Sun Wukong’s Greatest Feat of Strength: An Allegory for Cultural or Religious Conflict?

Last updated: 08/10/2018

Now that I’ve written an entry debunking the idea that Sun Wukong’s staff anchored the Milky Way, I now want to write a piece about his greatest feat of strength in Journey to the West. This feat takes place in chapter 33 after Zhu Bajie has been captured by two demon brothers, Kings Goldhorn (Jinjiao Dawang, 金角大王) and Silverhorn (Yinjiao Dawang, 銀角大王). King Silverhorn, the younger of the two, then sets out to capture Tripitaka but is forced to resort to trickery when he learns the monk is protected by Sun Wukong. He transforms himself into an elderly Daoist laying by the roadside with a broken leg. The monk takes pity and forces Monkey to carry him on his back. However, the immortal sees through the disguise and plans to throw his charge off a cliff. But…

As the Great Sage was about to do this, the monster knew instantly of his plan. Knowing how to summon mountains, he resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” Exerting his spirit even more, he recited another spell and sent up the Tai Mountain to press down on Pilgrim’s head. With this magic of the Tai Mountain Pressing the Head, the Great Sage was overpowered as his strength ebbed and his tendons turned numb; the weight was so great that the spirits of the Three Worms inside his body exploded and blood spurted from his seven apertures (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 2, pp. 108-109).

We see here Monkey is able to successfully carry the weight of both the Sumeru and Emei mountains, while running after his master “with the speed of a meteor”. That’s quite impressive, even if he is eventually crushed under the weight of a third mountain (fig. 1). Attention should be given to the particular mountains used in this episode. Let’s start with Sumeru since this is the first one mentioned.

1950s Illustrated Saiyuki - Detail of Monkey crushed under 3 mountains (small)

Fig. 1 – Monkey trapped under the three mountains as King Silverhorn abducts Tripitaka, the dragon horse, and Sha Wujing (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West, a children’s book published in 1950.

Robert & David (2013) describe Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山) as:

The central axis of the universe in Buddhist cosmology; also known as Mount Meru. Mount Sumeru stands in the middle of the world as its axis and is eight leagues high …  The slopes of Sumeru are the abode of demigods, and its upper reaches are the heavens of the four heavenly kings. At the summit of the mountain is the heaven of the thirty-three, ruled by the king of the gods, Sakra. Above Mount Sumeru are located the remaining heavens of the sensuous realm [fig. 2] (p. 896).

A poem in chapter four of Journey to the West describes what Monkey sees when he first comes to live in heaven as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. A portion reads, “Thirty-three mansions were found up here, / With names like the Scattered Cloud, the Vaisravana, the Pancavidya, the Suyama, the Nirmanarati…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 146). Translator Anthony C. Yu notes these mansions refer to the 33 summits or heavens located on Mount Sumeru (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 510, n. 1). Therefore, the heaven described in the novel is located on the same cosmic mountain as that from Hindo-Buddhist cosmology, meaning Monkey successfully supports the axis of the universe on one shoulder.

Sumeru World System - Sideview small

Fig. 2 – Mount Sumeru indicated in gold. The location of the aforementioned 33 heavens/mansions are indicated in pink. A great cosmic ocean is indicated in blue (larger version). Adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxxii.

Mount Emei (Emei shan, 峨嵋山; 峨眉山) is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. It is considered extremely important as Chinese tradition believes, upon entering the Middle Kingdom from India, Buddhism spread from this very mountain during the eastern Han Dynasty and proliferated throughout China. The mountain is 10,167 feet high, making it over 3,000 feet taller than the other sacred Buddhist mountains. This place is believed to be the heavenly abode of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, making him the patron saint of Emei (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 282-283).

I want to reiterate the fact that both Sumeru and Emei are important to Buddhism. Not only does Monkey support the very axis of the Buddhist universe on one shoulder, he supports on the other the very mountain from which the religion is believed to have spread into China. I’m not sure if this was the author/compiler’s original intent, but it seems as if this feat of strength could be symbolism for Monkey literally “supporting” Buddhism by protecting his master on their journey to India. After all, the historical Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664) on whom Tripitaka is based is considered to be one of, if not the, most prolific translators of Buddhist texts in the history of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016).

I turn now to Mount Tai (Taishan, 泰山), the mountain that ultimately overwhelms Sun Wukong’s supernatural strength. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China, which differ from the four Buddhist counterparts mentioned above. Mount Tai was the epicenter of a state cult in Ancient China, one in which Sage-Kings and emperors of millennia past traveled there to perform sacrifices to heaven, thereby gaining the right to rule or attaining eternal life. An entry in the Classic of History (Shujing, 書經, 4th-c. BCE) suggests the practice goes all the way back to the Sage-King Shun (3rd millennia BCE) (Poo, 2011, pp. 20-21). Due to its great cultural and historical significance, the mountain came to be recognized as an adamantine monolith, the very name of which was used as a metaphor for something unfathomably heavy, whether it be a physical measure of weight or philosophical importance. For example, Warring States philosopher Mozi took part in a debate over the plausibility of his school of thought taking center stage in Chinese society. His opponent claimed, “As we see it, one can no more put it into practice than one can pick up Mount Tai and leap over a river with it!” Mozi highlighted the irrelevant nature of the metaphor by replying, “As for picking up Mount Tai and leaping over rivers with it, no one from ancient times to the present, from the beginning of humankind to now, has ever succeeded in doing that!” (Watson, 1999a, p. 71). Another example comes from the Han historian Sima Qian who wrote, “A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it” (pp. 371-372). Therefore, the mountain represented the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. It’s no wonder then that not even Monkey could withstand its weight.

The idea of Mount Tai symbolizing a heavy object influenced the name of a 17th-century technique related to the development of Taiji boxing called “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai” (Taishan yading, 泰山壓頂) (fig. 3), which involved climbing onto an opponent (Henning, 2009, pp. 78 and 82). Incidentally, the name of this technique is also a common chinese saying referring to someone being under a lot of stress (Gao, Wang, & Weightman, 2012, p. 191).

Taishan yading - small

Fig. 3 – “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai”. From Henning, 2009, p. 78 (larger version).

I find it interesting that, after easily bearing the weight of two Buddhist mountains, Mount Tai is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Mount Tai represents native Chinese history and culture, while Sumeru and Emei represent Buddhism, a non-native religion from India. Therefore, this episode could be read as a struggle between the domestic and foreign aspects of Chinese culture. Considering the monsters are later revealed to be Daoist attendants of Laozi sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145), it’s possible the conflict is between Daoism, a native Chinese religion, and Buddhism.

This is obviously not a perfect theory, though. For instance, Laozi reveals that it was actually the Bodhisattva Guanyin who requested the lads be sent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). Does this explain why a Daoist spirit would summon two Buddhist mountains to crush Monkey? I’m interested in what others think.

11433390785_ab45584414_b - small

Fig. 4 – A modern painting of Hanuman lifting the mountain (larger version). All credit goes to the original artist S. Keerthi. 

Lastly, I would like to note Sun Wukong’s feat of lifting mountains recalls an episode in the Ramayana (4th-c. BCE) in which the monkey god Hanuman carries back a mountain laden with magical herbs to heal the wounds of his master‘s brother Lakshmana (fig. 4). Hanuman is the living embodiment of strength (shakti) in India (see for example Alter, 1992). Monkey is believed to be loosely based on Hanuman (Walker, 1998), so there could be a connection between both instances of mountain lifting.


Updated: 08/10/2018

Monkey’s feat appears to be based on a native Chinese story and not the Ramayana. This is first hinted at in chapter 33 when the demon exclaims the Great Sage “truly knows how to pole mountains [dan shan, 擔山]!” A poem spoken by Sun Wukong in chapter 67 confirms the connection:

Purvavideha was my ancestral home,
I did cultivation on Mount Flower-Fruit.
I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mind
and perfected with him the martial arts.
I can tame dragons, stirring up the seas;
I can tote mountains to chase down the sun.
In binding fiends and demon’s I’m the best;
Moving stars and planets, I scare ghosts and gods.
Stealing from heav’n and Earth gives me great fame,
Of boundless change, Handsome Stone Monkey’s my name (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243).

ae51f3deb48f8c545c9435e13c292df5e1fe7fbd - small

Fig. 5 – Erlang poling the mountains (larger version). Artist unknown.

“I can tote mountains to chase down the sun” (shan hui dan shan gan ri tou善會擔山趕日頭) is a clear allusion to the ancient tale “Erlang carries mountains to chase the suns” (Erlang dan shan gan taiyang, 二郎擔​​山趕太陽). The tale describes how the ancient earth was plagued by many suns that scorched the land, making it impossible for the people to grow anything. Vowing to end this plight, the hero Erlang shoulders two mountains hanging from a tree and, with the aid of magical shoes, chases down each sun [fig. 5], using the weight from both landmasses to overwhelm and crush the superfluous celestial bodies (担山赶太阳, n.d). Apart from the feat of lifting two mountains, Erlang’s fleet pursuit of each sun (gan taiyang, 趕太陽) foreshadows Monkey “giv[ing] chase to his master with the speed of a meteor” (fei xing lai gan shifu, 飛星來趕師父).

It’s interesting to note that “Erlang Carrying Mountains” (Erlang dan shan, 二郎擔山) is a common Shaolin stance, and a staff variant even appears in the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 6). The staff obviously recalls the pole (or in this case tree) that Erlang uses to bear the weight of the mountains.

Erlang Mountain staff - small

Fig. 6 – The “Erlang Carrying Mountains” staff stance (larger version).

Sources:

Alter, J. S., & OUP. (1992). The wrestler’s body: Identity and ideology in north India. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Gao, W., Wang, A., & Weightman, F. (2012). A handbook of Chinese cultural terms. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford On Demand Pub.

Henning, S. (2009). Taijiquan: Symbol of traditional Chinese martial arts culture. Journal of Chinese Martial Arts (1), pp. 76-83.

Poo, M. (2011). Preparation for the afterlife in ancient China In Olberding, A., & Ivanhoe, P. J. (Ed.) Mortality in traditional Chinese thought (pp. 13-36). Albany: State University of New York Press.

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

Watson, B. (1999a). Mozi: Utility, uniformity, and Universal Love In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 64-76). New York: Columbia University Press.

Watson, B. (1999b). The great Han historians In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 367-374). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

担山赶太阳. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://baike.baidu.com/item/担山赶太阳

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