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 not just our hero but also readers of Journey to the West. 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.


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.


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 Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.

In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), an island that lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches a stone egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.

The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for nearly four centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisers notes that only Daoist immortals and Buddhist saints can avoid death, and so he suggests the king find a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life. Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years, adopting human dress and language along way. His quest takes him to the Western Aparagodāniya continent where he is finally accepted as a student by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey who realizes sunyata“. The sage teaches him the seventy-two methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.

A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.

Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.

Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.

Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball (Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).

A Supplement to the Journey to the West: An Overview

A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補) is a sixteen chapter Chinese novelette written in 1640 CE by Dong Yue (董說). It acts as a sequel and addendum to the famous Journey to the West (1592) and takes place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62.[1] In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty (608-907), he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.[2]

There is a debate between scholars over when the book was actually published. One school of thought favors a political interpretation which lends itself to a later publication after the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The second favors a religious interpretation which lends itself to an earlier publication during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Evidence in favor of the former includes references to the stench of nearby “Tartars,” a possible allusion to the Manchus who would eventually found the Qing and conquer China. Evidence in favor of the latter includes references to Buddhist sutras and the suppression of desire and the lack of political statements “lament[ing] the fate of the country.”[3] The novel can ultimately be linked to the Ming because a mid-17th century poem dates it to the year 1640.


Shortly after getting into an argument with his master over the blazingly red color of flowers (a representation of desire), Monkey kills a group of women and children who accost Tripitaka for his robes. However, when Sun Wukong tries to talk his way out of punishment, he finds his traveling companions have all conveniently fallen asleep. Taking his leave to find food, he happens upon a large city flying the banner “Great Tang’s New Son-of-Heaven, the Restoration Emperor, thirty-eighth successor of Taizong.” This strikes Monkey as odd since it was Taizong who had originally sent them on their mission to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures in India. This either means the pilgrims’ journey had taken hundreds of years, or the city is a fake. He flies to heaven in order to learn more about the Great Tang, but finds the gates are locked because an imposter Monkey King has stolen the Palace of Magic Mists. The situation becomes even stranger when he returns to the city and learns that the king has sent someone to invite the Tang Priest to become a general of his military. But when Sun tries to intercept the messenger, the person is nowhere to be found, and he instead comes upon mortal men flying on magic clouds and picking at the very foundations of heaven with spears and axes. From them he learns that the Little Moon King (小月王), the ruler of the neighboring Kingdom of Great Compassion, has put up a great bronze wall and a fine mesh netting so as to block Monkey’s path to India. But because the monarch feels sorry for the Tang Priest, the Little Moon King forced the men to dig a hole in the firmament of heaven so that Tripitaka could hop from the Daoist heaven to the Buddhist heaven to complete his mission. But in the process, the men accidentally caused the Palace of Magic Mists to fall through to earth, hence the reason why heaven blames Monkey.


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

Monkey goes to the Emerald Green World, Little Moon King’s imperial city, in order to fetch his master but is blocked from entering once inside the main gate. When he uses his great strength to bust open the wall, he falls inside of a magic tower of mirrors that act as gateways to different points in history and other universes. Monkey travels to the “World of the Ancients” (the Qin Dynasty) by drilling through a bronze mirror. He transforms himself into Beautiful Lady Yu, concubine of King Xiang Yu of Chu, in order to retrieve a magic “Mountain-removing Bell” from the first Qin Emperor so that he can use it to clear the group’s path to India of any obstacles blocking their way. But Sun later learns that the Jade Emperor had banished the emperor to the “World of Oblivion,” which lies beyond the “World of the Future.” Xiang Yu takes him to a village housing a set of Jade gates leading to the World of the Future. Monkey leaps through and travels hundreds of years forward in time to the Song Dynasty.

Upon his arrival, he is accosted by the ghosts of six thieves (representing the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind—the sources of desire) because they think he is a beautiful woman. He resumes his true form and exorcises them with his cudgel.[4] Shortly thereafter some junior devils appear and tell him that King Yama has recently died of an illness and that Monkey must take his place as judge of the dead until a suitable replacement can be found. He ends up judging the fate of the recently deceased Prime Minister Qin Hui. Monkey puts Qin through a series of horrific tortures, after which a demon uses its magic breath to blow his broken body back into its proper form. He finally sends a demon to heaven to retrieve a powerful magic gourd that sucks anyone who speaks before it inside and melts them down into a bloody stew. He uses this for Qin’s final punishment. Meanwhile, Monkey invites the ghost of General Yue Fei to the underworld and takes him as his third master.[5] He entertains Yue until Qin has been reduced to liquid and offers the general a cup of the Prime Minister’s “blood wine.” Yue, however, refuses on the grounds that drinking it would sully his soul. Sun then conducts an experiment where he makes a junior devil drink of the wine. Sometime later, the devil, apparently under the evil influence of the libation, murders his personal religious teacher and escapes into the “gate of ghosts,” presumably being reborn into another existence. Yue Fei then takes his leave to return to his heavenly abode. Monkey sends him off with a huge display of respect by making all of the millions of denizens of the underworld kowtow before him.

After leaving the underworld, Sun is able to return to the tower of mirrors with the help of the “New Ancient,” a man who had been trapped in the World of the Future for centuries. However, when he tries to leave the tower through a window, Monkey becomes hopelessly entangled by red threads (another representation of desire). He becomes so worried that his very own spirit leaves his body and, under the guise of an old man, snaps the threads. He later discovers from a local Daoist immortal that the Qin Emperor has loaned the Mountain-removing Bell to the founder of the Han Dynasty, his former enemy. In addition, he learns that the Tang Priest has given up the journey to India, dismissed his other disciples Zhu Wuneng (Pigsy) and Sha Wujing (Friar Sand), taken a wife, and accepted the position as a general of the imposter Great Tang military.

Tripitaka begins to amass a huge army to fight the forces of the physical manifestation of desire. Monkey manages to infiltrate the ranks and presents himself as his own relative, a Six-Eared Macaque named Sun Wuhuan (孫悟幻, “Monkey Awakened to Fantasy”). Tripitaka names Wuhuan his “Vanguard General to Destroy [the] Entrenchment [of Desire]” and orders him to lead a contingent of yellow banner soldiers to face the “Western Barbarians”. General Sun’s forces come to bear against green banner soldiers led by King Paramita, one of the Monkey King’s five sons born to Lady Iron Fan.[6] Tripitaka soon arrives with purple banner soldiers to bolster Sun’s ranks, while black banner soldiers come to support King Paramita. The green banner soldiers eventually overpower the purple, killing the Little Moon King and beheading Tripitaka. A great wave of confusion then washes over the battlefield, causing soldiers of all colors to attack both friend and foe.

The shock of seeing his master die causes Monkey to take on his fierce three-headed and six-armed form. But his rage is halted by an aged deity sitting on a lotus platform in the sky. This “Master of the Void” reveals that Sun has been trapped in a magical dream world by the Qing Fish demon (鯖魚情) who wishes to eat Tripitaka to gain immortality. It turns out Monkey had become sexually aroused while in the stomach of Lady Iron Fan (at the end of chapter 61).[7] The Qing Fish took advantage of this chink in Sun’s spiritual armor to trap him. Both Monkey and the demon share a bond because they were born at the same time from the same primordial energies at the beginning of time. The only difference is that Monkey’s positive Yang energy is offset by the demon’s far more powerful negative Yin energy. The monster is in effect the physical embodiment of Monkey’s desires.

When he finally awakens, having dreamed the entire adventure in only a few seconds, Sun discovers the demon has infiltrated the Tang Priest’s retinue by taking on the form of a young and beautiful Buddhist monk name Wuqing (悟情, “Awakened to Desire”). The fiend had cast an illusion that Guanyin’s disciple Moksha introduced him as Tripitaka’s newest attendant and claims the Bodhisattva has requested he be placed second only to Wukong. This is because the religious name of all four disciples (Wukong, Wuqing, Wuneng, and Wujing) will form the phrase “make empty of desire and be purified” (kong qing neng jing, 空情能淨). Monkey takes advantage of the demon’s lowered defenses and kills it with his cudgel, thereby freeing himself of desire. Tripitaka is initially shocked, but sees the monk’s corpse revert to its true form, a mackerel fish (鯖魚). Sun then explains everything that had transpired, to which the Tang Priest commends him for his great effort.

Question and Answer

At the end of the novel, the author answers a list of twelve hypothetical questions that a reader might ask after reading the novelette. Some of the answers are very similar in nature and are sometimes contradictory.

The first question asks whether a supplement was even necessary since the original novel did not seem to be incomplete. He explains that it was written so Monkey would face an enemy—in this case desire—that he could not defeat with his great strength. By experiencing desire he learns to separate himself from it, thus helping to bring about true enlightenment. The second asks why he faces a single enemy who tricks him with magic, instead of many who want to eat the Tang Priest. The author answers this question with a quote by the philosopher Mencius: “There is no better way of learning than to seek your own strayed heart.”[8] The third asks why Dong waited to reveal the monster Monkey faces at the end of the novel, instead of doing so in the title of one of the chapters like in the original. He states that desire is formless and soundless, meaning people can be affected by it without knowing it. Therefore, the Qing fish monster is present throughout the entire book. The fourth asks how it’s possible for the spirit of Qin Hui, who lived during the Song, to be in the Tang Dynasty. Dong points out that anything is possible in a dream. The fifth asks why Monkey becomes the fearsome King Yama in the future. He explains a person who travels to the future must embolden their spirit when facing adversity. By killing the six thieves and torturing Qin, Monkey is able to break free of the Qing fish’s power. The sixth asks why the Tang Priest becomes a general. He becomes a general to wipe out the forces of desire. The seventh indirectly asks why the Tang Priest cries when a young girl plays the pipa.[9] Dong quotes the Buddhist tenet that sorrow is the source of desire. The eighth asks how it’s possible for Monkey to have a wife and children. He states that the book is simply a dream. The ninth asks why a chaotic battle erupts between the five armies after Monkey escapes from inside the Qing fish. It’s because the accumulation of desire reaches the breaking point. It can be likened to being forced awake during the worst part of a nightmare. The tenth asks why Monkey is able to escape the dream world just by participating in combat. Dong says combat is how he kills his desire. The eleventh asks if it’s possible to gouge holes in heaven like the flying men do. This is not directly answered. The author states Monkey could not have been trapped inside of the Qing fish without encountering these men. The twelfth asks why the Qing fish is portrayed as being young and beautiful. Dong explains that these are the qualities that desire has taken from the beginning of time.[10]

Proper dating

There is a debate between scholars over when the book was actually published. One school of thought favors a political interpretation which lends itself to a later publication after the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The second favors a religious interpretation which lends itself to an earlier publication during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Proponents of the political interpretation take the qing (情, desire) of the Qing fish to be an allusion to the qing (清, pure) of the Qing Dynasty (清朝).[11] The English translators of the book, who appear neutral in the debate, point out three things that may support this view: First, the reason Dong included Qin Hui in the story may have been because the Prime Minister historically betrayed the Song to the Jurchen-ruled Jin Dynasty. Centuries later, the Manchu chieftain Nurhachi, an ancestor of the Jurchens, founded the Later Jin Dynasty in 1616. This dynasty was later renamed the Qing Dynasty in 1636. So even if the book was published prior to the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the Qing fish may indeed been meant as an analogy for the Qing. Second, Monkey is offended by an odor created by Tartars “right next door.”[12] Since the Manchus resided “next door” to northern China, the idea of an invasion may have been on Dong’s mind while he was writing the book. Third, Dong may have been ridiculing the Ming’s inaction towards an imminent Manchu invasion when the New Ancient tells Monkey that his body will take on the stink of the barbarians if he stays too long.[13] Proponents who favor the political interpretation include the scholars Xu Fuming and Liu Dajie.[14]

Fig. 2 – Sudhana (left) learning from one of the fifty-two teachers (right) along
his journey toward enlightenment. Sanskrit manuscript, 11th to 12th century.

Proponents of the religious interpretation prefer to take the Qing fish for what it is, an embodiment of desire. The author Dong Yue is known to have been alienated by Buddhism’s denigration of desire, and so the Tang Priest’s position as the General of “Qing-killing” is simply a satire aimed at the religion. Madeline Chu believes the constant repetition of the color green (青, qing)—green cities, green towers, green robes, etc.—is an analogy for human emotions. She also points out that the Chinese characters used to spell Little Moon King (小月王) are visually similar to the three that comprise desire (情).[15] The English translators note that the physical tower of mirrors recalls a tale from the Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra in which the Bodhisattva Maitreya creates a self-contained universe inside of a tower in order to bring about the enlightenment of Guanyin’s disciple Sudhana (fig. 2). Therefore, Monkey is just like Sudhana because the events he experiences inside of the tower eventually leads to his enlightenment.[16]

There are also other reasons to accept a Ming publication. The scholar Lu Xun muses, “Actually the book contains more digs at Ming fashions than laments over the fate of the country, and I suspect that it was written before the end of the [Ming] dynasty.”[17] Most importantly, there is a woodblock edition of the novel that was printed during the 1628-1644 reign of the Chongzhen Emperor. The preface is dated to the year xinsi (辛巳), which Madeline Chu believes to be the year 1641. Additionally, a note appearing in the poem “Random Thoughts” (1650) comments that the author Dong Yue “supplemented the Xiyouji ten years ago,” which dates the writing of the novel to 1640.[18]


The Supplement‘s episode of the torture of Qin Hui in hell has many elements that appeared in earlier fictional literature. The idea of someone serving as an adjunct king of hell was first mentioned in a collection of oral traditions called Popular tales of the Record of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi pinghua, 三国誌評話), the literary ancestor of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.[19] This was one of five such compilations printed in the Newly Published, Fully Illustrated Popular Stories (Xinkan quanxian pinghua, 新刊全相评話) series during the reign of Yuan Emperor Yingzhong (1321-1323).[20] It was later popularized in Feng Menglong’s Stories of Old and New (Gujin xiahua, 古今小說, 1620), a collection of original works and earlier oral traditions.[21] The tale entitled “Sima Mao Disrupts Order in the Underworld and Sits in Judgment” is about a poor Han Dynasty scholar named Sima Mao who is constantly passed over for promotion to various government posts in favor of wealthy men who underhandedly pay for their positions. Sima writes a poem criticizing the celestial hierarchy and claims he could do a better job at righting wrongs than the king of hell. The Jade Emperor of heaven initially wishes to punish Sima for his blasphemy, but the embodiment of the Planet Venus talks him into letting the scholar act as the King of Hell for twelve hours to test his worth. Sima is given Yama’s throne under the stipulation that he will enjoy success in his next life if he solves hell’s most difficult cold cases, but will be damned never to be reborn into the human realm if he fails. He tries four cases involving famous Han Dynasty personages—Han Xin, Peng Yue, Liu Bang, etc.—and passes sagely verdicts. For his great deed, Sima and his wife are born into wealth in their next lives.[22]

Portions of the story dealing with Yue Fei’s retribution originally appeared in several storytelling compilations, including the fifteenth-century work An Imitative Collection of Stories (Xiaopin ji, 小品集), and in an early folklore biography on the general named Restoration of the Great Song Dynasty: The Story of King Yue (Da Song zhongxing Yue Wang zhuan, 大宋中興岳王傳, c. 1552).[23] Feng Menlong later used such oral tales when he adapted the aforementioned story about Sima Mao to write “Humu Di Intones Poems and Visits the Netherworld,” which was included in his collection.[24] It is about a poor Yuan Dynasty scholar named Humu Di (胡母迪) who fails to gain a government post because he cannot pass the imperial exams. After a bout of drinking, Humu writes a series of poems criticizing heaven for not punishing the wicked and states he would torture Qin Hui for the murder of Yue Fei if he was the king of hell.[25] For his irreverent remarks, Humu’s soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld of Diyu. There, King Yama orders an underworld official to take Humu on a tour of the various tortures of hell in order to witness firsthand the result of karmic cause and effect. The two first come to Qin Hui’s personal hell where his punishments are similar to those mentioned in the Supplement. His destroyed body is blown back into its proper form by a “sinister whirling wind” after each punishment has been metered. The official explains after three years of continuous torture, Qin will be reborn on earth as all manner of animals, including pigs, to be slaughtered and eaten until the end of time. The two then view the tortures of other wicked people before returning to Yama’s palace. After having tea with the souls of righteous men waiting on their rebirths, Yama sends Humu back to the world of the living satisfied that the heavenly hierarchy is doing its job. Humu becomes an official in hell upon his death years later.[26]

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 3 – The headless ghost of Yue Fei (middle) confronting the recently
deceased spirit of Qin Hui (right) in hell. 
The plaque held by the atten-
dant on the left reads: “Qin Hui’s ten wicked crimes.” From a 19th-cen-
tury Chinese Hell Scroll (larger version).

A modified version of the former tale appears in Yue Fei’s later folklore biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). This story is about a rich, drunken Song Dynasty scholar named Hu Di (胡迪) who writes a blasphemous poem and is himself dragged to hell for his remarks about King Yama. He is taken on a tour and attends the punishment of the recently deceased Qin Hui, which includes the same tortures and endless karmic rebirths as animals. Qin’s damaged body is, again, put back into its proper form by a magical wind. Hu returns to Yama’s palace convinced that he was too quick to judge the ways of heaven and hell. Yama allows Hu to write out formal charges against Qin and his family. Meanwhile, in a manner similar to the Supplement, the soul of Yue Fei is brought to hell. He learns the reason he suffered an untimely death is because he went against the ways of heaven in his former life.[27] Qin Hui is then brought before Yue to be summarily beaten with iron rods for the charges brought against him. After seeing the general off from Hell, King Yama orders a demon to quickly return Hu’s soul to the world of the living in order to avoid his earthly body from decomposing. He lives a life of charity and dies in his nineties.[28]

The story of Qin’s torture in hell is so well known that Beijing’s Daoist Eastern Peak Temple (Dongyue miao, 東嶽廟), which is famous for its statuary representations of the celestial hierarchy, has a small hall dedicated to Yue Fei in which a likeness of the former Prime Minister is being led off to the underworld by a demon.[29] It is also important to note that the ghost of Yue confronting the recently deceased spirit of Qin (fig. 3) is a prominent fixture in religious Chinese Hell Scrolls.[30]


[1] Madeline Chu, “Journey Into Desire: Monkey’s Secular Experience in the Xiyoubu,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 117, no. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1997): 654-64, 654.
[2] Dong, Yue, Shuen-fu Lin, Larry James Schulz, and Cheng’en Wu. The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000.
[3] Chu, 9.
[4] He kills the thieves in chapter 14 of the original novel. The appearance of their ghosts in the Supplement is most likely meant to represent lingering feelings of desire that Monkey has. The “Six Thieves” are a concept that comes from the Heart Sutra of the Buddhist Cannon. See C.T. Hsia, The Classic Chinese Novel; a Critical Introduction. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 129.
[5] He claims this completes his lessons on the three religions since: 1) the immortal Subhodhi taught him Daoist magic; 2) the Tang Priest taught him Buddhist restraint; and 3) Yue Fei taught him Confucian ideals (Dong, 80).
[6] King Paramita explains his mother Lady Iron Fan became pregnant when Sun went inside her stomach (see note #7 below).
[7] Chapter 61 of the original novel describes how Monkey secretly enters Lady Iron Fan’s stomach in the form of an insect. He then causes her so much pain with his cudgel that she gives him the magic fan they need to quell the heavenly fire of the Flaming Mountain blocking their path to India.
[8] Dong, 134.
[9] This takes place just before the Tang Priest accepts the invitation to become a general for the Great Tang (Ibid, 96).
[10] Ibid, 133-135.
[11] The only difference between the two Qings is the type of Chinese radical located on the left of each character. The Qing of desire (情) has the radical for heart (心, xin), while the character for the Imperial Qing (清) has the radical for water (水, shui). Both characters contain the core character green (青, qing).
[12] Dong, 11.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Chu, 654, n. 1.
[15] The three characters are heart (心, xin), birth (生, sheng), and moon (月, yue) (Chu, 9).
[16] Dong, 9.
[17] Chu, 654, n. 1.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Patrick Hanan, The Chinese Vernacular Story (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U.P., 1981), 8.
[20] Hsia, 35-36 and 332 n. 3.
[21] Menlong Feng, Shuhai Yang, and Yunqin Yang, Stories of Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), xx and xxi.
[22] Feng, 537-556.
[23] Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang, History and Legend: Ideas and Images in the Ming Historical Novels (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 10 and 176.
[24] Yenna Wu, The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme (Cambridge (Mass.) u.a: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), 242 n. 33.
[25] This particular tale claims Yue Fei to be a reincarnation of the famous Han General Zhang Fei (Feng, 565). Yue Fei’s popular folklore biography The Story of Yue Fei (1684), on the other hand, states Yue to be the celestial bird Garuda reborn on earth (Hsia, 154).
[26] Feng, 557-571.
[27] This differs from Yama’s opinion given in Feng’s work. He claims Yue Fei died unjustly for no certain reason (Ibid, 565).
[28] Cai Qian, General Yue Fei, Trans. Honorable Sir T.L. Yang (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd., 1995), 859-869.
[29] L. C. Arlington, and William Lewisohn, In Search of Old Peking (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1967), 257-258.
[30] K.E. Brashier, “Narratives informing Chinese notions of hell,” The gates to Taizong’s Hell, http://people.reed.edu/~brashiek/scrolls/ThemesTopics/narratives.html (accessed November 7, 2010).


Arlington, L. C., and William Lewisohn. In Search of Old Peking. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1967.

Brashier, K.E. “Narratives informing Chinese notions of hell.” The gates to Taizong’s Hell. http://people.reed.edu/~brashiek/scrolls/ThemesTopics/narratives.html (accessed November 7, 2010).

Chang, Shelley Hsueh-lun. History and Legend: Ideas and Images in the Ming Historical Novels. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Chu, Madeline. “Journey Into Desire: Monkey’s Secular Experience in the Xiyoubu.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 117, no. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1997): 654-64.

Dong, Yue, Shuen-fu Lin, Larry James Schulz, and Cheng’en Wu. The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000.

Feng, Menlong, Shuhai Yang, and Yunqin Yang. Stories of Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Hanan, Patrick. The Chinese Vernacular Story. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U.P., 1981.

Hsia, C.T. The Classic Chinese Novel: a Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Qian, Cai. General Yue Fei. Trans. Honorable Sir T.L. Yang. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd., 1995.

Wu, Yenna. The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme. Cambridge (Mass.) u.a: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.