Sun Wukong and Miao Folklore

Sun Wukong appears in a body of Buddhist folklore passed on by the Miao ethnic group of Sichuan, also known as the “River Miao” (Chuan Miao, 川苗) or “Old Miao” (Miao: Hmong Bo) (fig. 1). The particular tale is quite different from the popular narrative appearing in Journey to the West (1592). For example, the unnamed monkey tends to a dragon king’s injury and later escorts a Tang dynasty emperor to India.

A Monkey Went Fishing, or Securing Buddhist Sacred Books (97)

The monkey changed into a fisherman and daily went fishing (with a line and hook). He hooked the dragon’s upper lip. When he pulled, the fishhook broke off in the dragon’s upper lip. The dragon’s lip therefore pained him every day. Then every day the dragon king called on his soldiers to go and get a doctor and heal it, but they could not find a doctor.

The monkey daily went to the sand bank to look for his fishhook. One day when he was looking for it two of the dragon king’s soldiers came and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for medicine.” The two soldiers then said, “Old scholar, our old man’s upper lip pains him and he sent us to help him find a doctor. Can you heal him?” The monkey thought, “Probably he has been caught by my fishhook.” He then said, “I can heal it, but I must first look at the injury, then I will give the medicine.” Then the two soldiers invited him to come.

He said, “How can I go since there is so much water?” He had to go down into the water of the stream. The two men then said, “You may get under our fins and close your eyes, and do not open your eyes until we call you.” The monkey wanted to see the dragon, so he closed his two eyes. The two soldiers held him under their fins, and in a short time one of them called him, and he opened his eyes and looked.

When he opened his eyes he had already entered a fine palace. In a little while he heard the soldiers of the dragon king from both sides calling to the dragon king to come and have his wound looked at.

The monkey heard the inside gate resound, “Gu, ga.” He then saw the hands of a big man carrying the dragon king so that he could sit in the chair. Then they requested him to look at the wound. The monkey kowtowed just once to the dragon king and then looked. Then he took a pair of chop sticks and pushed aside the dragon king’s lips, and saw that the fishhook was hooked in the dragon king’s upper lip. Then he took the chopsticks and loosened the fishhook a little. He then asked the dragon king, “Is it any better?” The dragon king answered, “It is a little better.” Then the monkey sat down and rested a little. The dragon king said, “I am afraid that I will die from this illness.”

The monkey said, “You will not die from this sickness. You will certainly recover.” The dragon said, “If you are willing to heal me, I will give you whatever you want.” The monkey then used the chopsticks to push open the lips. Then he seized the fishhook with his chopsticks and with one jerk pulled out the fish book. The lip of the dragon king hurt no longer.

Then the dragon king called to his daughters to entertain the monkey fisherman. The monkey remained there several days. The dragon king was afraid that he [the monkey] was in a hurry and told his soldiers to give him some gold and silver. The monkey said, “I do not want gold and silver. I only want you to permit me to stay here a few days longer.” When the soldiers had reported this to the dragon king, he was glad to have him remain longer. He stayed several months.

One day he was visiting with the women in the palace. The monkey saw a yellow golden club. He then picked it up to play with. He struck with the golden club outside, and the club flew with him to the sea. Then he knew that this club was an ancient golden club. The dragon king did not pursue him.

The monkey lived until the Tang Dynasty, and the Tang Dynasty king wanted to go and get sacred books. But the king could not go himself because the demons and spooks were very numerous along the road. The Tang emperor then sent a messenger to call the monkey to him. The monkey said, “I cannot go. If anybody wants me to go, he must change likenesses with me, and then I will go.”

The Tang emperor himself returned, and for three years sought for a method. One day he came and said to the monkey, “Now I am able to change.” The monkey then requested the Tang emperor to change. The Tang emperor then changed into a big mountain, and the monkey went into the mountain. Then he was unable to come out again. The Tang emperor then said, “Now will you go with me?” The monkey then promised to go with him. Then the Tang emperor lifted aside the written character that had imprisoned him, and then the monkey came out. The monkey then went with the Tang emperor to the western horizon and brought back the sacred books. [79]


79) The Ch’uan Miao said that this is a story about a monkey of some repute, but they did not know his name. It is evidently the monkey god Sen Hou Tzu [Sun houzi, “the monkey Sun”] 孫猴子 or Sen Wu K’ung [Sun Wukong孫悟空 (Graham, 1954, p. 211).

Story influences

I suggest the first three-quarters of the Miao tale draws on the Asian variant of a widely known story cycle in which a fisherman is rewarded for releasing a magic fish (B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful, n.d.). This version sees the fisherman release a carp to later discover it was actually the transformed son of a dragon king. He is then rewarded with a magic treasure for his kindness. [1] This cycle is partially played out in another Miao legend in which a fisherman catches a fish, who turns out to be the daughter of the dragon king Ryuang Lan, and later marries her in human form (Graham, 1954, pp. 226-227). In our story, the monkey-turned-fisherman catches the dragon king and then frees him of the hook. He is subsequently rewarded with a prolonged stay in the dragon kingdom and thereafter retrieves the golden club, which is itself a magic treasure.

Miao couple (for Sun Wukong article) - small

Fig. 1 – A Miao couple (larger version). She is wearing traditional dress, while he wears that of the Chinese. From Graham, 1954, p. 125. Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong meets the dragon king Ao Guang (larger version). A screenshot from the classic Chinese animation Uproar in Heaven (1965).

Elements of the first three-quarters and all of the last quarter clearly borrow from Journey to the West. The monkey is presented as a shape-shifting immortal, for he changes into a fisherman and lives until the Tang dynasty. His aversion to water in the tale is a common trope throughout the novel, such as when Sun Wukong uses water-propelling magic or relies on others to fight water-based monsters. [2] The golden club is the Monkey King’s “As-you-will” gold-banded cudgel retrieved from the undersea dragon kingdom. This in turn identifies the dragon king as Ao Guang, the ruler of the Eastern Sea (fig. 2). The unnamed “Tang dynasty emperor”, Tang Taizong in Journey to the West, replaces the monk Tripitaka originally sent to retrieve holy scriptures. The monkey’s imprisonment inside the emperor-turned-mountain is based on Sun’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain in the novel, complete with a written amulet weighing the landmass down.

The monarch’s transformation into a mountain is particularly interesting to me, for I don’t recall ever reading any Asian folklore featuring such an event. I know of at least one instance of a hero in ancient European folklore being changed into a mountain as punishment (see fig. 5 in my article here). However, our tale presents the ruler’s transformation as a willing metamorphosis. The Miao consider mountains to be living beings, [3] having “heads, feet, hands, eyes, ears, hearts, breasts, veins, and arteries” (Graham, 1954, p. 9). Therefore, the mountain is a macrocosm of the human body, making the transformation one of degree and not kind. But this portion of the narrative remains a mystery to me as the original intended outcome was “switch[ing] likenesses.” I take this to mean that the monkey would look like the emperor and visa versa. Does this imply the primate was keen on usurping the throne and the monarch then used his transformation as a deterrent?

Monkey progenitors

The Monkey King’s inclusion in Miao folklore should come as no surprise since monkeys play an important role in their mythology. They believe humans are descended from a pair of monkeys who broke off their tails by accident and eventually evolved human features (Graham, 1954, p. 204). As explained in this article, having a monkey ancestor is a common belief among the various ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China. Sun Wukong also appears in the legends of the neighboring (and related) Qiang people of Sichuan.


1) One version appears in the Complete Tale of Guanyin of the Southern Seas (Nanhai Guanyin quanzhuan, 南海觀音全傳), a 16th-century pious novelette detailing Guanyin’s former life as the Princess Miaoshan. After achieving enlightenment, Miaoshan/Guanyin looks to take on disciples. One is a dragon princess (longnu, 龍女) who bestows the Bodhisattva with a magic jewel for saving her brother, a dragon prince who had been caught by a fisherman while transformed into a carp (Idema, 2008, p. 31).

2) The water-propelling magic is first displayed in chapter three when Sun seeks a magic weapon from the underwater dragon kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). An example of Monkey relying on others to fight a water-based monster happens in chapter 22 when he asks Zhu Bajie to battle Sha Wujing (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 423).

3) According to Graham (1954), “The Ch’uan Miao regard all things as alive and sentient. The sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, thunder, the echo, the rainbow, homes, fields, plains, recompense or karma, beds, marriage, swords, the harvest, the year…the ceremonial drum, and even the sound of the ceremonial drum are considered to be living things” (p. 9).


B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful (n.d.). S. Thompson. Motif-index of folk-literature. Retrieved from

Graham, D. C. (1954). Songs and stories of the Chʻuan Miao. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from;view=1up;seq=7

Idema, W. L. (2008). Personal salvation and filial piety: Two precious scroll narratives of Guanyin and her acolytes. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

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



Sun Wukong and the Qiang Ethnic Group of China

Last updated: 04/19/2019

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.

Map of China showing location of Sichuan Province, home to Qiang ethnic group, some of whom worship Sun Wukong

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). [1] 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).

Qiang shaman hat and goldn monkey

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. [2] 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). [3] 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). [4] 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, [5] 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.

Qiang abba mula bundle and shaman holding one

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 is connected with the Monkey King’s quest for sutras, as the paper itself represents the lost written knowledge that 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. [6]

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.

Tibetan origin myth painting - Monkey and Ogress - small

Fig. 7 – A modern painting showing the monkey and rock ogress of Tibetan myth (larger version). Original from Wikipedia.

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).

III. Conclusion

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 culture 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.

Update: 04/19/2019

Sun Wukong also appears in the folklore of the neighboring (and related) Miao ethnic group. See the following article for more information:


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).

6) A Chinese version of the tale can be read here. This forum has scans of an illustrated bilingual book presenting a different version of the tale.


Academia Sinica. (n.d.). A Brief Introduction to the Qiang People – Religion. Retrieved from

Graham, D. C. (1958). The customs and religion of the Ch’iang. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from

Oppitz, M. (2004). Ritual objects of the Qiang shamans. Res: Anthropology and aesthetics, 45, 10-46. Retrieved from

Stein, R. A. (1972). Tibetan civilization. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Wang, M. (2002). Searching for Qiang culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Inner Asia, 4(1), 131-148. Retrieved from

Yu, S. (2004). Sacrifice to the Mountain: A Ritual Performance of the Qiang Minority People in China. TDR 48(4), 155-166. Retrieved from

Zhu Bajie’s Earliest Known Depictions and the Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda

I suggested in a previous article that Zhu Bajie was first added to the Journey to the West story cycle during the 14th-century. This is because the character does not appear in the 13th-century version of the story, but he does appear in a stage play from the 15th-century. Thanks to the writing of Prof. Ben Brose, I learned of Pigsy’s three earliest known depictions from this time period. The first is a Yuan Dynasty Cizhou ware ceramic pillow showing all of the characters (fig. 1). The second is a fragmented Yuan-era blue and white incense burner (fig. 2). Older still are Zhu’s depictions appearing on the 14th-century Gyeongcheonsa pagoda (Kyŏngch’ŏnsa sipch’ŭng sŏkt’ap, 경천사십층석탑) from Korea (fig. 3). You read that right, Korea!

cizhou ware pillow and korean pagoda

Fig. 1 – The Cizhou ware pillow featuring Pigsy and the other pilgrims (larger version); Fig. 2 – A fragment of the blue and white incense burner showing Pigsy leading the White Dragon Horse (larger version). Fragments with the other characters can be found here; Fig. 3 – The Gyeongcheonsa pagoda is now housed inside of the National Museum of Korea (larger version). 

I. Why Korea?

The Pak t’ongsa ŏnhae (Ch: 朴通事諺解, Pu tongshi yanjie), a circa 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese, presents the Journey to the West story cycle as a highly popular tale among Koreans. This fact is revealed during a conversation between two Buddhist monks, one of which states: “The Xiyouji is lively. It is good reading when you are feeling gloomy” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 180). The same monk then recounts an episode where Monkey competes with three animal spirits-cum-Daoist priests in a test of magic skill. This episode comprises chapters 44 to 46 in the final Ming version of the novel. [1] The popularity of the Chinese story cycle in Korea then explains why scenes from it appear on the pagoda.

II. Pagoda Background

The National Museum of Korea explains the 13.5 meter (44.3 ft) tower has a long and tumultuous history:

Made of marble, this ten-story stone pagoda was erected at Gyeongcheonsa Temple in Gaeseong in 1348, the fourth year of the reign of Goryeo’s King Chungmok. The first tier of the pagoda bears an inscription that records various details about the pagoda’s production, including the production date and the patrons. According to the inscription, the pagoda was sponsored by Goryeo people who were associated with China’s Yuan Dynasty. Notably, this stone pagoda was closely modeled after wooden architecture, and each story is expertly carved with Buddhist images. The platform is sculpted with scenes of Xiyouji (Journey to the West), as well as lions, dragons, and lotus flowers. The lower four stories are sculpted with scenes of Buddha’s Assembly, while the upper six stories are sculpted with images of Buddha with both hands clasped. The four sides of the platform and those of the lower three tiers are protruding, recalling the shape of Tibetan-Mongolian pagodas that were prevalent in the Yuan period. However, the upper seven tiers have a more standard rectangular shape that corresponds with the conventional form of stone pagodas. Notably, about 120 years after this pagoda was built, the Joseon royal court erected a stone pagoda with a similar material and shape at Wongaksa Temple in Gwangju. In 1907, this pagoda was illegally dismantled and smuggled to Japan by Tanaka Mitsuyaki, the Japanese Minister of the Imperial Household. However, thanks in part to the efforts of a British journalist named Ernest Thomas Bethel and an American journalist named Homer Hulbert, it was returned to Korea in 1918. The pagoda was partially restored in 1960, while it was being kept at Gyeongbokgung Palace, but after having been kept outside for so long, suffering the effects of weather and acid rain, it could not be properly preserved. Thus, in 1995, it was dismantled for a more extensive restoration project. Ten years later, it was reassembled inside the new building of the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, being unveiled as part of the museum’s grand opening in 2005 (“Ten-story Stone Pagoda”, n.d.).

The pagoda’s political and architectural connections to Yuan China further explain why scenes from the story cycle grace the platform.

III. The Images

Twenty Journey to the West-related scenes appear on the second level of the pagoda’s multifaceted three-tiered base. The following line drawings, which are based on ink rubbings of the original carvings, come from an in-depth field report by the Yegŭrin Architectural Firm (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993). The images are presented below starting from the southernmost face (the six o’clock position) of the pagoda’s diamond-shaped cross section, proceeding in a clockwise fashion. Each is accompanied with commentary from the original report.[2] You will notice the report is generally vague as the exact meaning of the scenes are often unclear. I will therefore present my own commentary or questions below in the hopes of furthering the discussion.

Number One: A royal send off

image 1 (small)

Fig. 5 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure of a Buddhist monk stands at the front, and behind him a horse and figures in the shape of a pig’s head, a monkey, and more are depicted. The figure of the Buddhist monk appears to be Monk Xuanzang, the figure of the monkey, Sun Wukong, the figure with the pig’s head, Zhu Bajie, and the last figure appears to be Sha Wujing. In other words, it is Monk Xuanzang’s travel companions. On the right, pictured symmetrically with Xuanzang’s travel party is the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown, and behind him stands a figure of a young boy holding an umbrella over his head and the figures of three noblemen.

And to the right of this a building structure is depicted. The nobleman who is at the very front wearing a crown seems to be a king and the building structure appears to represent a palace. Therefore, the content of the carving above seems to be the scene of a king sending off Monk Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 5] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).

Could this scene be a telescopic version of the narrative, one in which the already assembled group is being sent off by Tang Taizong? After all, the authors suggest in panel number ten that the first ten images likely show the journey to India, while the latter half shows the return (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124). Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the king as the largest and therefore the most important, with Tripitaka being the second tallest/important, and the three disciples even shorter. Pigsy’s porcine head really stands out as Sandy is depicted as a human monk.

Number Two: On the Road

image 2 (small)

Fig. 6 – (larger version)

As above, the horse and the travel party of Monk Xuanzang, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing have been portrayed. Here Sha Wujing is carrying a knapsack. On the left a road populated with animals and birds are depicted. Therefore, here it appears to show that Monk Xuanzang and his companions are traveling on a mountain road [fig. 6] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).

Take note of Pigsy’s upraised hands and wide stride. This motif appears several more times on other panels (fig. 12, 13, 17, and 24). The posture is quite similar to that from the aforementioned ceramic pillow and incense burner, which depict Pigsy carrying his rake and leading the horse. He lacks his signature weapon in these scenes, however (fig. 7). This might explain the strange posture of his right hand.

Korean Pagoda paper - Pigsy iconography comparison

Fig. 7 – Similar Pigsy iconography from the Cizhou ware pillow (left), the incense burner (center), and panel two (right), all corresponding with the Yuan Dynasty (larger version). See also figure 24 for a better match. 

Number Three: A prisoner?

image 3 (small)

Fig. 8 – (larger version)

On the left, the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown is kneeling. Behind him, a figure of a person holding a club appears to threaten the nobleman in front. Behind them something like an altar is depicted. Symmetrical with the figure of the kneeling nobleman, a figure looking like a government official from a prison in a provincial district stands holding a tool of torture.

Even if we don’t know what this is, it seems to show the oppression by those of other religions during the years of Xuanzang’s journey [fig. 8] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

My view on the scene differs from the authors. The “government official” appears to be a deity (noted by the flowing ribbons around the shoulders), possibly Guanyin since the upheld item reminds me of her holy vase. The figure to the right could be her disciple Moksha. Would this make the club-wielding figure Monkey and his prisoner a captured demon?

Number Four: A confrontation

image 4 (small)

Fig. 9 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure holding a club and Monk Xuanzang are depicted. On the right, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are portrayed. Here Monkey is posed as if he is defeating something with the stick, and behind the horse Sha Wujing is carrying the knapsack. Monk Xuanzang is shown lifting his left hand as if he is arguing something. This appears to show the scene of Xuanzang’s companions defeating some hindrance [fig. 9] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

I believe Tripitaka is begging Monkey not to slay or beat the person, as the monk steps in many times throughout the narrative to do this. Could this be the White Bone Demon under one of its many disguises from chapter 27?

Number 5: A king or deity

image 5 (small)

Fig. 10 – (larger version)

On the right side, a figure riding a lion is depicted. On the left side, three figures that seem like they are servants are depicted, and in the back a building structure is carved. It seems to depict some group of royals or noblemen on Xuanzang’s way to India [fig. 10] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

The group of servants appear to me to be our pilgrims, the long-faced figure possibly being Pigsy. The figure riding the lion could be Manjusri and his feline mount. Could this be a reference to him subduing the beast in chapter 77? The figure’s hands appear to be producing bolts of lightning. I’m not sure of the significance, if any.

Number Six: A foreign court

image 6 (small)

Fig. 11 – (larger version)

On the right, there is a figure of a Buddhist monk holding a monk’s staff who seems to be Monk Xuanzang, and a figure to his left seems to be a disguised Monkey. On the left, figures of noblemen from a palace are portrayed. This appears to depict a scene where Monk Xuanzang’s travel party is welcomed in some palace along the road [fig. 11] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The strange figure in the middle is a complete mystery to me. While the figure is identified as Monkey, it’s impossible to tell for sure.

Number Seven: Fire Mountain

image 7 (small)

Fig. 12 – (larger version)

On the left side, a pattern of fire sparks is carved. And in front of that is Monkey, holding a fan trying to put out the fire. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is carrying out some action with lifted hands, and behind him Zhu Bajie is holding the horse reins while Sha Wujing as always is carrying the knapsack. This depicts the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting and trying to eliminate difficulties along the road [fig. 12] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

This is the least ambiguous of the twenty scenes and my personal favorite. It depicts Monkey using the magic palm leaf fan to conquer the flames of Fire Mountain.

Pigsy’s upraised hand-wide stride motif appears once more.

Number Eight: Offerings

image 8 (small)

Fig. 13 – (larger version)

A table is placed in the middle, and on top of it lays objects that seem to be offerings. On the right Xuanzang’s travel party and on the left figures of noblemen or royals are depicted. Two of the figures from Xuanzang’s travel party are covering their heads with something, but this seems to be to conceal the sight of Monkey and Zhu Bajie’s animal heads. This appears to be the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party receiving offerings from a royal or gentry family along the way [fig. 13] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The bearded figure between Tripitaka and the supposedly veiled figure is no doubt Pigsy, based on his upraised hands and wide stride. The elongated snout has been confused for a beard.

Also, could the veil actually be supplies on the horse’s back? Maybe the original rubbing is degraded in this area, making the head look as if it is under (instead of in front of) the object.

Number Nine: Another confrontation

image 9 (small)

Fig. 14 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure of a nobleman who is kneeling or bending his head is depicted. On the right, the figure of Zhu Bajie, who is trying to attack the nobleman, and the figure of Monk Xuanzang, who is trying to prevent this, are shown. It appears to be depicting some sort of misunderstanding that happened between the nobleman and Xuanzang’s attendant [fig. 14] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

Pigsy has not been portrayed with a weapon up to this point. It would make more sense if Monkey was wielding the staff. After all, figure 17 depicts Sun standing in a similar posture while wielding a club/staff. Perhaps the elongated face on this panel is just an artifact from the original rubbing?

Number Ten: A temple

image 10 (small)

Fig. 15 – (larger version)

On the left side, Xuanzang bears a monk’s staff and his attendants are depicted together with the horse. And on the right side, symmetrical to this, are the figures of a Buddhist monk (holding a monk’s staff) and his attendant, who are about to receive Xuanzang’s travel party. This appears to depict the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party being welcomed by the monks of some temple along the way. Here Monkey and Zhu Bajie seem to have transformed into monks and are posing as Buddhist monks.

The above ten sides, beginning at due south and reaching due north, appear to be depicting the process of Xuanzang’s travel party going to India, while the ten sides starting at due north appears to depict their return journey [fig. 15] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The scene shows the small monk on the right passing something to Tripitaka. Based on iconography from the following images (see, for example, fig. 18), this could be portraying the monks receiving the scriptures in India.

Number Eleven: Returning home

image 11 (small)

Fig. 16 – (larger version)

On the left side, two horses carrying something on their backs and Xuanzang’s travel party are shown. On the left are two figures of kings with umbrellas held over their heads by attendants. And to the left of them, a figure of an official who seems to be guarding the palace is visible. This appears to be depicting the scene where the kings are sending off Xuanzang’s travel party, who are setting off on their journey home after obtaining the scriptures [fig. 16] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The “something” on the horses’ backs could be the scriptures.

Number Twelve: Saving their Master

image 12 (small)

Fig. 17 – (larger version)

On the left, the figure of a monk is caught by the figures of noblemen wearing crowns. On the left Monkey, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing and the horse are depicted. But Monkey and Zhu Bajie are assuming postures threatening to save the captured Monk Xuanzang. This seems to show the image of Monkey and company as guards, trying to save Xuanzang when he was being captured on their way back [fig. 17] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Here the figure wielding the staff is designated Monkey, with Pigsy standing behind him. Again, this makes more sense than Zhu Bajie attacking (as portrayed in figure 14).

Number Thirteen: Passing on the dharma

image 13 (small)

Fig. 18 – (larger version)

On the right side, Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse carrying the scriptures are depicted. Here Xuanzang is shown handing over some of the Buddhist scriptures to the figure of a monk on the left. This appears to show Xuanzang’s travel party passing on Buddhism along the way on their return journey [fig. 18] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Compare the shape of the Buddhist scriptures held by the monks with that in figure 15.

The panel draws on preexisting iconography regarding the sutras. The collection of holy writings are sometimes portrayed as a bundle of scrolls emitting an aura of holy light. See, for example, the 12th-century mural from Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu province, China (fig. 19).

Yulin Cave and Korean pagoda examples of sutras - small

 Fig. 19 – Detail of sutras from a 12th-century Yunlin cave mural (left) and the sutras from panel thirteen (right) (larger version). Both are shown stacked atop a horse. 

Number Fourteen: The emperor waits

image 14 (small)

Fig. 20 – (larger version)

In the middle of the right side, the figure of a king seated on a throne is depicted. On both sides of him figures of scholar-officials attend to him or sit. On the left, figures of officials are shown attending to duties or sitting. It seems this is depicting the scene of China’s emperor waiting for Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 20] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Could the figures at the table actually be our heroes, with Xuanzang kneeling before a foreign king?

Number Fifteen: An ascetic or Monkey

image 15 (small)

Fig. 21 – (larger version)

On the left side, a figure of an ascetic is depicted sitting under a tree (Bodhi tree) meditating, and Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse are depicted. Here Xuanzang is assuming a posture, holding the monk’s staff and lifting his right hand trying to assert something. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting an ascetic and passing on Buddhism on their journey home [fig. 21] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Look closely and you will notice that Sun Wukong does not appear in the scene. Could the “ascetic” be Monkey kneeling before Xuanzang. If so, could this be a reference to the immortal and his master mending their relationship in chapter 58 after the trickery of the Six-Eared Macaque forced them apart?

Number Sixteen: Imperial court

image 1 (small)

Fig. 22 – (larger version)

On the right, a building is depicted and inside it a figure of a king sitting on a throne, and in front of him, a figure of a kneeling monk (Xuanzang) are portrayed. Outside the building, the figure of a young monk that seems to be Xuanzang’s attendant is depicted. Behind him, figures that seem to be civil and military officials are depicted. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang meeting some king along his way [fig. 22](Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Could the “attendant” be Monkey?

Number Seventeen: Attacking a pagoda

image 2 (small)

Fig. 23 – (larger version)

On the left, a pagoda is depicted and in front of it, Zhu Bajie is carrying a club, assuming a posture trying to bring the pagoda down. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is lifting his right hand and insisting something, as if trying to stop him. This seems to show the soothing of Zhu Bajie’s aggressive, insulting actions towards Buddhism [fig. 23] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Like figure 14, it would make more sense if Monkey is the one wielding the staff. Could this be a reference to chapter 62 when Sun captures two fish spirits found on a pagoda’s topmost floor?

Number Eighteen: Nearing home

image 3 (small)

Fig. 24 – (larger version)

In the upper left part, the sun symbolizing light is depicted. Headed in that direction Monk Xuanzang is taking the lead and behind him Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are shown hurrying their steps while leading the horse. Here Monk Xuanzang seems to be urging Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, rushing their journey home [fig. 24] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

This includes Pigsy’s aforementioned motif. It is a better match for the ceramic pillow and incense burner examples from figure 19.

Number Nineteen: A deity appears

image 4 (small)

Fig. 25 – (larger version)

On the right, a figure of a celestial being is depicted and Xuanzang’s travel party is facing it symmetrically. This seems to show the fact that Xuanzang’s travel party received the blessing of celestial guardian deities [fig. 25] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).

I’m confused as to why the two characters on the far right are stacked one on the other. Per the original ink rubbing, could “they” actually be a singular figure, possibly someone of great importance given their size? Could the “deity” actually be Xuanzang being elevated in spiritual rank like in chapter 100?

Number Twenty: Teaching the dharma

image 5 (small)

Fig. 26 – (larger version)

On the left, something that seems to be a Buddhist altar is depicted. In front of it, Xuanzang is placed in the middle shown holding the monk’s staff, and Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are each shown performing different actions. Xuanzang is lifting his right hand, posed arguing something and you could say he is trying to educate his attendants, Monkey etc., in Buddhism [fig. 26] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).

While the line drawing looks more like a figure at a desk, it very well could be an altar with a Buddha statue. Could this depict the lives of our heroes after entering paradise?

IV. Other Pagodas

This is not the first time characters from the story cycle have appeared on a pagoda. Even older examples appear on the 13th-century tower of the Kaiyuan Temple from Quanzhou, Fujian province, China. In this previous article I described how the pagoda is covered with eighty life-sized carvings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, guardian deities, Buddhist saints, and eminent monks. Of note is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior that many consider to be an early example of Sun Wukong. Another is an armored, spear-wielding warrior believed to be the dragon prince who becomes the white dragon horse. Both occupy the same face of the eight-sided structure (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 47-48 and 49-51).

V. Conclusion

Zhu Bajie’s oldest known depictions come from a time coinciding with the late Yuan Dynasty, examples including a ceramic pillow and a fragmented incense burner from China and carvings on a pagoda from Korea. Built in 1348 by Goryeo representatives with ties to the Yuan court, the ten-story Gyeongcheonsa pagoda includes twenty Journey to the West-related scenes around the second level of the structure’s multifaceted three-tiered base. Many of the scenes are vague or focus more on kings and nobles in place of Tripitaka’s tribulations or instances of supernatural battles. One has to consider the story cycle was still solidifying at this point, so it’s possible some of the scenes depict episodes that did not make it into the final Ming version of the novel. But given the amount of royalty, is it possible the donors/planners were trying to ingratiate themselves with people of higher social rank? Or were they just trying to illustrate the great many countries visited by the pilgrims (each one ruled by a king) within the limited space provided?

The panels involving Pigsy for the most part use a consistent iconography borrowed from China. The aforementioned Yuan examples portray Pigsy leading the horse with one hand and with the other holding his signature rake, which rests on his shoulder, all while taking a large step forward. The pagoda panels, however, do not portray the rake, leaving our portly hero with his arm strangely floating in the air. Instead of a rake, some panels appear to show him wielding a staff. But the figure might actually be Sun Wukong, the elongated face just being an artifact from the original ink rubbings.

The fact that characters from the Journey to the West story cycle appear on Chinese and Korean pagodas alongside Buddhist deities proves just how intertwined the story is with the religion. The tale essentially symbolizes the quest for enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Therefore, such pictorial representations, especially the narrative-type scenes from Gyeongcheonsa, were probably meant to both entertain and spread the faith.


1) See Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 60-74 for more information. The tale itself is translated in appendix B of the same work. See pages 179-188.

2) I am indebted to Sini Henningsen, BA ( for translating the cited Korean material.


Brose, B. (2018). The pig and the prostitute: The cult of Zhu Bajie in modern Taiwan. Journal of Chinese Religions, 46 (2), pp. 167-196, DOI:

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

Ten-story Stone Pagoda from Gyeongcheonsa Temple. (n.d.). Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso 예그린 건축사사무소. (1993). Wŏn′gaksaji sipch′ŭng sŏkt′ap: silch′ŭk chosa pogosŏ 圓覺寺址十層石塔: 實測調查報告書. Seoul: Munhwajae Kwalliguk.

The Great Sage Purple Cloud Temple of Yilan, Taiwan: A Photo Essay

I recently visited another Great Sage temple, this time the Wujian Purple Cloud Temple (Wujian Ziyu si, 五間紫雲寺) of Yilan (宜蘭), Taiwan. The temple was bustling with people during the Chinese New Year celebrations, so I didn’t have time to ask many questions. This entry will serve more as a picture essay until I return to conduct proper research.

1. How to get there

(Note: Always consult google if you are directionally challenged like myself)

Address: No. 449, Section 3, Dafu Road, Zhuangwei Township, Yilan County, Taiwan, 263

I took bus #1571 (google calls it #1571A) from gate 15 of the Taiwan City Hall Bus Station. This heads towards the Yilan Bus Station. (If you plan to take this route, please note that buses headed to different areas of Yilan will board from this gate. So pay very close attention to the calls of the bus station attendant. For example, they called “Jiaoxi” (礁溪) (bus #1572), a small township in Yilan, and those waiting for another destination had to stand off to the side while those from different sections of the line made their way to the front. If you aren’t careful, you might end up on the wrong bus.) My destination was the first stop, the Zhuangwei (壯圍) bus stop, a small shelter by an overpass. My short walk to the temple took me passed rows of flooded rice fields and small patches of buildings.

(Click images for larger versions)


Gate 15 at the Taiwan City Hall Bus Station.


The Zhuangwei bus stop shelter (as seen from the opposite outgoing bus stop).

1a - Map to Purple Cloud Temple

The route map from the Zhuangwei bus stop to the temple.



Random rice fields along Gonglao Road (see map).


A panorama of a rice field next to Lane 423, Sect. 3, Dafu Road (see map). 

2. The Outside

The temple is located on the side of a busy road. It appears almost out of nowhere since the face of the holy structure is in line with the buildings on either side. The first thing that caught my eye was the highly ornate roof of the furnace covered in mythical creatures, divine heroes, and gods, features typical of South Chinese and Taiwanese temple architecture. Each face of the hexagonal body was covered with beautiful carvings on black marble, two of which included the pilgrims from Journey to the West.


The furnace visible on the left side of the temple (as seen from the road).





A marble carving of Guanyin, the White Dragon Horse, Monkey, and Tripitaka.


A detail of Monkey.


Monkey, Sha Wujing, Tripitaka on the White Dragon Horse, and Zhu Bajie.


A detail of the group.

The front of the temple houses an ornate statue of three brightly colored dragons enclosed in a fence. Looking up, I noticed beautiful hand-painted dragons and Qilin on the ceiling, along with paintings of events from Chinese mythology and Journey to the West on the cross beams. Walking towards one of the five entrances, I noticed the facade was covered in highly detailed stone carvings, some depicting events from the novel.


The front of the Purple Cloud Temple.



The front of the temple. Three of the five entrances are visible behind the dragons.


A detail of the three dragon statues.


Five hand-painted dragons on the ceiling. The Eight Immortals grace the crossbeam below. 


A pair of Qilin on the ceiling. The cross beam below portrays an event from Prince Nezha‘s life.


Zhu Bajie protecting his master from the ogre that will become Sha Wujing.


Monkey escaping from Laozi’s furnace.

24 - BW

A stone carving on the facade showing Monkey (top right), Zhu bajie (top center right), and Sha Wujing (center left) battling a monster (top left). The image has been enhanced for clarity.

25 - BW

Monkey (center) battling the heavenly army. Enhanced for clarity. 

26 - BW

Monkey (center) leaping from Laozi’s furnace. Enhanced for clarity. Apologies for the blur. 

28 - BW

A detail of Monkey leaping.

29 - BW

The Great Sage (top center) and his monkey army battling heaven. Enhanced for clarity. These are just a few of the many carvings covering the temple facade. 

3. The Inside

The interior hall is wide yet shallow in depth and split between three altars, Folk religion to the right, the Great Sage in the Center, and Daoist to the left. I must admit in my zeal to photograph anything Monkey-related, I completely forgot to take pictures of the other two sections. This online image shows the folk section includes Mazu, Budai, and other deities. This image shows the Daoist section includes the Jade emperor, the Earth god, and others. Surprisingly, the incense burner in front of the main entrance was not marked with the name of the Great Sage (unlike what I’ve seen at other such temples) but that of the Jade Emperor, 玉皇上帝 (Yuhuang shangdi).


The main hall.


The incense burner bearing the name of the Jade Emperor (visible from the hall looking out the main door).

Upon entering the right side of the main hall, the first thing that caught my eye was a large wooden sculpture of a tree-bound monkey holding onto a branch with one hand and a pair of peaches in the other. Immediately behind him was a stone carving of a vague monkey with two children. (I’m not sure of the ritual importance of either statue. I’ll report on this later. However, I will say the stone statue recalls Sun Wukong’s origins as a stone monkey.) Next to both statues is one of two cylindrical towers, one positioned on each end of the hall. Each is topped by a Great Sage statue and the towers themselves are comprised of hundreds of small compartments, each filled with a small Great Sage figure. These represent a donor who has given money to the temple.


The wooden monkey statue.


A detail of the monkey holding peaches.


The stone monkey with children.


The tower of donor Great Sages.


The Great Sage topping each tower. He holds a fly whisk in one hand and a peach of immortality in the other.


The many compartments.


A mini Great Sage donor figure. He sits on a throne with his staff held over head in one hand and a calabash gourd held to his front in the other. 

3.1. The Great Sage Altar

The central offering table to the Great Sage was covered in all sorts of fruits, candies, and flowers. Also included were an incense burner, offerings of tea, and a pair of crescent moon-shaped wooden blocks. These blocks are used in tandem with fortune sticks and oracles revealed on slips of paper, all of which are housed in a metal cylinder to the left of the table (see section three of this article on how these items are used).



The table laden with offerings. Take note of the young woman praying to the Great Sage. She told me that she was from Vietnam and that Monkey was not a common deity there.


The incense burner (back center), tea offerings (three cups visible in the center) and wooden blocks (front right).


The metal cylinder housing the fortune sticks (top), with the corresponding oracles located in each of the surrounding drawers.

Like in other parts of Taiwan and Singapore, this temple appears to recognize a plethora of Great Sages, from a holy trinity to an army of soldier monkeys. (I don’t yet know their individual names. I will report on this later.) All of the Great Sage figures are portrayed with golden armor, red-painted humanoid faces, golden fillets, and long, dark hair. The headband and long hair are no doubt influenced by depictions of Military Monks (Wuseng, 武僧) from Chinese opera (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328). Red face paint is also associated with such characters (Bonds, 2008, p. 211). While the red paint of the statues references the red faces of macaque monkeys, it definitely plays into the military monk personna. Portraying Monkey as such defines him as a divine warrior and a guardian deity.

Military Monk - Beijing Opera (Bonds, 2008)

A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (Bonds, 2008, p. 178).

I was pleasantly surprised to see statues of Zhu Bajie appear among the Great Sage’s army. It’s quite appropriate given this is the year of the pig according to the Chinese zodiac. Also included were statues of Ksitigarbha and Nezha.


The three main Great Sages visible in front of the ornate dragon statue. Note the long hair.


Statues of Zhu Bajie among Monkey’s soldiers.


More soldier monkeys. Take note of the Ksitigarbha (front right).


Nezha figures mixed in with the monkey soldiers (left).


This soldier monkey holds a calabash gourd at the ready. This may be a reference to the magic gourd that Monkey steals from Kings Gold and Silverhorn in chapter 34.


More Nezha figures among the soldiers (right).

I have more pictures of the interior but I’ll leave those for a later article. Lastly, I want to share one of the temple flags stationed opposite the main building.


Right: “(Yi)lan Wujian Purple Cloud Temple”; Left: “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”


Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.


Story Idea: The Ape Immortals – The Origin of Sun Wukong

The following story sketch was originally posted on my external blog on the Historum website. The site recently switched to a new server but the blogs have yet to be migrated. I’m posting it here for posterity. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

As a lover of Chinese mythology and a former primatology major, I’ve always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Sun Wukong. I originally wanted him to be the son of Monkey or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Sun and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of the character; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [1] a small, long-armed, arboreal ape native to Asia (fig. 1), I thought the character could be an ape immortal. It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons generally mate for life.


Fig. 1 – A gibbon soaring through the treetops. A larger version can be found here.

A rough sketch of the story is presented below. The tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes contain important information on the texts I used and why particular plot choices were made.

I. The Story

The Dao (道, the way) gives birth to the One (yiqi, 一氣, the first breath);
The One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang, 陰陽);
The Two gives birth to the Three (San qing, 三清, the Three Pure Ones);
The Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things.
The Ten Thousand Things carry the Yin and enfold the Yang;
Kneading gently, they create harmony. [2]

In the beginning of the universe, the Three Pure Ones, the manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. Among the first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female (fig. 2). They become the progenitors of all apes and monkeys, just like the phoenix and his mate, the next to be created, are the progenitors of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (氣), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. And Like modern apes, the pair shows a propensity for observation, watching the cyclical movement of the stars and planets and becoming aware of the ebb and flow of qi, studying the energy and cultivating its mysteries over endless eons.

Mated Gibbons

Fig. 2 – A pair of mated gibbons. A larger version can be found here.

Once their family grows to titanic proportions, the gibbons wield their arcane knowledge to create an island home, raising up Flower-Fruit Mountain (Huaguo shan, 花果山) from the ocean. There, they construct the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) from which they continue to plumb the depths of the Dao. [3] Their exploration takes them to the heights of the mountain where heaven meets earth, using the corresponding yin (earth/female) and yang (heaven/male) energy to fuel their reenactment of the creation of the cosmos through sexual union. By chance, these powerful, creative sexual energies are absorbed by a boulder atop the mountain. [4]

As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [5] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the ages. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, their song inadvertently topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the devi Nuwa (女媧) is forced to mend the heavens with five magic stones. [6] The primordial devas and spirits fear what might happen if the couple continues, so they plead with the gibbons to separate in order to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.

The immortal lovers reluctantly agree and isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [7] the male becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (東猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (Yuan jiazhang, 猿家長), while the female becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (Xi yuan xian, 西猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (Yuan nu jiazhang, 猿女家長). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subhuti. [8]

The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [9] The newly appointed August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost to time.

It is during the interim when the previously mentioned boulder, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, births a stone embryo that is eroded by the elements into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of his kin had forgotten long after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under Subhuti, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, Monkey Awakened to Vacuity) (fig. 3), and achieving great magical powers with which he later uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a full-fledged god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for 500 years, Sun redeems himself by escorting the monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) to India, and for this he is rewarded with Buddhahood, becoming the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛).


Fig. 3 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (larger version). A photomanipulation by the author.

After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the primordial gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses due to the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. [10] In addition, their individual songs have grown in power, now capable of destroying anything by separating the yin and yang forces therein (fig. 4).

Gibbon yawning

Fig. 4 – A gibbon yawning. Imagine powerful sound waves emanating from its mouth. A larger version can be found here.

The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the Enlightened One, the Tathagata sends their spiritual son, the Victorious Fighting Buddha, to ask them to pacify their rage instead of using trickery to halt the onslaught. [11] After a brief reunion, the pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to the Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine the great injustice done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.

After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (Da jie, 大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element. There are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm, where they can frolic with the Victorious Fighting Buddha. This way the gibbons will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [12]

II. Background notes

1) The Chinese viewed the gibbon (Yuan, 猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi. This resulted in long lives and occult powers (Geissmann, 2008).

2) This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德經), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and Wilson, 2012, p. 197. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals. See Stevens, 1997, pp. 68-70.

3) JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.

4) JTTW states the following about the boulder: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love atop of the mountain, thereby impregnating the boulder with powerful, creative energies. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (Wile, 1992, pp. 11-12 and 28-29). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.

5) Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It’s interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Lougheed, 2014).

6) The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.

7) I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey’s imprisonment and the pair’s exile, both of which are connected to mountains.

8) The Buddha’s tutelage under the gibbons happens in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subhuti because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of Sun Wukong’s spiritual parents are transmitted to him by their former student.

9) This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演義), or Investiture of the Gods. In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, 1997, p. 60).

10) The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha and the immortal Subhuti. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. The pair rebels like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. That’s why I present them as living embodiments of yin and yang. Wile (1992) states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (p. 29).

11) An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to make Monkey think that he has left his palm in the seventh chapter of JTTW.

12) Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). For more information on the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind, see my article here.


Geissmann, T. (2008). Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context. Gibbon Journal, 4, pp. 1-38. Received from

Laozi, & Wilson, W. S. (2012). Tao te ching: An all-new translation. Boston & London: Shambhala

Lougheed, K. (2012, August 23). Helium reveals gibbon’s soprano skill. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Wile, D. (1992). Art of the bedchamber: The Chinese sexual yoga classics including women’s solo meditation texts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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

The Monkey King’s Cosmic Body

Sun Wukong is known for his limitless shape-changing powers, capable of taking the form of anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. But his most powerful transformation, that of a cosmic giant, is displayed only three times in the novel. It is used mostly in defense against other powerful characters, namely the god Erlang and the Bull Demon King. In this paper I will introduce the ancient astral-geographical term used to describe this phenomenon, associate the transformation with a divine giant from Chinese mythology, and explore possible ties to Hindu mythology.

I. Episodes from the Novel

The first instance takes place in chapter three after Monkey returns from the Dragon King’s undersea palace with his new weapon. The form is used to show off his magical abilities for his children (fig. 1).

Grasping the treasure [iron staff] in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be [one hundred] thousand feet tall, [1] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). (emphasis mine)

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey performs the cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

The second takes place in chapter six during his battle with Erlang Shen. The form is used this time in response to the god’s own cosmic transformation.

The Immortal Master [Erlang] fought the Great Sage for more than three hundred rounds, but the result could still not be determined. The Immortal Master, therefore, summoned all of his magic powers; with a shake he made his body a hundred thousand feet tall. Holding with both hands the divine lance of three points and two blades like the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain, this green-faced, sabre-toothed figure with scarlet hair aimed a violent blow at the head of the Great Sage. But the Great Sage also exerted his magical power and changed himself into a figure having the features and height of Erlang. He wielded a compliant golden-hooped rod that resembled the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun to oppose the god Erlang (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 181).


Now we were telling you about the Immortal Master and the Great Sage, who had changed themselves into forms which imitated Heaven and Earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 182). (emphasis mine)

The third takes place in chapter sixty-one during Sun’s battle with the Bull Demon King (fig. 2). Again, the form is used in response to another powerful character’s transformation.

With a loud guffaw, the Bull King then revealed his original form of a gigantic white bull, with a head like a rugged mountain and eyes like bolts of lightning. The two horns were like two iron pagodas, and his teeth were like rows of sharp daggers. From head to toe, he measured more than ten thousand feet, while his height from hoof to neck was about eight [thousand]. [2]

“Wretched ape!” he roared at Pilgrim [Monkey]. “What will you do with me now?” Pilgrim also changed back to his true form; yanking out his golden-hooped rod, he bent his back and then straightened out, crying, “Grow!” At once he grew to a height of one hundred thousand feet, with a head like Mount Tai, eyes like the sun and moon, a mouth like a bloody pound, and teeth like doors (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157).


[After Zhu Bajie returns from exterminating all of the demons in the Bull King’s cave] “You have achieved great merit, Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim. “Congratulations! Old Monkey has waged in vain a contest of transformation with him [the Bull King], for I have not yet achieved victory. He finally changed into the biggest possible white bull, and I therefore assumed the appearance that imitated Heaven and Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 158). (emphasis mine)

monkey vs bull king (cosmic transformations) - 1833

Fig. 2 – Monkey vs the Bull King, both in their cosmic transformations (larger version). An 1833 woodblock print by Yashima Gakutei. Photo by Prof. Vincent Durand-Dastès of the ‏National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. With permission. 

II. Ties to Ancient Chinese Astral-Geography and Mythology

The exact word used each time to describe Sun’s modus for attaining his cosmic form is Fatian Xiangdi (法天像地), or the “method of modeling Heaven on Earth”. This is actually related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The ancient Chinese viewed the heavens as a complex system of seven star units set in four cardinal sections, making up the Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions, all of which enclosed and revolved around a central star ruled by one of two supreme gods, Shangdi or Taiyi. Known as the “Purple Palace Enclosure” (Ziweiyuan, 紫微垣), this bound star system was the heavenly abode from which the supreme god oversaw reality, while the surrounding stars represented his civil and military officials and even outlying areas, such as dwellings and a marketplace. The Chinese emperor, commonly called the Son of Heaven, was considered the earthly counterpart of the great god, serving as the mediator between the will of heaven and the needs of man. Therefore, architects often modeled imperial cities on these celestial patterns, placing the emperor at the center surrounded by outer layers of courts, residential quarters, markets, and streets (Chan, 2008, pp. 8-19).

The arcane-sounding Fatian Xiangdi term was no doubt chosen simply because Monkey’s magic body mirrors the vastness of the cosmos (both heaven and earth), not that it borrowed particular celestial patterns like earthly architects. Interestingly, though, legend states the ancient Yuan capital of Dadu was modeled on the magic body of the child god Prince Nezha, who also appears in Journey to the West. [3]

The novel likens aspects of Sun’s cosmic form to earthly features and celestial bodies. This resembles stories of the ancient god Pangu (盤古) (fig. 3), the first being born into primordial chaos who slaved to separate heaven from earth, cleaving one from the other and forcing them apart. Stevens (1997) writes this monumental task took its toll on the titan:

He died as the task was reaching a climax and his body became features of the Earth. His head became the mountains, his breath the wind and clouds; his voice became thunder, his left eye the sun and his right eye the moon, and his four limbs became the four quarters of the Earth. His blood ran as rivers, his veins and muscles were the strata of the rocks, and his flesh the soil. His skin sprouted and became vegetable patches, forests and paddy fields, while his bones and teeth became the minerals. His sweat became the rain and to complete creation humanity sprang from the parasites on his body (p. 54).

Monkey in a way becomes a living embodiment of the divine giant because he too is described as having a head like a mountain, eyes like the sun and moon, and a mouth like a large body of liquid, which also happens to be blood.

pangu cleaves heaven and earth - 2

Fig. 3 – A modern (metal?) relief simultaneously symbolizing Pangu’s separation of heaven and earth and the decay of his body into earthly features and celestial bodies (larger version). Take note of the eye-like sun. Found on this news article about the god.

Giant characters were obviously not a new concept to Chinese literature by the Ming. An earlier example comes to us from Master of the Law, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Chapter six sees Monkey transform his golden-ringed monk’s staff “into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189) (fig. 4). This line simultaneously predicts Sun’s goliath form and blunt weapon (that touches heaven and earth like the head and feet of the yaksha) and Erlang’s monstrous appearance (i.e. his green skin and red hair).

yaksha guardian, bangkok, thailand

Fig. 4 – A guardian yaksha statue, Bangkok, Thailand (larger version). Take note of the large stature, blue skin, and club. Found on this article.

III. Possible ties to Hindu Mythology

Yakşas or Yakshas (Ch: Yecha, 夜叉) appear in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures as the assistants or protectors of divine beings. They are possessed of great magical powers and can do anything from flying to shape-changing (Dalal, 2014, p. 470; Robert & David, 2013, p. 1018). These nature spirits are often depicted in early religious art as portly dwarves (fig. 5), an element of iconography that they share with Vamana, the fifth avatar of the supreme deva Vishnu. This connection is important because the avatar is celebrated for his ability to eclipse the universe. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu takes the form of the dwarf Brahmin when a benevolent asura named Mahabali wrestles control of the cosmos from the gods. Vamana visits the king during a great sacrifice, during which the asura grants gifts, and humbly requests only as much land as he can cover in three strides. But when his wish is granted, the deceptively small priest grows to cosmic proportions, “mightily waxing, swelling in every limb, with his first stride stepp[ing] beyond the sun and moon, with his second reach[ing] the limits of the universe, and with his third return[ing] to set his foot on the heard of the conquered foe” (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132). With his feat (pun intended), Vishnu regains control of heaven (step one) and earth (step two), while simultaneously banishing the asura to the underworld (step three) (Dalal, 2014, p. 442).

yakshas - sanchi stupa, western gateway, 1st c.

Fig. 5 – A detail of chubby Yakshas from the western gateway of Stupa 1 at Sanchi (1st-cent.) (larger version). Found on this article.

The noted art historian Heinrich Zimmer comments sculptures based on this story fall under a category of representationally kinetic art that he calls the “Phenomenon of Expanding Form”. One cited example is the Trivikrama Vishnu (lit: “three steps” Vishnu), a 6th-century Badami cave no. 2 relief (fig. 6) which presents a continuous narrative of the dwarf (fig. 7) growing to become the cosmic giant, the latter’s leg kicking high above his waist (fig. 8), symbolizing his mighty universe-spanning strides. Though the piece is carved in stone, the dynamic nature of the composition gives it a feeling of swelling energy (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132).

The carving portrays the cosmic giant holding all manner of weapons, including a club, a sword, a bow, and a chakram, all of which are attributes of Vishnu (Dalal, 2014, p. 460).

badami vamana carving (total for blog)

Fig. 6 – The Trivikrama Vishnu relief carving of Vamana’s story, Badami cave no. 2 (6th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of the dwarf Brahmin holding a parasol (larger version). Fig. 8 – A detail of the cosmic giant holding celestial weapons and taking a supernaturally large stride (larger version). Adapted from this wikipedia image.

The close association of the Yaksha and Vamana with a short, chubby body and shape-changing powers no doubt influenced the former to take on the latter’s ability to grow to huge proportions. In addition, after being absorbed into Buddhism, Yakshas are portrayed in scripture as divine warriors wielding clubs in defense of the dharma. Two prominent examples are Kubera (a.k.a. Vaisravana) and Vajrapani, both of whom are touted as the yaksha commander (Lutgendorf, 2007, p. 42; Robert & David, 2013, pp. 449 and 955). This surely influenced the later Chinese image of yakshas as club-wielding titans, such as the cited example from Master of the Law. In turn, this and related material could have easily influenced the cosmic transformations of Monkey and other characters and their weapons from Journey to the West.

IV. Conclusion

The novel describes Monkey taking on a giant cosmic form in chapters three, six, and sixty-one, the first time showing off his magic powers to his children and the second and third in response to the respective titanic transformations of Erlang and the Bull King. The magical spell used to achieve this form, titled Fatian Xiangdi (the “Method of modeling Heaven on Earth”), is based on ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The idea of Sun’s body parts mirroring aspects of heaven and earth recalls the myth of the primordial god Pangu, whose body parts became the very building blocks of the cosmos after his death.

The cited episodes demonstrate that the characters involved transform both their bodies and weapons. Apart from being described as a 100,000-foot-tall juggernaut with a head like Mt. Tai, Monkey’s staff is said to inhabit the upper and lowermost reaches of the universe (“its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell”) or that it resembles “the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun”. Likewise, Erlang’s three-pointed polearm is said to resemble “the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain”. Such transformations are predicted, for example, by an episode in the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West in which Sun changes a monk’s staff into a gigantic Yaksha wielding a club.

While Yakshas are portrayed in early South Asian religious art as chubby dwarves, they most likely gained the ability to grow to enormous sizes thanks to iconographic similarities to Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu famed for traversing the cosmos in three mighty steps. One 6th-century stone carving of the story portrays the dwarf-turned-cosmic giant wielding all sorts of celestial weapons. Additionally, Buddhist scriptures would come to portray yakshas as club-wielding warriors. Therefore, we can see how Monkey’s cosmic transformation could have ultimately been influenced by Hindu and Buddhist religious material.


1) Here, Anthony C. Yu’s English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating ten Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu translates it in chapters six and sixty-one (see above).

2) Yu’s translation reads “eight hundred”. But, again, the original source is different. It reads “八百丈” (ba bai zhang), or 800 x 10 Chinese feet = 8,000. This makes more sense as he is said to be 10,000 feet long.

3) While the city is square, it has eleven gates, which legend states correspond to the three heads, six arms, and two legs of the god. For more information, see Chan, 2008.


Chan, H. (2008). Legends of the building of old Peking. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dalal, R. (2014). Hinduism: An alphabetical guide. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s tale: The messages of a divine monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1992). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)

Archive #7 – The Pig and the Prostitute: The Cult of Zhu Bajie in Modern Taiwan

I’ve previously written about Zhu Bajie‘s worship in Taiwan as the god of prostitutes and the hospitality industry. Now, a new paper has been published by Prof. Ben Brose (University of Michigan) that takes a more in-depth look at the phenomenon.


Before the publication of the famous Chinese novel The Journey to the West, the central characters of the narrative—the Tang Monk, the monkey Sun Wukong, the pig Zhu Bajie, and the monk Sha—were venerated as deities. These same figures continue to be invoked today in a range of rituals throughout the Chinese world. This article focuses on the cult of Zhu Bajie in modern Taiwan. As a “licentious” spirit known for his voracious appetite and irrepressible libido, Zhu Bajie has attracted devotees from among Taiwan’s “special professions,” namely masseuses, hostesses, and sex workers [fig. 1]. Unable to turn to conventional, ethically demanding deities for assistance, purveyors of illicit goods and services make offerings to spirits like Zhu Bajie who they hope will be more sympathetic to their needs. In this way, Zhu Bajie, a figure familiar from children’s books, cartoons, and blockbuster movies, has also become a patron saint of prostitutes.

Paper link

zhu bajie prostitute - 2

Fig. – An altar statue (shenxiang, 神像) of Zhu Bajie holding a nude woman (larger version).


Prof. Brose was kind enough to give me permission to post the article. However, in the event that the hosting journal requests I pull the article, I will do so when asked. This has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


Brose, B. (2018). The pig and the prostitute: The cult of Zhu Bajie in modern Taiwan. Journal of Chinese Religions, 46 (2), pp. 167-196, DOI: