The Monkey King’s Cosmic Body

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

I. Episodes from the Novel

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

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

cosmic transformation

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

monkey vs bull king (cosmic transformations) - 1833

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

II. Ties to Ancient Chinese Astral-Geography and Mythology

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

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

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

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

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

pangu cleaves heaven and earth - 2

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

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

yaksha guardian, bangkok, thailand

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

III. Possible ties to Hindu Mythology

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

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

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

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

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

badami vamana carving (total for blog)

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

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

IV. Conclusion

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monkey and the Summoners of Hell: The Story and Origins of the Heibai Wuchang

Last updated: 10/29/2018

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West happens in chapter three after Sun Wukong returns from the undersea palace with his magic staff and is chosen as lord of the 72 monster kings. Following a lavish banquet in his honor, the Monkey King falls asleep and his soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld by two spirits:

In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach with a summons with the three characters “Sun Wukong” written on it. They walked up to him and, without a word, tied him up with a rope and dragged him off. The soul of the Handsome Monkey King was reeling from side to side. They reached the edge of a city. The Monkey King was gradually coming to himself, when he lifted up his head and suddenly saw above the city an iron sign bearing in large letters the three words “Region of Darkness [You mingjie, 幽冥界].” The Handsome Monkey King at once became fully conscious. “The Region of Darkness is the abode of Yama, King of Death,” he said. “Why am I here?” “Your age in the World of Life has come to an end,” the two men said. “The two of us were given this summons to arrest you.” When the Monkey King heard this, he said, “I, old Monkey himself, have transcended the Three Regions and the Five Phases [1]; hence I am no longer under Yama’s jurisdiction. Why is he so confused that he wants to arrest me?” The two summoners paid scant attention. Yanking and pulling, they were determined to haul him inside. Growing angry, the Monkey King whipped out his treasure. One wave of it turned it into the thickness of a rice bowl; he raised his hand once, and the two summoners were reduced to hash (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 139).

The two unnamed psychopomps are simply referred to in the story as “[those who] arrest the dead” (Gou siren, 勾死人). Modern media sometimes portrays these two wearing contrasting black and white uniforms with tall hats (fig. 1).

Heibai Wuchang summon Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – The summoners taking Sun Wukong’s soul in his sleep (larger version). From episode 7 of the Little Fox ESL Journey to the West series.

The Heibai Wuchang

The specific color-coded deities are known in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore as the Heibai wuchang (黑白無常), or the “Black and White [spirits of] Impermanence.” Tan (2018) describes their mythic background and religious importance:

[A] good deal of importance attaches to the worship in Malaysia and Singapore of Heibai Wuchang … popularly known as Da Er Ye (大二爺, Eldest and Second Uncles). In charge of policing the netherworld and protecting humans from evil, they are believed to be two soldiers of the Tang dynasty, General Xie [謝] and General Fan [范]. The former was tall and was hanged by the enemy, while the latter was shorter and was drowned while fighting enemies. General Xie’s image is that of a tall person with a protruding long tongue; he’s wearing a white shirt, and his high hat has the characters yijian daji ([一見大吉] “big luck on seeing me”) or yijian shengcai ([一見生財] “getting wealth on seeing me”). General Fan’s image has a dark face, and his square hat bears the characters tianxia taiping [天下太平], or “peace in the world.” Also called Qiye (七爺) and Baye (八爺), the two generals are in charge of rewarding good people and punishing evil ones. General Xie is more popular among worshippers; frightening as he is, the Elder Uncle benefits from his association with blessing wealth (p. 58).

Chen (2014) provides a different background for the two, which is commonly told in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou in Fujian province:

The Seventh Lord (七爺) and Eighth Lord (八爺) are frequently seen and are well-known in Taiwanese religious parades. These two deities were originally two brother-like friends in Fuzhou (福州). One was called Xie Bian (謝必安), and the other one was named Fan Wujiu (范無救; 范無咎). On a rainy day, they had an appointment to meet under the Nan Tai Bridge (南臺橋). Fan Wujiu was short with a dark complexion, but Xie Bian was tall with a light complexion. Fan Wujiu arrived at the meeting place earlier, waited there in spite of the heavy rain, and was drowned. Xie Bian tried to bring umbrellas for Fan Wujiu and was therefore late. When he arrived at the bridge, Fan Wujiu was already dead, so he decided to commit suicide because of his friendship and guilt. According to legends, the Heavenly Emperor (玉皇大帝) was touched by this pair of brother-like friends, and promoted their ghosts to supernatural officers from the underworld. The Seventh Lord is Bai Wuchang (白無常), and the Eighth Lord is Hei Wuchang (黑無常). Their mission is to bring dead people’s ghosts from the ordinary human world to the underworld at the moment of their deaths (p. 220).

Heibai wuchang statues - small

Fig. 2 – A depiction of the spirits taking a soul to the Chinese underworld (larger version). From the Haw Par Villa theme park in Singapore. Original picture from Baike.

Stevens (1997) goes into more detail about their function and veneration:

The pair are despatched on orders from the City God when the due date of a person’s death arrives, to seek out and identify the correct human through the local spiritual official, the Earth God [fig. 3]. They appear before the human and the Tall Demon [the white spirit] announces that the time has come. The Short Demon [the black spirit] binds the soul and drags it before the City God. The Short Demon carries the tablet of authority and the chains to arrest the soul whose due date of death has arrived [fig. 2].

The Tall Demon … receives considerable attention from devotees, often relatives of the very sick, and in a few temples he is provided with cigarettes which are to be seen continually burning having been forced in between his lips. More popularly, his mouth is smeared with a black substance to win his favour and bribe him to keep away. This used to be opium and is still said to be opium, though the substance appears to be more of a sweet sticky mess. In northern and central China, only the Tall Demon is found (p. 173).


Fig. 3 – A monumental statue of an Earth god in Taiwan (larger version).


The sources above provide two backgrounds for the spirits, historical generals or brother-like friends, all of whom died unnatural deaths. Both origins involve the tall, white figure being hanged, while the short, black figure was drowned. Both of these backgrounds have respective ties to religious beliefs of the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties. It was common practice during the Han for generals, especially those slain by the enemy, to be deified as gods. This concept of deified mortals carried over into the Song Dynasty when tutelary gods were popular. Those deified were often pious or loyal people who died unnatural deaths. But most importantly, these individuals were deified by the very communities in which they lived, meaning they were worshiped as the protector of the specific locale and its people (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 164).

These tutelary cults find their origin in earth gods (tudishen, 土地神) worshiped as early as the Han. Just like people of the Song worshiped the worthy among their fallen community members, people of the Han worshiped the gods believed to inhabit the very earth on which their communities were established. Considering the dead were buried underground, these earth gods also served the function of “escort[ing] the deceased to the world of the afterlife” (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 165). Remember above that Stevens described the tall and short spirits relying on the local earth god to help locate the correct soul being summoned. Therefore, our spirits appear to be a combination of deified mortals (generals/worthy citizens) and earth gods who escorted the deceased to the afterlife. But there may be more to the story.

Wuchang (無常), or “impermanence”, is the Chinese term for the sanskrit Anitya. This is one of the “Three Marks” (Sk: Trilaksana) of existence in Buddhism, the other two being suffering (Duhkha) and non-self (Anatman) (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 47-48). The fact Wuchang is associated with these spirits suggests there is an added Buddhist influence. As I’ve written before, the Chinese underworld presented in Journey to the West is an amalgam of local Chinese and foreign Buddhist beliefs. In short, the Chinese Underworld consists of ten courts in which a soul is punished and sent on to the next until their karma is cleansed. The concept of purgatory and the Ten Kings or Judges of hell are products of 7th-century Chinese Buddhism. Prior to this, souls of the dead were kept en masse in a sort of Daoist city of the dead. So our two summoners were no doubt absorbed into this new Buddhist worldview. The spirits in effect could be viewed as personifications of Buddhist impermanence.

The contrasting black and white color scheme has at least two origins. One, it may have evolved from the belief that each performed duties at different times. Maspero (1981) writes, “The most famous of [the City God’s] subordinates are Master White (Bai laoye [白老爺]) and Master Black (Hei laoye [黑老爺]), who perceive everything that goes on within the constituency, the former during the day and the latter during the night” (p. 110). Two, it may draw from the dualistic nature of Chinese philosophy. Baptandier (2008) comments their color is a “personification of the yin and yang principles of life” (p. 146).

20180916_131548 - small

Fig. 4 – A wall mural depicting the Ba Jiajiang (Eight Generals), including General Xie (white) with the phrase “Big Luck” (daji, 大吉) on his hat (larger version) and to his left General Fan (black) with a square hat. Taken by the author in Taipei, Taiwan.


Both General Xie (the tall, white spirit) and General Fan (the short, black spirit) figure among the Ba Jiajiang (八家將), or “Eight Generals” (fig. 4). These spirit generals are considered protectors of the City God (as well as other popular folk deities) and destroyers of evil. They consist of our two spirits, two more underworld figures called Generals Gan (甘) and Liu (柳), as well as four other figures known as the Four Seasons (Siji, 四季). These generals are personified during festivals by temple parade dance performing troupes called Jiajiang (家將). Members paint their faces according to the prescribed wrathful iconography for each general (fig. 5) and perform all sorts of choreographed militaristic dances while wielding weapons (video 1). These performances serve to exorcize evil spirits.

National Akau Mazu’s Cup of Youth Ba-Jia-Jang and Guan-Jang-Shou Competition, Ci Feng Mazu Temple, Pingtung City, Taiwan

Fig. 5 – The facepaint of General Xie, the tall, white spirit. A larger version can bee seen on this blog. Original picture by Rich J. Matheson.

The tradition originated in Fuzhou but later spread to Taiwan by the 1870s, making it a rather recent phenomenon (Sutton, 1996).


Video 1 – A Ba Jiajiang performance.

Update: 10/29/2018

Sutton (1996) explains the ceremonial procession of the Eight Generals is modeled after yamen officials making an arrest in dynastic China. In this case, the otherworldly generals would be sent to arrest evil spirits:

The performers seen on the march–excluding the Four Seasons–represent a process, though it is never ritually played out: arrest by yamen underlings. In principle the punishment bearer warns, the messengers search out, the stave bearers pursue, Erye and Daye [the Black and White Spirits] take into custody, and the justices at the rear interrogate and record (p. 215).

In video 1, the man dressed in civilian attire and carrying the strange, yoke-like device on his shoulders (visible at 00:26) is performing the part of the punishment bearer, which I take to mean a symbol of those previously arrested and used as warnings to the evil spirits being pursued.


1) The Three Realms are Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and the Five Phases are the elements of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. The point being that he is beyond the control of the three realms and the effects of the elements because he has achieved immortality.


Baptandier, B. (2008). The lady of Linshui: A Chinese female cult. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Chen, Y. (2014). Cinematic visualization of spiritual lesbianism in Monkia Treut’s Ghosted: countering essentialist concerns about Li Ang’s literary works In Y. Chen (Ed). New modern Chinese women and gender politics: The centennial of the end of the Qing Dynasty (pp. 210-222).

Maspero, H. (1981). Taoism and Chinese religion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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

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

Sutton, D. S. (1996). Transmission in Popular Religion: The Jiajiang Festival Troupe of Southern Taiwan in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (Ed.) Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 212-249). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Tan, C. B. (2018). Chinese religion in Malaysia: Temples and communities. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Von Glahn, R. (2004). The sinister way: The divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

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, “The verse here is alluding to the Indra heaven with it’s thirty-three summits (trāyastriṃśa) [fig. 2] and the six heavens of desire (devalokas)”, which are located atop 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).


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.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University 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担山赶太阳

Archive #1 – Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate

I have finally tracked down a digital version of Victor Mair’s often quoted summary of the scholarly debate on the possible connection between Sun Wukong (fig. 1) and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (fig. 2). This paper is extremely hard to find, so I am archiving it here to aid both amateur and professional scholars who may not yet have access to it.

Sammy Torres Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – Sun Wukong from birth to the Great Sage. This marvelous sequential drawing is by Sammy Torres on twitter. The full drawing can be seen here.


The chief aim of this article is to restore the debate to its original scholarly intent, namely to determine whether H [Hanuman], the redoubtable simian devotee of Prince Rama in his quest to recover Sita from Lanka, had anything to do with the formation of the character of SWK [Sun Wukong], Tripitaka’s formidable Monkey-disciple during his pilgrimage to India to retrieve scriptures. This can only be achieved by remaining as impartial and objective as possible while presenting the pertinent evidence. A clinically dispassionate examination of the widely varying opinions of authorities concerning the apparent affinity between SWK and H is also required if the present impasse is to be broken. Hence, this article is necessarily as much an investigation of scholarly methods and attitudes as it is about the origins of SWK. Accordingly, it is divided into two main divisions, “Evidence” and “Authorities and Interpretations.” These are further subdivided into a number of sections, “Evidence” by geographical area and “Authorities and Interpretations” by a chronological listing of major participants in the debate.

Paper link

Fig. 2 – A religious portrait of Hanuman (larger version). Artist unknown.


This has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.


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] Guanyin 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.

maxresdefault - small

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 Origin of Monkey’s Punishment in Laozi’s Furnace

The beginning of chapter seven sees Sun Wukong transported to the realm above to be executed for his rebellion against the primacy of heaven. However, his immortal body proves impervious to blades, fire, and lightning. Laozi theorizes Monkey’s extreme invulnerability is the result of having consumed large quantities of immortal peaches, wine, and elixir that were later refined in his stomach into “a solid single mass”. The Daoist god goes onto to suggest that the demon be subjected to his Brazier of Eight Trigrams (Bagua lu, 八卦爐) in order to separate the elixir and make his subsequently weakened body susceptible to death:

Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]. He then ordered the Daoist who watched over the brazier and the page boy in charge of the fire to blow up a strong flame for the smelting process. The brazier, you see, was of eight compartments corresponding to the eight trigrams of Qian [☰/乾], Kan [☵/坎], Gen [☶/艮], Zhen [☳/震], Xun [☴/巽], Li [☲/離], Kun [☷/坤], and Dui [☱/兌]. [1] The Great Sage crawled into the space beneath the compartment that corresponded to the Xun trigram. Now Xun symbolizes wind; where there is wind, there is no fire. However, wind could churn up smoke, which at that moment reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189).

Laozi checks the furnace forty-nine days later expecting ashes, but is surprised when Sun Wukong emerges and kicks over the mystical oven (fig. 1). This episode has two likely sources.


Fig. 1 – Monkey knocking over Laozi’s furnace (larger version).

I. Master of the Law

The first source is Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures, the earliest edition of Journey to the West published during the 13th-century. The 17th chapter describes the trials of Daffy (Chi na, 癡那), a merchant’s son, at the hands of his evil stepmother Meng (孟). She resents the boy because he stands to inherit all of his father’s wealth, leaving her son with nothing. So she and her handmaiden try to kill the heir by respectively boiling the child in a pot, ripping out his tongue, starving him, and finally pushing him into a river, but each time he is magically saved by heaven. For instance, after four days boiling in the pot, Daffy emerges unscathed and claims:

[T]he iron caldron changed into a lily pad on which I sat, surrounded by the cool waters of a pond. I could sleep or just sit there. It was very comfortable (Wivell, 1994, p. 1203).

Mair (1987) notes the story of a youth being tortured by his stepmother is based on a Dunhuang transformation text with two versions dated 946 and 949, respectively (p. 43). The text focuses on the trials of the future Emperor Shun. [1] The boiling episode does not, however, appear in the story.

II. Laughing at the Dao

The second source is Laughing at the Dao (Xiaodao lun, 笑道論, 570), an anti-Daoist polemic written as part of a court debate between Buddhist and Daoist representatives vying for state sponsorship. One section recounts Laozi’s rebirth in the mortal world and his later attempt to convert a King in India:

He [Laozi] had (long) hairs on the temples and his head was hoary; his body was sixteen feet tall; he wore a heavenly cap and held a metal staff. He took Yin Xi with him to convert the barbarians. (Once arrived in India) he withdrew to the Shouyang 首陽 mountains, covered by a purple cloud. The barbarian king suspected him of sorcery (妖). He (attempted) to boil him in a cauldron, but (the water) did not grow hot … [2]

I find this source particularly amusing because the high god of Daoism is in essence subjected to the same punishment as the one he suggests for Sun Wukong.

III. The Furnace in Daoist Alchemy

The furnace has two meanings in Daoist alchemy. The first refers to the physical vessel and stove (dinglu, 鼎爐) combo used in External alchemy (waidan, 外丹) to smelt the elixir of immortality (fig. 2). Kim (2008) describes the various parts and models of this contraption:

The reaction vessel has fire around it (when it is placed inside the heating apparatus), under it (when it is placed over the heating apparatus), or above it (when it is entirely covered by ashes inside the heating apparatus). It may contain an inner reaction-case in which the ingredients are placed. In a more complex model, a “water-vessel” containing water and a “fire-vessel” containing the ingredients can be assembled, the former above and the latter below or vice versa. The vessel must be hermetically closed and should not bear any openings or cracks.

The heating apparatus has fire within it and is often placed over a platform or “altar” (tan 壇). The openings on the wall sides allow air to circulate, while those on the top serve to settle the reaction vessel or to emit flame and smoke. One of the main functions of the heating apparatus is to control the intensity and duration of the heat. (pp. 360-361)

Fig. 2 – An ornate wooden replica dinglu reminiscent of the metal type used in external alchemy (larger version). Fig. 3 – An early 17th-century woodblock print depicting a lidless ding vessel in the lower torso of a Daoist practitioner (larger version).

The concept of consuming alchemically derived elixirs is first mentioned in Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantie tun, 鹽鐵論, c. 60 BCE). Later, the Token for the Agreement of the Three According to the Book of Changes (Zhouyi cantong qi, 周易參同契, c. 2nd-century CE) standardized the use of toxic materials, such as lead and mercury, for making said elixir, and this idea remained entrenched until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) (Pregadio, 2008, pp. 1002-1003). External alchemy was eventually superseded in popularity by Internal alchemy (neidan, 内丹) from the Tang onward and was still popular during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when the final version of Journey to the West was published.

The second meaning is the human body as a metaphor for the furnace (i.e., internal alchemy). The Token for the Agreement of the Three, the aforementioned Daoist text, considers “the 5 organs, 12 vessels, 24 vertebrae, and 360 joints … all part of this body dinglu” (Wang, 2012, p. 192). The corporal furnace, the ingredients (yao, 藥), and the firing time (huohou, 火候) combine to make the “three essentials” (sanyao, 三要) of internal alchemy (Robinet, 2008). The ingredients are yin and yang energy and the firing time is the measured absorption of said energies and the time at which this activity is partaken (Wang, 2012, pp. 192-193). The methods that Sun Wukong use to achieve immortality stand as perfect examples of this process. For instance, he performs breathing exercises after midnight and before noon (in the period of “living qi”) to absorb yang energy. This energy is then purified and circulated throughout his body to power the formation of his immortal spirit.

IV. Conclusion

Monkey’s time in Laozi’s furnace likely borrows from two sources, the story of a child magically surviving boiling in Master of the Law, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, and the story of Laozi magically surviving boiling from Laughing at the Dao, an anti-Daoist polemic of the 6th-century. The latter is humorous as it shows Monkey’s punishment is a recapitulation of the high god’s punishment. Journey to the West presents two forms of alchemy; the concept of Laozi’s furnace refers to “external” alchemy and harkens back to Han Dynasty China when alchemists used such furnaces to fire toxic mercury and lead in an attempt to produce an elixir of immortality; Sun Wukong’s use of breathing exercises and qi circulation is a prime example of “internal” alchemy in which the body is used as the furnace to fire the immortal elixir. External alchemy fell out of favor during the Tang and was superseded by Internal alchemy from then on into the Ming when Journey to the West was published. Therefore, the novel portrays the high god of Daoism as a proponent of the dated external school, while earthly immortals like Monkey are portrayed as proponents of the then current internal school.

Sun Wukong fears the more powerful of his earthly counterparts, [3] while he gives Laozi little to no respect. For example, when Monkey first escapes from the furnace, “Laozi rushed up to clutch at him, only to be greeted by such a violent shove that he fell head over heels while the Great Sage escaped” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189). This could have been meant as a statement declaring the superiority of the internal over the external.


1) For a complete translation, see Bodman (1994).
2) See Zürcher & Teiser (2007) pp. 299-300 and p. 431 n. 53.
3) One example is his teacher Subhuti.


Bodman, R. W. (1994). The transformation text on the boy Shun’s extreme filial piety. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1128-1134). New York: Columbia University Press.

Kim, D. (2008). Dinglu: I. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 360-361). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Mair, V. H. (1987). Parallels between some Tun-Huang manuscripts and the 17th chapter of the Kozanji Journey to the West. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 3, 41-53.

Pregadio, F. (2008). Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 1002-1005). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Robinet, I. (2008). Dinglu: II. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 361-362). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Wang, R. (2012). Yinyang: The way of heaven and earth in Chinese thought and culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Zürcher, E., & Teiser, S. F. (2007). The Buddhist conquest of China: The spread and adaptation of Buddhism in early medieval China. Leiden: Brill.