The Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

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

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

The Handsome Monkey King (Mei houwang, 美猴王) rules the island for nearly four hundred years before the thought of his impending death begins to cause him great anxiety. One of his monkey advisers suggests that he seek out a Daoist immortal to teach him the secrets of eternal life; and so he sets sail on a makeshift raft, exploring new lands and adopting human dress along way. He searches the world for ten years before he is finally accepted as a student by the supreme immortal Subhuti (Xuputi, 须菩提) on the Western Aparagodāniya continent. He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to emptiness.” The immortal teaches him the 72 methods of heavenly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud jumping, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 miles with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; long and short range martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by Subhuti for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

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

Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, Sun falls asleep and his soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he was no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.

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

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

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

Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up the 100,000 strong heavenly army and the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods to deal with him. Monkey uses his magic to take on giant proportions spanning the sky; he grows three heads and six arms and multiplies his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical diamond bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.

Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his charred remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, and not only that, the intense flames refined his pupils the color of gold, giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles and to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, he demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain. Yet the Buddha explains that he had used his infinite powers to cloud Sun’s mind, tricking him into thinking he had left, when he actually stayed in his hand the entire time. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.

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

Chapters eight to one hundred tell how five hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (who is based on the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602–664)) from China to India on his mission to procure sutras from the Buddha in order to release untold souls from the torments of hell. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.

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

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

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

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

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