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.
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).
An awesome gourd-bearing Great Sage statue from Taiwan (larger version). It is one of a trinity. Photo by the author.
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) appears in a 17th to 18th-century pious novel which describes his evil deeds, punishment, and rehabilitation by a Fujian goddess.
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. 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.
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 (fig. 5); for instance, the mediums of one Taiwanese temple walk in a pattern while flogging themselves with a sword, an ax, a spiked club, a saw fish nose sword, and a spiked ball in front of five respective ritual fires representing heavenly generals of the five directions. 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.
Fig. 5 – 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).
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 Shang–Zhou period rituals in which a sacrificial victim was exposed to the elements. 
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. 6 – 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 skin drum from the body 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. 6). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). 
1) For more info on Asian spirit-mediums, see Chan (2006)
2) I’m currently writing an article on the japsang. I will post it in the coming weeks.
Chan, M. (2006). Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki – Chinese Spirit Medium Worship. Singapore: Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University.
The novels Journey to the West(1592) and Investiture of the Gods (1620) are good representations of the syncretic pantheon from Chinese Folk Religion. The number of Buddhas, sages, gods, immortals, spirits, guardians (etc.) revered by people of Chinese descent is enormous, and new figures are being added to the list even to this day. Needless to say, laymen and researchers who visit temples and wish to correctly identify a particular deity need a resource with images, names, and listed attributes. Luckily there is one such source. Keith Stevens (1926-2015), a veteran of the British Army and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, traveled East and Southeast Asia for 40 years collecting information on the folk pantheon. He produced an invaluable monograph titled Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons (1997). The book is unfortunately out of print and available copies are expensive to buy. So I am pleased to host a PDF of this wonderful work on my site.
The scan was produced with an overhead document camera. The glossy pages made scanning somewhat difficult. I had to use a soft, indirect light source. Therefore, not all pages are crisp due to the low light levels. The original file was quite large at 520 mb. I compressed it to a smaller file. I can provide the larger file upon request.
Dust Jacket Description
China is a land full of gods and goddesses, ranging from the Creators of the World to Worthies local to only one or two villages.
This book introduces the reader to the most important figures of Chinese folk history, and those of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Intensely pragmatic in their religion, Chinese people hold all gods in reverence, but it is only the ones who answer prayers with concrete results that are exceptionally praised. Many gods have particular specialities, for instance, there are different Wealth Gods for success in business and for gambling. There are also individual gods for each trade, from those for removal men in Hong Kong to students at Beijing University.
In addition, there are the City Gods and Kitchen Gods, the Earth Gods who protect a specific piece of land, and myriad spirits who protect wells, mountains or bridges, distribute rain or snow, control flooding or protect humanity from disease and epidemics.
Keith Stevens has spent a lifetime researching the subject, travelling extensively in China, Taiwan and throughout South-East Asia. He has gathered information from hundreds of temple keepers, god-carvers and religious specialists and collected details of images and their stories – providing glimpses into the sometimes little-known folk history of China. The author also provides pointers on how to identify images, together with invaluable background information including chronology of Chinese history, a map of the area covered, a glossary and detailed index with the names of deities in Chinese characters.
This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you like the digital version, please support the official release.
Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.
I recently learned about an interesting website called the Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), which catalogs information and pictures for Chinese gods from all over the world. There are currently 2,000 listings and counting.
It is based on the work of religious scholar Keith Stevens (d. 2016), who wrote the amazing Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons (Collins & Brown, 1997) (fig. 1). I recently volunteered to help the project. So far, I’ve written two articles (see reference no. W1001 and W1011) and updated two other existing listings with information and pictures (see the bottom of W8620 and W9305).
Due to the great number of listings, there are no direct links. Instead, the site has adopted a somewhat confusing (but necessary) cataloging system based around reference numbers, pinyin, Mandarin, and Wade-Giles. However, it’s easy to use once you get used to it. For example, if you were going to search for Sanqing, the “Three Pure Ones“, using, say, Pinyin, I recommend first getting the reference number (RefNo).
Deities —> Tabular Listing of Xian Shen Deities —> Field: Pinyin —> Type: Contains —> Value: San qing (you may have to play around with the spacing like I did here) —> Filter —> Then look for the correct listing (since other listings mentioning them might appear in the list) —> ☰ —> copy the “RefNo”, in this case W5540 (fig. 2) —> Deities —> Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar —> Field: RefNo —> Type: Contains —> Value: W5540 —> Filter (fig. 3) —> The listing (fig. 4)
If you know the Mandarin or Wade-Giles for the deity you are looking for, the process would be similar. You would just need to change the field to “Mandarin” or “Wade-Giles”. You could just jump to “Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar” to search using pinyin, mandarin, and Wade-Giles, but it’s been my experience that a different listing will pop up first based on a higher RefNo or Romanized spelling. First finding the reference number seems to be the easiest method for me.
I can’t recommend this website enough. New gods, as well as new stories or beliefs associated with more established deities, are appearing all the time, so it is very important to catalog everything as soon as new information becomes available. If you would like to volunteer in some way, please contact Ronni Pinsler using the “contact” form on the BOXS website.
An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.
This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.
Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press
The 2018 film Monkey King 3 (Xiyouji: Nu er guo, 西遊記·女兒國; lit: “Journey to the West: Woman Kingdom”) sees the pilgrims enter a magic portal to discover a hidden land peopled entirely by women. At one point, Tripitaka jumps into a river to retrieve the scattered words of a sentient piece of paper with information revealing how they can escape this female land; and in Sha Wujing’s attempt to save him, both inadvertently swallow water. The resulting splashes enter the mouth of Zhu Bajie sleeping nearby. Sometime later, all three pilgrims discover that they are pregnant due to drinking from the river (fig. 1-3). The queen of the Woman Kingdom sends Sun Wukong to retrieve magic water to abort the births from a cross-dressing immortal. However, upon his return, Monkey learns that they have decided to keep their babies. Despite this, he uses fixing magic to freeze them in place and gives them the water so that nothing will keep the pilgrims from their quest.
This event from the movie is a very loose adaptation of chapter 53 of Journey to the West (1592). In this article, I describe the chapter and suggest that it is based on a story from Hindu religious literature in which an ancient king becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. I will show that the version appearing in the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE) likely influenced Journey to the West as other events from the Hindu epic appear in the Chinese novel. I will also show that an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas (books) discovered in Xinjiang, China names the parva containing the king’s story, suggesting the tale may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.
Fig. 1 – The Monkey King 3 movie poster showing a pregnant Tripitaka and the Woman Kingdom queen (larger version). Fig. 2 – The Zhu Bajie variant (larger version). Fig. 3 – The (beardless) Sha Wujing variant (larger version).
1. Episode from the novel
After the defeat of the Rhinoceros demon, the pilgrims continue their journey to the west by taking a river ferry. Upon reaching the other side, Tripitaka takes note of the clear water and asks Zhu Bajie to fetch him a bowl full. Both drink from the river, but a short time later they experience horrible abdominal pain and their stomachs swell as if something was growing inside. They seek help from an old woman at a nearby inn, but she simply laughs and calls her friends to come see the spectacle. Her jovial attitude changes, however, once an enraged Wukong grabs hold and offers to spare her life in exchange for some hot water to calm their stomachs. But she explains it won’t help, for they have drunk from the “Child-and-Mother River” (Zimu he,子母河) in the Woman Kingdom of Western Liang (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國), where the sole female inhabitants, according to custom, drink the water to become pregnant upon reaching their 20th year. After hearing the news, both Tripitaka and Bajie panic. Monkey and Sha Wujing take the opportunity to tease Bajie, frightening him with the possibility of a painful, unnatural birth or some natal sickness that would threaten the baby.  When asked for a cure, the old woman reveals that the only way to end the pregnancy is to bribe the True Immortal Compliant (Ruyi zhen xian, 如意真仙) (fig. 4), who lords over the Abortion Spring (Luo tai quan, 落胎泉) in the Abbey of Immortal Assembly (Ju xian an, 聚仙庵), formerly known as the Child Destruction Cave (Po er dong, 破兒洞), on the Male-Undoing Mountain (Jie yang shan, 解陽山). Wukong travels to the mountain but is forced to fight when the immortal, the Bull Demon King’s brother, attacks him to avenge Red Boy’s subjugation by Guanyin. Though weaker than Monkey, the immortal’s weapon, an “As-you-wish” golden hook (Ruyi jin gouzi, 如意金鉤子), proves hard to ward off while trying to retrieve the needed water. Wukong ultimately resorts to trickery by luring his foe into battle while Wujing obtains the water. In the end, the immortal is defeated but shown mercy, and the unwanted pregnancies are aborted, being dissolved and passed as fleshy lumps in bowel movements (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 31-46). 
Fig. 4 – A drawing of the True Immortal Compliant holding his golden hook as he sits next to a well marked “Abortion Spring” (larger version). Artist unknown. The weapon is here depicted as a hooked sword. Bribes of silk, livestock, and alcohol can be seen at the immortal’s feet.
2.1. Hindu religious literature
This episode shares similarities with a story about the ancient Indian King Yuvanasva (a.k.a. Yuvanashva/Yuvanaswa) (fig. 5) who becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. The tale is well known, appearing in Hindu religious texts like the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE), the Vishnu Purana (400 BCE to 900 CE) and the Bhagavata Purana (8th to 10th-c. CE).  The version appearing in the Vana Parva (3rd book) of the Mahabharata reads:
Lomasa said, ‘Hear with attention, O king! how the name of Mandhata belonging to that monarch of mighty soul hath come to be celebrated throughout all the worlds. Yuvanaswa, the ruler of the earth, was sprung from Ikshvaku‘s race. That protector of the earth performed many sacrificial rites noted for magnificent gifts. And the most excellent of all virtuous men performed a thousand times the ceremony of sacrificing a horse. And he also performed other sacrifices of the highest order, wherein he made abundant gifts. But that saintly king had no son. And he of mighty soul and rigid vows made over to his ministers the duties of the state, and became a constant resident of the woods. And he of cultured soul devoted himself to the pursuits enjoined in the sacred writ. And once upon a time, that protector of men, O king! had observed a fast. And he was suffering from the pangs of hunger and his inner soul seemed parched with thirst. And (in this state) he entered the hermitage of Bhrigu. On that very night, O king of kings! the great saint who was the delight of Bhrigu’s race, had officiated in a religious ceremony, with the object that a son might be born to Saudyumni [“Son of Sudyumna”, i.e. Yuvanasva]. O king of kings! at the spot stood a large jar filled with water, consecrated with the recitation of sacred hymns, and which had been previously deposited there. And the water was endued with the virtue that the wife of Saudyumni would by drinking the same, bring forth a god-like son. Those mighty saints had deposited the jar on the altar and had gone to sleep, having been fatigued by keeping up the night. And as Saudyumni passed them by, his palate was dry, and he was suffering greatly from thirst. And the king was very much in need of water to drink. And he entered that hermitage and asked for drink. And becoming fatigued, he cried in feeble voice, proceeding from a parched throat, which resembled the weak inarticulate utterance of a bird. And his voice reached nobody’s ears. Then the king beheld the jar filled with water. And he quickly ran towards it, and having drunk the water, put the jar down. And as the water was cool, and as the king had been suffering greatly from thirst, the draught of water relieved the sagacious monarch and appeased his thirst. Then those saints together with him of ascetic wealth, awoke from sleep; and all of them observed that the water of the jar had gone. Thereupon they met together and began to enquire as to who might have done it. Then Yuvanaswa truthfully admitted that it was his act. Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee. Having performed severe austerities, I infused the virtue of my religious acts in this water, that a son might be born to thee. O saintly king of mighty valour and physical strength! A son would have been born to thee of exceeding strength and valour, and strengthened by austerities, and who would have sent by his bravery even Indra to the abode of the god of death. It was in this manner, O king! that this water had been prepared by me. By drinking this water, O king, thou hast done what was not at all right. But it is impossible now for us to turn back the accident which hath happened. Surely what thou hast done must have been the fiat of Fate. Since thou, O great king, being a thirst hast drunk water prepared with sacred hymns, and filled with the virtue of my religious labours, thou must bring forth out of thy own body a son of the character described above. To that end we shall perform a sacrifice for thee, of wonderful effect so that, valorous as thou art, thou wilt bring forth a son equal to Indra. Nor with thou experience any trouble on account of the labour pains.’ Then when one hundred years had passed away, a son shining as the sun pierced the left side of the king endowed with a mighty soul, and came forth. And the son was possessed of mighty strength. Nor did Yuvanaswa die—which itself was strange. Then Indra of mighty strength came to pay him a visit. And the deities enquired of the great Indra, ‘What is to be sucked by this boy?’ Then Indra introduced his own forefinger into his mouth. And when the wielder of the thunderbolt said, ‘He will suck me,’ the dwellers of heaven together with Indra christened the boy Mandhata, (literally, Me he shall suck). Then the boy having tasted the forefinger extended by Indra, became possessed of mighty strength, and he grew thirteen cubits, O king. And O great king! the whole of sacred learning together with the holy science of arms, was acquired by that masterful boy, who gained all that knowledge by the simple and unassisted power of his thought. And all at once, the bow celebrated under the name of Ajagava and a number of shafts made of horn, together with an impenetrable coat of mail, came to his possession on the very same day, O scion of Bharata‘s race! And he was placed on the throne by Indra himself and he conquered the three worlds in a righteous way; as Vishnu did by his three strides (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384).
Both events involve men who quench their thirst with water, not realizing that it has the magic power to bestow pregnancy. Tripitaka and Bajie drink from a river which is specifically used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce, while King Yuvanasva drinks ritual water meant to give his wife a son. Additionally, both books state drinking the water is inappropriate, followed by a description of its child-bestowing properties. Journey to the West reads: “That water your master drank is not the best, for the river is called Child-and-Mother River … Only after reaching her twentieth year would someone from this region dare go and drink that river’s water, for she would feel the pain of conception soon after she took a drink” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 39). The Mahabharata reads: “Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee’” (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384).
Fig. 5 – King Yuvanasva (center) holding the vessel of ritual water. From the cover of The Pregnant King (2008) by Devdutt Pattanaik (larger version). The book is a reimagining of the king’s story.
2.2. Mahabharata elements in Journey to the West
The possibility of King Yuvanasva’s story influencing Journey to the West is quite high as other events from the Mahabharata are known to appear in the novel. For example, Subbaraman (2002) reveals striking similarities between an event from the Adi Parva (1st book) and chapters 47 to 48 of the Chinese classic. In the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers and their mother Kunti escape assassination and disguise themselves as Brahmins (Hindu priests) traveling the road. They eventually seek shelter in a village plagued by the rakshasaBaka, who offers safety from foreign invaders in exchange for rice, livestock, and a human sacrifice. Those who try to defy this fate risk seeing their entire family eaten along with themselves. The Brahmin home in which the Pandavas stay has been chosen for that year’s sacrifice. Kunti instead sends her son Bhima, the most powerful of the brothers, in place of the householder’s son and daughter. In the end, the warrior kills Baka with his mighty strength. In Journey to the West, the pilgrims (Buddhist monks) stop for lodging in a village afflicted by the demon Great King of Miraculous Power (Ling gan dawang, 靈感大王), who sends clouds and rain in exchange for offerings of livestock and sacrifices of virgin boys and girls. It is impossible to defy this fate as he has memorized the personal details for every inhabitant. The Buddhist home in which the group stays has been chosen for the sacrifice. Wukong and Bajie instead take the place of the respective son and daughter (fig. 6). In the end, the Great King is defeated with the help of Guanyin (Subbaraman, 2002, pp. 11-18).
Furthermore, my own research shows that the tale of Garuda from the Mahabharata influenced the Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), an ancient demon king and spiritual uncle of the Buddha appearing in chapters 74 to 77 of Journey to the West.
Interestingly, the earliest known list of Mahabharata parvas and sub-parvas was discovered in Kizil in what is now Xinjiang, China. This list appears in the Spitzer Manuscript (c. 200-300 CE), a Hindo-Buddhist philosophical palm-leaf manuscript written in Sanskrit. Schlingloff (1969) compares the list with the known books of the completed epic (fig. 7 and 8), noting the absence of some parvas, which indicates that the Mahabharata was still in a state of development at the time the list was compiled. But it’s important to note that the Vana Parva (a.k.a. Aranya Parva/Aranyaka Parva), the book containing the story of King Yuvanasva, is named in the manuscript (Schlingloff, 1969, p. 336). This suggests the story of the monarch’s water-induced pregnancy may have been present in China centuries prior to Journey to the West.
Fig. 7 – Part 1 of a diagram comparing the 100 sub-parvas and 18 parvas of the completed Mahabharata and the Spitzer Manuscript list (larger version). Take note of the highlighted words showing the inclusion of Vana Parva, here called “Aranyakam”. Fig. 8 – Part 2 of the diagram (larger version). From Schlingloff, 1969, pp. 336-337.
Chapter 53 tells how Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant after drinking river water used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce. This is similar to a story from Hindu religious literature in which King Yuvanasva becomes pregnant after drinking ritual water meant for his wife. Journey to the West is known to include story elements from the Mahabharata, which means the version of the monarch’s tale from the Varna Parva (3rd book) likely influenced the Chinese novel. The Varna Parva is named in an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas discovered in what is now Xinjiang, China. This suggests the story may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.
1) For example, Wukong tells Bajie: “When the time comes, you may have a gaping hole at your armpit and the baby will crawl out” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 35). This likely references ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, just like Yu the Great and the historical Buddha.
2) I have slightly modified the translation of names in Wu and Yu (2012).
3) See here for the version appearing in the Vishnu Purana. See here for the Bhagavata Purana.
Roy, P. C. (1884). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Translated Into English Prose: Vana Parva. Calcutta: Bharata Press.
Schlingloff, D. (1969). The Oldest Extant Parvan-List of the Mahābhārata. Journal of the American Oriental Society,89(2), 334-338. doi:10.2307/596517
“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife [Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).
It’s interesting to note that the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Skt: aka Yuddhajaya), also commonly translated as “Victorious Fighting Buddha”, is not a creation of the novel’s author-compiler but one of the Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas  appearing in “The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Moral Downfalls” from the Three Heaps Sutra (Skt: Triskhandha Sutra). These Buddhas are individually called upon by name during a confessional prayer. For example, the end of one translation of the Confession reads:
[…] To Tathagata Glorious One Totally Subduing, I prostrate. To Tathagata Utterly Victorious in Battle, I prostrate. To Tathagata Glorious Transcendence Through Subduing, I prostrate. To Tathagata Glorious Manifestations Illuminating All, I prostrate (emphasis mine) (Lama Zopa Rinpoche & Mullin, 2000, p. 5).
This is nearly identical to the end of Journey to the West when the names of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats are called upon. One section reads:
[…] I submit to the Buddha of the Gift of Light. I submit to the Buddha of Candana Merit. I submit to the Buddha Victorious in Strife. I submit to the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin. I submit to the Bodhisattva, Great Power-Coming […] (emphasis mine) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).
The Buddha Victorious in Strife is depicted in Buddhist art with the traditional features of a Buddha (i.e., urna, usnisa, long ear lobes, robes, etc.), but he is also shown holding a suit of armor and a sword (fig. 1):
Yuddhajaya Buddha — (Skt.: aka Yuddhajaya) (Chin.: Tou-chan-sheng fo; Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba, rGyal-ba-gYul-lasr-Gyal-ba) A Sanskrit variant for the Jina Yuddhajaya. One of the Buddha images found in the Pao Hsiang Lou [寶相樓] temple of the Forbidden City, Beijing, and one of the thirty-five “Buddhas of Confession.” Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: holding a cuirass up to his chest; body: monastic robes; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; vahana: lotus throne.
— (2) — (Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba) One of the Buddhas of Confession pictured in the Mongolian Kanjur (Mon.: Monggol ganjur-un)(1717-1720) Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: two, right hand holds sword (khadga, ral-gri), left hand holds coat of mail (khrab); body: monastic robes, right shoulder uncovered; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; attributes: 32 major and 80 minor signs; vahana: lotus throne (Bunce, 1994, p. 629). 
The name Buddha Victorious in Strife is not a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess. According to Lai (2016), the Buddha “defeat[s] the inner enemies of afflictive emotions and negative actions of sentient beings. He is victorious over cyclic existence and thus able to lead all sentient beings to liberation. He purifies the negative karma of actions committed out of pride”.
Fig. 1 – The Buddha Victorious in Strife (aka Yuddhajaya) holding a sword and suit of armor (larger version). Image found here.
II. The Worship of Sun Wukong
The Monkey King is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore as a great exorcist and protector of children. But readers may be surprised to learn that he is not worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife. Instead, Wukong is exclusively revered as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖), and even when he is called a Buddha, the name includes some reference to the rebellious title. For example, when I attended the Monkey King Festival (sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month) in Hong Kong in 2018, I saw an incense pot labeled “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) (fig. 2).
So why isn’t Sun worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife? I think the most obvious answer is that the Buddha had a long-established following and therefore couldn’t be subsumed under the late-blooming cult of a cultural hero, even one as popular as the Monkey King.
Fig. 2 – An incense pot reading “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (larger version). Taken by the author in Kowloon, Hongkong (Sept. 24, 2018).
II. Precedence for spiritual promotion
The author-compiler likely connected Sun Wukong to the Buddha Victorious in Strife because of the deity’s martial iconography. After all, Monkey is a martial deity in his own right, wielding his magic staff and boxing skills to protect Tripitaka from the demons and spirits who constantly hound the monk.
But the choice to elevate Monkey in rank was likely influenced by previous media. For example, Wukong’s literary antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), receives a promotion at the end of 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), a late 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. The story ends thus: “Tang Taizong later enfeoffed Monkey Pilgrim as ‘Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones'” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207).
If you type “Buddha Victorious in Strife”, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”, “鬥戰勝佛” or “斗战胜佛” into google images, you’ll notice that these terms are almost exclusively associated with Sun Wukong. Most results are fan-made drawings of Monkey wearing his armor. Very few depict him as a Buddha. The only appearance of the latter in popular media that I’m aware is the Victorious Fighting Buddha from the manga / anime High School DxD.
The character is depicted as a jovial old dwarf with long, shaggy brown hair, bushy eyebrows that fall over a cyberpunk-style black visor, no mustache, a long beard, a floor-length, dark gray coat over a red robe, and monkey feet. He wears his famous golden fillet and a set of chunky brown and red prayer beads. In his left hand he holds a smoking pipe, while the right holds his magic staff, which is depicted as red and gold (fig. 6).
Fig. 6 – The Victorious Fighting Buddha from High School DxD (larger version).
The Victorious Fighting Buddha inhabits a universe where various factions of Western and Eastern gods, devils, and heroes battle one another. According to the story, upon ascending to Buddhahood, he steps down as the Monkey King, handing the title to a young descendant, and serves as the vanguard of the Hindu god Indra, during which time he protects the cosmos from a faction of devils and fallen angels. He later takes on the role of sub-leader and mentor to a new faction of young heroes whom he trains to battle god-tier opponents.
High School DxD portrays the Victorious Fighting Buddha as very powerful. For example, season four, episode six (minute 13:35) of the anime shows him effortlessly blocking the “True Longinus” spear with his index finger. This is quite a feat as this weapon is the same one used to pierce the side of Christ, thereby giving it the power to kill other gods.
I visited “Sage Buddha Hall” (Shengfo Tang, 聖佛堂), a Great Sage temple in Beigang, Yunlin, Taiwan and saw a few items labeled the “Fighting Sage Buddha” (Dou zhan sheng fo, 鬥戰聖佛) in place of the Buddha Victorious in Strife/Victorious Fighting Buddha. One such item was a paper fan (fig. 7). As noted above, Buddha Victorious in Strife/Victorious Fighting Buddha is not a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess, but his ability to “defeat the inner enemies of afflictive emotions and negative actions of sentient beings”. So it appears that this temple takes his martial skill at face value.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche, & Mullin, G. H. (Trans.). (2000). The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Moral Downfalls: from The Exalted Mahayana Three Heaps Sutra. Ven. Thubten Dondrub and Ven. George Churinoff (Ed.). New Mexico: Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition Education Services. Retrieved from https://fpmt.org/wp-content/uploads/hope!/a4/booklet/confessiona4bklt.pdf
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen here, here, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
“The Epidemic Prevention Conference” (防疫大會) is a humorous COVID-19-related short story that has been circulating in Taiwan. It gets longer and longer as people add new details. I wanted to share it because it mentions many figures from Journey to the West, including Xuanzang and Sun Wukong. I’ve added notes at the bottom to explain the cultural context of particular statements.
The Anti-Epidemic Conference was held in the celestial court. The Jade Emperor was worried when he discovered many seats were vacant, and so he asked the gods:
The gods replied: “He and King Kṣitigarbha are looking for land with good fengshui,  so he has no time to come!
The original Chinese:
眾神回答: 他有旅遊史, 被居家檢疫，不能來…
為何地藏王菩薩也沒來？ 眾神回答 ：死亡人數超飆 無暇前來！
1) At the time this story first started circulating, the Taiwanese government was providing each citizen with three masks a week. This number has since then increased to nine (at least the last time I picked up mine).
From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen here and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
Back in 2010 I thought of a short music-based animation set in the Journey to the West universe. The music is a modern arrangement of the 19th-century classic “In the Hall of the Mountain King” composed by Edvard Grieg for Henrik Ibsen‘s play Peer Gynt in 1876. The original play is based on an old Norwegian tale about a man named Per Gynt who travels the land rescuing maidens from the clutches of trolls. The music is used during the play to enhance the drama and action of a particular scene where Peer attempts to hide and then escape from the hall of the mountain king. This plot obviously shares many similarities with Journey to the West. Sun Wukong spends the majority of the novel rescuing Tripitaka from the mountain strongholds of various demon kings.
The arrangement I’ve chosen is performed by the Finnish operatic metal band Apocalyptica, who originally gained fame by covering Metallica songs with cellos. I recommend reading the time-stamped material once, then listening to the song, and then reading and listening in unison to better understand. You can possibly use the stopwatch on your phone and start it the same time as the music.
Apocalyptica’s arrangement of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.
The animation would be completely silent to accommodate the music, the various notes acting as dialogue or sound effects.
0:00 – 0:29 – The scene opens in a cave where a mountain demon is celebrating news that the Tang monk is headed to his territory. An imp runs in to inform him that Tripitaka has been spotted in the mountain with only two of his three disciples.
0:30 – 1:03 – The demon king leaves the cave and silently spies on them from afar as Tripitaka on his dragon-horse, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing walk down a path through the mountains. When it’s obvious that Wukong is off running errands for his master, the demon magically disguises himself as an elderly man or woman and waits for them, drawing them near.
The notes in this section sound like someone is sneaking around.
1:04 – 1:42 – He reveals his true form, grabs the monk, and orders his imps to attack Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing. The two fight but are over powered by sheer numbers.
The change up from the sneaky notes is when he reveals his true self.
Each of the high-pitched notes here represent imps attacking the disciples in wave after wave, coming faster and faster until they are overwhelmed.
1:43 – 1:52 – The monk calls out Sun Wukong’s name. I imagine the words would come out as Chinese characters that drift through the air to Monkey’s ear. He forcefully turns his head towards the sound, his eyes flash with a fiery light.
1:53 – 2:20 – Wukong lands in an explosion of multicolored clouds and light. He waves his staff in front of him, thus forcing the imps away from his brothers. He then pulls out magic hairs and blows on them, creating an army of monkeys to do battle with the imps. The monkeys do all manner of things to the imps while Wukong rolls around on the ground in laughter.
1:58 – Wukong creates the army of monkeys. Also, notice how a few seconds in the notes sound almost like monkeys.
2:21 – 2:26 – The imps run away in defeat. Monkey stands outside the cave screaming and hopping up and down while shaking his fist in order to entice the mountain demon outside.
2:23 – Double hop while shaking fist and screaming obscenities. The words come out as Chinese characters. They could be “coward” or something demeaning like that. The particular sound of “bwah bwah” in the song at this point is when he screams and hops.
2:26 – Second double hop, same.
2:27 – 2:31 – His trick works as the demon king pokes his head out of the doors and shakes his fist back at Wukong.
2:28 – First fist shake and screams obscenity. Same “bwah bwah” sound but with lower register.
2:31 – Second fist shake, same.
2:32 – 2:50 – The demon emerges with his armor and weapon ready to fight and the two begin their bout. The earth shakes, mountains crumble, forests tumble, and the gods shiver in the realm above.
2:51 – 3:08 – Both take to their clouds, the warriors circling each other, rising higher and higher into the heavens, leaving a double helix-like pattern in their wake.
3:09 – 3:12 – The demon makes one last attack with his weapon. Wukong disappears in a puff of smoke, only to reappear instantly in his 100,000-foot-tall cosmic form, breathing fire from a mouth full of tusk-like teeth, his eyes like the sun and moon. The demon realizes he is not Wukong’s match and flees in terror.
3:13 – 3:16 – Wukong reverts to his original form and rockets towards earth with his staff held high.
3:17 – 3:21 – He lands a mortal blow to the demon and stands over his remains.
3:17 – The exact moment the demon is turned into hamburger.
3:22 – 3:24 – Wukong kicks open the double door of the mountain stronghold. The view would be from the inside out (i.e. it’s dark and then the doors are kicked inward, revealing the dark silhouette of Monkey holding his staff against a bright background).
The “boom” at the end is when he kicks in the doors.
After the song stops, the animation silently ends with them all continuing their journey to India. The entire animation would probably be around three minutes and forty seconds long. I would really love to work with an animator to make this a reality.
Readers may be surprised to learn that chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version anonymously published by the Shidetang (世德堂) publishing house in 1592. Chapter nine of course tells the story of how Tripitaka‘s parents, his scholar-official father Chen Guangrui (陳光蕊) and mother Yin Wenjiao (殷溫嬌), meet (fig. 1); Guangrui’s murder and the pregnant Lady Yin’s kidnapping by a bandit; Tripitaka’s birth and Moses-like trip down a river (hence his nickname “River Float” (Jiang liu, 江流)); his rescue, rearing, and initiation into the Buddhist order by the abbot of Gold Mountain; Lady Yin’s rescue and the bandit-turned-official’s arrest; and Tripitaka’s later reunion with his mother and father (the latter’s body having been preserved and brought back to life by heaven).
Some scholars, such as Glen Dudbridge, suggest the current ninth chapter is a forgery, having been written by one Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Canton because it appears in his slightly later edited version of the novel titled The Chronicle of Deliverances in Tripitaka Tang’s Journey to the West (Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi ni zhuan, 唐三藏西游释尼傳, circa 1595). (See the 01/02/21update for new information about Zhu’s version of the novel.) Other scholars posit there is internal textual evidence for a possible lost chapter and that the current ninth chapter was salvaged from these internal clues.
Fig. 1 – Tripitaka’s parents from the 1986 television show.
Anthony Yu‘s (1975) paper “Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in the ‘Hsi-Yu Chi'” supplements previous analyses of said internal textual evidence. He demonstrates that references to the Chen Guangrui episode litter the book. For example, a poem in chapter twelve (ch. 11 of the original Shidetang version) reads:
Gold Cicada was his former divine name. As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk, He had to suffer in this world of dust, To fall in the net by being born a man. He met misfortune as he came to Earth, And evildoers even before his birth. His father: Chen, a zhuangyuan  from Haizhou. His mother’s sire: chief of this dynasty’s court. Fated by his natal star to fall in the stream, He followed tide and current, chased by mighty waves. At Gold Mountain, the island, he had great luck, For the abbot, Qian’an, raised him up. He met his true mother at age eighteen, And called on her father at the capital. A great army was sent by Chief Kaishan To stamp out at Hongzhou the vicious crew. The zhuangyuan Guangrui escaped his doom: Son rejoined sire—how worthy of praise! They saw the emperor to receive his grace; Their names resounded in Lingyan Tower. Declining office, he chose a monk’s life At Hongfu Temple to seek the true Way, This old Buddha-child, nicknamed River Float, With a religious name of Chen Xuanzang. 
Yu (1975) notes “this passage…which introduces Tripitaka to the reader, has, with the exception of one major discrepancy (i.e. the name of the monk who took in the river-borne orphan), all the crucial elements constitutive of the Chen Guangrui story” (p. 296).
After providing several more examples, he concedes external textural evidence for a lost chapter has yet to be discovered, but suggests the author-compiler of the Journey to the West was surely familiar with established Yuan-Ming dramas involving Tripitaka’s birth and life:
I think that the foregoing analysis, admittedly brief, is sufficient to show the significance, if not the indispensability, of the Chen Guangrui episode in the narrative, though as I have remarked earlier, these later allusions certainly cannot be construed as incontrovertible proofs for a “lost chapter.” The existence of such a chapter has to be established by further discovery of textual materials hitherto unknown, if such discovery is indeed still possible. It may be safely asserted, however, that the author of the hundred-chapter novel, Wu Cheng’en or whoever he might be, is thoroughly familiar with the tradition of the birth and adventures of the infant Xuanzang popularized in the dramas of Yuan and Ming China, and that he has consciously and skillfully exploited this tradition in his narrative (Yu, 1975, p. 306).
Yu (1975) goes on to counter Dudbridge’s criticism that the Chen Guangrui episode doesn’t progress the overall plot by saying it should, instead, be accepted as an “organizing principle”, one that explains the reason for the monk’s ordeals:
[T]he theme of the river and its attendant perils utilized by the author of the hundred-chapter novel reinforces the theme of Tripitaka’s this-worldly identity as the incarnation of the banished Gold Cicada. Both themes in turn support the threefold aetiology developed in the narrative for explicating the meaning of Tripitaka’s ordeals: as a form of chastisement for his preexistent transgression, as a test of endurance for the earthly pilgrim, and as an exemplum of the high cost of obtaining sacred writings from the West (p. 307).
Furthermore, he counters Dudbridge’s claim that the concept of a lost chapter would be stronger if the novel provided more than just passing references to background info of the central characters. In fact, the novel does provide lengthy info on our heroes. For example, Yu (1975) presents a very long poem from chapter nineteen detailing Zhu Bajie’s life, from his early Daoist training, achievement of immortality, and rise to heavenly rank to his drunken flirting with the moon goddess (fig. 2), banishment from heaven, and mistaken reincarnation on earth as a pig-man.
Fig. 2 – a Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess Chang’e.
In the end, Yu (1975) states Qing-era editors of the novel were justified in their suspicion of a lost chapter given the lack of detailed info about Tripitaka’s life, unlike the other pilgrims:
In the absence of chapter 9, Tripitaka is the only member of the pilgrimage, in fact, whose origins are presented in the manner which Dudbridge ascribes to the disciples: in allusion or indirectly, in moments of retrospect. The early editors of the Xiyouji, therefore, were not wholly unjustified in their protest that a theme of such significance as the Chen Guangrui story had not been more fully accounted for by antecedent narrative (p. 310).
The Qiang (Chinese: 羌; Qiangic: Rrmea) ethnic group have been mentioned in Chinese records as far back as the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th-century BCE). Originally inhabiting the northern reaches of China, these sheepherders and warriors were driven southwest over many centuries of conflict with neighboring ethnic groups, as well as the Chinese. Many Chinese dynasties attempted to assimilate them, but the Qiang have resisted up to the present. Today, they live in western Sichuan near the Tibetan border and are listed among the 56 recognized ethnic groups of China (Yu, 2004, pp. 155-156; Wang, 2002, pp. 133-136).
What’s interesting about the Qiang for the purposes of this blog is that both magic monkeys and heavenly stones, and even Sun Wukong himself, play a part in the people’s religious mythology.
Fig. 1 – A map of China showing the location of Sichuan province in red. Larger version available on wikicommons.
I. Monkeys and Qiang shamanism
Shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi; Chinese: Duan gong, 端公 or Wu, 巫) are the heart of Qiang religious life. During special ceremonies, they wear three-peaked hats (fig. 2 and 3) made from the fur of golden monkeys(fig. 4), each peak respectively representing the deities of heaven, earth, and shamanism (more on the latter below).  These hats are especially worn during exorcisms because the monkeys are considered “the purest of animals, [which stand] in extreme contrast to the vilest of beings—the demons” (Oppitz, 2004, p. 13). There are several legends, with many variants, explaining the origins of the headdress. One version states:
[T]he Qiangs used to have a written language, and their patriarch recorded the scriptures he obtained from the gods and other important writings on human affairs on the bark of birch trees. One day when he took out the pieces of bark to be aired, a mountain sheep came and ate them all. With the help of a golden monkey the patriarch captured the guilty sheep and made its skin into a drum. When he beat on the drum he was able to recall the words written on the birch bark. To prevent future mishaps to these precious documents, he memorized them by heart (Yu, 2004, p. 160).
So in essence the hats are worn to commemorate the assistance of the golden monkey. Interestingly, another version replaces the patriarch and golden monkey with Tripitaka and Sun Wukong:
A long time ago, in the Tang period, there was a monk by the name of Tang Seng [唐僧, “Tang Monk”], who undertook a journey to the western skies in the company of a monkey named Sun Wukong, in order to collect sacred scriptures. On their way back, they encountered a sheep ghost who ate all the newly acquired scriptures. The monkey got very angry, killed the sheep ghost, and used its skin to fabricate a drum. Thereupon Tang Seng and the monkey met with the Eighteen Arhats … Listening to their teachings, Tang Seng picked up the sheep-skin drum and repeated all that he heard through their mouths. Since then all shamans use a drum when reciting their knowledge from memory (Oppitz, 2004, p. 23).
Fig. 2 – The three-peaked golden monkey skin shaman hat. From the Sichuan University Museum. Larger version on wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A shaman wearing the headdress and playing the ritual sheep skin drum (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. From Oppitz, 2004, p. 14. Fig. 4 – A golden monkey with child. Larger version on wikipedia.
The golden monkey is closely associated with the Qiang’s pantheistic worship of sacred white stones, each one representing the gods of heaven, sun, fire, mountains, rivers, and trees.  Yu (2004) provides another legend for the origins of the Shaman’s hat, describing how the monkey is the offspring of the sacred stone and noting parallels with the birth of Sun Wukong:
Another legend depicts the golden monkey as a Prometheus-like figure who stole fire from heaven. The first two attempts failed because the god of wind and the god of rain extinguished the fire, but the monkey succeeded the third time by concealing the fire in a white stone. It is worth noting that in this legend the golden monkey is closely related to the white stone. In the Qiang language, the first syllables in the names of the monkey’s mother and father mean respectively “stone” and “fire.” “This implies that fire is produced by stone and hidden inside the stone, and that the half-human, half-simian golden monkey was an offspring of the union between stone and fire”. The white stone and the golden monkey, as the source of fire and the messenger who brought it to the human world, became the totems of the Qiang people. To commemorate the recovery of the lost scriptures, wearing the monkey hat and playing the sheepskin drum also became an indispensable part of Sacrifice to the Mountain[, a Qiang ceremony]. However, the monkey legend is not particular to the Qiang people. The Yi minority people of northwestern Guizhou province have a nuo drama known as bianren xi (changing-into-people drama) based on a legend that people derived from monkeys. Actors wear monkey masks for this performance. There is also the famous monkey, Sun Wukong, who was born from a stone in the Han Chinese novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West, 1592) by Wu Chengen (ca. 1506-1582).  The novel was first published in 1592, but the monkey lore included in it was of much earlier time (p. 160).
A celestial, stone-born monkey who steals from heaven certainly sounds like the Monkey King. As noted here, stories about Sun Wukong have been circulating in Asia for a millennia. So it seems only natural that the Qiang’s reverence for heavenly stones and monkeys would lead to some of them worshiping the beloved cultural figure.
Graham (1958) notes Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing figure among the Chinese patron deities of the “red” shamans (p. 53).  What’s interesting is that the red shamans are said to speak a special demon language and use their skills to exorcise demons (p. 54). Therefore, their worship of the Monkey King should come as no surprise considering Sun Wukong is the exorcist par excellence.
As noted above, one of the peaks of the ritual headdress represents the patron deity of shamanism. Known among other names as the Abba mula (“father god”), this is the title given to the shaman’s main focus of worship. For instance, Sun Wukong is the Abba mula of those who revere him. Most importantly, the chosen deity is further represented by a small bundle that the shaman carries with him and guards jealousy, as it is the source of his knowledge and power. Graham (1958) describes the sacred bundle’s importance, construction, and use:
He is the patron or guardian deity and instructor of the Ch’iang priest, and without him the priest could do nothing. It consists of a skull of a golden-haired monkey wrapped in a round bundle of white paper. Its eyes are old cowry shells or large seeds. Inside are also dried pieces of a golden-haired monkey’s lungs, intestines, lips, and fingernails. It is so wrapped that the face of the skull is visible at one end, and the other end is closed [fig. 5 and 6]. After each ceremony in the sacred grove,  the priest wraps another sheet of white paper around it, so that it gradually increases in diameter. Some priests will not allow another person to touch his Abba Mula and only the priest worships this god (pp. 51-52).
I mention this because there are no doubt sacred bundles representing Sun Wukong, which are used under his supernatural guidance.
Fig. 5 – The Abba mula bundle. Note the visible monkey skull with cowry shell eyes (larger version). Original photograph by Wolfgang Wenning. Fig. 6 – A Qiang shaman carry a bundle and sacred cane (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. Both images are from Oppitz, 2004, p. 41.
Oppitz (2004) explains stories alluding to Sun Wukong appear in Qiang pictorial divination books. Furthermore, he suggests the ritual of wrapping the Abba mula bundle with additional paper represents the lost written knowledge saved by the Monkey King / golden monkey, which is now passed on orally.
In Qiang divination books the monkey features in various passages. In one book the picture of a monkey alludes to a story in which he destroys a heavenly palace; another book addresses a monkey’s trip to a western land, where he acquires written texts. In both cases the monkey Sun Wukong of popular literature and protagonist of the novel Xi yu ji [sic], who escorts the Tang pilgrim Xuanzang, stands as the model. This character’s association with the acquisition of books and the role a golden-haired monkey plays in a Qiang myth as the inventor of the drum replacing the lost scriptures, suggests that the paper which is wrapped around the venerated monkey skull may also be interpreted as a hint to the conflict between scriptural versus oral tradition at the intersection of which the monkey stands as a mediator (p. 42).
II. Monkeys and the Qiang origin myth
Called “Mutsitsu and Tugantsu” (Mujiezhu yu Douanzhu, 木姐珠與斗安珠), the Qiang origin myth centers around the romance of Mutsitsu, the daughter of the supreme god Abamubi (or Mubita), and the earthbound monkey Tugantsu. The latter saves the goddess from a ferocious tiger when she visits the mortal world and both instantly fall in love. She brings him to the celestial realm, where Abamubi only agrees to their marriage if Tugantsu can successfully complete a series of impossible herculean tasks. These include falling the trees of ninety-nine mountains, burning the trees, and using the arable land to plant a crop of corn (other sources say grain); but each time Mutsitsu secretly enlists the aid of fellow gods to insure the tasks are completed on time. During the burning of the forest, Tugantsu’s fur is singed, revealing him to be a handsome man. In the end, the supreme god agrees to their marriage and Mutsitsu and Tugantsu become the progenitors of mankind. 
Academia Sinica (n.d.) comments that some Qiang communities who revere Chinese gods often equate Abamubi with the Jade Emperor of Daoism and Tugantsu with Sun Wukong. I find this especially fascinating as the Monkey King then becomes a sacred protoplast.
In addition, Academia Sinica (n.d.) explains this “monkey transforming into human” motif (i.e. Tugantsu becoming a man) has similarities with Tibetan mythology, for the Qiang live in close proximity to the people of Tibet. This refers to the Tibetan origin myth in which the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (the Indo-Tibetan variant of Guanyin) and Tara are respectively reborn on earth as a monkey and his wife, a rock ogress (fig. 7). (Again, the association between the monkey and rock reminds one of Sun Wukong.) The union produces six half-human half-monkey children, from which originate the six original tribes of Tibet. These children and their offspring eventually evolve human features (Stein, 1972, pp. 37 and 46).
The religious mythology of the Qiang ethnic group of China pays reverence to both heavenly monkeys and sacred stones. Examples include stories about a golden monkey born from a stone who both bestows fire on man and creates the sheepskin drum needed to recover lost scriptural knowledge. Qiang communities that revere Chinese deities often replace the golden monkey with Sun Wukong, no doubt due to his birth mirroring the former’s origins. The same holds true for the Qiang origin myth in which a goddess and monkey-turned-man become the progenitors of mankind. The Monkey King is sometimes equated with the father, transforming him from a literary character and cultural figure into a sacred protoplast. Interestingly, the monkey-rock and monkey-to-man motifs have connections to a wider myth cycle present in Tibet.
Some shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi) specializing in exorcism worship our hero as their patron deity, or Abba mula (“father god”). Such deities are given form as a bundled monkey skull successively wrapped in white paper. This sacred object is considered the source of the shaman’s power. It’s possible the wrapping paper references the lost scriptural knowledge that Sun Wukong/the golden monkey helped recover.
To my knowledge, most of what has been written about the Qiang, and by extension their connection with Sun Wukong, was collected by ethnographers during the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the Qiang have no written language (hence the importance of oral knowledge), it’s impossible to say how far back this connection goes. But as noted in this article, the Monkey King has been worshiped by the Chinese since at least the 17th-century. So the Qiang reverence for Sun Wukong could also be centuries old.
Sun Wukong also appears in the folklore of the neighboring (and related) Miao ethnic group. The Miao also believe man derives from monkeys.
Rockhill (1891) provides a complete translation of the Tibetan monkey-ogress origin myth taken from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century), a collection of Tibetan Buddhist texts centered around Avalokitesvara. The translation is too long to transcribe here, so I have made a PDF of the relevant pages. It’s interesting to note that the Bodhisattva Hilumandju, the protagonist, is a monkey king with magic powers.
Hilumandju and Hanumanji are quite similar, as noted by other writers (Chattopadhyaya & Chimpa, 2011, p. 152). The Tibetologist Per K. Sørensen notes “the idea of an ape-gestalt in this myth is directly associated with or inspired by the ape-king … and champion … Ha-lu ma-da = Hanümän, the resourceful figure and protagonist known from Välmlki’s Rämäyana, a tale of considerable popularity already in the dynastic period in Tibet” (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 127, n. 329).
In the high mountains of southwestern Shu [Sichuan and Tibet] there is an animal resembling the monkey. It is seven feet in height, it can imitate the ways of human beings and is able to run fast in pursuit of them. It is named Jia-guo 猳國 or Ma-hua 馬化; some call it Jue 貜. It watches out for young women travelling on the road and seizes and bears them away without anyone being aware of it. If travelers are due to pass in its vicinity they lead one another by a long robe, but even this fails to avert disaster. The beast is able to distinguish between the smell of men and women and can thus pick out the women and leave the men. Having abducted a man’s wife or daughter it makes her its own wife. Women that fail to bear its children can never return for the rest of their lives, and after ten years they come to resemble the beast in appearance, their minds become confused, and they no longer think of return. Those that bear sons return to their homes with the infants in their arms. The sons are all like men in appearance. If any refuse to rear them, the mothers die. So the women go in fear of the beast, and none dares refuse to bring up her son. Grown up, the sons are no different from men, and they all take the surname Yang 楊, which is why there are so many people by that name now in the south west of Shu: they are mostly descended from the Jia-guo or Ma-hua (Wu, 1987, pp. 91-92).
I find the last part fascinating because it states the inhabitants of the Sichuan-Tibet region were fathered by the ape. This recalls the Tibetan, Qiang, and Miao tales of humans descending from monkeys. It also suggests the aforementioned ethnic stories about a primate progenitor stretch back to the early part of the first millennium.
1) Graham (1958) notes the headdress is one of eleven sacred implements of the Qiang shaman. He provides a detailed description of the hat’s significance.
This is made of a golden-haired monkey skin and is believed to be very efficacious, greatly adding to the dignity and potency of the priest and his ceremonies. The eyes and ears of the monkey are left on, and the tail is sewed on at the back. The eyes enable the hat to see and the ears to hear, and add to the efficiency of the hat. The tail also adds to its efficiency. The front of the hat is ornamented with old cowry shells arranged in ornamental designs, one or two polished white bones that are said to be the kneecaps of tigers, and sometimes with carved sea shells. These ornaments improve the looks of the hat and also add to its efficiency. Other ornaments believed to add efficiency when used are two cloth pennants, one or two small circular brass mirrors, and one or two small brass horse bells much like sleigh bells, on which the Chinese character wang 王 meaning king is carved. Near Wen-ch’uan the priests sometimes assist the magistrate in praying for rain and in turn are presented with a small, thin silver plaque to be worn on the hat, on which is stamped the Chinese word shang 賞, or “reward.” This plaque also adds dignity and efficiency (pp. 55-56).
2) The Qiang reverence for these stones is tied to the aforementioned conflict with neighboring tribes. For example, legend states the great heavenly ancestor of the Qiang sent them three white stones to aid in their battle with a neighboring tribe, transforming them into mountains from which weapons were made. Another legend claims these stones help the Qiang make fire (Yu, 2004, pp. 156-157). These white stones often appear on buildings (both temples and houses), walls, altars, and graves in Qiang society (Graham, 1958, p. 103).
3) The original paper reads, “…in the Han Chinese novel Xiyu ji (Journey to the West, 1982)…” I have corrected the typos.
4) The colors red, white, and black signify the class of magic (good vs. dark), though shamans often inhabit all three roles (Graham, 1958, p. 54).
5) Sacred groves are home to a village’s temple and white stone altar, where many rituals are performed at night and in the early morning (Graham, 1958, p. 64).
7) Another version of the tale appears in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, 14th-century). An annotated translation can be read in Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, pp. 125-133.
Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, & Sørensen, P. K. (1994). The mirror illuminating the royal genealogies: Tibetan buddhist historiography : an annotated translation of the XIVth century Tibetan chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Chattopadhyaya, A., & Chimpa. (2011). Atīśa and Tibet: Life and works of Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (alias Atīśa) in relation to the history and religion of Tibet, with Tibetan sources. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).
I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey
Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).
Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.
The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.
By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:
The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).
It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).
In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:
In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).
The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.
Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.
Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):
Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).
Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).
Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.
The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.
So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.
This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.
I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.
Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Volumes 1-4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Journey to the West depicts the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang), as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. The monk’s background is first hinted at in chapter eight when, after receiving instructions to find a scripture pilgrim, the Bodhisattva Guanyin exclaims, “Lo, this one journey will result in a Buddha son returning to keep his primal vow. The Gold Cicada Elder will clasp the candana” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. I, p. 207). Chapter twelve contains a poem introducing Tripitaka as the chosen scripture pilgrim and reveals his heavenly origin. The first part reads:
Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).
Details about the extent of the former celestial’s punishment is revealed throughout the book. For instance, in chapter 33 a demon explains the source of Tripitaka’s heavenly aura: “That Tang Monk is actually the incarnation of the Elder Gold Cicada, a virtuous man who has practiced austerities for ten existences” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105). Furthermore, in chapter 100 the Buddha remarks that his former disciple was “banished to find another incarnation in the Land of the East” and that “by remaining faithful to the religion [Buddhism], succeeded in acquiring the True Scriptures” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 381). So we learn the Golden Cicada was banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time came for him to gain merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise.
Yu (2008) alludes to chapter 99 explaining the source of the name Golden Cicada (p. 110). I can’t find such an overt explanation. But the chapter does mention the monk miraculously surviving drowning after being dumped into a heavenly river, along with his disciples and the hard-won scriptures, by a disgruntled river turtle spirit.  Guanyin exclaims: “Ah! It was fortunate that the Tang Monk had cast off his mortal frame and attained the way. If he were like the person he had been before, he would have sunk straight to the bottom” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 363). The “cast[ing] off of his body” (tuotai, 脫胎) is reminiscent of the way in which the real life insect sloughs off its shell (fig. 1). If this is what Yu was referring to, I think this is but one part of the puzzle.
Fig. 1 – A newly formed cicada clinging to its shell (larger version).
I suggest the author-compiler of Journey to the West chose the imagery of the cicada for the symbolic nature of its life cycle. Munsterberg (1972) describes the insect’s role in ancient Chinese religion: “Cicadas carved in jade are frequently found in graves of the Han period [fig. 2]. Since the cicada hatches above ground, spends a long period underground, and finally emerges as if in rebirth, these burial tokens were probably intended to induce resurrection by sympathetic magic” (p. 32). The Golden Cicada’s life follows this cycle very closely. The celestial being resides above in the Western Paradise, is banished below for an extended period of time, and is only allowed back into the celestial realms after a metamorphosis.
The lifesaving transformation previously referred to by Guanyin takes place in chapter 98 when Tripitaka and his disciples are ferried across a heavenly river in a bottomless boat on their way to the Western Paradise:
All at once they saw a corpse floating [fig. 3] … upstream, the sight of which filled the elder [Tripitaka] with terror.
“Don’t be afraid, Master,” said Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], laughing. “It’s actually you!”
“It’s you! It’s you!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] also.
Clapping his hands, Sha Monk also said, “It’s you! It’s you!”
Adding his voice to the chorus, the boatman also said, “That’s you! Congratulations! Congratulations!” Then the three disciples repeated this chanting in unison as the boat was punted across the water. In no time at all, they crossed the Divine Cloud-Transcending Ferry [Lingyun du, 凌雲渡] all safe and sound. Only then did Tripitaka turn and skip lightly onto the shore. We have here a testimonial poem, which says:
Delivered from their mortal flesh and bone,
A primal spirit of mutual love has grown.
Their work done, they become Buddhas this day,
Free of their former six-six senses sway (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 345-346). 
Here, we see Tripitaka has shed his mortal form to become a buddha just like the cicada sheds its shell to grow wings and fly. The monk has freed himself from the endless cycle of birth and death to achieve nirvana.
It’s interesting to note that the early Ming zaju play Journey to the West (c. 15th-century) depicts Tripitaka as the reincarnation of an arhat named Pulujia (毗廬伽尊者). Dudbridge (1970) translates this as Vairocana (p. 193), which is the name of a major Buddha. This shows Tripitaka was associated with heavenly personages even before the final 1592 novel was published. Therefore, the author-compiler of the novel no doubt fashioned the tribulations of the Golden Cicada around preexisting folklore.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems (Sanshiliu ji, 三十六計, c. 5th-6th-cent.), a collection of military, political, and civil tactics, contains a plan known as “The Golden Cicada Sheds its Shell” (Jinchan tuoke, 金蟬脫殼), which entails leaving a decoy that distracts the enemy while the losing force is retreating. I’m not sure if this directly influenced the celestial’s title, but it at least shows the name was known long before Journey to the West was published.
The strategy is actually used by a tiger demon in chapter 20:
Whipping out the iron rod, Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] shouted, “Catch him!” Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] at once attacked with even greater ferocity, and the monster fled in defeat. “Don’t spare him,” yelled Pilgrim. “We must catch him!” Wielding rod and rake, the two of them gave chase down the mountain. In panic, the monster resorted to the trick of the gold cicada casting its shell: he rolled on the ground and changed back into the form of a tiger. Pilgrim and Eight Rules would not let up. Closing in on the tiger, they intended to dispose of him once and for all. When the monster saw them approaching, he again stripped himself of his own hide and threw the skin over a large piece of rock, while his true form changed into a violent gust of wind heading back the way he had come. (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 401). (emphasis mine)
I would like to suggest the name Golden Cicada Elder (Jīn chán zi, 金蟬子) might have been chosen to serve as a pun for “child or student of Chan” (chánzǐ, 禪子) (fig. 4). While the historical Xuanzang was the patriarch of the Yogacara school of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016), the novel closely associates him with Chan:
The depiction of the novelistic Xuanzang surely and constantly associates him and his entourage with Chan. Revealing examples can readily be found in both narrative content and such titular couplets as “Tripitaka does not forget his origin; / The Four Sages test the Chan Mind” (chapter 24); “The Child’s tricky transformations confuse the Chan Mind; / Ape, Horse, Spatula, and Wood Mother-all are lost” (chapter 40); “The Chan Lord, taking food, has demonic conception; / Yellow Dame brings water to dissolve perverse pregnancy” (chapter 53); “Rescuing Tuoluo, Chan Nature is secure; / Escaping defilement, the Mind of Dao is pure” (chapter 67); “Mind Monkey envies Wood Mother; / The demon lord plots to devour Chan” (chapter 85); and “Chan, reaching Jade-Flower, convenes an assembly; / Mind Monkey, Wood, and Earth take in disciples” (chapter 88) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 64-65).
If true, this would mean the cicada-like spiritual transformation was based around a pun.
Fig. 4 – The similarities in form and pronunciation of chanzi (larger version).
This seems like such an obvious connection that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else beat me to the conclusion by decades or even centuries.
Art historian Jin Xu posted a picture of a 6th-century stone bodhisattva statue to his twitter, and I was interested to see a cicada adorning the headdress (fig. 5 & 6). One essay about the statue suggests it was commissioned by an aristocratic layman since cicadas are known to have decorated the caps of high-ranking officials:
Another noteworthy characteristic of this superb sculpture is the cicada-shaped decoration on the front of the crown. To date, there are no other known Chinese Buddhist sculptural examples of this kind. However, cicada images can be found on gold mountain-shaped crown plaques that also are embellished with thin gold wire and granulation; these have been excavated from the tomb of Ping Sufu of the Northern Yan period (A.D. 409-436), and seated Buddha images were molded onto the back face of these crown ornaments. These excavated materials would have been made some one hundred years before the present image and suggest that there were members of the aristocracy who revered Buddhism and hid Buddha images on the backs of their crowns. This suggests the possibility that the Shumei bodhisattva, with a cicada in place of a Buddha image, was created at the request of a member of the aristocracy who revered Buddhism and believed in the philosophy that the Emperor is the living Buddha, which may have dated back to the Northern court (Standing Bodhisattva, n.d.).
The sculpture didn’t influence Tripitaka’s title as the Golden Cicada Elder. But it’s still fascinating to see a real world connection between the insect and a bodhisattva.
Fig. 5 – The Sixth-century Bodhisattva statue with a cicada decorating the crown (larger version). From Qingzhou Museum in Shandong province, China. Fig. 6 – A detail of the insect (larger version).
Deviantart user Taylor-Denna has drawn a beautiful depiction of Tripitaka’s former incarnation as a literal cicada (fig. 6). It is quite unique as I’ve never seen any other artist portray the former Bodhisattva in such a way. The image makes one think of an insect who acquired magic powers through spiritual cultivation and rose through the Buddho-Daoist hierarchy to become the Buddha’s disciple. The idea would make a good prequel story.
1) The turtle had previously helped the pilgrims cross the same river in chapter 34, and in return they agreed to ask the Buddha when the terrapin would be allowed to achieve human form (for all creatures strive for such an attainment). But Tripitaka forgot to ask the Enlightenment One while visiting the Western paradise, so the turtle dumped them into the river upon their return.
2) The six-six senses (liuliu chen, 六六塵) are “the intensified form of the six gunas, the six impure qualities engendered by the objects and organs of sense: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and idea” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 405 n. 7)
Munsterberg, H. (1972). The Arts of China. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co.
Did you know Sha Wujing can be traced to an obscure Chinese desert spirit who was venerated as a minor Buddhist protector deity in Japan? This god is first mentioned in a 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang, a.k.a. Tripitaka, titled Da TangDaciensi Sanzang Fashi Zhuan (大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳, A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty). According to the text, Xuanzang spilled his surplus of water while in the deserts near Dunhuang, and after several days without drink, he had a fevered dream in which a tall, halberd-wielding spirit chastised him for sleeping instead of continuing his journey to retrieve scriptures from India. The monk immediately awoke and mounted his horse, which took him to an oasis with green grass and fresh water (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 18-19).
I. Close ties with Japan
The Tang Sanzang ji (唐三藏記, Record of the Tang Monk Tripitaka), a book of seemingly unknown date appearing in an 11th-century Japanese collection of tales known as Jōbodai shū (成菩堤集), states Xuanzang was magically provided food and drink by a deva while in the “Flowing Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) desert, a term commonly used for the harsh environment of China’s northwestern region.  The compiler of the Jōbodai shū explains: “This is the reason for the name Spirit of the Deep Sands (Shensha shen, 深沙神)” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). After returning from a pilgrimage to China (838-839), the Japanese Buddhist monk Jōgyō (常曉, d. 865) wrote a report which describes Tripitaka’s fabled exchange with the deity, as well as equates Shensha shen with King Vaiśravaṇa, one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism.  Therefore, the Tang Sanzang ji most likely hails from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Jōbodai shū also states the god manifested itself before the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (法顯, 337-c. 422) during his pilgrimage to India. Shensha shen describes himself thus:
I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).
Monk Jōgyō’s aforementioned 9th-century report on Shensha shen appears to have initiated veneration of the spirit as a Buddhist guardian (no doubt thanks to his association with King Vaiśravaṇa). This deity was at some point given the title Jinja Taishō (深沙大將, “General of the Deep Sands”) and appeared in late Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) period art (Wong, 2002, pp. 61 and 63). One 12th-century ink on paper painting follows the iconography from the Jōbodai shū and depicts his legs with demonic elephant knees and bird-like talons (fig. 1). This same depiction most likely served as the basis for an exquisite wooden statue from the Kamakura period (fig. 2). The god never lost his association with Xuanzang, for one well-known 14th-century painting of the monk depicts him wearing Jinja Taisho’s necklace of skulls (fig. 3 and 4). Another painting of the same period depicts the pair standing on either side of a celestial crowd paying reverence to the Buddha.  It appears to be based on an earlier Chinese Song Dynasty painting (Fig. 5, 6, and 7). Regarding the Japanese image, Wong (2002) notes:
Even though Xuanzang, of human origin, and Shensha shen, a demonic figure, were of low status in the Buddhist hierarchy, they are represented because of their role in the transmission of the Heart Sutra, and become elevated in rank by being shown with the deities and bodhisattvas that protect the sacred text (p. 63).
Fig. 1 – 12th-century Japanese ink on paper painting (larger version); Fig. 2 – 13th to 14th-century Japanese Kamakura wooden statue (larger version); Fig. 3 – Famous 14th-century Kamakura painting of Xuanzang (larger version); Fig. 4 – Detail of the skull necklace (larger version); Fig. 5 – Chinese Song Dynasty painting of the Buddha’s heavenly retinue, including Shensha shen (bottom center left) and Xuanzang (bottom center right) (larger version); Fig 6 – Detail of Shensha shen (larger version); Fig. 7 – Detail of Xuanzang (larger version).
II. Mention in Chinese literature
The concept of Shensha shen was well enough established in China by the 13th-century to be included in the eighth chapter of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the earliest version of Journey to the West. But instead of being a benevolent deity, he is portrayed as a bloodthirsty monster who had several times eaten Xuanzang’s past reincarnations. The demon tells him, “I am the one who devoured you twice before, monk. Slung from my neck are all your dry bones!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). The monster only helps the monk and his retinue cross the “Deep Sands” via a magical golden bridge once he is threatened with heavily retribution. Memorial poems therefore note that Tripitaka releases the spirit from a five hundred-year-long curse, and Pilgrim (Sun Wukong) promises to speak highly of him when they finally meet the Buddha.
Sha Wujing first appears in the 22nd chapter of the final 1592 edition as an ogre-like beast living in the “Flowing Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河), a callback to the similarly named desert from earlier sources .
A head full of tousled and flame-like hair;
A pair of bright, round eyes which shone like lamps;
An indigo face, neither black nor green;
An old dragon’s voice like thunderclap or drum.
He wore a cape of light yellow goose down.
Two strands of white reeds tied around his waist [fig. 8].
Beneath his chin nine skulls were strung and hung;
His hands held an awesome priestly staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 422).
Like The Story, Sha Wujing is persuaded to help the group cross the river, but this time it is after Xuanzang takes him as his third and final disciple (he had previously been pacified and converted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin). The water spirit takes off his skull necklace and, with the aid of a heaven-sent magic gourd, transforms the accoutrements into a boat on which Tripitaka rides to the other side.
III. Origin of Shensha Shen and Sha Wujing’s skull necklace
The skull necklace (Sanskrit: muṇḍamālā) can be tied to Esoteric Buddhism. For instance, the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries, describes the wrathful protector deity Hevajra (fig. 9) wearing such a necklace:
He wields the vajra in the right hand and from his left shoulder hangs the Khatvanga [staff] with a flowing banner, like a sacred thread. He carries in his left hand the kapala [skull cap] full of blood. His necklace is beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads [Fig. 10]. His face is slightly distorted with bare fangs and blood-shot eyes. His brown hair rises upwards and forms into a crown which bears the effigy of Aksobhya [Buddha]. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).
This attire is traceable to that worn by adherents of Heruka, another wrathful deity, as prescribed in the Indian Buddhist Hevajra Tantra (Ch: 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 8th-century): “The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears thebone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin…” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Compare this description with, for example, the Song Dynasty painting of Shensha shen (fig. 6). Many of the elements are present.
Sha Wujing is traceable to an obscure Chinese desert spirit first mentioned in an embellished 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang’s travels. This and later accounts portray him as a benevolent guardian watching over the monk and providing Tripitaka with subsistence on his journey through the harsh “Flowing Sands” desert of northwestern China. The Japanese Monk Jōgyō wrote a 9th-century report in which he mentioned the deity and associated him with King Vaiśravaṇa. This appears to have led to his veneration in Japan, for sources from the 11th-century onward not only provide him with the titles Shensha shen (“Spirit of the Deep Sands”) and Jinja Taisho (“General of the Deep Sands”), but also lay out a prescribed iconography for him. He is generally portrayed in late 12th to 14th-century Japanese art as a fierce warrior with flame-like hair, a necklace of skulls, serpent arm adornments, demonic knees, and (sometimes) bird-like talons.
This spirit appears in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (13th-century), the earliest version of Journey to the West, but is instead portrayed as a bloodthirsty desert demon who revels in having eaten Xuanzang’s last two incarnations. A necklace of dry bones serves as proof of his murderous hobby. He only decides to help the monk pass the Deep Sands when threatened with heavenly retribution. This episode served as the basis for Sha Wujing’s origin in the final 1592 version of the novel. He is similarly portrayed as a flesh-craving, skull necklace-wearing demon. Even his home, the aquatic realm of the “Deep Sands River”, is based on the former’s desert home. But after helping Tripitaka cross the river, Sha Wujing differentiates himself from his literary precursor by serving as the monk’s disciple and stalwart protector.
The skull necklace can be traced to wrathful Esoteric Buddhist deities and their accoutrements. For example, an 11th-century esoteric text describes the deity Hevajra wearing a “necklace…beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads”. This is ultimately based on one of the five kinds of ritual adornments worn by Indian Buddhist yogin adherents of the wrathful deity Heruka during the 8th-century.
1) The original source says “Moving sands” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19 n. 3), but I have changed the wording to conform with that commonly used in various English translations of the tale.
2) Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 19-20. It’s interesting to note that King Vaiśravaṇa influenced another character from Journey to the West, Heavenly King Li Jing. Li Jing (李靖, 571-649) was a historical Tang dynasty general who won many battles in China and Central Asia. Shahar (2013) notes Li was deified after his death, and that the cult centered around him existed into the Song Dynasty. Most importantly, “The general [was] celebrated in a large body of oral and written fiction, which gradually associated him with the Indian god [Vaiśravana].” He continues, “Storytellers and playwrights [eventually] merged the Tang general with the martial Heavenly King” (28). This merging may have happened as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (Shahar & Kieschnick, 2013, p. 224 n. 18).
3) I unfortunately couldn’t find a high res version of this painting. All those I could find were either too blurry or to small for focusing on specific areas for details. The above linked webpage with the Song Dynasty variant includes a low res version of the Japanese painting.
Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.
Shahar, M., & Kieschnick, J. (2013). India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Shahar, M. (2013). Indian mythology and the Chinese imagination: Nezha, Nalakubara, and Krshna. In Meir Shahar and John Kieschnick. India in the Chinese imagination: Myth, religion, and thought (pp 21-45). University of Pennsylvania Press.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wong, D. C. (2002). The making of a saint: Images of Xuanzang in East Asia. Early Medieval China 8, pp. 43-95.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.
Did you know that the current ninth chapter of JTTW did not appear in the original version anonymously published in 1592? Those who have read the novel may recall that it details the tragedy surrounding Xuanzang’s birth, namely the murder of his father and the kidnapping of his mother, years prior to him becoming a monk. This narrative first appeared in a slightly later version of the novel titled The Chronicle of Deliverances in Tripitaka Tang’s Journey to the West (Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi ni zhuan, 唐三藏西游释尼傳) compiled by Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Canton in 1595 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 18).
Fig. 1 – (Left) Monkey as portrayed in Beijing Opera (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Right) Sun Wukong angrily biting one of his cap feathers. From a live action adaptation of JTTW (larger version).
The third chapter of JTTW describes how, in addition to his magical staff, Monkey receives a phoenix feather cap, a set of golden chainmail armor, and cloud-treading boots from the undersea dragon kingdom. The armor and phoenix cap are highly recognizable elements of Sun’s iconography. I suggest this attire was directly influenced by that worn in Chinese opera, an artistic medium that presented popular events from the JTTW story cycle long before the novel was published. In Beijing opera, for example, Monkey is often portrayed as a Wusheng (武生), a heroic role focused on martial combat and acrobatics. Regarding the costume, Bonds (2008) explains, “The Wuxiaosheng [武小生, a variant of the Wusheng role] generally wear kao [armor (靠)], high-soled boots, and often have [six-foot] long feathers (Lingzi [翎子]) attached to their silver or gold filigree helmets” (p. 3) (fig. 1). She goes on to say, “[F]eather movements enlarge the gestures and emotions of the wearer. For example, rotating the head in circles…expands a sense of anger. Shaking the head back and forth quickly…adds to extreme frustration. Biting crossed feathers in the mouth heightens the appearance of aggressive feelings” (p. 44). This feather biting can be seen in numerous live-action adaptations of JTTW (fig. 2). So by referencing such attire, the author-compiler of JTTW was highlighting Monkey’s status as a great hero.
I have archived a paper on the ninth chapter. It can be read here: