Master Subhuti’s Curriculum II: Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some fun Fanfiction Speculation

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Shaolin map

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist deity laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).


Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.


Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

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


My Sun Wukong Art – “The Buddha has Awakened”

At the end of chapter 100, Tripitaka and his disciples are elevated in spiritual rank as a reward for their hardwon quest to retrieve scriptures from India. Pigsy becomes an altar cleaner, Sandy becomes a Luohan (Buddhist saint), and the priest and Sun both become Buddhas. This paragraph describes what the Buddha says to Monkey upon his ascension:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife” [Dou zhangsheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

Despite this promotion, Sun still dreads the magic golden headband might be used on him. But he soon learns the heaven-sent punishment has disappeared once he became an enlightened being, denoting the internalization of self-restraint:

As the various Buddhas gave praise to the great dharma of Tathagata, Pilgrim Sun said also to the Tang Monk, “Master, I’ve become a Buddha now, just like you. It can’t be that I still must wear a golden fillet! And you wouldn’t want to clamp my head still by reciting that so-called Tight-Fillet Spell, would you? Recite the Loose-Fillet Spell quickly and get it off my head. I’m going to smash it to pieces, so that that so-called Bodhisattva can’t use it anymore to play tricks on other people.”

“Because you were difficult to control previously,” said the Tang Monk, “this method had to be used to restrain you. Now that you have become a Buddha, naturally it will be gone. How could it be still on your head? Try touching your head and see.” Pilgrim raised his hand and felt along his head, and indeed the fillet had vanished (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 382-383).


Fig. 1 – Wooden sculpture of the monk Baozhi, 12th-century, Saiho Temple, Kyoto, Japan.

I’ve always wanted to create a piece of digital art portraying Monkey’s ascension and loss of his headband but never knew how to depict both events in the same picture. That is until a few days ago when I came across a beautiful 12th-century Japanese wooden sculpture of the Chan Buddhist monk Baozhi (Jp: Hoshi; K: Poji, 保志/寶志, 418–514) (fig. 1). The piece depicts “the monk’s face in supernatural corporeal transformation, splitting open to reveal the face of the numinous Eleven-Headed Kannon [Guanyin],” symbolizing his enlightenment (Levine, 2005, p. 72). I felt the statue was the best expression of enlightenment that I’ve ever seen. I later discovered the historical Baozhi was known for his ever youthful appearance, carrying a fanciful staff, and working magical miracles (Robert & David, 2013, p. 98; Ebrey, 1993, pp. 100-102), much like our hero. I therefore knew this piece would be the model from which I’d create my art.

This is the final product created in Photoshop CS6 (fig. 2). The piece is comprised of 15 layers using eight different pictures. It took roughly two days working on and off during free time. The screaming face of the angry immortal splits open, giving way to the serene Buddha beneath. The sparks at the top represent the headband violently snapping open since it is no longer needed. Rays of spiritual light shine from the urna on Monkey’s forehead.

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – The Buddha has Awakened (larger version). By the author.


Ebrey, P. B. (1993). Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd Ed. New York: Free Press.

Levine, G. P. A. (2005). Daitokuji: The visual cultures of a Zen monastery. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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

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

The Story of the Original Golden Headband in the Great Sage Treasure Temple, Kowloon, Hong Kong

I recently attended the birthday of Sun Wukong on September 25th (the 16th day of the 8th lunar month) in Kowloon, Hong Kong (I’ll write more about this later). While the festivities took place at an alternate location with a secondary altar, I later visited the main altar in the Great Sage Treasure Temple (Dasheng bao miao, 大聖寶廟) on the Po Tat Estate. The altar stage includes a large gilded statue of Wukong, flanked on either side by those of his religious brothers Sha Wujing and Zhu Bajie. Strangely enough, a glass box is conspicuously placed in front of the Monkey King’s visage (fig. 1). Inside is a rusted metal band held together with a single chain link (fig. 2). An accompanying text panel labels it the “Golden Headband” (Jingang gu, 金剛箍) and claims the piece to be the original band worn by the Great Sage during his adventures. This same text is echoed in the Kowloon Great Sage Buddha Hall: Special Inaugural Ceremony Issue of the Sixteenth Year Council Association (Jiulong Dasheng Fo tang: Di shiliu jie lishi hui jiu shi dianli tekan, 九龍大聖佛堂: 第十六屆理事會就識典禮特刊) (2014), a booklet handed out during this year’s festivities. [1]


Fig. 1 – The glass box is visible between the food offerings and the Great Sage’s statue (larger version). Photo by the author.

From Childhood, I believe that everyone has read the story of the golden headband from Journey to the West. Everyone is familiar with the tale. A few decades later [after the events took place], some Buddhists were invited to a Buddhist statue workshop in Shanwei [City, Guangdong Province, China] to see if the Buddha statue they ordered was finished. But when they saw the statue they found it full of flaws. Suddenly, one among them spoke up and said it wasn’t made well enough. The Buddhist statue workshop master asked not to be chastised and said he instead wanted to give them a treasure. They asked him what it was. When he handed it to them they saw it was the Great Sage Buddha’s [original] golden headband.

People say that when Sun Wukong would not accept the Buddhist teachings, Guanyin put the band on his head. Sun Wukong ran side to side while yelling, trying to take it off and throw it far away to some unknown place [but couldn’t].

Many years later, maybe until ten years ago, a virtuous man purchased a sandalwood tree in order to build a Great Sage Buddha statue. He gave it to a Buddhist statue workshop master, who started to saw the tree but soon discovered the golden headband inside and decided to keep it for himself. Two years later, he decided to return it so everyone could behold this sacred treasure. Today, we asked the Buddhist workshop master to make a glass box to display the band in the Great Sage Temple for everyone to worship (p. 45). [2]


Fig. 2 – The glass box with the headband. The accompanying text panel can be seen in the back (larger version). Photo by the author.

Chapter 100 of the original novel describes the headband disappearing once Monkey internalizes self-restraint and becomes a Buddha (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 383). The ultimate fate of the band is never commented on thereafter. The above story presents a continuation of the tale, thereby linking the Great Sage Treasure Temple with the original events of the novel. The band is lost and discovered twice over the centuries, eventually coming to rest in Hong Kong.

Similarities with Shaolin art

The displayed headband appears to be quite old given the level of rust damage. In addition, the style is different than any band I’ve written about before. That being said, the style is somewhat similar to a 17th-century mural from the famed Shaolin Monastery. The mural depicts a muscular luohan wielding a staff and standing next to a ferocious tiger (possibly the Tiger-Taming Luohan). His crown is adorned with a headband held together by a single chain link (fig. 3) similar to our aforementioned band. I am by no means claiming a connection to Shaolin, but it shows there may have been some style of linked headband associated with protector deities in late dynastic China.

17th-Century Shaolin Fresco

Fig. 3 – The 17th-century Shaolin mural (larger version). Take note of the linked headband. From Shahar, 2008, p. 90.


1) The presented folk story is as told by the Kowloon Great Sage Buddha Hall First Vice-Chairperson Qian Peiqun (錢佩群).

2) Thank you to Kelly Black Lin for helping me with the translation.


Kowloon Great Sage Buddha hall: Special inaugural ceremony issue of the sixteenth year Council association (2014, Sept. 9). Published by the Hong Kong Shanwei General Commerce Association Limited.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Sun Wukong’s Hellish Punishment

At the end of chapter seven, the Monkey King is crushed under Five Elements Mountain for 500 years as punishment for attempting to usurp the throne of heaven. I’ve previously written that this sentence is based on Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasty tales of the Sage King and demigod Yu the Great subduing an aquatic monkey demon under a mountain. Sun Wukong’s time pinned by the mountain has been portrayed numerous times in movies and television. But modern media often forgets that this was only part of his punishment, the other half being a hellish diet:

Moved by compassion, he [the Buddha] recited a divine spell and called together a local spirit and the Fearless Guards of Five Quarters to stand watch over the Five-Phases Mountain [fig. 1]. They were told to feed the prisoner [Monkey] with iron pellets [tie wanzi, 鐵丸子] when he was hungry and to give him melted copper [ronghua de tong zhi, 溶化的銅汁] to drink when he was thirsty. When the time of his chastisement was fulfilled, they were told, someone would be coming to deliver him (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 199).

Monkey imprisoned, Son Goku (1939) - small

Fig. 1 – One of the guards charged with watching over Monkey (larger version). From the children’s book Son Goku (1939).

The Origin

This punishment comes directly from Buddhist doctrine describing the torture of sinners in hell (Sk: Naraka; Ch: Diyu, 地獄). For example, the Dirghagama (Ch: Chang Ahun Jing, 長阿含經; “The Collection of Long Scriptures”), which survived thanks to a Chinese translation from the original Sanskrit in 413 CE (Robert & David, 2013, p. 246), describes two realms in hell in which the damned are fed such a horrific diet:

[…] Terrified they run out, seeking safety and refuge, but they arrive at the Hell of Hunger [Ji, 飢].

The wardens come to ask them: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are hungry”. The wardens then seize them and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with iron hooks the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open; they put iron pellets into them [fig. 2]. The pellets burn their lips and tongues, from the throats down to their stomachs. The pellets penetrate through the sinners; there is nothing but burning. The horrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since their punishment is not yet completed, the sinners do not perish. After having suffered for a long time, they leave the Hell of Hunger. Frightened they run away, looking for relief and safety, until they arrive to the Hell of Thirst [Ke, 渴].

The wardens come to them and ask: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are thirsty.” The wardens thereupon seize the sinners and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with hot iron hooks, the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open. They pour down molten copper [fig. 3]. It burns their mouth, lips and tongue; from their throats it reaches their stomachs. It penetrates down and goes through them; there is nothing but burning. The terrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since the remaining transgressions have not yet been atoned, they do not perish. After having been subjected to this punishment for a long time, they leave the Hell of Thirst (Howard, 1986, p. 131).

Soul being forced to eat iron pellets

Fig. 2 – A damned soul being force-fed red hot iron pellets (larger version); Fig. 3 – Souls being forced to drink molten copper (larger version). Images from the 20th-century.

The same source explains the hells of hunger and thirst are the respective fourth and fifth of sixteen minor hells (xiao yu, 小獄) making up one of the eight greater purgatories (Da diyu, 大地獄) called the hell of Consciousness (xiang, 想). Sinners reborn into this labyrinth of pain are full of anger and lash out at each other with scythe-like claws and swords and daggers. They remain conscious through endless rounds of dismemberment and resurrection via a magical wind. They then wander into each successive minor hell, enduring everything from grinding by hot millstones to their flesh and bones being shattered by blistering cold. Again, each sinner remains conscious and resurrects between each purgatory (Howard, 1986, pp. 129-134).

Another name for the greater hell of Consciousness is the Sanskrit term Samjiva (Ch: deng huo, 等活), meaning “revival” or “repetition”. These might refer to the cyclical resurrection of the sinner, or to their karmic punishment mirroring what they did to others in life (Robert & David, 2013, p. 754).

It should be noted that, unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, rebirth in the Buddhist hell is not forever. For some it may last eons, but the torture serves to cleanse the spirit of past sins gained in life. Once the karmic debt has been repaid, the soul will be reborn into one of the other six realms of existence (hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, asura, and deva). Sometimes souls have to work their way back up to human status if they have particularly heavy karmic baggage.

Monkey’s punishment is essentially hell on earth. The Five Elements mountain pins him down so the chosen guards can torture him with hot iron pellets and molten copper just like those in the subterranean hells of hunger and thirst. He is not capable of dying, so his immortality serves a similar function to the magic wind that continually resurrects the damned. The finite length of his sentence (500 years) is similar to the way a soul will only stay in the hell realm until they have repaid their karmic debt. And Tripitaka delivering him from his torments is like a soul being reborn into a new life. After all, Monkey’s life drastically changes after his release; he goes from being a rebellious, power-hungry demon, to a Buddhist monk devoted to the protection of his master.

Other Damned Celestials

Sun Wukong is not the only celestial to be damned to drink molten copper. Readers may be surprised to learn that this same heavenly punishment also afflicts King Yama (Yanluo Wang, 閻羅王), the greatest of the Ten Judges of Hell. The aforementioned Dirghagama reads:

Buddha said to the bhiksus: “South of Jambudvipa, in the interior of the great Diamond Mountain, lies the palace of King Yama. The realm he governs extends for six thousand yojanas in both directions. His city has seven rows of ramparts, with seven nets and seven rows of trees … Day and night, three times a day, a huge copper cauldron automatically places itself in front of him. If the huge cauldron emerges in the interior of the palace, the king, upon seeing it, rushes out of the palace stricken by horror and fright. But then, if the cauldron emerges outside the palace, the king, upon seeing it, reenters the palace stricken by horror and fright. Giant hell wardens grab King Yama and have him lie down on hot irons. With iron hooks, they split his mouth open and force molten copper down. It burns his lips and tongue; from the throat, it reaches his stomach. It spreads down below and passes through [his body] so that no place is left unburnt. The punishment continues [in this fashion] until its completion. Afterwards, King Yama returns to seek amusement with all his ladies. Many great state[s]men, who possessed riches, are also punished in this way” (Howard, 1986, p. 141).

So Yama inhabits an odd position where he is both a member of the heavenly hierarchy working to judge the fate of the dead and a damned soul repaying a karmic debt through torture.


Howard, A. F. (1986). The imagery of the Cosmological Buddha. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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

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

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 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 and the Three Heavenly Calamities

Last updated: 09/10/2018

In chapter two, Master Subhuti warns Sun Wukong that he must protect himself from Three Calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) sent by heaven to punish him for achieving immortality and defying his fate (fig. 1). These punishments come every half millenia in the form of destructive elements:

Though your appearance will be preserved and your age lengthened, after five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of thunder [lei zai, 雷災] to strike you. Hence you must be intelligent and wise enough to avoid it ahead of time. If you can escape it, your age will indeed equal that of Heaven; if not, your life will thus be finished. After another five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of fire [huo zai, 火災] to burn you. The fire is neither natural nor common fire; its name is the Fire of Yin [yin huo, 陰火], and it arises from within the soles of your feet to reach even the cavity of your heart, reducing your entrails to ashes and your limbs to utter ruin. The arduous labor of a millennium will then have been made completely superfluous. After another five hundred years the calamity of wind [feng zai, 風災] will be sent to blow at you. It is not the wind from the north, south, east, or west; nor is it one of the winds of four seasons; nor is it the wind of flowers, willows, pines, and bamboos. It is called the Mighty Wind [bi feng, 贔風], and it enters from the top of the skull into the body, passes through the midriff, and penetrates the nine apertures. [1] The bones and the flesh will be dissolved and the body itself will disintegrate. You must therefore avoid all three calamities (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 121-122).

These calamities are important because Monkey subsequently learns the 72 transformations in order to escape punishment by hiding under any one of a myriad number of disguises. Therefore, exploring the origins of the three calamities has merit.

Monkey learning from master - Elements (small)

Fig. 1 – Master Subhuti tells Sun about the Three Calamities (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

The novel likely borrows from a Buddhist cosmological concept called the Three Calamities (sanzai, 三災). We first need some background before continuing. Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). The Three Calamities are responsible for the destruction of each Mahakalpa.

Kloetzli (1983) describes the cyclical destruction of each Mahakalpa by an element:

The destructions are of three kinds: those by fire, those by water and those by wind. […] The destructions succeed one another in the following sequence: seven by fire followed by a destruction by water. This cycle of eight destructions is repeated a total of seven times. This is then followed by seven more destructions by fire, followed by a final by wind. Thus there are 7 x 8 or 56 destructions by fire; 7 by water and a final 64th by wind [fig. 2] (p. 75).

Therefore, the Three Calamities from Journey to the West follow a similar cycle of destructive elements appearing at set time intervals, lightning, fire, and wind every 500 years in place of fire, water, and wind at the end of every Mahakalpa. And instead of destroying the universe, the elements are sent to kill those who have achieved immortality.

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Fig. 2 – A chart mapping the cyclical destructions by fire, water, and wind. A larger version is available on this CBETA page.

The earliest mention of Buddhism’s Three Calamities in Chinese writing that I know of appears in scroll one of the Pearl Forest of the Dharma Garden (Fayuan zhulin, 法苑珠林), a Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia published in 688. So there was plenty of time between this work and the publishing of Journey to the West in 1592.

I was interested to learn that Monkey’s calamities made their way into modern Wuxia (武俠, “Martial hero”) literature. For example, the author of the Immortal Mountain wordpress writes:

Heavenly Tribulation (天劫 tiānjié) (重劫 zhòngjié) – in some novels, a trial encountered by cultivators at key points in their cultivation, which they must resist and ultimately transcend. Because immortal cultivation (generally) goes against the Will of Heaven, the Heavens will send down tribulations to oppress high-level cultivators who make progress towards Immortality, often right when they enter a new cultivation stage. This typically takes the form of a lightning storm, with extraordinarily powerful bolts of lightning raining down from the Heavens to strike at the cultivator (source).

The trial by lightning is exactly like the calamity of thunder mentioned by Master Subhuti.

Update: 09/10/2018

The Wuxia/Xianxia (仙侠, “Immortal hero”) literature translator Deathblade (twitter) was kind enough to direct me to an example of a tribulation from a popular Chinese television show. The time-stamped scene involves a 20,000-year-old child immortal experiencing a trial by lightning. The heavenly bolts tear at his clothing and draw blood, but he survives the ordeal.

Deathblade also directed me to an example from an online Xianxia novel called I shall Seal the Heavens (Wo yu feng tian, 我欲封天). Chapter 385(!) describes how the anti-hero Meng Hao (孟浩) uses a sentient heavenly treasure to protect himself from powerful bolts of lightning, which instead seek out and kill nearby spiritual cultivators on the cusp of immortality:

The Heavenly Tribulation boomed as one lightning bolt after another shot down onto Meng Hao, who held the meat jelly upraised in his hand to defend himself. The lightning would subsequently disperse into the area around him. Any nearby Cultivators would let out bloodcurdling screams. Soon, the air filled with the sounds of cursing and reviling.

Meng Hao didn’t care. This was something he had learned from Patriarch Reliance. When you con someone and then end up getting cursed by them, you must maintain your cool. It was really a realm unto itself.

Throughout the years, Meng Hao had conned many people, and had refined that skill to the very pinnacle. Therefore, he continued to redirect the descending lightning to the various Cultivators in the three thousand kilometer region.

Wherever he went, he was surrounded by a lake of lightning, along with plaintive cursing. What he left behind was scorched corpses.

To the Cultivators here, it was nothing but a massacre, a slaughter in which no one could do anything to fight back. They couldn’t attack him, nor could they flee as… they were horrified to discover that Meng Hao’ speed was incredible, even if he was being struck by lightning!

(read more here)

The character uses trickery to protect himself from the bolts just like Monkey intended to do with his transformations.

It should be noted that Sun never has to protect himself from lightning because he was trapped under Five Elements mountain upon the 500th anniversary of his immortality (he lived to be roughly 400 prior to taking up spiritual cultivation). And he achieves Buddhahood prior to reaching the 1,000th year of his immortality, so he never has to guard against subsequent calamities.


1) The eyes, ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus.


Kloetzli, R. (1983). Buddhist cosmology: From single world system to pure land : science and theology in the images of motion and light. Oxford: Motilal Books.

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

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

The Monkey King and Graffiti

Type the phrase “到此一遊/游” (daoci yi you) into an online Chinese dictionary and chances are the results will say it’s a type of vandalism meaning “…was here”, as in “so-and-so was here”. This phrase is often used as a form of graffiti by Chinese tourists wanting to record their visit to a particular site. The most famous modern example that comes to mind happened in 2013 when a Chinese teenager defaced a carving in Egypt’s 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple with the phrase “Ding Jinhao was here” (丁锦昊到此一游, Ding Jinhao daoci yi you) (fig. 1) (Wong, 2013).

Chinese graffiti - small

Fig. 1 – The “Ding Jinhao was here” graffiti on the face of a Luxor Temple relief (larger version). Screenshot from a CBS news report

This same phrase appears in the seventh chapter of Journey to the West. After Sun Wukong escapes from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace, the immortal causes such an uproar that the Buddha is forced to intervene. The latter makes the former a wager that, if Monkey can jump out of his hand, the Buddha will make him the new Emperor of Heaven. Sun accepts and leaps from the Enlightened One’s palm:

As the Great Sage advanced, he suddenly saw five flesh-pink pillars supporting a mass of green air. “This must be the end of the road,” he said. “When I go back presently, Tathagata [the Buddha] will be my witness and I shall certainly take up residence in the Palace of Divine Mists.” But he thought to himself, “Wait a moment! I’d better leave some kind of memento if I’m going to negotiate with Tathagata.” He plucked a hair and blew a mouthful of magic breath onto it, crying, “Change!” It changed into a writing brush with extra thick hair soaked in heavy ink. One the middle pillar he then wrote in large letters the following line: “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, has made a tour of this place” [齊天大聖,到此一遊, Qitian Dasheng, daoci yi you] (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 194-195) (fig. 2).

Everyone who has read the story knows the pillars are in fact the Buddha’s fingers and that Monkey never left because the former had exercised his great spiritual powers. Sun is shortly thereafter crushed under Five Elements Mountain as punishment.

The Great Sage Defaces Buddha's Hand, from Son Goku (1939) - small

Fig. 2 – Sun tags the pillar (Buddha’s finger) with the phrase “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven was here” (larger version). From Son Goku (1939). 

The quoted translation by Anthony C. Yu can be rendered simply as “The Great Sage was here”. This is a perfect example of Monkey’s brash, ego-driven personality, not unlike the type of tourist who’d think it appropriate to defile an ancient monument with their name. A few online sources (example) suggest Journey to the West is the origin of the “…was here” phrase used by so many Chinese tourists. However, knowing that the novel has so many historical influences, I’m of the opinion this literary element certainly has a real world origin. But the novel no doubt helped make the phrase more popular in the public eye.

Can you imagine how many people copied this episode shortly after the novel was published during the Ming Dynasty?


Wong, H. (2013, May 29). Netizen outrage after Chinese tourist defaces Egyptian temple. Retrieved September 6, 2018, from

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