nonduality, discussing existence and nonexistence, form and formlessness, and emptiness and nonemptiness. Just as the battle between Monkey and his double erupts on Spirit Vulture Mountain (fig. 3), the Buddha tells his congregation, “You are all of one mind, but take a look at two Minds in competition and strife arriving here” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113). “One mind” (Sk: ekacitta; Ch: yixin, 一心) is a high-level philosophy and core tenet of many Buddhist schools that refers to a tranquil, immovable mind that encompasses nonduality (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 1031-1032; Huang, 2005, p. 68). “Two minds” (erxin, 二心) refers to the dichotomy of the “true mind” (zhenxin, 眞/真心), “the original, simple, pure, natural mind of all creatures, [or] the Buddha-mind” and the “illusionary mind” (wangxin, 妄心), “which results in complexity and confusion” (Soothill and Hodous, 1937/2006, pp. 24-25). A poem in chapter 58 specifically associates two minds with confusion. The first two lines read: If one has two minds, disasters he’ll breed; / He’ll guess and conjecture both far and near” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113).

It’s important to remember that Wukong is an embodiment of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. [8] As his double, the Six-Eared Macaque is also a Mind Monkey. Therefore, I suggest the battle between these twin primates is an allegory for the struggle between the true and illusionary minds within our hero. After all, Wukong is the true Monkey, while his double, the fake Monkey, lives under the fantasy that he can take the Great Sage’s place and finish the quest on his own. Furthermore, given chapter 58’s emphasis on nonduality, I argue Monkey killing the Six-Eared Macaque in the end represents the blossoming of one mind/true mind by extinguishing the illusionary mind. This fits with Sun’s (2018) suggestion that the killing “is an action of eliminating the monster in him [Wukong], indicating that he is getting closer to achieving Buddhahood at this point in the journey” (p. 25). [9]

3. Appearance in other literature

The Six-Eared Macaque is mentioned by name twice and referenced once in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, c. 1640), a 16-chapter sequel and addendum to the original novel taking place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62. In the story, Monkey is trapped in a dream world where he wanders from one disjointed adventure to the next searching for a magic weapon needed to clear the pilgrims’ path to India. In chapter ten, he attempts to leave a magic tower of mirrors and becomes hopelessly entangled in a net of sentient red threads that adapt to any transformation he uses to escape. An elderly man claiming to be Sun Wukong, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, comes to his rescue by snapping the threads for him. But upon hearing the man’s name, Monkey lashes out at him with his weapon, exclaiming: “You rascally six-eared ape! Have you come to trick me again? Take a look at my cudgel!” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 87). But after the old man vanishes in a flash, Wukong realizes that he was saved by his very own spirit.

In chapter 12, a blind court singer plays a tune recounting events from the original novel for the enjoyment of Tripitaka and a foreign king. A section of the song goes: “A pair of Sage Monkeys deceived Guanyin” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 104). [10]

In chapter 15, after giving up the quest and becoming a commander for the foreign king, Tripitaka starts amassing an army. Sun Wukong is listed among the generals, but because Monkey is investigating his master’s change of heart, he instead presents himself as his brother, the Six-Eared Macaque:

The name “Great General Sun Wukong” was called. The Tang Priest blanched and gazed below his platform. It happened that Monkey had mixed amongst the army for the past three days in the form of a six-eared monkey soldier. When he heard the three words “Sun Wukong” he leaped out of formation and knelt on the ground, saying, “Little General Sun Wukong is transporting supplies and couldn’t be present. I’m his brother Sun Wuhuan [孫悟幻, “Monkey Awakened to Fantasy”] , and I wish to take his place in battle. In this I dare disobey the Commander’s order.”

The Tang Priest said, “Sun Wuhuan, what is your origin? Tell me quickly, and I’ll spare your life.”

Hopping and dancing, Monkey said:

In the old days I was a monster,
Who took the name of Monkey.
After the Great Sage left the Tang Priest,
I became his close relation by way of marriage.
There’s no need to ask my name,
I’m the Six-eared Monkey, Great General Sun Wuhuan.

The Tang Priest said, “The six-eared ape used to be Monkey’s enemy. Now he’s forgotten the old grudge and become generous. He must be a good man.” He ordered [the minor general] White Banner to give Sun Wuhuan a suit of the iron armor of the vanguard and appointed him “Vanguard General to Destroy Entrenchment” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 122).

4. Black Myth: Wukong

Black Myth: Wukong (Hei shenhua: Wukong, 黑神話:悟空, 2023) is an upcoming action RPG by the independent Chinese developer Game Science (Youxi Kexue, 遊戲科學) (Adler, 2020; Skrebels, 2020). A trailer with 13 minutes of gameplay was released August 20th and has garnered over 6.7 million views on YouTube alone (as of 11/4/20) (video 1). It opens on an aged, furry and squint-faced, long-nailed monk (likely Wukong) sitting in a rundown temple and recalling assorted legends about Monkey. One says the hero became a Buddha and stayed on Spirit Mountain; another that he died on the journey and a different figure was given buddhahood in his place; and another still that Wukong is just a fictional character from a story. The monk then tells the viewer, “But you must not have heard the story I’m going to tell”, thus alluding to the unofficial or “black myth” (hei shenhua, 黑神話).

The trailer features a gorgeous, immersive world in which Wukong travels by foot, wing, and cloud battling underlings and demonic bosses. Monkey is shown capable of freezing enemies in place, making soldiers with his hair, and hardening his body to avoid damage, as well as transforming into a cicada (for covert travel and reconnaissance) and a large golden ape (for boss battles). See here for a great explanation of the cultural and literary references in the game.

Video 1 – The 13 minute game play trailer for Black Myth: Wukong.

Interestingly, some characters in the game hint at a second Wukong. For example, a low-level demon boss says, “Hmm…another monkey?” upon meeting Wukong. Later, an earth god sees him and proclaims, “Similar!”, thus alluding to the other Monkey. This mystery comes to a head at the end of the trailer when Wukong goes to strike another character and his weapon is blocked by a staff with little effort. The camera pans upwards along the shaft, passed glowing Chinese characters for the “‘As-you-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), revealing the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in his golden armor. This implies the “real” Sun Wukong has arrived and the gamer has been playing as a “fake” Monkey the entire time. But who is this figure?

I suggest this fake Monkey is the Six-Eared Macaque. As noted above, this impostor wishes to win all the glory by completing the quest on his own. His exact words read:

I struck the Tang Monk [with my staff] and I took the luggage not because I didn’t want to go to the West, nor because I loved to live in this place [Flower-Fruit Mountain]. I’m studying the rescript at the moment precisely because I want to go to the West all by myself to ask Buddha for the scriptures. When I deliver them to the Land of the East, it will be my success and no one else’s. Those people of the South Jambudvipa Continent will honor me then as their patriarch and my fame will last for all posterity (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

This would explain why the fake Monkey is traveling alone and why the real Wukong stops him at the end of the trailer.

4. Conclusion

The Six-Eared Macaque is a supernatural primate who wishes to take Wukong’s place in order to win all the glory by finishing the quest on his own. He is in fact Monkey’s former sworn brother, the Macaque King, who took the title “Great Sage Informing Wind”. His six ears are likely based on the Buddhist phrase “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear”, denoting a great secret that must only be passed to an initiated disciple. His ability to eavesdrop on such secrets from a thousand miles away identifies him as a practitioner of heterodoxy. Being a copy of Monkey, the macaque also symbolizes the “Mind Monkey”, thereby marking their battle as an allegory for the internal struggle between the true and illusionary minds. The spirit’s death at the end represents the blossoming of One Mind.

The Six-Eared Macaque is referenced several times in the sequel A Supplement to the Journey to the West (1640). In chapter ten, Monkey is freed from a magical trap by his very own spirit, who presents himself as Sun Wukong, causing our hero to mistakenly assume his doppelganger has returned. In chapter 12, a court singer alludes to Guanyin’s failure to distinguish the true Great Sage from the fake one. Finally, in chapter 15, Wukong presents himself as the macaque in order to infiltrate Tripitaka’s army.

The spirit is likely the main character of the upcoming action RPG Black Myth: Wukong (2023). The trailer shows this Monkey fighting all manner of underlings and bosses along his solo quest. But the “real” Wukong appears at the end to cross staves, thus showing the gamer is playing as the impostor.

Notes:

1) The travel rescript is like an imperial passport that needs to be stamped by each kingdom to guarantee legal passage along the quest to India. It contains an introductory letter from the Tang emperor and the stamps of all the kingdoms already visited.

2) Yu translates the name as “acquiescent staff of iron” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105). My thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting the alternative translation. “Acquiescent” or “to fulfill one’s desires” (suixin, 隨心) is a play on the “as-you-wish” (ruyi, 如意) of Monkey’s “‘As-you-wish’ Gold-banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒).

3) The imp-reflecting mirror is used in chapter six to see through Monkey’s various magical disguises during his battle with Erlang (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 179 and 184).

4) Wukong takes his six sworn brothers in chapter three shortly after establishing his monkey tribe as a military power. The other brothers include the Bull Monster King, the Dragon Monster King, the Garuda Monster King, the Giant Lynx King, and the Orangutan King (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 138-139).

5) Yu translates the name as “Telltale Great Sage” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 157).

6) For example, after he successfully meets a goat spirit’s challenge to boil in oil, Wukong discovers the liquid is somehow cool to the touch during the animal’s turn. Monkey then summons a dragon king who tells him:

[T]his cursed beast did go through quite an austere process of self-cultivation, to the point where he was able to cast off his original shell. He has acquired the true magic of the Five Thunders, while the rest of the magic powers he has are all those developed by heterodoxy, none fit to lead him to the true way of the immortals (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 313).

7) This tale, commonly known in English as the “Jataka of an Unnamed King” (no. 46), appears in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, third-century) (CBETA, 2016), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). See Mair, 1989, pp. 676-678 for a full English translation.

8) Examples of the term’s use include titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”).

9) Alternatively, Sun (2018) suggests: “[H]e kills the six-eared macaque because the latter has copied him too closely, the best demon among the ones that Monkey has conquered” (p. 25).

10) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin. All other quotes from this source will be thus changed.

Sources:

Adler, M. (2020, August 26). Black Myth: Wukong – Everything We Know About Gameplay, Release Date, and More. Retrieved from https://www.ign.com/articles/black-myth-wukong-everything-we-know-about-gameplay-release-date-and-more

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016). T03n0152_005 六度集經 第5卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas, scroll no. 5]. Retrieved from http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T03n0152_005

Dong, Y., Lin, S. F., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Hoong, T. T. (2004). Some Classical Malay Materials for the Study of the Chinese Novel Journey to the West. Sino-Platonic Papers, 137, 1-64. Retrieved from http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp137_malay_journey_to_the_west.pdf

Huang, Y. (2005). Integrating Chinese Buddhism: A Study of Yongming Yanshou’s Guanxin Xuanshu. Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing.

Lam, H. L. (2005). Cannibalizing the Heart: The Politics of Allegory and The Journey to the West. In E. Ziolkowski (Ed.). Literature, Religion, and East/West Comparison (pp. 162-178). Newark: University of Delaware Press.

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

Skrebels, J. (2020, September 11). Black Myth: Wukong – 19 New Details We’ve Learned. Retrieved from https://www.ign.com/articles/black-myth-wukong-length-series-sequel-19-new-details

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

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

The Great Sage Detecting “Ping-Pong” Bottle

Updated: 08/11/20

Elliott (1955/1990) describes a curious glass bottle used in the worship of Sun Wukong in Singapore. Filled with “twelve o’clock water” and topped with a consecrated bulbous glass stem, it is said to make a pinging noise to signal the arrival of the monkey god in a home or temple:

There are, also, sometimes other pieces of apparatus, apart from images, which devotees like to keep in their own homes. An outstanding example is an article of equipment almost exclusively associated with the ‘Great Saint’ [大聖] which goes by the onomatopoeic name of ‘ping-pong’ [乒乓]. It consists of an ordinary bottle filled with ‘twelve o’clock water’, water drawn from a tap or well at midday. Into the neck is fitted a funnel-like piece of glass-ware open at the lower end of the funnel, which dips into the water but completely closes the top [fig. 1 and 2]. Everyday at noon, and sometimes at other hours as well, this apparatus gives off a sudden ‘pinging’ sound, as if bubbles were rising and forcing up the funnel in the bottle’s neck. When this occurs, the shen [神, god] is supposed to be revealing his presence in the temple or the home, and an immediate act of worship must be carried out by the persons there. These ‘ping-pong’ are invariably found in temples associated with the ‘Great Saint’. Devotees will purchase their own funnels and bring them to the temple for the dang-ki [童乩, spirit-medium] to consecrate them with a lick of his blood (p. 58).

Fig. 1 – The ping-pong bottle, a.k.a. “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶), fitted with the bulbous stem, which is closed at the top and open at the bottom (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of the stem (larger version). Images found on google.

The device was also used in Hong Kong according to one personal account shared with me:

I believe the apparatus was used not just in Singapore. My mom told me that as a kid in HK in the 1940s/50s, her aunt also had something similar on the altar where she worshipped the [Great] Saint. And when the apparatus made a noise which signified his arrival, they would light up a joss stick.

I don’t know when the bottle was first associated with Sun Wukong, but the above information points to its active use in Asia as far back as the 1950s. It’s my understanding that the bottle is a rarity in modern practice, suggesting it flourished prior to mid-century.

Why the bottle was associated with the Great Sage is also a mystery to me. But the significance of twelve o’clock water may provide some clues. Astrological theory associates noon with wu (午), the seventh of twelve earthly branches, which is in turn identified with horses, the heart, fire yang, the summer solstice, and the direction south (Wu & Taylor, 2014, pp. 133-134). Readers may remember that Sun Wukong is appointed the keeper of the heavenly horses (bimawen, 弼馬溫) in chapter four of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149). Additionally, Chinese philosophy considers the heart to be the seat of the mind (xin, 心; alternatively translated “heart-mind”). This is important as Sun is called the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿; alternatively translated “Mind Ape”), which is a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted, transient thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). 

(Before I continue, I must warn that using the 16th-century novel as a source for modern folk religion surely overlooks beliefs that I am not aware of. The above info should therefore be considered purely speculative.)

A naturalistic explanation for the pinging noise is air escaping from the bottle due to changes in atmospheric pressure. However, I’d like to speculate on a possible esoteric reason. As mentioned above, noon is identified with fire yang, which is considered the height of yang power. In fact, the hours before wu and after zi (子, midnight) are considered the best time to practice Daoist exlixir cultivation. [1] And since heaven is the embodiment of yang, [2] it’s possible worshipers believe water collected at noon is infused with strong yang energy, thereby giving it the ability to detect the presence of celestial deities like the Great Sage.


Update: 08/11/20

J.D. Martinsen contacted me and noted that “drawing noon water” (da wushi shui, 打午時水) is a common practice in coastal China during the Dragon Boat Festival. The water is apparently known for its demonifugic and medicinal properties. In fact, this custom is even practiced in Taiwan where there is a common saying: “A sip of noon water is better than three years of herbal medicine” (wushi shui yin yi zui, jiao hao buyao chi san nian, 午時水飲一嘴,較好補藥吃三年) (Chen, 2011, p. 210). Therefore, this association with warding malevolent influences/sickness may explain why Sun Wukong is connected with noon water. He is after all the exorcist par excellence, as well as a healer.

Notes:

1) This is noted as early as the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄) (Kohn, 2008, p. 84).

2) See, for example, Clearly (2003), p. 391.

Sources:

Chen, X. (2011). Taiwan li shi shang de yi min yu she hui yan jiu [The History of Taiwanese Immigration and Social Studies]. Beijing: Jiu zhou chu ban she.

Cleary, T. F. (2003). The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Volume Two. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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

Wu, Z., & Taylor, W. K. (2014). Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches – TianGan DiZhi: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom Traditions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

The Alchemical Metaphor of Subhuti’s Mountain Home

The Monkey King’s quest for immortality spans some ten years, taking him passed two cosmic continents and two great oceans. After sailing to a continent in the west, our hero is directed to the abode of the Sage Subhuti, a place often translated as “The Mountain of Mind and Heart / Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山,斜月三星洞) (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 113, for example). This translation, however, glosses over deeper meanings associated with the original Chinese. The term lingtai (靈臺/台), literally “spirit platform/tower” or “numinous platform/tower”, was sometimes used in Daoist literature to refer to the “heart” or “mind” (xin, 心, “heart-mind” hereafter), the center of spiritual intellect. Going back centuries to the Zhuangzi (c. 3rd-century BCE), it was represented as something that had to be guarded against malevolent influences:

Utilize the bounty of things and let them nourish your body; withdraw into thoughtlessness and in this way give life to your mind; be reverent of what is within and extend this same reverence to others. If you do these things and yet are visited by ten thousand evils, then all are Heaven-sent and not the work of man. They should not be enough to destroy your composure; they must not be allowed to enter the Spirit Tower. The Spirit Tower has its guardian, but unless it understands who its guardian is, it cannot be guarded (Chuang & Watson, 1968, p. 194).

Subuti's cave, from Mr. Zhuo's literary criticism of Xiyouji - 2mall

Fig. 1 – Monkey kneeling before the entrance of Subhuti’s school asking to become a disciple (larger version). A detail from Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

The term fangcun (方寸), literally “square inch”, was also used historically to refer to the heart-mind. [1] But it’s important to note that Daoist alchemical literature sometimes uses the term to refer to the lowest cinnabar or elixir field located approximately “two inches below the navel, three inches within, where the mind is focused” (Saso, 1995, p. 128). For instance, the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing, 黃庭經, c. 4th-century), a treatise associated with the Highest Clarity tradition, recognizes three fields: brain (upper), heart (center), and belly (lower) (fig. 2), each one represented by a series of place names or an anthropomorphic persona (Saso, 1995, pp. 106-107). The scripture presents the lower field/square inch as the storehouse of vital spiritual energies, the synergy of which is thought to bolster the body and bring about immortality. A portion of the fifth stanza reads: “Inside the square inch, carefully cover and store qi. / Shen spirit and jing intuition returned there, though old, are made new / Through the dark palace make them flow, down to the lower realm. / Nourish your jade tree, now a youth again”. [2]

The scripture treats the central heart-mind field as the seat of the spirit (shen, 神), sometimes anthropomorphizing it as a red-robed man (Saso, 1995, p. 125, for example). But it also calls the field the spirit platform. A section of the sixth stanza reads: “The spirit platform meets heaven in the central field. / From square inch center, down to the [dark] gate, / The soul’s doorway to the Jade Chamber’s core is there”. [3] Saso (1995) explains the first line refers to the interaction between the heart-mind and the Dao, with the second and third referring to spiritual energies being directed into the lower field via a passage near the kidneys (p. 129). Despite the cryptic Daoist jargon, what’s important here is the link between the center field/spirit platform and the lower field/square inch. 

Given the information above, a better translation for Subhuti’s mountain might be the “Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Cinnabar Mind” or the “Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind” (or any combination of the two).

Daoist Dantian Chakras - small

Fig. 2 – An example of the upper, center, and lower cinnabar fields indicated by red dots (larger version).

I propose the name of Subhuti’s mountain home was specifically chosen by the author-compiler of the Journey to the West as a metaphor for the alchemical practices taught in the Scripture of the Yellow Court. This conclusion is supported by the mention of the scripture in the very first chapter of the novel. This happens when Monkey confuses a lowly woodcutter for an immortal just because the man was singing a Daoist song, one taught to him by Subhuti:

The Monkey King explained, “When I came just now to the forest’s edge, I heard you singing, ‘Those I meet, if not immortals, would be Daoists, seated quietly to expound the Yellow Court.’ The Yellow Court contains the perfected words of the Way and Virtue. What can you be but an immortal?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 111)

I find it interesting that Wukong touts the authority of the Scripture of the Yellow Court even before having begun his Daoist training. From where did he learn this? Could this be projection of the author-compiler?

heart calligraphy

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for heart (xin). Original image found here.

Another aspect of Subhuti’s location that requires explanation is the cavern housing his temple, the “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (xieyue sanxing dong, 斜月三星洞). The name is a literal description of the Chinese character for heart-mind (xin, 心). It looks just like a crescent moon surmounted by three stars (fig. 3). This means all three sections of the location name (spirit platform, square inch, cave name) are associated in some form with the heart-mind. The reason for this could be because, in the Ming Journey to the West, Wukong represents the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). Additionally, a poem in chapter seven reads: “An ape’s body of Dao weds the human mind. / Mind is a monkey—this meaning’s profound” (yuanhou dao ti renxin / xin ji yuanhou yisi shen, 猿猴道體配人心 / 心即猿猴意思深) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 190). [4]

I’m not sure when Sun was first associated with this concept, but Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a Western Xia wall painting of the Monkey Pilgrim wearing a golden headband (fig. 4). I show in this article that the band is based on a historical Esoteric Buddhist ritual fillet associated with the Akshobhya Buddha, who is known for his vow to attain Buddhahood through moralistic practices. Therefore, the ritual band most likely served as a physical reminder of right speech and action, making the band from the mural a symbol for the taming of the Monkey Mind. If this is the case, Wukong has represented the Monkey Mind since at least the 11th-century when the mural was painted.

Fig. 4 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. See here for a larger detail showing both Monkey and Tripitaka. 

Allusions to the Mind Monkey appear in the ancient Pali Buddhist canon, but its earliest known occurrences in Chinese sources appear among the translations of the monk Kumarajiva (Jiumoluoshi, 鳩摩羅什, d. 413). For instance, his translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra reads: “Since the mind of one difficult to convert is like an ape [yuanhou, 猨猴], govern his mind by using certain methods and it can then be broken in” (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 168). This shows the concept was present in China for over a millennia prior to the Ming Journey to the West.

Notes:

1) In Buddhism, for example, the fourth Chan patriarch Daoxin is quoted as saying: “All schools of the Law find their way to the Square Inch; all rivers and sand of wonderful virtues come from the Source of the Mind (xinyuan 心源)” (Liu, 1994, p. 28).

2) See Saso, 1995, p. 127 for the full stanza and explanation. I have changed all quotes used from this source from Wade-Giles to Pinyin. I also slightly modified the translation.

3) See Saso, 1995, p. 129 for the full stanza and explanation. Again, I slightly modified the translation.

4) Anthony Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) suggests this poem is related to the Buddha’s statement that Wukong is “only a monkey who happened to become a spirit, … merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation” (p. 70), thereby alluding to a Confucian hierarchical scale present in the novel where animals are able to attain human qualities through Daoist cultivation. So Monkey’s Daoist training under Subhuti allows him to wed his monkey form to the human heart-mind.

Sources:

Chuang, T., & Watson, B. (1968). The complete works of Chuang Tzu. Columbia University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: Univ. Press of America.

Saso, M. R. (1995). The Gold pavilion: Taoist ways to peace, healing, and long life. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

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