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).

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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).

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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 Buddhism. So the spirits who summoned the dead to the underworld were no doubt absorbed into this new 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).

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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 these mansions refer to the 33 summits or heavens located on Mount Sumeru (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 510, n. 1). Therefore, the heaven described in the novel is located on the same cosmic mountain as that from Hindo-Buddhist cosmology, meaning Monkey successfully supports the axis of the universe on one shoulder.

Sumeru World System - Sideview small

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

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

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

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

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

Taishan yading - small

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

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

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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.

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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] Guayun exclaims: “Ah! It was fortunate that the Tang Monk had cast off his mortal frame and attained the way. If he were like the person he had been before, he would have sunk straight to the bottom” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 363). The “cast[ing] off of his body” (tuotai, 脫胎) is reminiscent of the way in which the real life insect sloughs off its shell (fig. 1). If this is what Yu was referring to, I think this is but one part of the puzzle.

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

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

cicada - small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: 05-27-2018

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

Update: 12-08-2018

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

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

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

Chanzi - Cicada Zen Tripitaka Connection

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

The 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.

The Purpose and Possible Origin of Sun Wukong’s Golden Fillet

Last updated: 12-23-17

The golden fillet (金箍圈, jingu quan) is one of the Monkey King’s most recognizable iconographic elements appearing in visual media based on the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592). It is generally portrayed as a ringlet of gold with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like scowling eyebrows (type one) (fig. 1). A different version is a single band adorned with an upturned crescent shape in the center (type two) (fig. 2). Another still is a simple band devoid of decoration (type three) (fig. 3). Sun first earns the headband as punishment for killing six thieves shortly after being released from his five hundred-year-long imprisonment. The circlet is a heaven-sent magic treasure designed to reign in the immortal’s unruly, rebellious nature. Since Sun Wukong is a personification of the Buddhist concept of the “Monkey of the Mind” (心猿, xinyuan,), or the disquieted mind that bars humanity from enlightenment, the fillet serves as a not so subtle reminder of Buddhist restraint. Few scholars have attempted to analyze the treasure’s history. In this paper I present textual and visual evidence from India, China, and Japan that suggests it is ultimately based on a ritual headband worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. I also show how such fillets became the emblem of some weapon-bearing protector deities in China, as well as military monks in Chinese opera.

1. The Fillet’s Fictional Origin and Purpose

The headband is first mentioned in chapter eight when three such “tightening fillets” are given to the Bodhisattva Guanyin by the Buddha in order to conquer any demons that she may come across while searching for a monk who will bring sutras back to China from India. The “Enlightened One” explains their purpose: “If [the monster] is disobedient, this fillet may be put on his head, and it will strike root the moment it comes into contact with the flesh. Recite the particular spell which belongs to the fillet and it will cause the head to swell and ache so painfully that he will think his brains are bursting. That will persuade him to come within our fold” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 206-207). He notes that there are different spells for each piece, including “the Golden, the Constrictive, and the Prohibitive Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 206).

Sun Wukong earns the “Constrictive” band in chapter fourteen after brutally murdering six thieves who accost his master Tripitaka, the chosen scripture seeker, on the road to the west. [1] The killings cause the two to part ways, and it is during Monkey’s absence when Guanyin gives the monk a brocade hat containing the fillet and teaches him the “True Words for Controlling the Mind, or the Tight-Fillet Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 317). Sun is eventually persuaded to return and tricked into wearing the hat under the guise of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. It soon takes root, and the powerful immortal is brought under control through the application of pain. He then promises to behave and to protect Tripitaka during their long journey to the Western Paradise. [2]

The remaining two fillets are used by Guanyin to conquer other monsters in later chapters. She throws the “Prohibitive” band onto the head of a black bear demon in chapter seventeen and, after reciting the spell, he agrees to become the rear entrance guard of her Potalaka island paradise (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 365). The “Golden” band is split into five rings—one each for the head, wrists, and ankles—and used to subdue Red Boy (紅孩兒, Hong hai’er), the fire-spewing son of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan, at the end of chapter forty-two and the beginning of forty-three (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 251-252). The child demon becomes her disciple and eventually takes the religious name Sudhana. [3]

Monkey is forced to wear the fillet until he attains Buddhahood in chapter one hundred, causing it to vanish (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 4), p. 383). The band’s disappearance at the end of the novel denotes Sun’s internalization of self-control. But the treasure doesn’t disappear forever. It appears once more in the Later Journey to the West (後西游記, Hou Xiyouji, 17th-cent.), a sequel set 200 years after the original. The story follows a similar trajectory with Monkey’s descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真, “Monkey who Walks Reality”) attaining immortality and causing havoc in heaven. But this time the macaque Buddha is called in to quell the demon. Monkey quickly disarms the “Small Sage Equaling Heaven” of his iron staff and pacifies him not with trickery but with an enlightening Buddhist koan. He then places the band on Luzhen’s head to teach him restraint (see Liu, 1994).

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A type one fillet from the comedy A Chinese Odyssey 2 (1995). Fig. 2 – (Center) A type two fillet from the 1986 TV show. Fig. 3 – (Right) A  type three fillet from an 11th-century painting in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China.

2. Past Research

It appears very few scholars writing in English have attempted to trace the origins of the golden fillet. Wang Tuancheng theorizes that the idea for the headband came from two sources. First, the historical journal of Xuanzang (602-664 CE), the Tang Dynasty monk on whom Tripitaka is loosely based, details how he was challenged to a religious debate by a man in a foreign kingdom who offered his own head as the price of defeat. Xuanzang won, but instead of collecting his prize, the monk took the man as his servant. Second, Wang notes that slaves during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) wore a metal collar around their neck shaped like the Chinese character for twenty (廿, nian). He goes on to explain: “…the author transformed the metal hoop that the non-Buddhist might have worn to Sun Wukong’s headband” (Wang, 2006, p. 67). I’m not particularly persuaded by this argument since Wang doesn’t offer any evidence as to why a Han-era slave implement would still be in use during the Tang (618-907 CE) four to five hundred years later; nor does he suggest a reason for why such a collar would be moved from the neck to the head. Besides, there exists religious art featuring the fillet (see below) that predates the novel by some three centuries, meaning it wasn’t the sole invention of the author/compiler of the novel.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that the 13th-century precursor of the novel, The Story of Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, does not mention the fillet at all (this is just one of many differences between it and the final 16th-century version). Monkey is simply portrayed as a concerned individual who purposely seeks out Tripitaka to ensure his safety, as the monk’s two previous incarnations have perished on the journey to India. In other words, he comes as a willing participant, which negates the need for positive punishment via the ringlet. [4] But at least two works coinciding with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) depict Monkey wearing a band, which, again, excludes the treasure being a later invention.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 13th-century stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and, most importantly, a type one fillet on the forehead (Fig. 4). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet “recalls the band around the head of representations of Andira, the simian guardian of Avalokitesvara” (the Indian counterpart to Guanyin) (Walker, 1998, p. 70). He goes on to list similarities between the stone relief and depictions of Andira, while also suggesting said depictions are based on south and southeast Asian representations of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman:

Identical earrings (these are key iconographic features of H[anuman] in many Southeast Asian R[ama saga]s), comparable tilt of the head… which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair… flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on the forearm and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H[anuman]. (Walker, 1998, p. 70).

So as it stands, the 13th-century appears to be the furthest that the motif has been reliably traced.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 4 (Left) – The 13th-century stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China (larger version). Fig. 5 – (Center) A portion of the 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two (larger version). Fig. 6 – (Right) The 12th-century Japanese painting “Aka-Fudo” (赤不動) (larger version).

3. My Findings

While Mair suggests a Southeast Asian Hindo-Buddhist influence, I know of at least one 11th-century example from northeastern China that suggests an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist influence. The Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (東千佛洞, Dong qianfo dong) in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a Xixia dynasty (1038-1227) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank. Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. He is portrayed with a type three circlet on his head, waist length hair, and light blue-green robes with brown pants (fig. 3 and 5). This painting was completed during a time when China was seeing an influx of monks fleeing the inevitable fall of India’s Buddhist-led Pala Dynasty (750-1174) from the 10th to the 12th-century. They brought with them the highly influential Pala Buddhist art style and Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of esoteric Buddhism. The MET (2010) writes:

A mixture of Chinese-style and Vajrayana traditions and imagery was employed in the Tangut Xixia Kingdom …  which was based in Ningxia, Gansu, and parts of Shanxi … It is difficult to imagine that this “new” type of Buddhism, which not only was flourishing in Tibet in the late tenth century but was also found in the neighboring Xixia Kingdom and may have been practiced by Tibetans based in the Hexi Corridor region of Gansu Province, was completely unknown in central China until the advent of the Mongols (p. 19).

The painting of Monkey and Tripitaka was surely created by an Indian/Tibetan Buddhist monk (or at the very least a fellow Tangut/Chinese practitioner) living in the area. This suggests the imagery within the painting, such as the fillet, could have an esoteric Buddhist pedigree, and textual evidence shows such headbands were indeed worn in some esoteric rituals. For example, the Indian Buddhist Hevajra Tantra (Ch: 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 8th-cent.) instructs adherents on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka, a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles:

The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears the bone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin… (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250).

Furthermore, it describes how each of the ritual adornments and implements used in the ceremony represents each of the five esoteric Buddhas, as well as other religio-philosophical elements:

Aksobhya is symbolized by the circletAmitabha by the ear-rings, Ratnesa by the necklace, and Vairocana (by the rings) upon the wrists. Amogha is symbolized by the girdle. Wisdom by the khatvanga [staff] and Means by the drum, while the yogin represents the Wrathful One himself [Heruka]. Song symbolizes mantra, dance symbolizes meditation, and so singing and dancing the yogin always acts (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251).

As can be seen, the circlet represents Aksobhya (Sk: “Immovable”; Ch: 阿閦如来, Achurulai). This deity is known for his adamantine vow to attain buddhahood through the practice of Sila, or “morality”, the aim of which “is to restrain nonvirtuous deeds of body and speech, often in conjunction with the keeping of precepts” (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, pp. 27 and 821). So the ritual band most likely served as a physical reminder of right speech and action, making it the best candidate for the origin of Monkey’s fillet. Sun is after all the representation of the “Monkey of the Mind” (as noted in the introduction), so his inclusion in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave painting was probably meant to convey the taming of this Buddhist concept via the circlet (apart from referencing the popular tale itself).

The Hevajra Tantra, the text in which the circlet appears, was first translated into Tibetan by Drogmi (993-1074) and adopted during the 11th-century as a central text by the respective founders of the Kagyu and Sakya sects, two of the six major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Various members of the Sakya sect were invited by Mongol royalty to initiate them into the text’s esoteric teachings during the 13th-century. These include Sakya Pandita and his nephew Chogyal Phagpa, who respectively tutored Genghis Khan’s grandson Prince Goden in 1244 and Kublai Khan in 1253. The meeting between Kublai and Chogyal resulted in Vajrayana Buddhism becoming the state religion of Mongolia. The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Chinese by the Indian monk Dharmapala (963-1058 CE) in 1055 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The text, however, did not become popular within the Chinese Buddhist community like it would with the Mongols in the 13th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455). But this evidence shows how the concept of the 8th-century ritual circlet could have traveled from India to East Asia to influence depictions of Sun Wukong in the 11th-century. And the relatively unknown status of the text in China might ultimately explain why there are so very few depictions of Chinese deities wearing the fillet, or why it does not appear in the 13th-century version of Journey to the West.

While the Xixia painting (fig. 5) lacks many of the ritual adornments (apart from the fillet) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, the Quanzhou stone relief (fig. 3) includes the band, earrings, necklace, bangles, and possibly even a tiger skin apron, suggesting it too has an esoteric origin (most likely based on Chinese source material). [5] The band’s connection to esoteric Buddhism is further strengthened by a 12th-century painting from Japan. Titled Aka-Fudo (赤不動), or “Red Fudo [Myoo]”, it depicts the wrathful esoteric god seated in a kingly fashion, holding a fiery, serpent-wrapped Vajra sword in one hand and a lasso in the other (fig. 6). He wears a golden, three-linked headband (similar to the curls of type one), which stands out against his deep red body and flaming aureola. Biswas (2010) notes: “…the headband on his forehead … indicate[s], according to some, a relation to the habit of groups of ascetics who were among the strong supporters of Acalanatha” (112). His supporters were no doubt yogin practitioners in the same vein as those who worshipped Heraku and other such wrathful protector deities.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 7 – (Left) Huang Ji’s “Sharpening a Sword” (early 15th-century) (larger version). Fig. 8 – (Center) Example of a jiegu (戒箍) fillet from a TV show. Fig. 9 – (Right) A late Ming woodblock of the warrior monk Lu Zhishen with a crescent staff (larger version).

3.1. The Fillet as a Symbol of Martial Deities and Warrior Monks

It’s important to note that Monkey was not the only cultural hero of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to wear a golden fillet. Another example is Li Tieguai (李鐵拐), or “Iron Crutch Li”, the oldest of the Eight Immortals.[6] Li is generally portrayed as a crippled beggar leaning on a cane. Legend has it that his original body was cremated prematurely by a disciple while the immortal traveled in spirit to answer a summons from Lord Laozi, the high god of Daoism. Li’s spirit returned a day later to find only ashes, thus forcing him to inhabit the body of a recently deceased cripple. According to Allen and Philips (2012), “Laozi gave him in recompense a golden headband and the crutch that was to become his symbol” (p. 108). Some depictions of Li wearing the fillet predate Journey to the West. The most striking example is Huang Ji’s Sharpening a Sword (early 15th-century) (Fig. 7), which portrays the immortal wearing a type three band and sharpening a double-edged blade on a stone while staring menacingly at the viewer. [7] One theory suggests Li’s martial visage identifies him as a “spirit-guardian of the [Ming] state” (Little, 2000, p. 333). Both Monkey and Li are therefore portrayed as brutish, weapon-bearing, golden headband-wearing immortals who serve as protectors. This shows the fillet was associated with certain warrior deities during the Ming.

The fillet’s connection to religion and martial attributes culminated in the Jiegu (戒箍, “ring to forget desires”), a type two band worn by Military Monks (武僧, Wuseng) in Chinese opera to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (fig. 8). Such monks are depicted as wearing a Jiegu over long hair (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328), which contrasts with the bald heads of religious monks.[8] I would like to suggest the band’s half-moon shape may have some connection to a Ming-era woodblock print motif in which martial monks are shown wielding staves tipped with a crescent (fig. 9). The exact reason for the shape is still unknown (Shahar, 2008, pp. 97-98), but the association between the crescent and martial monks seems obvious. The use of the fillet in Chinese opera led to it being worn by Sun Wukong in the highly popular 1986 live-action tv show adaptation of the novel (fig. 2).[9]

4. Conclusion

Examples of past research into the origins of the golden fillet respectively point to a slave collar from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and circa 13th-century South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman as possible precursors. However, the first isn’t credible, and the second, while on the right track, doesn’t go back far enough. An 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave complex depicts Sun Wukong wearing a type three fillet with possible ties to a ritual circlet worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. The Hevajra Tantra, the esoteric text that mentions the band, associates it with the Aksobhya Buddha and thereby his moralistic, self-restraining practices. The text was transmitted from india to Tibet, China, and Mongolia from the 11th to the 13th-centuries, showing a clear path for such imagery to appear in East Asia. A 12th-century Japanese Buddhist painting of the guardian deity Fudo Myoo with a fillet suggests the practice of wearing circlets in esoteric rituals continued for centuries. Other non-Buddhist deities became associated with the fillet during the Ming Dynasty. A 15th-century painting of the immortal Li Tieguai, for example, depicts him as a type one circlet-wearing, sword-wielding guardian of the Ming dynasty. All of this suggests the band became a symbol of weapon-bearing protector deities. The association between the fillet and religion and martial attributes led to its use as the symbol of military monks in Chinese opera.

Update: 12-23-17

I’ve been wondering what the 8th-century version of the circlet (along with the other ritual implements) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra might have looked like. While I have yet to find a contemporary sculpture or painting, I have found an 11th to 12th-century interpretation from Tibet. Titled The Buddhist Deity Hevajra (fig. 10), this copper alloy statue somewhat follows the prescribed iconography of the god as laid out in the aforementioned text:

Dark blue and like the sun in colour with reddened and extended eyes, his yellow hair twisted upwards, and adorned with the five symbolic adornments,/ the circlet, the ear-rings and necklace, the bracelets and belt. These five symbols are well known for the purificatory power of the Five Buddhas./ He has the form of a sixteen-year-old youth and is clad in a tiger-skin. His gaze is wrathful. In his left hand he holds a vajra-skull, and a khatvahga [staff] likewise in his left, while in his right is a vajra of [a] dark hue…(Linrothe, 1999, p. 256)

Fig. 10 – The Buddhist Deity Hevajra, late 11th to early 12th-century, copper alloy (larger version). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 11 – Detail of the circlet.


The circlet here is depicted as a fitted band with crescent trim and a teardrop-shaped adornment (a conch?) (fig. 11). The statue’s iconography more closely follows that from the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries. The following information probably derives from the later part of this period:

He wields the vajra in the right hand and from his left shoulder hangs the Khatvanga [staff] with a flowing banner, like a sacred thread. He carries in his left hand the kapala [skull cap] full of blood. His necklace is beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads. His face is slightly distorted with bare fangs and blood-shot eyes. His brown hair rises upwards and forms into a crown which bears the effigy of Aksobhya. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).

Our statue has many of these features but lacks the image of the Buddha in his hair. This suggests the knob visible in the coif (fig. 10) once carried such a figure. So once again we see the importance of the Aksobhya Buddha. The statue is similar to 10th and 11th-century stone statues from India.[10]

While this doesn’t get us any closer to what the original circlet looked like, this statue adds to the mutability of the fillet imagery. The Hevajra Tantra is vague in its description, and so it is no surprise that so many variations have appeared over the centuries. The original sanskrit text uses the word cakri (circle) to refer to the band (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62). This might explain the simple type three fillet worn by Monkey in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave two painting (fig. 2).


1) The type of band that is given to particular characters is explained in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 251.
2) For the entire episode, see Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 314-320.
3) The child first speaks his new name in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 354. The name Sudhana originates from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 386-387 n. 3).
4) For a complete English translation, see Wivell (1994).
5) This is just one of many relief carvings that grace the pagoda. It includes other guardian-type figures with esoteric elements but rendered in the Chinese style. See Ecke and Demiéville (1935).
6) The Eight Immortals are Daoist saints who came to be worshipped as a group starting sometime in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) (Little 2000: 319).
7) The sword is usually a symbol of the immortal Lu Dongbin, but, as noted above, it is used to identify Li Tieguai as a Ming guardian (Little 2000: 333).
8) Shahar (2008) discusses the historical differences between religious and military monks in ancient China.
9) The actor who played Monkey, Liu Xiao Ling Tong (Born Zhang Jinlai 章金萊, 1959), comes from a family who has specialized in playing Sun Wukong in Chinese opera for generations (Ye, 2016).
10) See the Heruka chapter in Linrothe (1999). He includes our statue in his study, but other sources describe it as Tibetan instead of India (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 458).


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