The Worship of Sun Wukong in 19th-century America

I by chance happened upon an old magazine article that mentions the worship of Sun Wukong in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1892. The piece is written by one Frederic J. Masters, D.D., a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about the area’s Chinese community. Not surprisingly, the article is dripping with condescension towards Chinese religion, condemning the Great Sage’s worship as “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness.” Below is the section discussing the Monkey King.

In the Spofford-alley temple are found the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses, the principal being the Grand Duke of Peace, the God of Medicine, and Pan Kung, a celebrated Prime Minister of the Sung Dynasty. The funniest discovery in this temple was that of Tsai Tin Tai Shing [Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖]. He is a beatified monkey in the image of a man. Hatched from a bowlder [sic], this animal is said to have proclaimed himself king of the monkeys. At last he learned the language of men, and finding himself possessed of supernatural powers, he obtained a place among the gods. Such is the legend. Chinese idolatry thus reaches the acme of absurdity and sinfulness in the canonization of a monkey. Thoughts of Darwin’s descent of man at once flashed across our mind as we looked at this image. It was disappointing at one’s curiosity to find that the old temple keeper who cared more for a pipe of opium than for speculations in theology and anthropology could not tell us what part natural selection played in the evolution of Chinese deities, or whether monkey worship was the newest phase of Chinese ancestral worship. Finding him lamentably ignorant upon the great question of the descent of man, we astonished with him with a complete history of his monkey god.

There was an ape in the days that were earlier;
Centuries passed and his hair became curlier;
Centuries more and his tail disappeared,
Then he was man and a god to be feared (Masters, 1892, pp. 736-737).

So what can we learn from this brief entry? Given the time, place, and use of Cantonese, the worshipers were most likely immigrants from Guangdong province. Refo Mason (1994) explains, “When news of the discovery of gold in California reached South China in 1849, thousands of labourers in Guangdong and Fujian provinces left their villages to seek work in the gum shan ([金山] ‘Gold Mountain’) … Emigration from South China to California…peaked in 1852, when 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco” (p. 200). Monkey‘s adherents may have counted among these men or their descendants (or possibly among those from later periods of immigration). Either way, belief in the Great Sage came with those who traveled from southern China to America.

Monkey King Bust - American Gods - Instagram 1 - small

Fig. 1 – A photomanipulation of Sun Wukong above the title logo from the ongoing American Gods television show (larger version). By the author. The program is based on the 2001 novel of the same name.

Somebody please get Neil Gaimon on the phone and tell him that he can now include Monkey in American Gods (fig. 1). What do you think the character would look like? Maybe a short old man with a cane?

Spofford Alley, home to 19th-century temple with Monkey King shrine - small

Fig 2 – A modern Google satellite image of Spofford Alley (larger version). It is only a few hundred feet long.

During the 19th-century, Spofford Alley (fig. 2), where the temple housing the Great Sage shrine was located, was home to the Chee Kong Tong (Zhigongdang, 致公堂, “Chamber of High Justice Society,” a.k.a. the “Chinese Freemasons”), the secret Chinese society-turned-criminal organization running Chinatown’s illicit opium, gambling, and prostitution trade (Risse, 2012, p. 37). The Chee Kong Tong were originally an offshoot of anti-Manchu rebels who wanted to overthrow the foreign-ruled Qing dynasty (Cassel, 2002, pp. 218-219). [1] Therefore, Sun Wukong’s worshipers may have included gangsters and rebels. As mentioned in this article, the Great Sage was venerated by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). This makes sense as the divine primate is famous for his rebellion against heaven in Journey to the West.


1) Sun Yatsen, the “Father of modern China,” made contact with the Chee Kong Tong several times and even used their no. 36 Spofford Alley office as his own while raising money for his revolution in China (United States, 1993, pp. 45-46; Lum & Lum, 1999, p. 57).


Cassel, S. L. (2002). The Chinese in America: A history from Gold Mountain to the new millennium. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Masters. F. J. (1892). Pagan Temples in San Francisco In C.F. Holder (Ed.). The Californian illustrated magazine: June to November, 1892, vol. 2 (pp. 727-741). San Francisco, Calif.: Californian Pub. Co.

Lum, Y. M., & Lum, R. M. K. (1999). Sun Yat-sen in Hawaii: Activities and supporters. Honolulu: Hawaii Chinese History Center.

Refo Mason, S. (1994). Social Christianity, American feminism, and Chinese prostitutes: The history of the Presbyterian mission home, San Francisco, 1874-1935 In M. Jaschok and S. Miers (Ed.) Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude, and Escape (pp. 198-220). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Risse, G. B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

United States. (1993). An introduction to organized crime in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Organized Crime/Drug Branch, Criminal Investigative Division.


Bin Steel: The Magic Metal of Journey to the West

Different mythologies and fictional universes have their own magical metals. For example, Marvel’s Asgardians have Uru and the elves of Middle-earth have Mithril. The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE) hosts a long list of magical weapons, armor, and objects made from all kinds of metal (steel, iron, brass, gold, silver, etc.). A specific type is called Bin iron or Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) and it is mentioned several times in the narrative.

Chapter 19

When Zhu Bajie first faces Sun Wukong in combat, he recites a poem praising the celestial origin of his weapon (fig. 1).

This is divine ice steel greatly refined,
Polished so highly that it glows and shines.
Laozi wielded the large hammer and tong;
Mars himself added charcoals piece by piece.
Five Kings of Five Quarters applied their schemes;
Twelve Gods of Time expended all their skills.
They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade,
And brass rings were cast with dropping gold leaves.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382)

The “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) is likely an error for “divine Bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. This may also have something to do with the snowflake-like grain pattern of Bin steel (see sections one and two below). Take note that the metal is associated with Laozi and his furnace. We will see this association again.

Zhu Bajie In-Flames Action Figure- small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie with his battle rake (larger version).

Chapter 34

On the cusp of his battle with the Monkey King, the demon King Silverhorn (Yinjiao wang, 銀角王) is described as wearing polished armor made from the material.

He wears a phoenix helmet white than snow
And armor made of bright [Bin] steel. [1]
The belt on his waist is dragon’s tendon.
Plum-flower shaped gaiters top his goat-skin boots.
He seems the living Lord of Libation Stream;
He looks no different from Mighty Spirit.
He holds in his hands the sword of seven stars,
Stern and imposing in a towering rage (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 127).

The monster is later revealed to be one of two young attendants of Laozi’s furnace sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145).

Chapter 75

The Monkey King recites a poem about his divine staff (fig. 2) prior to battling a lion demon.

The rod of [Bin] steel nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,”
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,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men.
Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly,
Emitting bright strands of five-colored most.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)

Here again we see Laozi is associated with the material.

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 2 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

I. The metal of heroes

I want to reiterate the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sun Wukong, two of Tripitaka’s three main disciples and bodyguards, have weapons made from Bin steel (Sha Wujing’s staff is made from a heavenly tree). Each is the product of Laozi refining Bin steel in his magic furnace and smelting the polearms by hand. Just like dwarves imbued Thor’s uru-metal hammer with magical abilities, so too did the high god of Daoism for Zhu and Sun’s weapons. Each has supernatural durability and the power of transformation. In fact, the Monkey King’s staff is one of the strongest weapons in the entire novel, making its association with Bin steel very important. After all, a great hero requires a great weapon.

Another example of a hero wielding a Bin steel weapon is Wu Song (武松) from the classic Chinese novel the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). The former constable-turned-outlaw comes into possession of a pair of Buddhist sabers (fig. 3) made from “snowflake [pattern] Bin steel” (xuehua bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) and housed in a sharkskin sheath. [2] They are described as being made from the “finest steel, and obviously hadn’t been made in a day” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 317). In addition, the blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magical, sentient longing for combat. Wu later sates this desire by using the sabers in a prolonged skirmish with an evil Daoist priest, eventually beheading the brigand with a single strike (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, pp. 352-353).

Wu Song with knives

Fig. 3 – A modern drawing of Wu Song with his Buddhist sabers (larger version).

II. Real world history

Wagner (2008) suggests the name Bin (鑌) is a transliteration of a foreign term, possibly the Sanskrit word Piṇḍa, meaning “steel” or “lump” (p. 270). The material is mentioned in Chinese records of the 6th and 7th-centuries as being imported from Persia (Bosi, 波斯) and Jaguda (Cao, 漕, modern day Ghazni) in Afghanistan. Mentions of the metal strangely disappear for centuries, only to reappear in early 10th-century records. This is possibly due to the disruption of Persian trade wrought by the Islamic conquest of Persia and the subsequent rise of Muslim trade with the east. Bin steel is believed to have originally been transported in a raw “lump” state prior to smelting in China. But the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom, for a 12th-century report shows the metal was produced in Inner Mongolia. The early Yuan government is known in 1275 to have established the “Office for Bin iron” (Bintie ju, 鑌鐵局), which possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Wagner, 2008, pp. 268-272).

13th-century Persian Damascus blades (detail) - small

Fig. 4 – Persian-made Damascus steel blades of the 13th-century (larger version). Take note of the intricate grain pattern. Bin steel was known to have various patterns (see below).

The best description of the material comes from Cao Zhao’s (曹昭) The Essential Criteria of Antiquities (Ge gu yao lun, 格古要論, 1368), an early guide for connoisseurs.

Bin iron: It is produced by the Western Barbarians. Some [types] have a spiral self-patterning, while others have a sesame-seed or snowflake patterning. When a knife or sword is wiped clean and treated with ‘gold thread’ alum, [the pattern] appears. Its value is greater than silver.

An ancient saying holds that “knowing the strength of iron is like knowing gold” [i.e., the ability to judge the properties of steel is as valuable as the ability to assay the purity of gold]. Forgeries have a black patterning. One should examine [a steel object] very carefully.

There are three rules for knives. The first is that in the blade there should be perfect control of fire, metal, and water [i.e., the blade should be correctly quench-hardened and tempered]. The second is that the haft should be of xichi wood from the Western Barbarians, and the third is that the sheath should be of Tatar birchbark.

I once had a pair of scissors of bin iron, of exquisite workmanship. It had a raised gilt pattern on the inside, and on the outside a silver-inlaid inscription in Islamic characters (Wagner, 2008, p. 271).

So we see Bin steel is comparable to Damascus steel (fig. 4), as both require quench-hardening and produce a number of intricate grain patterns visible after an acid treatment. One such pattern is the snowflake pattern associated with Wu Song’s sabers (and possibly Zhu Bajie’s rake). Most importantly, the metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). [3] I take this statement to be symbolic of his unbreakable resolve. At the same time, it shows Bin steel was considered exceptionally durable.

Highly durable Bin steel weapons could have seemed like magic in comparison to those made from lesser quality metal. Therefore, it’s interesting that Journey to the West presents the metal being smelted by a god in his magic furnace. It seems only natural that a magical forge would produce the finest steel. In fact, after the 10th-century, the very name Bin steel came to be used as a term for any type of exquisite steel (Wagner, 2008, p. 271). So the author/compiler of Journey to the West may have been using it in that sense instead of referring to imported Persian steel.


1) Anthony Yu’s original translation says “…bright Persian steel.” The historical origin is discussed in the second section of the article.

2) While the Water Margin presents them as sabers, Buddhist knives (jiedao, 戒刀, lit: “precept knife”) were historically small, unadorned, curved, finger-length blades used for cutting robes, trimming fingernails, opening wounds, or slicing food (Yifa, 2009, p. 250, n. 37).

3) Wagner (2008) states the story is listed as coming from the 9th-century but the housing source is from the 11th-century (p. 269, n. 103). Therefore, it likely originates after the reappearance of Bin steel in Chinese records during the early 10th-century.


Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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

Yifa. (2009). The Origins of Buddhist monastic codes in China: An annotated translation and study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i press.

Origins of the White Bone Spirit

The twenty-seventh chapter of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) features a mountain spirit who resorts to magic disguises in an attempt to eat Tripitaka. Commonly referred to as the “White Bone Spirit” (Baigujing, 白骨精), she is one of a family of ghouls active in White Tiger Mountain (Baihu ling, 白虎嶺) who have long told legends of the monk’s immortality-bestowing flesh. She resorts to subterfuge because alone she is not powerful enough to contend with the holy man’s present disciples, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing.

The spirit first disguises herself as a peerless beauty described as having “ice-white skin hid[ing] jade-like bones” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 18). She comes bearing a vegetarian meal, claiming it to be food intended for her pious husband toiling in the fields on the other side of the mountain. She instead decides to feed Tripitaka as this would allow her to keep her family’s vow of supporting monks. But before she can kidnap the monk, Sun Wukong returns from picking peaches for his master and sees through the magic facade, seemingly killing the young girl with his magic staff. The monster, however, is able to escape in spirit at the last second using the “Magic of Releasing the Corpse” (Jieshi fa, 解屍法), [1] leaving behind a fake body in her place. The innocent-looking food is then revealed to be bewitched frogs, toads, and maggots. Despite this, Zhu Bajie convinces their master that Monkey is trying to conceal the murder with magic, leading to the monk using the Tight-Fillet spell as punishment.

She subsequently disguises herself as the girl’s elderly mother searching the mountain for her daughter. Sun again sees through the disguise and seemingly kills her with his staff. This again leads to his punishment with the Tight-Fillet spell. The White Bone Spirit’s last disguise is that of the elderly father looking for his wife and daughter. But this time Monkey calls on local deities to guard any possible escape routes, and this time he succeeds in killing her. The spirit’s true form is revealed to be a “pile of flour-white skeletal bones” with the name “Lady White Bone” (Baigu furen, 白骨夫人) engraved on her spine (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 26).

White Bone Spirit drawing - small

Fig. 1 – A lovely cosplay of Lady White Bone (larger version). More pictures can be seen here

Origin in oral literature

The precursor of the White Bone Spirit can be traced to a demon appearing in chapter six of Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang fashi qu jing shihua, 大唐三藏法師取經詩話, 13th-century), the earliest known printed edition of Journey to the West, which likely served as a prompt for ancient storytellers.

Chapter six: Passing Long Ditch and Great Serpent Peak (Guo changkeng dashe lingqu, 過長坑大蛇嶺處)

The pilgrims arrived at the valley of the fire-spitting White Tiger Spirit (Huo lei ao baohu jing, 火類坳白虎精). Coming closer they encountered a great ditch. The four steep entrances were pitch-black and they heard a roar of thunder. They could not advance. The Dharma Master [Fashi, 法師, i.e. Tripitaka] held up his [magic] golden-ringed staff and, flourishing it toward the distant heavenly palace, yelled: “Devaraja! Help us in our afflictions!” Suddenly a shaft of light shot out from the staff five tricents long. It slashed through the long ditch and soon they were able to get across.

Next they came to Great Serpent Peak. There they saw a gigantic serpent like a dragon. It likewise was not harmful to humans. Then they crossed the pit of the fire-spitters. Down, down into the fiery pit they looked and saw a pile of dry bones over forty tricents long. The Dharma Master asked Monkey Pilgrim [Hou xingzhe, 猴行者]: “What are those white withered bones piled up there like snow on a mountain?” Monkey Pilgrim replied: “This is the place where the Heir Apparent, Ming Huang…changed his bones.” [2] The Dharma Master, hearing this, joined his palms and bowed his head in reverence.

Next they suddenly came to a prairie fire which reached to the heavens. It sent off such a huge amount of smoke and sparks that the pilgrims could not proceed. The Dharma Master shone the light of his [magic] begging-bowl toward the fire and yelled: “Devaraja!” The fire died out immediately and the seven pilgrims crossed this pit. When they were halfway across, Monkey Pilgrim said: “Master, did you know this peak is inhabited by a white tiger spirit? It often appears as a vixen, demon, or goblin and even eats people.” The Master replied: “I didn’t know!” After a while they could see a spume of ominous-looking smoke rising behind the peak and from the cloud thus…fell a mixture of rain, snow, and sleet. In the cloudy mist there was a woman dressed all in white.

She wore a white bodice of gauze, a white gauze skirt with a white belt, and held in her hands a single white peony. [3] Her face was as pretty as a white lotus, her ten fingers like precious jades. Observing the form of the ogress, Monkey Pilgrim had his suspicions confirmed. “Master, don’t go any farther,” said Monkey Pilgrim. “It’s surely an ogress. Wait till I go up and ask who she is.” Monkey Pilgrim took one look at her and shouted in a loud voice: “What place are you from, demon? What shape is beneath your facade? If you are a sprite or goblin, why don’t you hurry back to your lair? If you are an ogress, hurriedly hid your traces. But, if you are the daughter of a human being, then tell me your name and surname. And be quick about it! If you procrastinate and don’t speak, I shall reduce you to dust and power!” Hearing the pilgrim’s ferocious tone of voice, the white-clad woman slowly advanced, smiled coyly, and inquired whither the master and his disciples were going. Monkey Pilgrim said: “Ask no more! We travel for the sake of the sentient beings of the Eastern Lands. And you must be none other than the White Tiger Spirit of the Fire-spitting Pit.”

Hearing this, the woman’s mouth gaped open and she screamed loudly, while at the same moment her skin burst open revealing claws, long fangs, a tail, and a feline head. She was fifteen feet long. In another instant the whole mountain was filled with white tigers. Monkey Pilgrim transformed his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yaksa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam shot forth a hundred yards long. At the same time, the White Tiger Spirit advanced with a roar to do battle, but she was repulsed by the Monkey Pilgrim. After a short while, Monkey Pilgrim asked if the tiger spirit was ready to submit. She replied, “Never!” Monkey said: “If you will not submit, you will find an old monkey in your stomach!”

The tiger spirit heard what he said yet did not surrender right away. But no sooner had he yelled “Monkey!” than a monkey in the White Tiger Spirit’s stomach responded. The tiger spirit was forced to open her mouth and spit out the monkey. When it landed on the ground in front of her, it became twelve feet long with flashing eyes. The White Tiger Spirit spoke: “I still will not submit!” Monkey replied: “Then you will find another in your stomach!” Again, he caused the tiger spirit to open her mouth and spit out another monkey which landed in front of her. And again the tiger spirit said: “I still do not submit!” Monkey replied: “There are countless old monkeys in your stomach now, and even if you spit them out all day today until the next, all this month until the next, all this year until the next, all this life until the next, you will not be rid of them!” This made the tiger spirit angry. She was again afflicted by the Monkey when he transformed himself into a great stone in her stomach which gradually grew in size. Though she tried to spit it out, she couldn’t. Her stomach split asunder and blood poured from her seven orifices. [4] Monkey called upon the yaksa to slaughter the big White Tiger Spirit ruthlessly, and the yaksa pulverized its bones and obliterated its last vestiges.

The [Monkey Pilgrim], having withdrawn [his] magic, rested for a time before [the group] continued the journey. They left a poem:

The pit of fire-spitters and the White Tiger Spirit,
All that lot are vanquished, and peace and safety reign.
Now, the supernatural power of Monkey Pilgrim is displayed,
Protecting the monkish pilgrims across the great ditch (Wivell, 1994).

The chapter has a number of details that naturally led to the development of the White Bone Spirit.

  1. The demon is a White Tiger Spirit, hence the White Tiger Mountain mentioned in the novel.
  2. The “piles” of the future emperor’s bones recall the “piles” of the White Bone Spirit’s bones (her true form) after she is killed by Wukong.
  3. The White Tiger Spirit’s hunger for flesh and ability to take on any form (like “a vixen, demon, or goblin”) recalls the White Bone Spirit’s pursuit of Tripitaka and use of magic disguises.
  4. The White Tiger Spirit’s initial disguise as a beautiful woman with a “white lotus” face and jade-like fingers recalls the White Bone Demon’s “ice-white skin” and “jade-like bones.”

Here is the full length animated feature Sun Wukong Three Times Fights the White Bone Demon (孫悟空三打白骨精, 1985), which was produced twenty years after the highly popular Uproar in Heaven (大鬧天宮, 1965).


1) This is related to an ancient Daoist concept called “Release by means of a corpse” (Shijie, 尸解). As far back as the Han, immortals are described as leaving a fake corpse (sometimes a magically disguised object) behind while they ascended in secret to heaven (Kirkland, 2008).

2) This changing of bones most likely refers to some type of realized spiritual cultivation that resulted in a new, pure body for the future emperor.

3) The color white is associated with death in Chinese culture.

4) Sun Wukong defeats several monsters in Journey to the West by invading their stomach. See, for example, chapters 59, 75, and 82.


Kirkland, R. (2008). Shijie In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 896-897). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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. 2. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Sun Wukong and Miao Folklore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I. Story influences

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

Miao couple (for Sun Wukong article) - small

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

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

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

II. Monkey progenitors

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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