U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division Paratrooper-turned-college graduate with a degree in Anthropology and minors in Chinese and Art History. I wanted to be a professional artist in my younger years, but I really don't draw anymore. I make art exclusively on the computer now. Cartoons were my dominant mode of expression for years, but I've transitioned more into photomanipulations.
Favourite style of art: Tibetan Buddhist
Operating System: Windows 8 (unfortunately)
Favourite cartoon character: Freakazoid!
This is my first attempt at making a calabash gourd (hu, 葫), which figures in Chinese mythology as a container for life-prolonging elixir and the heavenly abode of some immortals. The characters read "Great Sage Equaling Heaven" (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖), the rebellious title of Sun Wukong. The piece was made at a pottery store in the Yingge District of New Taipei City, Taiwan. I only turned it; the staff fired and glazed it for me.
The entire thing cost roughly $10.60 to make (including the materials, access to the wheel, and minor instruction), firing, glazing, and shipping. I think that's a pretty good price.
Last updated: 08/10/2018
Now that I’ve written an entry debunking the idea that Sun Wukong’s staff anchored the Milky Way, I now want to write a piece about his greatest feat of strength in Journey to the West. This feat takes place in chapter 33 after Zhu Bajie has been captured by two demon brothers, Kings Goldhorn (Jinjiao Dawang, 金角大王) and Silverhorn (Yinjiao Dawang, 銀角大王). King Silverhorn, the younger of the two, then sets out to capture Tripitaka but is forced to resort to trickery when he learns the monk is protected by Sun Wukong. He transforms himself into an elderly Daoist laying by the roadside with a broken leg. The monk takes pity and forces Monkey to carry him on his back. However, the immortal sees through the disguise and plans to throw his charge off a cliff. But…
As the Great Sage was about to do this, the monster knew instantly of his plan. Knowing how to summon mountains, he resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”
The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” Exerting his spirit even more, he recited another spell and sent up the Tai Mountain to press down on Pilgrim’s head. With this magic of the Tai Mountain Pressing the Head, the Great Sage was overpowered as his strength ebbed and his tendons turned numb; the weight was so great that the spirits of the Three Worms inside his body exploded and blood spurted from his seven apertures (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 2, pp. 108-109).
We see here Monkey is able to successfully carry the weight of both the Sumeru and Emei mountains, while running after his master “with the speed of a meteor”. That’s quite impressive, even if he is eventually crushed under the weight of a third mountain (fig. 1). Attention should be given to the particular mountains used in this episode. Let's start with Sumeru since this is the first one mentioned.
Fig. 1 - Monkey trapped under the three mountains as King Silverhorn abducts Tripitaka, the dragon horse, and Sha Wujing (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West, a children's book published in 1950.
Robert & David (2013) describe Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山) as:
The central axis of the universe in Buddhist cosmology; also known as Mount Meru. Mount Sumeru stands in the middle of the world as its axis and is eight leagues high ... The slopes of Sumeru are the abode of demigods, and its upper reaches are the heavens of the four heavenly kings. At the summit of the mountain is the heaven of the thirty-three, ruled by the king of the gods, Sakra. Above Mount Sumeru are located the remaining heavens of the sensuous realm [fig. 2] (p. 896).
A poem in chapter four of Journey to the West describes what Monkey sees when he first comes to live in heaven as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. A portion reads, "Thirty-three mansions were found up here, / With names like the Scattered Cloud, the Vaisravana, the Pancavidya, the Suyama, the Nirmanarati..." (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 146). Translator Anthony C. Yu notes these mansions refer to the 33 summits or heavens located on Mount Sumeru (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 510, n. 1). Therefore, the heaven described in the novel is located on the same cosmic mountain as that from Hindo-Buddhist cosmology, meaning Monkey successfully supports the axis of the universe on one shoulder.
Fig. 2 - Mount Sumeru indicated in gold. The location of the aforementioned 33 heavens/mansions are indicated in pink. A great cosmic ocean is indicated in blue (larger version). Adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxxii.
Mount Emei (Emei shan, 峨嵋山; 峨眉山) is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. It is considered extremely important as Chinese tradition believes, upon entering the Middle Kingdom from India, Buddhism spread from this very mountain during the eastern Han Dynasty and proliferated throughout China. The mountain is 10,167 feet high, making it over 3,000 feet taller than the other sacred Buddhist mountains. This place is believed to be the heavenly abode of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, making him the patron saint of Emei (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 282-283).
I want to reiterate the fact that both Sumeru and Emei are important to Buddhism. Not only does Monkey support the very axis of the Buddhist universe on one shoulder, he supports on the other the very mountain from which the religion is believed to have spread into China. I'm not sure if this was the author/compiler's original intent, but it seems as if this feat of strength could be symbolism for Monkey literally "supporting" Buddhism by protecting his master on their journey to India. After all, the historical Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664) on whom Tripitaka is based is considered to be one of, if not the, most prolific translators of Buddhist texts in the history of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016).
I turn now to Mount Tai (Taishan, 泰山), the mountain that ultimately overwhelms Sun Wukong's supernatural strength. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China, which differ from the four Buddhist counterparts mentioned above. Mount Tai was the epicenter of a state cult in Ancient China, one in which Sage-Kings and emperors of millennia past traveled there to perform sacrifices to heaven, thereby gaining the right to rule or attaining eternal life. An entry in the Classic of History (Shujing, 書經, 4th-c. BCE) suggests the practice goes all the way back to the Sage-King Shun (3rd millennia BCE) (Poo, 2011, pp. 20-21). Due to its great cultural and historical significance, the mountain came to be recognized as an adamantine monolith, the very name of which was used as a metaphor for something unfathomably heavy, whether it be a physical measure of weight or philosophical importance. For example, Warring States philosopher Mozi took part in a debate over the plausibility of his school of thought taking center stage in Chinese society. His opponent claimed, "As we see it, one can no more put it into practice than one can pick up Mount Tai and leap over a river with it!" Mozi highlighted the irrelevant nature of the metaphor by replying, "As for picking up Mount Tai and leaping over rivers with it, no one from ancient times to the present, from the beginning of humankind to now, has ever succeeded in doing that!" (Watson, 1999a, p. 71). Another example comes from the Han historian Sima Qian who wrote, "A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it" (pp. 371-372). Therefore, the mountain represented the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. It's no wonder then that not even Monkey could withstand its weight.
The idea of Mount Tai symbolizing a heavy object influenced the name of a 17th-century technique related to the development of Taijiquan boxing called "Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai" (Taishan yading, 泰山壓頂) (fig. 3), which involved climbing onto an opponent (Henning, 2009, pp. 78 and 82). Incidentally, the name of this technique is also a common chinese saying referring to someone being under a lot of stress (Gao, Wang, & Weightman, 2012, p. 191).
Fig. 3 - "Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai". From Henning, 2009, p. 78 (larger version).
I find it interesting that, after easily bearing the weight of two Buddhist mountains, Mount Tai is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Mount Tai represents native Chinese history and culture, while Sumeru and Emei represent Buddhism, a non-native religion from India. Therefore, this episode could be read as a struggle between the domestic and foreign aspects of Chinese culture. Considering the monsters are later revealed to be Daoist attendants of Laozi sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145), it's possible the conflict is between Daoism, a native Chinese religion, and Buddhism.
This is obviously not a perfect theory, though. For instance, Laozi reveals that it was actually the Bodhisattva Guanyin who requested the lads be sent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). Does this explain why a Daoist spirit would summon two Buddhist mountains to crush Monkey? I'm interested in what others think.
Fig. 4 - A modern painting of Hanuman lifting the mountain (larger version). All credit goes to the original artist S. Keerthi.
Lastly, I would like to note Sun Wukong's feat of lifting mountains recalls an episode in the Ramayana (4th-c. BCE) in which the monkey god Hanuman carries back a mountain laden with magical herbs to heal the wounds of his master's brother Lakshmana (fig. 4). Hanuman is the living embodiment of strength (shakti) in India (see for example Alter, 1992). Monkey is believed to be loosely based on Hanuman (Walker, 1998), so there could be a connection between both instances of mountain lifting.
Monkey's feat appears to be based on a native Chinese story and not the Ramayana. This is first hinted at in chapter 33 when the demon exclaims the Great Sage “truly knows how to pole mountains [dan shan, 擔山]!” A poem spoken by Sun Wukong in chapter 67 confirms the connection:
Purvavideha was my ancestral home,I did cultivation on Mount Flower-Fruit.I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mindand perfected with him the martial arts.I can tame dragons, stirring up the seas;I can tote mountains to chase down the sun.In binding fiends and demon's I'm the best;Moving stars and planets, I scare ghosts and gods.Stealing from heav'n and Earth gives me great fame,Of boundless change, Handsome Stone Monkey's my name (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243).
Fig. 5 - Erlang poling the mountains (larger version). Artist unknown.
"I can tote mountains to chase down the sun" (shan hui dan shan fan ri tou, 善會擔山趕日頭) is a clear allusion to the ancient tale "Erlang carries mountains to chase the suns" (Erlang dan shan gan taiyang, 二郎擔山趕太陽). The tale describes how the ancient earth was plagued by many suns that scorched the land, making it impossible for the people to grow anything. Vowing to end this plight, the hero Erlang shoulders two mountains hanging from a tree and, with the aid of magical shoes, chases down each sun [fig. 5], using the weight from both landmasses to overwhelm and crush the superfluous celestial bodies (担山赶太阳, n.d). Apart from the feat of lifting two mountains, Erlang's fleet pursuit of each sun (gan taiyang, 趕太陽) foreshadows Monkey "giv[ing] chase to his master with the speed of a meteor" (fei xing lai gan shifu, 飛星來趕師父).
It's interesting to note that "Erlang Carrying Mountains" (Erlang dan shan, 二郎擔山) is a common Shaolin stance, and a staff variant even appears in the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 6). The staff obviously recalls the pole (or in this case tree) that Erlang uses to bear the weight of the mountains.
Fig. 6 - The "Erlang Carrying Mountains" staff stance (larger version).
Alter, J. S., & OUP. (1992). The wrestler's body: Identity and ideology in north India. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.
Gao, W., Wang, A., & Weightman, F. (2012). A handbook of Chinese cultural terms. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford On Demand Pub.
Henning, S. (2009). Taijiquan: Symbol of traditional Chinese martial arts culture. Journal of Chinese Martial Arts (1), pp. 76-83.
Poo, M. (2011). Preparation for the afterlife in ancient China In Olberding, A., & Ivanhoe, P. J. (Ed.) Mortality in traditional Chinese thought (pp. 13-36). Albany: State University of New York Press.
Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.
Watson, B. (1999a). Mozi: Utility, uniformity, and Universal Love In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 64-76). New York: Columbia University Press.
Watson, B. (1999b). The great Han historians In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 367-374). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volumes 1-4. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.
担山赶太阳. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2018, from baike.baidu.com/item/担&…
I recently created a youtube video detailing ten lesser-known facts about the Monkey King. Below I link to the video and present the script.
Stone Monkey, Handsome Monkey King, Keeper of the Heavenly horses, Great Sage Equaling Heaven, Pilgrim, Victorious Fighting Buddha. Sun Wukong is known by many names. This much beloved character is a staple of modern pop culture, appearing in countless movies, television shows, videogames, and other related media. His most famous adaptation is of course Son Goku from the Dragon Ball Franchise. But he is best known from his adventures in the great 16th-century Chinese classic Journey to the West. In this video we will explore ten facts that even superfans of the novel may not know about the history of the Monkey King. References for each fact are available in the description. Let’s get started.
10. He’s not Chinese
Jiangsu province, China is home to Huaguoshan Park, a popular tourist attraction touted as the home of the Monkey King. However, the novel describes Flower Fruit Mountain as being located in a vast ocean “at the border of the small Aolai Country, which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent.” The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places this continent, along with the Western Godaniya continent, the Northern Uttarakuru continent, and the Southern Jambudvipa continent, around the four cardinal directions of Mt. Sumeru, a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos. Each continent is separated by an ocean, making traveling between them very difficult.
While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India, or the known world to the ancient people of South Asia, the novel places China within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya. This means Monkey’s home is located well to the east of China.
9. His surname references both monkeys and Daoist immortality
The exact word Master Subhuti uses for Monkey’s appearance is husun, meaning “grandson of the barbarian”. This word references the nomadic tribes that constantly plagued ancient China’s northern border. The Chinese believed these people were less than human with animal-like qualities. The term Husun refers to the Rhesus macaque, an Old World monkey species native to Asia. The Chinese believed this monkey also had animal and human qualities. This is why the words for barbarian and grandson include the animal radical.
Monkey’s resemblance to the macaque is highlighted throughout the novel. For example, the many demonic features used to describe our hero are shared with the primate. These include a furry, jowless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears.
After choosing Sun as Monkey’s surname, Master Subhuti removes the animal radical and provides a folk etymology for the character, breaking it down into its individual components and associating them with Daoist thought.
Zi means boy and xi means baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy.
This doctrine refers to the Shengtai, or holy embryo or fetus, the realized state of immortality. Daoist internal alchemy views the human body as a living cauldron capable of smelting vital essences into an immortal elixir. This process involves manipulating semen, qi, and spirit within the body and combining them to produce the holy embryo. The achievement of eternal life is sometimes symbolized in alchemical treatises as a baby on the practitioner’s stomach. Hence the baby boy mentioned by Master Subhuti.
8. He’s the literary successor of a legendary emperor
Monkey’s birth from stone mirrors legends associated with the birth of Yu the Great, a legendary emperor of the Xia Dynasty and a demigod famous for quelling the fabled world flood, as well as killing many flood demons in the process. Even his son Qi is said to have been born from a stone. One particular Han dynasty tale reads:
When Yu went to appease the floods, he pierced through Huanyuan Mountain and transformed himself into a bear. Earlier Yu had said to his pregnant wife Tushan, ‘At the sound of the drum, please bring me food.’ But during his efforts, Yu jumped on a rock and a piece fell, hitting the drum by mistake. Tushan brought the food as promised and saw the bear. Feeling embarrassed and distressed, she fled as far as the foot of Songgao Mountain where she was transformed into a stone. Yu said to her, ‘Return my son.’ Facing north, the stone split open and gave birth to Qi.
Furthermore, Sun Wukong comes to wield Yu’s cosmic ruler, the famous “As-you-wish” gold-banded cudgel. In chapter 3, the Dragon King reveals the magic staff “was the measure with which Yu the Great fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood.”
Therefore, the novel presents Monkey as a great hero literally cast from the same mold as Yu the Great.
7. He’s really short
Modern media often depicts Sun Wukong as the size of a human man. A prime example is his portrayal in the popular online video game SMITE as a hulking warrior with huge muscles. However, the novel describes his base form as being very short and skinny. For example, one passage in chapter 20 reads:
The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!”
That’s right, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the conqueror of the heavenly army, is the size of a child. This is why Sun Wukong is so short in Stephen Chow’s 2013 film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.
6. He predates Journey to the West by hundreds of years
Stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the novel and even the name Sun Wukong by centuries. Such tales would have been told in storytelling stalls like this one from the famous 12th-century painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival. Records for the earliest repertoires do not exist, but thankfully pictorial evidence from two Buddhist cave grottos in Gansu Province, China survive. Eastern Thousand Buddha cave number two houses an 11th-century painting of Monkey and his master paying homage to the Bodhisattva Guanyin. Monkey is depicted with his famous golden fillet and what one might call a “derpy” expression. A 12th-century painting in Yulin cave number three depicts the two paying homage to the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Our hero is portrayed with a more monkey-like appearance but lacks his headband.
5. His golden headband is based on a real object
In chapter 14, Monkey is tricked into wearing the fillet as punishment for killing bandits who accost his master. It painfully tightens around his skull whenever Xuanzang recites a spell. The self-control-inducing headband is based on one of eight ritual objects historically worn by esoteric Buddhist yogins. These items are best exemplified by a 13th-century stone relief carving of Monkey from Quanzhou in Fujian province, China. The esoteric source mentioning these items reads:
The practitioner should wear divine earrings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars.
The source goes onto mention the circlet symbolizes Akshobhya, one of the five esoteric Buddhas. This deity is known for his vow to attain Buddhahood through moralistic practices like right speech and action. Therefore, the ritual headband served as a physical reminder of self-restraint, just like the fillet does in the novel.
4. He originally fought with two staves
Monkey appears in a 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West called Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures. In this brief 17 chapter novelette, the supreme deva Vaisravana gives him a magic Khakkhara, or ringed monk’s staff like the one often depicted with the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. He uses this staff in battle against a white tiger demon and transforms the weapon into a titanic yaksa wielding a club. Later, Monkey transforms the staff into an iron dragon to battle a group of nine-headed dragons, and after their defeat, he uses an iron staff borrowed from heaven to beat them as punishment.
Storytellers would later combine these two staves to create Monkey’s signature weapon. The golden rings from the monk’s staff were attacked to the ends of the iron staff, creating a cudgel with the ability to grow or shrink according to the user’s wishes.
3. He has siblings and a wife
Monkey appears in Journey to the West, a 15th-century zaju play that predates the similarly named Ming novel by nearly 200 years. In his opening dialogue to act 9 Monkey describes being one of several siblings.
We are five brothers and sisters: my elder sister is the Venerable Mother of Mount Li, my second sister is the Water Spirit Sage; my older brother is the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, I myself am the Great Sage Reaching Heaven, and my younger brother is Shuashua Sanlang.
Yes, you heard that right. The play calls Monkey the Great Sage Reaching Heaven, while an older brother is known as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. One scholar suggests the older brother is the result of confusing similar titles given to Monkey during the long history of his story cycle. However, the sisters each have their own history. The Venerable Mother of Mount Li was historically worshiped as a deity from at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and myths often associate her with the creation/flood-conquering goddess Nuwa. The Water Spirit Sage, more commonly known as Wuzhiqi, is a monkey-like flood demon appearing in stories as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907). So both sisters are associated with flooding.
Monkey’s wife, the Princess of the Golden Caldron Country, is introduced in act 9 and sings a song revealing how the immortal had kidnapped her and forced her to be his bride. She is eventually rescued by Devaraja Li Jing and his son Prince Nezha, who both appear in the subsequent Ming novel.
Monkey’s affinity for women does not end there. For example, in act 19, he tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan to gain access to her magic palm leaf fan. Upon meeting her, Monkey recites a poem chocked full of sexual innuendo:
The disciple’s not too shallow,
The woman’s not too deep.
You and I, let’s each put forth an item,
And make a little demon.
2. He’s worshiped as a god
Fujian province, China has a long history of worshiping monkeys. For example, one source from the 12th-century mentions a Buddhist monk pacifying the vengeful spirit of a female “Monkey King” worshipped by the local people as the “Spirit protecting hills and woods”. Scholars are reluctant to tie Sun Wukong’s worship to this historical monkey cult, but it shows his faith evolved in the same cultural environment.
The earliest evidence for Monkey’s worship comes from the early Qing Dynasty. One report from the 17th-century, for example, describes Monkey appearing in the clouds and driving back invading Japanese pirates from the Fujian coast during the preceding 16th-century. Scholars suggest the publishing of Journey to the West in 1592 played a large part in the development of his cult and the spread of his mythos. Chinese emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties never officially recognized the Great Sage or built temples in his honor due to the monkey’s rebellious nature. However, due to the popularity of the novel, his cult spread from Fujian to other areas of Southern China, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Modern GIS mapping shows temples dedicated to him on the Putian Plains of the Fujian coast cluster in the northern highlands where poorer, less educated communities reside. It’s important to remember that Monkey is worshiped under his rebellious title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, instead of his Buddhist name Wukong. Therefore, Monkey may have historically appealed to poorer communities because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored the rich over the poor. Therefore, this class of people may have been responsible for the spread of his cult beyond China.
The Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan is just one example of the many temples dedicated to Monkey throughout Asia. Here he is worshipped as a powerful exorcist and healer. Monkey’s cult recognizes a pantheon of Great Sages, from a holy trinity and administrative managers down to lowly soldier monkeys. Adherents visit every day to pay their respects and to pray for blessings. Here we see a time lapse of Temple members celebrating the Great Sage’s birthday. They leave him offerings of fruit and candy and burn incense and paper money as a way of repaying Monkey’s generosity.
Spirit Mediumship plays a large role in the temple’s religious life, giving worshipers direct access to the divine. Twice a week Wanfu’s spirit medium calls down the Great Sage from heaven to hold audience with believers seeking blessings. Here we see the medium-turned-Great Sage using incense to draw magical fu talismans on a baby’s body, starting from the front and then mirroring the design on the back. He then writes out a series of paper talismans using the same incense. One is folded and put inside of a red pouch to be worn as a good luck charm. The second is packaged to be later burnt and the ashes combined with an included tea leaf and water to be given to the baby as a magical brew. Finally, the third is lit and waved over the baby’s head and around their body.
Even a particular ginger-bearded researcher took part in the ritual. Not everyone can say they’ve been blessed by the Monkey King.
1. There was a real monk named Wukong
Scholars suggest Monkey may have been named after a real Buddhist monk originally called Che Fengchao. He was born in 731, nearly 90 years after the historical monk Xuanzang returned to China from India. He grew up to become a diplomat for the Tang court and was chosen to be part of a royal mission to Kashmir in 751. An illness kept him from returning to China in 753 and so he was left in the care of a noted Buddhist monk, eventually being ordained as a monk himself with the religious name Fajie, or “Dharma Realm”. He lived in India for decades before returning to China in 790. There, he presented Tang Emperor Dezong with various translated Sutras and a Buddha tooth relic. The emperor was so pleased that he renamed the monk Wukong, or “Awakened to Emptiness”.
This ends our look at 10 facts about Sun Wukong. I hope this video was enlightening. If you liked what you saw, please like, comment, and share. Also, please visit my research blog Journey to the West Research for more information on the history of the novel and its characters. Thank you.
This video presents 10 facts about Sun Wukong that even superfans of the novel may not know. It is a summation of my and other scholars’ research. I hope you like it and will share with your friends and family. The information comes from my research blog.
The southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian province is home to Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺), also known as the Purple Cloud Temple (Ziyun si, 紫雲寺), an ancient Buddhist complex originally built in 686. The temple is famous for its two stone pagodas, each of which is covered in 80 lifesize relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures rendered in a rustic style influenced by the Northern Song Dynasty school of art (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, pp. 11-18). One figure of interest is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (fig. 1) located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. Many scholars consider this to be an early depiction of Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (1592). The pagoda was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), so this depiction predates the ming novel by 355 years, making it an important source for analazying the early influences on the much beloved literary character. In this paper, I present past research on the relief, as well my own in which I suggest the iconography is based on ritual adornments mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, an Esoteric Buddhist text of the 8th-century.
Fig. 1 – The Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .
I. Previous research
The first detailed description of the relief appears in Ecke and Demiéville (1935).
A guardian with a monkey-head, holding with one hand a rosary which is hanging around his neck, and with the other a sword emitting a cloud from its tip. He wears a short tunic, travel-sandals, and a rope-belt from which are hanging a calabash and a scroll with the Chinese title of the Mahamayarividyārajñi [Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經] (T982-985, a text which was used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases). [According to local tradition, it is] Sun Wu-k’ung the name of the monkey assistant (alias the Monkey attendant 猴行者, or the fair Monkey-king 美猴王, or the Great Saint Equal to Heaven 齊天大聖) of Hsüan-tsang [Xuanzang] in the JW-novel. In the upper right corner of the carving there is a small monk-figure with a halo, evidently Hsüan-tsang himself, appearing on a cloud, seemingly the same cloud as that which emanates from the monkey’s sword. In the version of the JW now extant, the monkey assistant’s weapon is not a sword, but an iron rod with two golden rings, which he can reduce, whenever he finds it convenient, into a needle and so keep inside his ear. Also, he wears a tiger-skin over the lower part of his body, a detail which does not agree with our carving (p. 35)
Glen Dudbridge (1970) compares Ecke and Demiéville’s analysis with the description of the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xinzhe, 猴行者) from the Master of the Law, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Based on the differences, he suggests Northern and Southern China may have had separate Monkey story cycles.
[T]here is no sign there of the traveller’s garb in which the Zayton  figure is so meticulously clothed; the sword is also not mentioned, although the ‘iron rod with gold rings’ … has not yet assumed its full distinctive role; similarly, the tiger-skin robe, while not described in so many words, seems faintly anticipated in the episode [chapter six] in which Hou Hsing-che slays a tiger-demon, and certainly this standard attribute of demonic figures in Tantric iconography accords well with the description of the yakṣa in that same episode.  All this tends to suggest that the Zayton monkey-figure remains strangely distinct from that known to us in the literary sources … Certainly at this stage of their development, there seems to have been no obligation to uniformity in the enactment or representation of popular story cycles: the monkey seen, heard or read about by the northern public could well have differed from his southern counterpart (p. 49).
Writing in 1977, Journey to the West translator and scholar Anthony C. Yu highlighted a difference in opinion regarding the pious figure on the upper right of the piece.
Ōta Tatsuo 太田辰夫 and Torii Hisayasu 鳥居久靖, in “Kaisetsu 解説,” in Saiyuki, Chūgoku koten bungaku taikei, 31-32 (Tokyo 1971), 432, have challenged Ecke and Demiéville’s interpretation of the carving by pointing out that the figure at the upper righthand corner should be thought of simply as a figure of Buddha (not Hsüan-tsang), which Monkey will become by virtue of bringing back the scriptures. It may be added that Sun Wu-k’ung of the hundred chapter narrative did use a sword or scimitar 刀 (JW, chaps. 2 and 3) before he acquired his famous rod.  None of the scholars consulted here sees fit to discuss the significance of what seems to be a headband worn by the carved figure (Wu & Yu, 1977, vol. 1, p. 497 n. 23).
Victor Mair (1989) focuses on the relief’s iconography and suggests the various elements might have ties to depictions of both the Buddhist protector deity Aṇḍīra and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the Ramayana (c. 4th-cent BCE).
The band on the Zayton monkey’s head is indeed very important. Surely it must represent what becomes the Tight-Fillet 緊箍 of the Ming JW, ch. 14. Regardless of the author’s (or his predecessors’) elaborate creative inventions surrounding this fillet in the tradition of the novel, we may ask whether it has any identifiable iconographical origins in art.
The Tight-Fillet recalls the band around the head of representations of Aṇḍīra, the simian guardian of Avalokiteśvaraand Bhaișajyaguruvaidūryaprabhāṣa … As a typical specimen, we may take a statue [fig. 2] from the Kōfukuji in Nara. The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra has curious wing-like projections extending from the sides of the band around his head that remind us of Mercury in Western classical art. On the Zayton SWK [Sun Wukong], these symbols of swiftness have been displaced to the sides of the eyes. In either case, the wings remind us of H’s [Hanuman’s] descent from the god of the wind. Other similarities between the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra and the Zayton SWK include: identical earrings (these are key iconographical features of H in many Southeast Asian Rs [Ramayanas]), comparable tilt of the head (exaggerated with the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra) which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on forearms and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all of these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H. For its photographic clarity, we may choose a scene from the Rāma reliefs in Panataran, Indonesia [fig. 3]. H’s forearms are bare in this particular representation, but in some Thai reliefs (at Wat Phra Jetubon in Bangkok), they resemble those of the Zayton SWK and the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra. The discrepancies in the dress and ornamentation of the lower parts of the body may be attributed to culture and climate (pp. 699-700).
Fig. 2 – The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra wooden relief carving (c. 11th to 12th-cent.) (larger version), Nara, Japan. Fig. 3 – Hanuman (left) besting a demonic foe (right), from the Ramayana reliefs of the Panataran temple complex (c. 12th-cent.) (larger version), East Java, Indonesia.
II. My findings
My opinion on the origins of the Kaiyuan relief’s iconography parts ways with Mair in some respects. For instance, upon close inspection of the Japanese Aṇḍīra carving, the band that he refers to appears to be the brim of a helmet, and the “symbols of swiftness” transferred to our relief are simply wrinkles on Monkey’s face. I do agree the Kaiyuan relief shares affinities with the cited image of Hanuman (e.g., the earrings and armbands). But again, here I part ways with Mair because I suggest the relief’s accoutrements were instead influenced by Esoteric Buddhism and not Hinduism. The similar imagery is no doubt due to a common cultural source.
Nearly every aspect of Sun Wukong’s attire can be found in a passage from the 8th-century esoteric text the Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經). It instructs yogins on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka (Xi lu jia, 呬嚕迦), a wrathful protector deity of Buddhism.
Sanskrit: bhavakena vidhartavyam karnayor divyakupdalam/ sirasi cakri dhartavya hastayo rucakadvayam/ katyarp va mekhalam caiva padayor nupuran tatha/ bahumule ca keyuram gnvayam asthimalika/ paridhanam vyaghracarma bhaksanam dasardhamrtam
Translation: The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62).
Earrings? Check! Circlet? Check! Bracelets, girdle, anklets, and arm ornaments? Check, check, check, and check! The only two aspects that are questionable are the bone necklace and the tigerskin. Rosaries are sometimes made from bone, which satisfies that requirement. As for the skin, while Ecke and Demiéville were quick to note its omission in their study, I think the appearance of so many elements from the passage suggests the tigerskin is present but the features may have just been eroded by time. The chevron shape visible below the girdle could be a skin apron. I’ve created a color version of the relief based on this information (fig. 4).
As I explained in a previous article, the Hevajra Tantra was officially translated into Chinese in 1055 (no doubt arriving earlier than this), so the text was present in the middle kingdom for nearly 200 years prior to the creation of the relief.
What can these ritual elements tell us about Monkey’s depiction? Firstly, it should be noted that the esoteric deity Heruka and other such wrathful guardians, known as “Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles” (Sk: krodha-vighnantaka), are commonly portrayed wearing such items, leading to the scholar Van Kooij to comment, “Heruka is more or less a deified hypostasis of the … yogin himself” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251). Second, these deities are often portrayed wielding weapons. For example, one source describes Vajrapani‘s wrathful form Trailokyavijaya “hold[ing] the vajra, ankusa-hook, sharp sword, pâsa-noose and other âyudha [weapons]” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 188). Sun Wukong too is depicted with a weapon, a sword with a lick of heavenly flame. Third, the flaming sutra tied to Monkey’s girdle was, as explained above, historically “used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases.” Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles are charged “with the destruction of barriers which prevent the experience of enlightenment” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 25). These include external threats like manifested demons and internal threats like demon-caused mental and bodily illness, the “three poisons”, and karmic debt (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 24-25). Therefore, the iconography presents Sun Wukong as a wrathful protector deity.
This then may lend support to Ecke and Demiéville’s original assertion that the pious figure floating in the clouds to the right of Monkey’s head is in fact Xuanzang. The Great Sage clears the path of manifested demons that obstruct the monk’s path to enlightenment, leading to his ascension into paradise (this happens in both the 13th-century version of the story and the final Ming novel).
The 13th-century Sun Wukong pagoda relief of the Kaiyuan Temple shares many similarities to ritual adornments mentioned in the esoteric Hevajra Tantra (8th-cent.), including earrings, the circlet, arm cuffs, a necklace, a girdle, wrist bangles, anklets, and possibly even a tiger skin. Esoteric protector deities are often portrayed with similar attire since they represent the very yogin ascetics who worship them. Monkey’s depiction with said attire suggests the artist who created the piece intended to present him as a powerful Buddhist guardian on par with Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles like Heruka. The depicted sword and sutra, each shown with a lick of heavenly flame, no doubt represent the means by which the Great Sage protects his master Xuanzang (possibly the pious figure on the upper right corner of the relief).
While Monkey’s association with the fillet and the tiger skin carried over into the novel, other characters came to be associated with ritual adornments from the Hevajra Tantra. A prime example is Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), son of the Bull Demon King and Lady Iron Fan. The Bodhisattva Guanyin forces the demon child to submit in chapter 42, after which she uses a magic treasure given to her by the Buddha to ensnare his extremities.
Dear Bodhisattva! She took the fillet and waved it at the wind once, crying, “Change!” It changed into five fillets, which she threw at the body of the boy, crying, “Hit!” One fillet enveloped the boy’s head, while the rest caught his two hands and two feet (Wu & Yu, 1977, vol. 2, p. 280).
Red Boy is the literary counterpart of the religious figure Sudhana (Sancai, 善財), whose spiritual journey is told in the Gandavyuha Sutra (Dafang guang fohuayan jing, 大方廣佛華嚴經, c. 3rd-cent.). The youth sets out on a quest towards enlightenment and trains under 52 different teachers, including Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara (the South Asian variant of Guanyin), Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 864). It’s no wonder then that the ascetic came to be associated with such ritual adornments. South and East Asian depictions of Sudhana/Sancai often portray him wearing bangles and anklets (fig. 5).
Fig. 5 – A modern day altar statue of Sudhana/Sancai (larger version). Notice the bangles and anklets.
1) Yu is referring to the fight between Sun wukong and a demon, during which time the monkey disarms him and uses the latter’s own sword against him.
3) Monkey transforms a ringed monk’s staff into a titanic yakṣa that crushes the aforementioned tiger demon with a club.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.
Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The twin pagodas of Zayton: A study of the later Buddhist sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.
Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (1977-83). The journey to the West. Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.