What Does Sun Wukong Look Like? A Resource for Artists and Cosplayers

Last updated: 08/31/2018

Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.

1. Ancient Depictions

Some may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century. [1] But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling, [2] records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains an 11th-century (Xixia dynasty) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.

East Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 - Small

Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version).

Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains an 11th to 12th-century wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).

Yulin pics - small

Fig. 2 – An almost complete version of the 11th to 12th-century Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 3 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).

Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 11th-century. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.

A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accoutrements), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small (with number)

Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河],
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.

I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is the Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his familiar weapon).

The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted as such could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.

2. What the novel says

2.1. Physical appearance

The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subhuti, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].” [3] The macaques are a genus of Old World monkeys endemic to Asia. Later, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).

In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta)]” (fig. 6) (p. 148).

Fig-2-Illustration-of-the-individual-variation-in-skin-color-characteristics-males-can - with number

Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (top) and other times (bottom) (larger version).

In chapter 20, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)

In chapter 27, the reader learns Monkey’s head was shaved (fig. 7) after becoming a monk: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)

bald monkey - small

Fig. 7 – A baby baboon with a bald head. Look at those ears! It’s the wrong species but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).

His bald head is referred to again in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).

In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:

A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing;
A round head and a hairy face jowl-less;
Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly;
He looks more strange than [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).

In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).

In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:

A hairy face, a thunder god beak,
An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s;
Two forked ears on a big, broad head,
And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:

“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmy with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

In chapter 77, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:

You! look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).

We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken/flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author/compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g., having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”), just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).

Monkey features - small with numbers

Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth (larger version). Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey (larger version).

2.2 Clothing and accessories

The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 900 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.

The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:

“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).

I’ve previously suggested this armor was directly influenced by that worn in Chinese opera, an artistic medium that presented popular events from the Journey to the West story cycle long before the novel was published. The use of such garb highlights Monkey’s status as a cultural hero. People wanting to replicate his armor should take cues from the operatic examples (fig 10). Otherwise, they could try replicating Ming-period chainmail (fig. 11) for more authenticity, but it’s not nearly as flashy.

Monkey armor - small with numbers

Fig. 10 – Monkey as portrayed in Beijing Opera (larger version). This armor is shown with the Mountain Pattern. Fig. 11 – Ming Chainmail from the Wubei zhi (1621) (larger version).

Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the rest of the story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic chainmail. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:

Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186) (emphasis mine)

Most importantly, after being released from his 500-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).

The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and the longest worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 12). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:

[Slit] the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece … He cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

Monkey kicking - small with number

Fig. 12 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.

Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 11th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 13). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards (fig. 14). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.

cave heads with bands - smaller

Fig. 13 – Detail of Sun Wukong’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.). Picture enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 14 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (c. 1237) (larger version).

As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:

His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.

There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional storyline. Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.

2.3. The staff

Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:

Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [hei tie, 黑鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,550 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu and Yu 2012: 135). [4]

A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:

The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself. [5]
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍]
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒],
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)

So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.

Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 15 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.

sun_wukong_staff_inscription___enlarged_by_ghostexorcist-d7681eb - small

Fig. 15 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).

As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.

3. Modern depictions

The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in modern media. These are presented in no particular order.

3.1. The least accurate

1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops. The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.


(larger version)

2) Warriors Orochi video game – Words fail me… (also mutton chops)


(larger version)

3) The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) – Jet Li has a blond ponytail, mutton chops, and a soul patch. Need I say more?


(larger version)

3.2. The most accurate

1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description.

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(larger version)

2) Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) – This dark comedy depicts the Great Sage as a short, ugly primate wearing golden armor.

Conquer monkey - small

(larger version)

3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft.

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(larger version)

4. Conclusion

The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.

I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.

Update: 08/31/2018

Artist Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information. As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.

wukong accurate v2 - small

(larger version)


1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.

2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.

3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

4) Anthony Yu’s original translation says “13,500 pounds”. However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs.

5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).

Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: basis for a conservation policy? In Fuentes, A., & Wolfe, L. D. (Eds.), Primates face to face: Conservation implications of human-nonhuman primate interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The twin pagodas of Zayton: A study of the later Buddhist sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Elvin, M. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

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.


Tripitaka and the Golden Cicada

Last updated: 12-08-2018

Journey to the West depicts the monk Tripitaka as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. The monk’s background is first hinted at in chapter 8 when, after receiving instructions to find a scripture pilgrim, the Bodhisattva Guanyin exclaims, “Lo, this one journey will result in a Buddha son returning to keep his primal vow. The Gold Cicada Elder will clasp the candana” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. I, p. 207). Chapter 12 contains a poem introducing Tripitaka as the chosen scripture pilgrim and reveals his heavenly origin. The first part reads:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).

Details about the extent of the former celestial’s punishment is revealed throughout the book. For instance, in chapter 33 a demon explains the source of Tripitaka’s heavenly aura: “That Tang Monk is actually the incarnation of the Elder Gold Cicada, a virtuous man who has practiced austerities for ten existences” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105). Furthermore, in chapter 100 the Buddha remarks that his former disciple was “banished to find another incarnation in the Land of the East” and that “by remaining faithful to [Buddhism], succeeded in acquiring the True Scriptures” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 381). So we learn the Golden Cicada was banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time came for him to gain merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise.

Anthony C. Yu (2008) vaguely alludes to chapter 99 explaining the source of the name Golden Cicada (p. 110). I can’t find such an overt explanation, but the chapter does mention the monk miraculously surviving drowning after being dumped into a heavenly river, along with his disciples and the hardwon scriptures, by a disgruntled turtle spirit. [1] Guayun exclaims: “Ah! It was fortunate that the Tang Monk had cast off his mortal frame and attained the way. If he were like the person he had been before, he would have sunk straight to the bottom” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 363). The “cast[ing] off of his body” (tuotai, 脫胎) is reminiscent of the way in which the real life insect sloughs off its shell (fig. 1). If this is what Yu was referring to, I think this is but one part of the puzzle.

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Fig. 1 – A newly formed cicada clinging to its shell (larger version).

I suggest the author/compiler of Journey to the West chose the imagery of the cicada for the symbolic nature of its life cycle. Hugo Munsterberg (1972) describes the insect’s role in ancient Chinese religion: “Cicadas carved in jade are frequently found in graves of the Han period [fig. 2]. Since the cicada hatches above ground, spends a long period underground, and finally emerges as if in rebirth, these burial tokens were probably intended to induce resurrection by sympathetic magic” (32). The Golden Cicada’s life follows this cycle very closely. The celestial being resides above in the Western Paradise, is banished below for an extended period of time, and is only allowed back into the celestial realms after a metamorphosis.

cicada - small

Fig. 2 – A stylized Han-era jade cicada (larger version). Photo by the Asian Art Museum.

The lifesaving transformation previously referred to by Guanyin takes place in chapter 98 when Tripitaka and his disciples are ferried across a heavenly river in a bottomless boat on their way to the Western Paradise:

All at once they saw a corpse floating [fig. 3] … upstream, the sight of which filled the elder [Tripitaka] with terror.

“Don’t be afraid, Master,” said Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], laughing. “It’s actually you!”

“It’s you! It’s you!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] also.

Clapping his hands, Sha Monk also said, “It’s you! It’s you!”

Adding his voice to the chorus, the boatman also said, “That’s you! Congratulations! Congratulations!” Then the three disciples repeated this chanting in unison as the boat was punted across the water. In no time at all, they crossed the Divine Cloud-Transcending Ferry [Lingyun du, 凌雲渡] all safe and sound. Only then did Tripitaka turn and skip lightly onto the shore. We have here a testimonial poem, which says:

Delivered from their mortal flesh and bone,
A primal spirit of mutual love has grown.
Their work done, they become Buddhas this day,
Free of their former six-six senses sway (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 345-346). [2]

Here, we see Tripitaka has shed his mortal form to become a buddha just like the cicada sheds its shell to grow wings and fly. The monk has freed himself from the endless cycle of birth and death to achieve nirvana.

Tripitaka shedding his body, from Mr. Li Zhuwu's Criticism of Journey to the West (16th-c.) - small

Fig. 3 – A woodblock print detail showing the shedding of Tripitaka’s mortal body (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (16th-c.).

It’s interesting to note that the early Ming zaju play Journey to the West (c. 15th-century) depicts Tripitaka as the reincarnation of an arhat named Pulujia (毗廬伽尊者). Dudbridge (1970) translates this as Vairocana (p. 193), which is the name of a major Buddha. This shows Tripitaka was associated with heavenly personages even before the final 1592 novel was published. Therefore, the author/compiler of the novel no doubt fashioned the tribulations of the Golden Cicada around preexisting folklore.

Update: 05-27-2018

The 36 Stratagems (Sanshiliu ji, 三十六計, c. 5th-6th-cent.), a collection of military, political, and civil tactics, contains a plan known as “The Golden Cicada Sheds its Shell” (Jinchan tuoke, 金蟬脫殼), which entails leaving a decoy that distracts the enemy while the losing force is retreating. I’m not sure if this directly influenced the celestial’s title, but it at least shows the name was known long before the novel was published.

Update: 12-08-2018

I would like to suggest the name Golden Cicada Elder (Jīn chán zi, 蟬子) might have been chosen to serve as a pun for “child or student of Chan” (chánzǐ, 禪子) (fig. 4). While the historical Xuanzang was the patriarch of the Yogacara school of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016), the novel closely associates him with Chan:

The depiction of the novelistic Xuanzang surely and constantly associates him and his entourage with Chan. Revealing examples can readily be found in both narrative content and such titular couplets as “Tripitaka does not forget his origin; / The Four Sages test the Chan Mind” (chapter 24); “The Child’s tricky transformations confuse the Chan Mind; / Ape, Horse, Spatula, and Wood Mother-all are lost” (chapter 40); “The Chan Lord, taking food, has demonic conception; / Yellow Dame brings water to dissolve perverse pregnancy” (chapter 53); “Rescuing Tuoluo, Chan Nature is secure; / Escaping defilement, the Mind of Dao is pure” (chapter 67); “Mind Monkey envies Wood Mother; / The demon lord plots to devour Chan” (chapter 85); and “Chan, reaching Jade-Flower, convenes an assembly; / Mind Monkey, Wood, and Earth take in disciples” (chapter 88) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 64-65).

If true, this would mean the cicada-like spiritual transformation was based around a pun.

Chanzi - Cicada Zen Tripitaka Connection

Fig. 4 – The similarities in form and pronunciation of chanzi (larger version). 

This seems like such an obvious connection that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else beat me to the conclusion by decades or even centuries.


1) The turtle had previously helped the pilgrims cross the same river in chapter 34, and in return they agreed to ask the Buddha when the terrapin would be allowed to achieve human form (for all creatures strive for such an attainment). But Tripitaka forgot to ask the Enlightenment One while visiting the Western paradise, so the turtle dumped them into the river upon their return.

2) The six-six senses (liuliu chen, 六六塵) are “the intensified form of the six gunas, the six impure qualities engendered by the objects and organs of sense: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and idea” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 405 n. 7)


Munsterberg, H. (1972). The arts of China. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co.

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

Yu, A. C. (2008). Comparative journeys: Essays on literature and religion East and West. NY: Columbia University Press.

The Sun Wukong Cult in Fujian

Worshipers of the Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan believe their high god and oldest altar statue, the Laying the Foundation Great Great Sage (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 1), was transported to the island from the southern Chinese province of Fujian by a certain Lady Ruan (Ruan Furen, 阮夫人) during the Southern Ming/early Qing Dynasty (c. 1660). Fujian is home to a large number of temples dedicated to Sun Wukong. Monkey’s cult on the mainland may have some bearing on the history of his worship on the island. This is especially true since Taiwan was made a prefecture of Fujian in 1684 by the Qing. It was later granted provincehood in 1887 (Gordon, 2007). The cult was no doubt part of the cultural exchange that took place between these two areas during this time. In this paper I use modern demographics and historical records and stories to explore the history of Sun Wukong’s worship in Fujian. I suggest the existence of a historical 12th-century monkey cult explains why the Great Sage’s cult was so readily adopted in the province.

Important Great Sages 1 - small

Fig. 1 – The Wanfu Temple’s Laying the Foundation Great Great Sage altar statue, indicated by the letter A (larger version). B and C are lesser Great Sages within the temple’s pantheon.

I. Modern demographics and possible tie to historical trends

The Putian plains of the central Fujian coast hosts a cluster of Great Sage temples. Dean and Zheng (2009) describe an interesting geographical correlation in their distribution:

Using GIS mapping, one can unearth many suggestive correlations in distributions of different cultural features across the plain. For example, certain gods such as Qitian dasheng 齊天大聖 (Sun Wukong 孫悟空) and Puji shenghou 普濟聖侯 (Zhu Bajie 豬八戒), the Monkey and the Pig of the classic Xiyouji 西游記 (Journey to the West), appear more often in poorer villages in the northern plain [fig. 2], often in higher elevations than in the low-lying, densely irrigated, wealthier villages of the southern plains. This suggests that the unruly natures of these gods appealed to poorer communities rather than to villages with established scholar-literati lineages (pp. 38-39)

Fujian Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie Temple overlay Map - small

Fig. 2 – Left: Distribution of Sun Wukong temples (red) in the Putian plains of Fujian Province, China (larger version); Right: An overlay of Zhu Bajie Temples (light blue) with those of Monkey (red) (larger version). There is quite a bit of overlap. Adapted from Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 192-193.

Sun Wukong is one of several gods who never enjoyed state patronage in dynastic China due to their eccentric or rebellious nature (Shahar, 1996, p. 185). Regarding the latter, emperors had to deal with real world challenges to their own primacy, so paying homage to, say, a dissident monkey spirit probably didn’t seem too appealing. It’s interesting to note that Monkey is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan under his defiant title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, a name he chose during his rebellion with the celestial realm, instead of his Buddhist name Wukong (悟空, Awakened to Emptiness) (Shahar, 1996, p. 201). Therefore, Monkey may have historically appealed to poorer folks because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored rich literati over impoverished farmers. This could explain the demographics mentioned above. If true, such people could be responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

II. The connection between religion, myth, and popular literature

Emperors who officially recognized gods helped make them more popular or at least better known. [1] But, as Shahar (1996) explains, the state’s involvement rarely went beyond building temples and making offerings. Oral tales and popular novels were largely responsible for spreading the myth of a particular deity (p. 185). He continues:

In some cases the novel’s transformation of its divine protagonist was so profound, and its impact on the shape of its cult so great, that the novelist could be considered the deity’s creator. A notable example is Sun Wukong. The cult of this divine monkey in late imperial times cannot be separated from his image as shaped by the successive Journey to the West novels. In this respect he is indeed their author’s creation, and Pu Songling‘s complaint, voiced through his protagonist Xu Sheng [許盛], is justified: “Sun Wukong is nothing but a parable invented by [the novelist] Old Qiu [老丘]. [2] How can people sincerely believe in him?” (pp. 193-194).

The tale referred to by Shahar, titled the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi, 聊齋誌異), a collection of popular tales recorded as early as 1679 by Pu Songling and later posthumously published in 1740 (Barr, 1984). The story follows the aforementioned Xu Sheng and his older brother, both merchants from Shandong, who travel to Fujian to sell their wares but are told to pray to the Great Sage when they fail to make any money.  They visit the monkey god temple and witness people burning incense and kowtowing to an image of Sun Wukong. The older brother takes part in the rituals, but Sheng simply laughs and leaves, resulting in a subsequent argument between the two during which Sheng ridicules adherents for worshiping a fictional character from a novel. Sheng later falls bedridden with agonizing leg sores that prevent him from walking, yet he refuses to accept the Great sage is punishing him. His brother begs him to repent, but he still refuses. The brother shortly thereafter falls ill and dies, prompting Sheng to go to the temple to beg for his brother’s life. That night, he dreams he is brought before Sun Wukong, who rebukes Sheng for his rude behavior and reveals the leg sores (the result of being stabbed by Monkey’s heavenly sword) and his brother’s subsequent death to be heaven-sent punishments. The deity finally agrees to revive the brother and sends an order to King Yama in hell to release his soul. Sheng shows his thanks by kneeling. He then awakes to find his brother has revived but remains too weak to work. Days later, Sheng meets an old man who claims he can use “a little magic” to transport them to a beautiful place that will sap away the merchant’s depression wrought by the past events. The two travel by cloud to a celestial paradise where Sheng and the old man drink tea with an aged deity. The god rewards Sheng with 12 magic stones for taking the time to visit him. Upon returning to earth, the merchant realizes the old man is the Great Sage, for both use the “Somersault Cloud” (Jindou yun, 筋斗雲) as a means of conveyance. In the end, the magic stones are found to have melted, but this corresponds to a drastic increase in the brother’s selling profits. The two return home but are sure to pay their respects to the Great Sage anytime they visit Fujian for business (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, pp. 2078-2085).

I’d like to point out the story includes an afterward that critiques the idea of Sun Wukong being a real god:

The collector of these strange tales remarks, “Once upon a time, a scholar who was passing a temple went in and painted a pipa on one wall, then left; when he checked on it later, its spiritual power was considered so outstanding that people had joined together there to burn incense to it. A god certainly doesn’t have to exist in order to be considered powerful in this world; if people believe it to be divine, it will be so for them. What’s the reason for this? When people who share the same beliefs gather together, they’ll choose some creature figure to represent those beliefs. It’s right that an outspoken man like Sheng should be blessed by the god; who else could believe for real that he’s protected by someone who keeps an embroidery needle inside his ear, who he can transform one of his hairs into a writing brush, or who ascends via cloud-somersault into the cerulean sky! In the end, Sheng’s mind must have deluded him, for what he saw simply couldn’t be true” (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2085)

This shows that, while the common folk believed in Monkey, the literati class scoffed at such an idea. This again may explain why, as mentioned above, more well-educated communities in modern Fujian do not widely worship Monkey.

III. Historical monkey cults in Fujian

Apart from Pu Songling’s story, there are two other 17th-century references to the worship of a monkey god in Fujian. Dudbridge (1970) explains:

According to You Dong [尤侗] (1618-1704) the citizens of Fuzhou worshiped Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] as a household god and built temples to the monkey-god Qitian Dasheng. Tong Shisi [佟世思] (1651-92) describes the monkey-headed god of Fujian as bearing a metal circlet about his forehead, brandishing an iron cudgel, wearing a tiger-skin and known as Sun Dasheng [孫大聖, Great Sage Sun]. Traditionally he had appeared in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates (p. 158). [3]

I find the last reference particularly interesting because it refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by Japanese pirates. It depicts the Great Sage as a benevolent god who intervenes to protect his chosen people, the Chinese.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 1237 stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian, that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). [4] Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a fillet, a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and a pair of bangles (Fig. 3). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet and the figure wearing it recall South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Walker, 1998, p. 70). I have suggested in a previous article that the accoutrements worn by the warrior are instead based on Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century.

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 3 – The 1237 stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

The oldest known evidence for a cult based around a monkey is described in Hong Mai’s (洪邁, 1123-1202) the Record of the Listener (Yijian zhi, 夷堅志, c. 1160), a collection of supernatural tales from the Song Dynasty. The following story is said to take place in the Yongfu County of Fujian. Again, we turn to Dudbridge (2005):

The image [effigy], dubbed Monkey King 猴王, was shaped around a captured living monkey and worshipped as a ‘spirit protecting hills and woods’ (保山林神). [5] It afflicted the surrounding population with fevers and frenzy. Blood sacrifice won no relief. Shamans and monks assaulted the spirit by night with noisy ritual music, but to no effect. Only the Buddhist elder Zongyan 宗演 successfully admonished the resentful monkey spirit and wrought its deliverance by reciting in Sanskrit the dhāraṇī of the All-Compassionate (大悲咒). The grateful monkey appeared to him the same night, explaining that she was now able to rise to heaven. Later the image and its thirty-two attendants (all made from birds) were smashed, and the hauntings came to an end (p. 264; see also Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159).

Dudbridge (1970) is reluctant, however, to accept this as a precursor to Sun Wukong’s cult, especially since both this 12th-century monkey spirit and the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou Xingzhe, 猴行者) from the Master of the Law, a 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West, bear little resemblance to the simian god mentioned in 17th-century records. He instead suggests the Great Sage’s cult could have grown up around stories connected to the publishing of the novel (p. 159). While Journey to the West certainly played a sizable role in the spread of Monkey’s cult, I think the above tale shows that the Fujian area was already primed for monkey worship by at least the 12th-century. Most importantly, the noted Song dynasty poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269), whose family hailed from the Fujian city of Putian (mentioned in section one) (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), referenced the Monkey pilgrim twice in his 13th-century work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old poet’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河],
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe,
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

This shows the character’s story cycle was so well-known in Fujian at this time that no other specifics from the oral tradition had to be mentioned. Therefore, stories of the early monkey cult and those of Sun Wukong could have existed in Fujian around the same time. It’s not entirely impossible then that the historical monkey worship in the province gave the cult of the Great Sage, whenever it first appeared, a boost. This might explain why a so-called literary character would come to be so readily worshiped in the province.

IV. Conclusion

Taiwan has close ties to the southern Chinese province of Fujian because the former was made a prefecture of the latter during the 17th-century. The province is home to a large number of temples dedicated to the Monkey King, so this is no doubt connected to the spread of his cult to the island nation. Modern GIS mapping in Fujian suggests Sun Wukong’s temples mainly inhabit the northern highlands of the Putian plains where poorer villages reside. Monkey’s cult never received royal patronage in dynastic China due to his rebellious nature. The fact that he is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan by his rebellious title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven suggests Monkey may have historically appealed to the poorer class because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored the rich over the destitute. If true, these could be the people responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

The mythos of Monkey’s cult was spread thanks to oral tales and popular literature. His mythos became so inseparable from the novel that the scholar class looked upon him as a literary character that jumped from the pages of fiction to be worshipped as a god. An example of this viewpoint appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (written c. 17th-cent.) in which a sceptical merchant only becomes an adherent of the Great Sage after he and his brother are punished with painful sores and death, respectively. The author of the tale comments the merchant was probably delusional to fall for such a belief. This scholarly disdain for such literary gods may then explain why the more well-educated villages in Putian don’t widely worship Sun Wukong today.

Other 17th-century sources referring to Monkey’s Fujian cult portray him as a headband-wearing, cudgel-wielding benevolent god who comes to the aid of the Chinese people. A 13th-century stone relief located on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou depicts a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior wearing a fillet. While past scholarship has posited a South and Southeast Asian origin for the figure’s iconography, my research suggests it to be based on esoteric ritual accoutrements known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century. The oldest evidence for such a cult appears in Hong Mai’s Record of the Listener, a 12th-century collection of supernatural tales. It refers to a malevolent simian god worshiped as the “Spirit protecting hills and woods” that spread fever and was eventually pacified by a Buddhist monk. This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship by the 12th-century, and the fact that the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Sun Wukong’s original name) is mentioned in the secular works of the Putian poet Liu Kezhuang in the 13th-century shows stories of this god and Monkey existed in Fujian around the same time. The historical existence of a Fujian monkey cult may have given Sun Wukong’s cult a boost, explaining how a literary character came to be so readily worshiped.


1) One example of this connected to Journey to the West is Erlang. He was originally worshiped as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. But his cult became even more popular upon gaining state recognition. Wu (1987) writes: “The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country” (pp. 107-108).

2) This refers to Qiu Chuji (丘處機, 1148-1227), the founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism during the Song Dynasty. Qiu is known to have written a travel journal named Journey to the West, which Pu Songling confused with the novel of the same name (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2080 n. 1).

3) Source altered slightly. The Wade Giles was converted to pinyin and the Chinese characters from the footnotes were moved into the paragraph.

4) In act 10 of the early 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West, Guanyin gives Sun Wukong an iron headband, a cassock, and, most importantly, a sword. His depiction in the play and this relief then may have some connection.

5) The fact that the effigy was formed around a living monkey suggests it was killed in the process. This would explain its rage.


Barr, A. (1984). The Textural Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44 (2), pp. 515-562.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2009). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume One: Historical introduction to the return of the gods. Leiden: Brill.

Dudbridge, G. (2005). Books, tales and vernacular culture: Selected papers on China. Leiden: Brill.

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

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the family in Chinese history. London: Routledge.

Gordon, L. H. D. (2007). Confrontation over Taiwan: Nineteenth-century China and the powers. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Pu, S., & Sondergard, S. L. (2014). Strange tales from Liaozhai. Volume 6. Fremont, Calif: Jain Pub.

Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (1996). Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, pp. 1-117.


The Early Ming Zaju Play Journey to the West

I have previously discussed the 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West called Master of the Law. This 17 chapter novelette differs greatly from the final version. However, a little known subsequent precursor, the early Ming zaju play Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記), contains many familiar episodes, including the murder of Xuanzang’s father, the subjugation of Pigsy and Sandy, the ordeal at Fire Mountain, the country of women, etc. This shows the centuries old story cycle was becoming standardized by the 15th-century. But despite the many similarities to the 1592 novel, there are several subtle and very interesting differences. For instance, Sun is trapped under his home of Flower Fruit Mountain by Guanyin during the Tang Dynasty, instead of being banished to Five Elements Mountain by the Buddha 500 years prior. In addition, although Red Boy and Princess Iron Fan appear in the play, they are not depicted as mother and son. The demon child is instead the offspring of the monstress Hariti. These are just a few of many deviations.

Early 20th-century scholarship ascribes the play to Yang Jingxian (杨景賢), a 15th-century mongol playwright who served as a minor official to his sister’s husband, the Military Judge Yang (from whom he took his pen surname). Records indicate Yang was fond of music, practical jokes, visiting pleasure quarters, and, of course, writing zaju plays (Ning, 1986, pp. 6-7). This explains the rowdy and often saucy nature of the story, which is replete with cursing, sexual innuendo, [1] and many beautiful, seductive women. Ning (1986) suggests Yang uses sexualized women as a detriment to the celibate Tripitaka to not only elicit laughter from the male audience, but also to make fun of Buddhism while elevating his own Confucian worldview (p. 81).

Women play a large role in the production, appearing in 13 of the 24 acts. Female characters are abducted in four different parts (Xuanzang’s mother in acts one to four; Monkey’s wife in act 10; the daughter of the Liu family in act 11; and Pigsy’s wife in acts 13 to 16), while women make up the three main obstacles (Hariti in act 12; the Queen of the Land of Women in act 17; and Princess Iron Fan in acts 18 to 20) (fig. 1).


Fig. 1 – A synopsis diagram of the Journey to the West zaju play (from Ning, 1986, p. 9) (larger version).

Below I present the play’s summary as laid out by Dudbridge (1970).

Scene 1: Disaster encountered on a journey to office

The Bodhisattva Guanyin introduces the action: a mortal is required to collect scriptures for the benefit of China; for this purpose the Arhat Vairocana is to become incarnate as the son of Chen Guangrui [陳光蕊] in Hongnong xian [弘農縣] of Haizhou [海州]. Chen Guangrui is to suffer an eighteen-year-long ‘disaster in water’. The Dragon King has been instructed to protect him.

Chen Guangrui, on his journey to office, has reached the Inn of a Hundred Flowers: he has restored life to a fish which, when he bought it, blinked at him. Preparing to continue the journey to Hongzhou [洪州], the servant Wang An [王安] looks for a boatman. The singer in this act is Chen’s wife who, being eight months pregnant, is full of anxieties about the journey. In the event Liu Hong [劉洪], recruited as their boatman, murders first Wang An, then Chen himself; he agrees to spare the wife and her unborn child on condition that she accepts him in Chen Guangrui’s place—as her husband and the prefect of Hongzhou. She has him agree in turn to a three-year delay—a gesture of filial piety on the part of her as yet unborn son.

Scene 2: The mother forced, the child cast out

The Dragon of the Southern Seas explains that in compliance with Guanyin’s direction and in gratitude for Chen Guangrui’s action in saving his life (in the form of a fish at the Inn of a Hundred Flowers), he is holding the murdered Chen secure in his Crystal Palace until the eighteen years are up.

Liu Hong enters and declares his intention of ridding himself of the newly born child who constitutes a threat to his security in office.

The Dragon reappears briefly to ensure protection for the incarnate Vairocana who is to suffer hardship on the river.

The wife—again the singer-completes the scene alone. She has been compelled by Liu Hong to cast her month-old son into the river, and now performs the deed carefully, putting the child into a watertight box, together with two gold clasps and an explanatory note written in her own blood.

Scene 3: Jiangliu [江流] recognizes his mother

The Dragon orders the Arhat to be transported to the island monastery Jinshansi [金山寺, Gold Mountain Monastery].

A fisherman finds the box and takes it off to the Abbot.

The Chan Master Danxia [丹霞] receives it, inspects the contents and resolves to raise the child [whom he names Jiangliu, Flowing River] and preserve the letter with all the details of its history.

Liu Hong here makes a brief appearance, alluding to his present quite life and sense of security.

The passage of eighteen years is assumed: the Chan career of the abandoned child, whom he has brought up as a novice monk and named Xuanzang [玄奘]. He now sends him on a mission of revenge, first explaining the details of his background.

The mother is discovered in a state of anxiety: again she is the singer. Xuanzang enters, there is an extended recognition scene. They arrange for him to return provisionally to Jinshansi. 

Scene 4: The bandit is taken, revenge is wrought

Yu Shinan [虞世南] has now, in the year Zhenguan [貞觀] 21 [647/648 CE], been appointed Prefect of Hongzhou. His first official case is an appeal delivered by the Abbot Danxia and Xuanzang, calling for action against Liu Hong. Men are sent secretly to arrest him.

The dissipated Liu Hong is giving orders to his wife, who is again the singer. Official guards enter and arrest Liu; he makes a full confession. Yu Shinan sentences him to immolation on the shore of the river in expiation of Chen’s death. As the sacrificial verses are pronounced Chen’s body is borne out of the water by the Dragon King’s attendants. There is a final explanation.

Guanyin appears on high: she summons Xuanzang to the capital, first to pray for rain to break a great drought there, and further to fetch 5,048 rolls of Mahāyāna scriptures from the West.

The wife sums up the whole action in her closing songs.

Scene 5: An Imperial send-off for the westward journey

Yu Shinan narrates how he presented Xuanzang at court: the prayers for rain were successful, Xuanzang was honoured with the title Tripitaka [三藏] and invested with a golden kaṣāya and a nine-ringed Chan staff. His parents also received honours.

Now, in official mark of his departure for the West, Qin Shubao [秦叔寶] and Fang Xuanling [房玄齡] representing officials civil and military, enter to greet him. Xuanzang is ushered on. The official party is headed by the aged Yuchi Gong [尉遲恭], the singer in this act. He sustains a dialogue, partly in song, with Xuanzang, leading finally to a request for a Buddhist name. Xuanzang names him Baolin [寶林, Treasure Forest].

The pine-twig is planted which will point east when Xuanzang returns. Finally, he gives spiritual counsel to members of the crowd.

Scene 6: A village woman tells the tale

In a village outside Chang’an some local characters return from watching the spectacle of Tripitaka’s departure. The singer is a woman nicknamed Panguer [胖姑兒]. Her songs describe the scene from the crowd’s point of view. There is a good deal of observation of various side-shows and theatrical performances.

Scene 7: Moksha sells a horse

The Fiery Dragon of the Southern Sea is being led to execution for the offence of ‘causing insufficient and delayed rainfall’. His appeals succeed in enlisting the help of Guanyin, who persuades the Jade Emperor to have him changed into a white horse for the transport of Tripitaka and the scriptures.

Tripitaka is discovered at a wayside halt, troubled by the lack of a horse.

Moksha [木叉], disciple of Guanyin and the singer in this act, comes to offer him the white dragon-horse. His songs extol the horse’s qualities. Finally he uncovers the design, reveals the dragon in its original form, and ends the scene with allusions to the coming recruitment of Sun Wukong on Huaguo shan [花果山, Flower Fruit Mountain] (fig. 2).

106_125336_1 - small

Fig. 2 – A depiction of Huaguo shan from a modern videogame (larger version).

Scene 8: Huaguang serves as protector

Guanyin first announces a list of ten celestial protectors for Tripitaka on his journey. The Heavenly King Huaguang [華光天王], sixth on the list, is the last to sign on: he enters and for the rest of the scene sings on this theme of protection, pausing only to receive Guanyin’s greeting. In the last song there is a further allusion to Huaguo shan.

Scene 9: The Holy Buddha defeats Sun

Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] now appears: after an initial poem vaunting his celestial birth, his ubiquity and power, he lists out the members of his ape family, alludes to his career of misdeeds and his wife, the abducted Princess of Jinding guo [金鼎國, the Golden Cauldron Country].

Devaraja Li appears, with orders to recover the possessions stolen by Sun from the Queen Mother of the West. He issues orders to his son Nezha, who enters with troops upon orders from the Jade Emperor to capture Sun Xingzhe in his home Ziyun luo dong [紫雲羅洞, Purple Cloud Cave] on Huaguo shan.

The princess-wife now enters (the singer in this act) and tells in song the story of her abduction and the life on this mountain. She is joined by Sun and they prepare to feast.

The celestial troops surround them, Sun’s animal guards flee and Sun himself escapes. Devaraja Li ‘combs the hills’ and meanwhile finds the princess, who now sings through the remainder of her suite of songs until it is decided to give her escort back to her home.

Sun Xingzhe eludes the forces of Nezha and is captured only by intervention by Guanyin, who has him imprisoned beneath Huaguo shan to await the arrival of Tripitaka, his future master.

Scene 10: Sun is caught, the charm rehearsed

The singer is a Mountain Spirit guarding Sun beneath Huaguoshan: He opens the act with songs about his own permanence and his present duties.

Tripitaka comes seeking hospitality. The Spirit responds with a sung discourse which is interrupted by the shout of Sun Xingzhe eager to be delivered. Tripitaka releases him, and Sun’s immediate reaction is to seek to eat him and escape. Guanyin intervenes to curb his nature will disciplines in the shape of an iron hoop [Tiejie, 鐵戒, Iron prohibition ring], a cassock and a sword. She gives him the name Sun Xingzhe.

To Tripitaka she teaches the spell that works the binding hoop on Sun’s head, and they successfully prove it.

The Spirit adds (in speech) a warning about the demon of Liusha [he 流沙河, Flowing Sands River] and they again set out.

Scene 11: Xingzhe expels a demon

The Spirit of Liusha he, characterized as a monk adorned with human skulls, announces that he has devoured nine incarnations of Tripitaka (nine skulls represent them), towards the total of a hundred holy men he must eat in order to gain supremacy.

Sun Xingzhe enters and is attacked by this Sha Heshang [沙和尚, Sha Monk]. Sun vanquishes him (fig. 3) , and he is recruited for Tripitaka’s band of pilgrims.

A new demon named Yin’e jiangjun [銀額將軍, Silver-browed General] enters, inhabitant of the impregnable Huangfeng shan [黃風山, Yellow Wind Mountain]. He has abducted the daughter from a nearby Liu family.

The father Liu is the singer in this act: he explains his plight to Tripitaka and the party of pilgrims. They fight and kill the demon, and restore the girl to her home. As they set out again, Liu gratefully awaits their return from the West.

Wanfu (44) - small

Fig. 3 – A stone relief carving of Monkey fighting Sandy (from Wanfu Temple, Tainan, Taiwan) (larger version).

Scene 12: Gui mu  is converted [Guiyi, 皈依, Take refuge (in the Buddha)]

The pilgrims are now approached by the Red Boy [Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒] feigning tears. Sun Xingzhe, against his own better judgement, is made to carry the child, cannot sustain the intolerable weight and tosses him into a mountain torrent.

Sha Heshang at once reports that the child has borne away their Master. They go off to appeal to Guanyin; she in turn takes the case to the Buddha, who now appears in company with the Bodhisattvas Mañjuśrī [Wenshu, 文殊] and Samantabhadra [Puxian, 普賢]. He explains that this is the son, named Ainu’er [愛奴兒], of Guizi mu (鬼子母, Hariti) (fig. 4). Four guardians have been sent to capture him with the help of the Buddha’s own alms bowl. The bowl is now brought in, with the Red Boy confined beneath it. The pilgrims return to rejoin their Master.

The mother Guizi mu enters to sing vindictive songs about this action. The Buddha defends himself from her attacks; she attempts to have the bowl lifted clear; finally she is overcome by Nezha. Tripitaka is freed and himself offers her alternative sentences: she chooses to embrace Buddhism.

The_Buddhist_Goddess_Hariti_with_Children - Small

Fig. 4 – A 1st-cent. BCE Gandharan statue of Hariti (Guizi mu) with children (larger version).

Scene 13: A pig-demon deludes with magic

Zhu Bajie [豬八戒] enters, announces his background, past history and present home (Heifeng dong [黑風洞, Blackwind cave]) and describes a plan by which he means to substitute himself for the young man Chu Lang [朱郎], the bridegroom to whom a young local girl is promised and for whom she waits nightly. (Her father Peigong [裴公], we learn, is disposed to retract the agreed match for financial reasons.)

The girl, with her attendant, expects a visit from young Chu the same night. She (the singer in this act) goes through the actions of burning incense as she waits for him. Zhu Bajie enters, carries on a burlesque lovers’ dialogue with her and prevails on her to elope with him.

The pilgrims appear briefly on the stage, preparing to seek lodging near the frontier of Huolun [火輪] Jinding guo.

Scene 14: Haitang [海棠] sends on news

The girl, again the singer, is now in Zhu Bajie’s mountain home, has discovered the deception and despairs of seeing her home again; she is obliged to entertain the debauched Zhu Bajie, who agrees however to let her visit home.

Sun Xingzhe enters, overhears their conversation and at once attacks Zhu. He offers to carry a verbal message for the girl. She trusts him with this and warns him that her family and the Zhu’s are already disputing the case.

Scene 15: They take the daughter back to Pei

The heads of the Zhu and Pei families argue out their marriage contract and its alleged violation and are stopped from going to court only by the arrival of Tripitaka and his party. Sun Xingzhe produces the message in the form of a little song.

To determine what demon this abductor is they summon up the local guardian spirit (tudi [土地]), who reports that he takes the form of a pig. Sun Xingzhe at once sets out to attack.

The Pei girl sings a series of heartbroken songs. Sun Xingzhe comes and offers to take her home: she now sings gratitude, against some jeering comment from Sun. They leave.

Tripitaka, with the two family heads, await them and welcome back the daughter. She reveals that Zhu fears only the hunting dogs of Erlang [二郎]. The family affairs are now resolved.

Zhu Bajie decides to follow her home. Sun Xingzhe arranges to take her place in the bridal chamber where Zhu expects to find her. They fight: Zhu escapes, taking with him the Master Tripitaka. Erlang must now be called in.

Scene 16: The hunting hounds catch the pig

Erlang, the singer in this act, begins with a series of truculent and threatening songs, then demands Zhu’s surrender to Buddhism. Zhu fights first with Sun Xingzhe, who has entered with Erlang; then the dogs are put on him and finally seize him. Tripitaka is released and instantly urges mercy. Zhu accepts the Buddhist faith.

Erlang’s closing song alludes to the coming perils of the Land of Women and Huoyan shan [火焰山, Flaming Mountain].

Scene 17: The Queen forces a marriage

The pilgrims arrive in the Land of Women.

The Queen enters alone (she is the singer), describes her situation and her longing for a husband, and declares an intention to detain Tripitaka for this purpose.

The pilgrims again enter, warned of their danger in a recent dream granted by one of their guardians—Weituo zuntian [韋馱尊天, Skanda]. The Queen seeks to tempt Tripitaka with wine, then embraces him and finally bears him off to the rear of the Palace. Other women do the same with the three disciples.

The Queen and Tripitaka re-enter, and she continues to sing her entreaties until Wei-t’o tsun-t’ien appears and drives her back. Sun Hsing-che is summoned and Weituo, giving him a brief allocution, retires.

Sun confesses that his own near lapse was forestalled only by the tightening of the hoop upon his brow. He now ends the scene by singing a suggestive ditty to the tune Jishengcao [寄賸草].

Scene 18: They lose the way and ask it of an Immortal

The pilgrims require guidance.

A Taoist in the mountains sings a set of literary verses on the Four Vices. When the pilgrims come and ask the way of him he at once gives details of the nearby Huoyan shan and the female demon Tieshan gongzhu [鐵扇公主, Princess Iron Fan] whose Iron Fan alone is able to put out the flames on the fiery mountain. With more songs, of a warning nature, the Taoist leaves them.

The pilgrims reach the mountain, Sun Xingzhe undertakes to borrow the fan. From the mountain spirit he ascertains that Tieshan gongzhu is unmarried and accessible to offers of marriage. He resolves to approach her.

Scene 19: The Iron Fan and its evil power

Tieshan gongzhu (the singer) enters and introduces herself, giving her background, members of her family.

Sun Xingzhe arrives with his request to borrow the fan; she dislikes his insolence and refuses. They threaten one another, then fight (fig. 5) until she waves him off with the fan and Sun Xingzhe somersaults off the stage.

Sun Xingzhe, in the closing remarks of the scene, prepares to retaliate by seeking the assistance of Guanyin.


Fig. 5 – A postcard depicting Monkey’s battle with Princess Iron Fan (larger version).

Scene 20: The Water Department quenches the fire

Guanyin enters and decides to employ the masters of Thunder, Lightning, Wind and Rain, with all the attendant spirits of the celestial Water Department, to ensure Tripitaka’s safe passage across Huoyan shan.

These characters now enter and introduce themselves. The singer is Mother-Lightning [Dianmu, 電母], and her first series of songs is purely descriptive.

Tripitaka enters to offer brief thanks, and the scene ends with more songs as the spirits escort the party of pilgrims over the burning mountain. The last song predicts the imminent end of their pilgrimage.

Scene 21: The Poor Woman conveys intuitive certainty [Xinyin, 心印]

The party has arrived in India and prepares to advance to the Vulture Peak—Lingjiu shan [靈鷲山]. Sun Xingzhe is sent on ahead to look for food.

The Poor Woman enters and introduces herself as one whose trade is selling cakes and who, without presuming to enter the Buddha’s own province, has attained to great spiritual accomplishments. (She is the singer here.)

Sun Xingzhe appears to announce his mission, and they quickly engage in a sophistical dialogue on the term xin [心, heart/mind] in the ‘Diamond Sūtra‘. It becomes a burlesque in which Sun is ridiculed. Tripitaka enters and sustains a more competent discussion. He asks some plain questions about the Buddhist paradise, and the Poor Woman then urges them on.

Scene 22: They present themselves before the Buddha and collect the scriptures

The Mountain Spirit of the Vulture Peak introduces the situation: the pilgrims are about to be received into the Western Paradise; the householder Jigudu [給孤獨] (Sanskrit: Anāthapindada) is to escort them. He enters, the singer in this act. He introduces Tripitaka to heaven, answers his questions and announces the entry of the Buddha.

The Buddha appears in the form of an image (Buddha leaving the mountains) ‘represented’ [ban, 扮] by the monks Hanshan [寒山] and Shide [拾得] (fig. 6). He decrees that the three animal disciples may not return to the East; four of his own disciples will escort Tripitaka on the return journey. Tripitaka is led off to receive the scriptures.

The character Daquan [大權] is responsible for their issue. All assist in loading them on to the horse, who alone is to return East with Tripitaka and the disciples of the Buddha.

The three disciples in turn offer their final remarks and yield up their mortal lives. Tripitaka remembers each of them in a spoken soliloquy before he sets out on his return journey.

pacskolat3 - Small

Fig. 6 – An ink rubbing of a 19th-century stone stele depicting Hanshan and Shide, from Hanshan Temple in Suzhou (larger version).

Scene 23: Escorted back to the Eastern Land

The first of the four Buddhist disciples, Chengji [成基], is the singer. The opening of the scene consists solely of his songs on the implications of the journey; he pauses only to reveal that the trials on the westward journey were contrived by the Buddha.

In Chang’an the pine-twig has been seen to turn eastward, and a crowd has come out to welcome Tripitaka’s return. Yuchi [Gong] again appears to receive him.

Chengji’s final song gives warning that the scriptures must be presented the following morning before the Emperor.

Scene 24: Tripitaka appears before the Buddha [Chaoyuan, 朝元]

The Sākyamuni Buddha enters and gives orders for Tripitaka to be led back to the Vulture Peak to meet his final spiritual goal.

The Winged Immortal who receives these orders is the singer. He escorts Tripitaka before the Buddha, whose closing remarks, as well as the Spirit’s last songs, invoke conventional benedictions upon the Imperial house (pp. 193-200). [2]


1) A good example of this appears in act 19 when Monkey tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan with a saucy poem: “The disciple’s not too shallow / the woman’s not too deep. / You and I, let’s each put forth an item, / and make a little demon” (Ning, 1986, p. 141).

2) Source altered slightly. The Wade-Giles was changed to pinyin. The Chinese characters presented in the footnotes were placed into the summary.


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

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic elements in the Xiyouji zaju. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8612591)

The Origin of Monkey’s Punishment Under Five Elements Mountain

Last updated: 05-16-2018

After escaping from Laozi’s furnace, Sun Wukong battles his way through heaven until the Buddha is called in to halt his rebellion. The Enlightened One makes him 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 (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 193-195).

I. The source

The idea of a primate demon being imprisoned under a mountain can be traced to a story appearing in Tang (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279) sources. The first and shortest version appears in the Supplement to the History of the Empire (Guoshi, 國史補, early 9th-cent.):

There was a fisherman at Chuzhao 楚州 who unexpectedly hooked an ancient iron chain in the Huai [river 淮河], but could not pull it clear. He reported this to the Prefect, Li Yang 李陽, who summoned a large number of men to draw it out. At the end of the chain was a black monkey; it jumped out of the water, then plunged back and vanished. Later this was verified in the Shanhai jing 山海經, from the words—’A river-beast persistently wrought destruction. [1] Yu [the great 大禹] chained it below Junshan 軍山. It’s name was Wuzhiqi’ 無支奇 (Andersen, 2001, pp. 15-16). [2]


A modern depiction of Wuzhiqi (larger version).

A longer and more well-known account appears in Extensive Records of the Taiping Reign (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). The entry explains how the water spirit Wuzhiqi came to wear the iron chain. The passage is quite long, so I’ll paraphrase the beginning and middle sections:

[While taking a boat (c. 797), Li Gongzuo 李公佐 of Longxi 隴西 by chance meets Yang Heng 楊衡 of Hongnong 弘農. Yang tells Li the following story.] [3]

In the reign period of Yongtai (765) Li Tang was governor of Chuzhou. One night, at that time, a fisherman was out fishing below Turtle Mountain [龜山], when his hook caught on something and would not come up again. The fisherman was an expert swimmer and quickly went down to a depth of fifty zhang (c. 150 meters), where he saw a great iron chain encircling the base of the mountain. He searched but could not find the end of it, and he subsequently informed Li Tang about it.

Li Tang ordered several tens of fishermen and people who could swim to get hold of the chain, but they were unable to pull it free. He increased their forces with that of fifty heads of oxen, and now the chain gave way and began little by little to move onto the shore. There was no wind at the time, but all of a sudden the waves started to roll and gush forth, and those who watched were greatly frightened. At the end of the chain a beast appeared, shaped like a monkey, with [a] white head and long mane, teeth like snow and golden claws, and it rushed onto the shore. It was more than five zhang high (c. 15 meters), and it squatted in the manner of a monkey; only it could not open its eyes, but sat motionless as if in a daze. Water ran down from its eyes and nose in a stream, and its spittle was so repellent and foul-smelling that people could not be near it. After a long while it stretched out its neck and lowered it, and suddenly opened its eyes. They were as bright as lightning, and it looked at people around it, raging with madness. Those who watched took to their heels, and the beast very slowly pulled at the chain and dragged the oxen with it into the water, never to emerge again. Many knowledgeable and prominent men from Chu were present, and they looked at Li Tang and at each other, startled and fearful, not knowing the source of this. Since then the fishermen were aware of the location of the chain, but in fact the beast never appeared again.

[Li travels to Mt. Bao (Baoshan, 包山) and, with the help of the Daoist Zhou Jiaojun 周焦君, deciphers the following account found in the eighth scroll of the Classic of Peaks and Rivers (Yuedu jing, 岳瀆經).] [4]

When Yu regulated the waters, he went thrice to the Tongbai 桐栢 mountains, and each time a storm broke, with crashes of thunder, shattering the stones and making the trees groan. The Five Earls, Wubo 伍伯, restrained the waters, the Celestial Elder, Tianlao 天老, harnessed his troops, but they could not begin their work. In anger Yu summoned the hundred sacred powers. He searched for and called upon the Dragon Kui, Kuilong 夔龍, and the thousand spiritual lords and seniors of Mt. Tongbai bowed their heads and asked for his command. Yu then assigned Hongmeng 鴻蒙氏, Zhangshang 章商氏, Doulu 兜盧氏, and Lilou 犁婁氏, to the task, and they captured the god of the rivers Huai and Guo, whose name was Wuzhiqi 無支祁. It answered readily when spoken to and knew about the shallow and the deep parts of the Yangzi and the Huai, and about how far the marshlands extended. It was shaped like a monkey, with [a] flattened nose and high brows, black body and white head, metallic eyes and teeth like snow. Its neck stretched out to a length of a hundred feet (c. 30 meters), and its strength exceeded that of nine elephants. It attacked in high leaps and running swiftly, its movements were agile and sudden, and one could not keep it in sight or hearing for very long.

Yu turned it over to Zhanglu 章律, but he could not control it. He turned it over to Niaomuyou 鳥木由, but he could not control it. He turned it over to Gengchen 庚辰, and he could control it. For thousands of years the Chipi 鴟脾 and the Huanhu 桓胡, the tree goblins and the water spirits, the mountain sprites and the stone prodigies had roamed and roared and gathered around it, but Gengchen used his military prowess to chase them away. He tied a great chain around its neck, pierced its nose and attached a golden bell to it. He placed it under the base of Turtle Mountain at the southern bank of the Huai, so that forever after the Huai flowed peacefully into the sea. Since the time of Gengchen people would all make images of this shape in order not to suffer from the waves and rainstorms of the Huai (Andersen, 2001, pp. 17-21). [5]


A Japanese depiction of a Tarsier-like Wuzhiqi (larger version).

This entry presents Wuzhiqi as a supernaturally strong monkey demon with flashing eyes and the ability to perform transformations (by stretching its neck). The gods then imprison him below a mountain to punish his affront to the natural order (calm the waves created by him). It’s no wonder then how it influenced the final novel.

Update: 05-16-2018

Another source comes from the early Ming (14th-15th-cent.) zaju play Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) by Yang Jingxian (杨景賢). But instead of it being the Buddha, the monkey is trapped by the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and instead of Five Elements Mountain, it is his home of Flower Fruit Mountain. Dudbridge (1970) paraphrases scene nine, titled “The Holy Buddha Defeats Sun”:

Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] now appears: after an initial poem vaunting his celestial birth, his ubiquity and power, he lists out the members of his ape family, alludes to his career of misdeeds and his wife, the abducted Princess of Jindingguo [金鼎國, the Golden Cauldron Country].

Devaraja Li appears, with orders to recover the possessions stolen by Sun from the Queen Mother of the West. He issues orders to his son Nezha, who enters with troops upon orders from the Jade Emperor to capture Sun Xingzhe in his home Ziyun luo dong [紫雲羅洞, Purple Cloud Cave] on Huaguoshan.

The princess-wife now enters (the singer in this act) and tells in song the story of her abduction and the life on this mountain. She is joined by Sun and they prepare to feast.

The celestial troops surround them, Sun’s animal guards flee and Sun himself escapes. Devaraja Li ‘combs the hills’ and meanwhile finds the princess, who now sings through the remainder of her suite of songs until it is decided to give her escort back to her home.

Sun Xingzhe eludes the forces of Nezha and is captured only by intervention by Guanyin, who has him imprisoned beneath Huaguoshan to await the arrival of Tripitaka, his future master (p. 195). [6]


1) Anderson (2001) explains that no such entry for Wuzhiqi exists in this historical bestiary (p. 16).

2) The demon Wuzhiqi is presented as a sister to Sun Wukong in a Yuan-Ming era stage play.

3) Li Gongzuo (c. 770-c. 848) was a historical story teller and the presumed author of this particular tale (Andersen, 2001, p. 16).

4) This is most likely a fictional version of the aforementioned Shanhai jing (Andersen, 2001, p. 16).

5) One such statue dating to the Song Dynasty is held in the Museum fur Ostasiatische kunst in Berlin. It is discussed at length in Anderson (2001).

6) Source slightly altered. The Wade-Giles was changed to Pinyin.


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

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

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

The Later Journey to the West: Part 3 – The Journey Comes to an End

The main body of Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century) follows a similar trajectory as the parent novel, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) is tasked with traveling from China to India to retrieve spiritual knowledge from the Buddha, and just like Tripitaka, he is protected by three demonic disciples, namely Sun Luzhen (孫履真), the descendant of Sun Wukong, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), the son of Zhu Bajie, and Sha Zhihe (沙致和), the disciple of Sha Wujing. Along the way the group travels through many lands, battles numerous evils, and they eventually become enlightened Buddhas like their predecessors two hundred years prior. As noted in part oneLater Journey to the West may appear like a carbon copy of the original, but the similarities are only skin deep since the novel is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning. Below, I present the last of a three-part summary of the novel (part 2), which focuses on the end of the journey. I rely very heavily on Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

Readers will notice letters of the alphabet at the end of particular sentences in the first two sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the third section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The latter half of the journey

(The novel has a total of 40 chapters. Liu (1994) only covers certain chapters since they contain the most allegorical meaning.)

The pilgrims travel towards String and Song village (Xiange cun, 弦歌村) when they learn the Confucian society there hates Buddhism and spreads lies about its demonic nature. [A] Enraged, Monkey creates an army of warrior Skanda Bodhisattvas (Ch: Weituo, 韋馱) from his magic hair, each of which visits every family in the village and threatens them with punishment if they don’t receive the “living Buddhas” (the pilgrims) with much respect and fanfare. Luzhen also creates likenesses of the Four Heavenly Kings, who lead the monks into the village. The celestial spectacle causes the entire population to convert to Buddhism on the spot. This angers the demon ruler of the region, the Heavenly King of Civilization (Wenming tianwang, 文明天王), the reincarnation of a Qilin unicorn (fig. 1) who favors Confucianism over Buddhism. In their first battle, Monkey proves impervious to the demon’s weaponized coin scales, but is crushed under the weight of his writing brush-turned-spear. [B] The monster explains:

I don’t need knives or swords to kill you. With the writing brush, I can easily describe you as a heretic monk and write the words “Foreign religion,” which will crush you down, so you will never be able to stand up (p. 89).

The demon then kidnaps Dadian and subdues him under the weight of the brush and a golden ingot. Monkey consults the god of literature in heaven and learns the monster’s brush is so powerful because it was originally used by Confucius to write the Analects. The group is finally able to defeat the demon and release Dadian with the god’s help.


Fig. 1 – A Qilin unicorn. This beast is often depicted with coin scales (larger version).

After many more adventures, the group comes to the Temple of Sudden Realization (Mengxing an, 猛省庵) on Division Ridge (Zhongfen ling, 中分嶺). There, the head monk tells them the ridge is an extension of the Western paradise installed by the Buddha to weed out corrupt Chinese monks heading to India. Only those who pass the test of the Bodhisattva of Great Eloquence (Da biancai pusa, 大辯才菩薩) in the Temple of Division (Zhongfen si, 中分寺) on top of the ridge will be allowed to continue their pilgrimage. [C] The pilgrims pass their respective tests and are allowed to enter the Pass of Obstruction (Gua’ai guan, 挂礙關), where they face a blizzard and a road covered in brambles. [D] Dadian, Luzhen, and Shihe pay the obstacles no attention, but Yijie continues to fall further and further behind. The monks are surprised when they circle back around to find the same temple. A young monk gives them a note from the bodhisattva:

The temple which you have seen twice is the same temple;
The pass which appears and disappears is not a pass;
The true cultivation is without obstacles,
And the enlightened nature will eliminate delusions;
Only for those who are greedy and deceitful;
The road will be rugged and full of brambles;
One must cleanse himself of desires,
Before he can pay homage to the Buddha at the Spirit Mountain (p. 93)

Yijie arrives late covered with scratches and bruises from his rough journey. He questions how his companions traveled so easily, but realizes the error of his ways when shown the note.

The pilgrims arrive at the Mountain of Cloud-Crossing (Yundu shan, 雲度山) located on the outskirts of India. They meet a young cowherd riding an ox (fig. 2) who tells them the mountain is a gateway to the Buddha’s paradise and that two paths to heaven exist. The easiest is located on the three small peaks of the mountain and measures a mere square inch. [E] This path is often taken by Buddhas, immortals, and other celestials. The other is a long, winding road located on the ground. He describes the latter as being a quick and pleasant route, but one fraught with danger if traveled with the wrong mindset:

If the Monkey of the Mind is still and the Horse of the Will is tame, and your speed is neither fast nor slow, the road will be smooth and steady, and you will be able to reach your destination in an instant. Buf if the Fire of the Liver flares up, the plank road will be burned down; if the Wind of the Spleen blows, the platform bridge will be destroyed; if the Water of the Kidneys is dried up, the boat will be stranded; and if the Air of the Lungs is weak, the chariot cannot be driven. In that case you will be traveling all your life, groping in the Skin Bag, and never be able to get out (pp. 94-95) [F].

Oxherding_pictures,_No._6 - small

Fig. 2 – The cowherd and his ox, a traditional symbol of enlightenment (larger version). Painting by Tenshō Shūbun (天章周文) (1414-1463).

Dadian chooses the long path, but his disciples goad him into taking a boat, a forbidden shortcut, which initiates the chain of events foretold by the cowherd (actually a sage in disguise). The vessel eventually runs aground on the riverbed because the water dries up. The priest then mounts his horse once more, but Yijie slaps its behind to speed up, leading to a wild, uncontrolled ride that knocks the wind out of Dadian and dampens his will to continue. Angry, the master admonishes the pig, causing the group’s path to be blocked by a monstrous fire. Seeing the road to paradise blocked, Dadian is beset with anxiety, causing a terrible wind that forces the group to take shelter in the forest. [G] The pilgrims soon realize the obstacles arise from the monk’s mental state. When Dadian centers himself, the wind subsides. The path before them then becomes an easy one.

The group arrives at Spirit Mountain and meets the Laughing Monk (Xiao heshang, 笑和尚) who informs Dadian that he will meet the Buddha the following day and asks if he wants to see his material appearance (Semian, 色面) or immaterial appearance (Kongmian, 空面). The master, however, fails to answer out of confusion. The next day the pilgrims climb to Thunderclap Monastery, home of the Buddha, and find it devoid of any people. Monkey explains this represents “emptiness” and coincides with the Buddha’s aforementioned immaterial appearance. He goes on to not only claim himself the Buddha, but also superior to him:

Listen to what I have to say: The Buddha is merciful. Am I not merciful? The Buddha is wise. Am I not wise? The Buddha is vast. Am I not vast? The Buddha is divine. Am I not divine? The Buddha is void of the five qualities and I don’t have an inch of thread hanging on my body. [1]  The cultivation of the Buddha took ten thousand kalpas of time. But it only takes me an instant. In the most profound sense, I can exist without the Buddha, but the Buddha can’t exist without me. You should think carefully. In what respect am I inferior to the Buddha (pp. 104-105).

When Yijie scoffs at his words, Luzhen enters a neighboring chamber and transforms into the Enlightened One, using his magic hairs to create a large retinue of lesser buddhas, saints, and guardian spirits (fig. 3). The pig is called before the false Buddha and sentenced to torture in hell, but Monkey is forced to revert to his true form when Dadian begs for lenience. The Laughing Monk later explains Luzhen’s stunt is not disrespectful but a demonstration of “The Mind is the Buddha” (p. 106). [H]

Pure Land of Bliss (Large)

Fig. 3 – The Buddha surrounded by a celestial retinue (larger version).

II. Returning with the interpretations and becoming Buddhas

The Laughing Monk escorts the pilgrims to see the Buddha, who is reluctant to release the true interpretation:

The divine scripture can only relieve people for a moment. Even with the transmission of the true interpretation, it is difficult to deliver many people. It would be better to get rid of all the words and interpretations and thus make people forget knowledge and perception. This is the wonderful principle of returning to the origin (p. 106). [I]

But he releases the interpretations anyway. The group, having become enlightened beings, fly on clouds back to the Chinese capital of Chang’an, returning five years after the journey started. Emperor Muzong (唐穆宗, r. 820-824) welcomes the pilgrims and builds for Dadian a prayer platform from which he can read the scriptures. [2] On the 18th day of the second (lunar) month of 824, the priest orders Luzhen to open the sutras that had been magically sealed by Tripitaka years prior. The Small Sage sends out a legion of monkeys all across the Middle Kingdom to complete this task. The resulting sermon enlightens the whole of China. The monk intends to finish reading the entire interpretation, but his lecure is stopped by the Laughing Monk who reveals himself to be the Buddha. Dadian and his disciples return to the Western Paradise with the Enlightened One and are bestowed with Buddhahood for their efforts. In the end, the Buddha shines light from his third eye onto China, transforming it into a paradise on earth.

III. Allegory explained

A) The name of the village refers to the classic method of teaching Confucian values through song (Xiange, 弦歌) in ancient China.

B) The money and brush refer to the power and wealth belonging to the Confucian social elite. Monkey is impervious to the weaponized coins because, as a monk, he has no desire for money, but falls to the brush-spear because Confucians can sway public opinion about Buddhism simply with a few strokes of the brush.

C) Division Ridge and the Temple of Division both serve as filters that separate (or divide) true believers from those still plagued with desires or negative emotions.

D) The pass and Yijie’s troubles therein are metaphors for the negative mental states (or obstacles) that block someone’s path to enlightenment.

E) The three peaks and the square inch are references to the Chinese character for heart or mind (xin, 心) (take note of the three dots on top of the character). This means the mountain is a metaphor for the mind. Those who master the mind and achieve enlightenment can take this quick path to paradise since they have already done the heard work of cleansing themselves of desires. This path is essentially located in the clouds, hence the name of the mountain.

F) The skin bag is the human body. Each of the body parts and elements refers to a particular human emotion. Therefore, if a person doesn’t tame the emotions, they will forever be a slave to their bodily desires.

G) Pilgrims on the journey to enlightenment create their own obstacles.

H) This refers back to the riddle that opens the novel (see part one):

I have a statue of Buddha, which nobody knows;
He needs no molding or carving;
Nor does he have any clay or color;
No human can draw him; no thief can steal him;
His appearance is originally natural,
And his clarity and purity are not the result of cleaning;
Though only one body,
He is capable of transforming himself into myriad forms (p. 22)

The answer to this riddle is “the Buddha is in the mind”. Liu (1994) considers Monkey’s above statement about being equal and even superior to the Buddha to be the most important passage in the entire book because it demonstrates “Buddhahood is inherent in everybody’s nature and everyone is capable of becoming the Buddha through self-cultivation” (p. 105).

[I] This refers to overreliance on the written word and spoken interpretations, a concept revisited many times throughout the novel.


1) These five qualities, or “Wuyun 五蘊 are the five mental and physical qualities or constituents (Sanskrit skandhas), i.e. the components of an intelligent being, especially a human being” (p. 116, n. 47). This means the Buddha and Monkey are not human.

2) Emperor Muzong’s father, Xianzong, dies during the course of the journey.


Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

The Later Journey to the West: Part 2 – The Journey to India Begins

The main body of Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century) follows a similar trajectory as the parent novel, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (fig. 1) is tasked with traveling from China to India to retrieve spiritual knowledge from the Buddha, and just like Tripitaka, he is protected by three demonic disciples, namely Sun Luzhen (孫履真), the descendant of Sun Wukong, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), the son of Zhu Bajie, and Sha Zhihe (沙致和), the disciple of Sha Wujing. Along the way the group travels through many lands, battles numerous evils, and they eventually become enlightened Buddhas like their predecessors two hundred years prior. As noted in part one, Later Journey to the West may appear like a carbon copy of the original, but the similarities are only skin deep since the novel is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning. Below, I present the second of a three-part summary of the novel (part 3), which focuses on the journey proper. I rely very heavily on Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

Readers will notice letters of the alphabet at the end of particular sentences in the first two sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the third section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The Interpretation Pilgrim is chosen

After quelling his descendant’s rebellion, Sun Wukong travels eastward by cloud with Tripitaka to see how China has benefited from the scriptures delivered by them some two centuries in the past. However, they find that the monks of the Famen temple (法門寺) are not only falsely claiming to have holy relics from Tripitaka’s deceased human body, [1] but also that their leader is his sixth generation disciple and a master of the sutras. This influences Tang Emperor Xianzong (唐憲宗, r. 806-820) to donate heavily to the temple because he believes the dynasty will prosper once the pagoda containing the supposed relics is opened. The two lesser Buddhas return to the Western Paradise and report their findings to Gautama, who tells them that the Chinese will continue to misunderstand and misuse the teachings until they receive the “true interpretation”. The Enlightened One then charges Tripitaka with locating a pilgrim who will make the journey to India to retrieve this interpretation. [2]

In the meantime, the scholar-official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824) openly criticizes the emperor for his worship of the relics and his spendthrift support of the temple. For this he is exiled from Shaanxi province in the north to Guangdong province in the south, where he meets the Chan Buddhist Master Dadian. [3] Upon hearing of the decadent, misguided state of Buddhism near the capital, Dadian goes north and memorializes the emperor to give up his extravagant patronage of the religion. This show of integrity cements Tripitaka’s decision to choose the monk as his pilgrim. The lesser Buddha then magically seals away the scriptures, forcing the Emperor to send Dadian to India to retrieve the true interpretation.


Fig. 1 – A woodblock print of the monk Dadian.

II. The journey to India begins

(The novel has a total of 40 chapters. Liu (1994) only covers certain chapters from this point on since they contain the most allegorical meaning.)

Dadian acquires his demonic disciples during the early stage of his journey. First, he recites a magic spell taught to him by Tripitaka which calls Sun Luzhen to his side. Second, he recruits Zhu Yijie on the road after the pig is subdued by Monkey and made to follow the priest west. Third, Dadian accepts Sha Shihe as his last disciple after the water spirit saves him from a monster that had dragged him to the bottom of the Flowing Sands River.

Prior to Sha Shihe joining the group, Monkey, Dadian, and Yijie travel through the sister villages of Ge (葛, Creepers) and Teng (籐, Clinging Vines) which are both plagued by bottomless pits that appear and swallow untold numbers of people. [A] The elders of these respective villages tell the pilgrims that the source of this calamity is a demon known as King Defect (Quexian wang, 缺陷王) who lives on the Mountain of Imperfection (Buman, 不滿, lit: “not full”). The monster feeds on the negativity of people whom he curses with poverty, divorce, disease, etc., and those who don’t worship him are swallowed by the ground to be imprisoned forever. Luzhen retrieves a magic golden treasure from heaven that stops the demon from burrowing underground; however, when he flees into a cave, the pilgrims’ path is blocked by seemingly indestructible vines that regrow as soon as they are cut. But Monkey discovers the vines fail to grow if he cuts them while not talking. [B] The group follows suit and they are able to capture and kill the demon, who is revealed to be a badger spirit.

After passing the Flowing Sands River and bringing Sha Shihe into their fold, the group travels to the Mountain of Deliverance lorded over by King Deliverance (Jietuo wang, 解脫王). He and his demon generals maintain 72 chasms where humans fall prey to their desires (sex, money, alcohol, anger, etc.) and 36 pits where sinners are tortured. [C] During a battle with the demon army, Zhu Yijie resists promises of sex, food, and treasures offered by the generals, but lets his guard down due to flattery and is captured. [D] Tripitaka is captured by seven demons displaying a range of emotions from joy to hatred. [E] The monk clears his mind and falls into a deep meditative state undisturbed by the outside world. It is only when Monkey comes to his rescue that Tripitaka regains consciousness. [F] In the end, Luzhen manages to kill King Deliverance by crushing him under the weight of a huge boulder that he had transformed into an exact likeness of himself. This causes all of the generals and the chasms and pits to disappear. The author provides an explanatory couplet.

When the heart (mind) is active,
All kinds of demons come into existence;
When the heart (mind) is extinguished,
All kinds of demons disappear (p. 77).


Fig. 2 – The immortal Zhenyuanzi as depicted in the famous 1986 television series.

The pilgrims travel to the Temple of Five Villages (Wuzhuang guan, 五莊觀) in the Mountain of Longevity (Wanshou shan, 萬壽山), where they are met by the supreme immortal Zhenyuanzi (鎮元子) (fig. 2), the patriarch of all earthly immortals and a temporary adversary in chapters 24 to 26 of the original. Sensing that Monkey relies too heavily on his physical strength and not his spiritual strength, the immortal only allows Dadian to enter, leaving the others to sit outside for hours. To add further insult to injury, a young immortal page tells Luzhen that his master has decided to forsake the journey in order to study Daoism. This so enrages him that he bursts inside to confront Zhenyuanzi and is challenged to retrieve Dadian from the Mansion of Fiery Clouds (Huo yun lou, 火雲樓) in which the monk is drinking tea. But Monkey’s way is suddenly blocked by a supernatural flame, known as the “fire of the mind” (Xinhuo, 心火), that not even the rain of the Dragon Kings can extinguish. [G] He finally manages to extinguish the fire with the sweet dew from Guanyin’s holy willow sprig and retrieve his master. [H]

The group comes to an endless, ocean-like river and question how they will ever reach the “other side”. [I] They eventually take a derelict boat, but infighting between Dadian and the disciples coincides with a monstrous black storm that erupts overhead, producing powerful winds that blow them thousands of miles off course to the Rakshasa Kingdom (羅剎國). This land of monsters is ruled over by the Bull Demon King and Lady Iron Fan (fig. 3), adversaries from chapters 59 to 61 of the original. After learning of the pilgrims’ arrival, Lady Iron Fan sends an army of demon soldiers to capture them so she can exact revenge for percieved misdeeds by their predecessors. [4] Dadian once again enters meditation to avoid evil influences and is quickly rescued by Monkey. Luzhen attempts to save Yijie, who once again falls prey to temptation and is captured, but is stopped by a black whirlwind created by Black Boy (黑孩兒), the second son of the demonic couple. [J] Monkey is forced to retrieve a sutra from the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in the underworld. Upon reading the sutra, a magic red cloud appears and shines light on the kingdom, destroying all of the demons and leading the monks to freedom. [K]


Fig. 3 – An artist’s depiction of Lady Iron Fan and the Bull Demon King.

III. Allegory explained

A) These names refer to Geteng (葛籐, Creepers and Clinging Vines), a term used in Buddhist literature to refer to the net of desire that ensnares humans. Liu (1994) notes the Avadanas Scripture (Chuyao jing, 出曜經, late 5th to early 6th-cent.) contains two mentions of the term, one of which reads: “Entrapped in the net of desires, common people are bound to undermine the right (orthodoxy) way … like the creepers and vines which twine round a tree and eventually cause its death” (p. 70).

B) The aforementioned creepers and clinging vines also refer to Geteng Chan (葛籐禪, Wordy Chan/Zen), a term often applied “to people who resort to long-winded words or writings, rather than to their intuitive perceptions to grasp the essence of Buddhist principles” (p. 71). This love for speaking/writing is believed to hinder the path to enlightenment. This explains why the vines stop growing when Monkey stops talking. The group, in essence, frees themselves from Wordy Chan and relies more on intuition. This puts them one step closer to enlightenment.

C) The demon king and generals are physical embodiments of desires that keep people from attaining enlightenment.

D) This represents the consequence of temptation, no matter how small.

E) These demons represent the seven emotions of joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hate, and desire.

F) Dadian’s capture represents those who erroneously think meditation is simply sitting quietly instead of inner reflection and the examination of truths. His inability to focus his mind is the real reason for his capture. Monkey represents the mind, so his arrival allows the monk to regain consciousness. Therefore, this episode teaches one to focus the mind and thereby not fall prey to desires. This is yet another step closer to enlightenment.

G) This fire represents Sun Luzhen and Zhenyuanzi’s anger, which ignites when both enter into an argument. Anger is one of the emotions thought to inhibit enlightenment.

H) This liquid is referred to in Buddhist literature as being able to extinguish everything from desires to negative emotions. For example, Liu (1994) comments: “In a parable in Za baozang jing 雜寶藏經 (Sutra of Miscellaneous Treasures [5th-cent.]), the Buddha was said to use the Water of Wisdom to extinguish the Three Fires of Desire, Anger and Delusion” (p. 81). Therefore, the dew/water represents wisdom, or the ability to use reason and not become angry. The use of the dew causes Monkey to switch from knee jerk reaction to reason, as exemplified by this statement:

It was my mistake in the first place. I should not have quarreled with him to stir up his fire. Once his fire is stirred up [donghuo, 動火], my fire is stirred up too. I don’t know how long the fire will burn. This surely would cause delay in our master’s proper business (p. 80).

I) This ocean/river is a common metaphor in Buddhist literature referring to desire, and the “other side” refers to a life free from desire (Paramita), or achieving enlightenment. For example, Huineng (惠能, 638-713), the sixth Chan patriarch, says: “The perverted mind is the great sea and the passions are the waves … if the perverted mind is cast aside the ocean will dry up, and when the passions are gone the waves will subside” (p. 81).

J) The black whirlwind represents ignorance, or the Buddhist concept of Wuming (無明, darkness without illumination), and the demon kingdom represents the unenlightened mind that falls prey to its own demons (desire, ignorance, anger, etc.). The metaphors of the black whirlwind and demon kingdom are mentioned in the Collected Essentials of the Five Lamplight Histories (Wudeng huiyuan, 五燈會元, c. 1252), one of several accepted histories of Chan Buddhist orthodoxy in China (pp. 84-85).

K) The illuminated red cloud represents sudden enlightenment that sweeps away all ignorance and desire.


1) This is false within the novel’s fictional universe because Tripitaka attained living Buddhahood in chapter 100 of the original.

2) Tripitaka serves as Guanyin’s successor in this respect, for it was the Bodhisattva who recruited the “scripture pilgrim” in chapter 12.

3) Liu (1994) notes that this is based on actual history. Han Yu, who was a Confucian scholar and the Vice Minister of the Justice Department, “presented a memorial to the throne, denouncing Buddhism as an alien doctrine and criticizing the emperor for receiving and showing reverence for the ‘decayed and rotten bone’ of the Buddha” (pp. 63-64). So in this case it was a relic belonging to the Buddha and not Tripitaka. Han was actually sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to exile thanks to parties arguing on his behalf.

4) She wishes to exact her revenge because their predecessors, Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, were instrumental in the subjugation and reformation of her first son Red Boy by Guanyin.


Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.