Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of a thousand arms.[1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

There is a lot of information to unpack, so I’ll go through the important parts line by line.

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this pattern to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the Big Dipper pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping, three pace-style walking pattern. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.


Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hardwon “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008).

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.


This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few minutes.

Despite the ritual’s relationship to internal cultivation and the attainment of immortality, the process only bestows the princes with new, adamantine bodies capable of superhuman strength. They in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. The princes gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.


1) The original Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation should read “tens of thousands of arms”.

2) Andersen (2008) notes the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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


10 Facts About Sun Wukong

The following video presents 10 facts about Sun Wukong that even superfans of the novel may not know. It is a summation of my and other scholars’ research. I hope you like it and will share with your friends and family.

The Origin of Monkey’s Punishment Under Five Elements Mountain

Last updated: 05-16-2018

After escaping from Laozi’s furnace, Sun Wukong battles his way through heaven until the Buddha is called in to halt his rebellion. The Enlightened One makes him a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, he demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain. Yet the Buddha explains that he had used his infinite powers to cloud Sun’s mind, tricking him into thinking he had left, when he actually stayed in his hand the entire time. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 193-195).

I. The source

The idea of a primate demon being imprisoned under a mountain can be traced to a story appearing in Tang (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279) sources. The first and shortest version appears in the Supplement to the History of the Empire (Guoshi, 國史補, early 9th-cent.):

There was a fisherman at Chuzhao 楚州 who unexpectedly hooked an ancient iron chain in the Huai [river 淮河], but could not pull it clear. He reported this to the Prefect, Li Yang 李陽, who summoned a large number of men to draw it out. At the end of the chain was a black monkey; it jumped out of the water, then plunged back and vanished. Later this was verified in the Shanhai jing 山海經, from the words—’A river-beast persistently wrought destruction. [1] Yu [the great 大禹] chained it below Junshan 軍山. It’s name was Wuzhiqi’ 無支奇 (Andersen, 2001, pp. 15-16). [2]


A modern depiction of Wuzhiqi (larger version).

A longer and more well-known account appears in Extensive Records of the Taiping Reign (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). The entry explains how the water spirit Wuzhiqi came to wear the iron chain. The passage is quite long, so I’ll paraphrase the beginning and middle sections:

[While taking a boat (c. 797), Li Gongzuo 李公佐 of Longxi 隴西 by chance meets Yang Heng 楊衡 of Hongnong 弘農. Yang tells Li the following story.] [3]

In the reign period of Yongtai (765) Li Tang was governor of Chuzhou. One night, at that time, a fisherman was out fishing below Turtle Mountain [龜山], when his hook caught on something and would not come up again. The fisherman was an expert swimmer and quickly went down to a depth of fifty zhang (c. 150 meters), where he saw a great iron chain encircling the base of the mountain. He searched but could not find the end of it, and he subsequently informed Li Tang about it.

Li Tang ordered several tens of fishermen and people who could swim to get hold of the chain, but they were unable to pull it free. He increased their forces with that of fifty heads of oxen, and now the chain gave way and began little by little to move onto the shore. There was no wind at the time, but all of a sudden the waves started to roll and gush forth, and those who watched were greatly frightened. At the end of the chain a beast appeared, shaped like a monkey, with [a] white head and long mane, teeth like snow and golden claws, and it rushed onto the shore. It was more than five zhang high (c. 15 meters), and it squatted in the manner of a monkey; only it could not open its eyes, but sat motionless as if in a daze. Water ran down from its eyes and nose in a stream, and its spittle was so repellent and foul-smelling that people could not be near it. After a long while it stretched out its neck and lowered it, and suddenly opened its eyes. They were as bright as lightning, and it looked at people around it, raging with madness. Those who watched took to their heels, and the beast very slowly pulled at the chain and dragged the oxen with it into the water, never to emerge again. Many knowledgeable and prominent men from Chu were present, and they looked at Li Tang and at each other, startled and fearful, not knowing the source of this. Since then the fishermen were aware of the location of the chain, but in fact the beast never appeared again.

[Li travels to Mt. Bao (Baoshan, 包山) and, with the help of the Daoist Zhou Jiaojun 周焦君, deciphers the following account found in the eighth scroll of the Classic of Peaks and Rivers (Yuedu jing, 岳瀆經).] [4]

When Yu regulated the waters, he went thrice to the Tongbai 桐栢 mountains, and each time a storm broke, with crashes of thunder, shattering the stones and making the trees groan. The Five Earls, Wubo 伍伯, restrained the waters, the Celestial Elder, Tianlao 天老, harnessed his troops, but they could not begin their work. In anger Yu summoned the hundred sacred powers. He searched for and called upon the Dragon Kui, Kuilong 夔龍, and the thousand spiritual lords and seniors of Mt. Tongbai bowed their heads and asked for his command. Yu then assigned Hongmeng 鴻蒙氏, Zhangshang 章商氏, Doulu 兜盧氏, and Lilou 犁婁氏, to the task, and they captured the god of the rivers Huai and Guo, whose name was Wuzhiqi 無支祁. It answered readily when spoken to and knew about the shallow and the deep parts of the Yangzi and the Huai, and about how far the marshlands extended. It was shaped like a monkey, with [a] flattened nose and high brows, black body and white head, metallic eyes and teeth like snow. Its neck stretched out to a length of a hundred feet (c. 30 meters), and its strength exceeded that of nine elephants. It attacked in high leaps and running swiftly, its movements were agile and sudden, and one could not keep it in sight or hearing for very long.

Yu turned it over to Zhanglu 章律, but he could not control it. He turned it over to Niaomuyou 鳥木由, but he could not control it. He turned it over to Gengchen 庚辰, and he could control it. For thousands of years the Chipi 鴟脾 and the Huanhu 桓胡, the tree goblins and the water spirits, the mountain sprites and the stone prodigies had roamed and roared and gathered around it, but Gengchen used his military prowess to chase them away. He tied a great chain around its neck, pierced its nose and attached a golden bell to it. He placed it under the base of Turtle Mountain at the southern bank of the Huai, so that forever after the Huai flowed peacefully into the sea. Since the time of Gengchen people would all make images of this shape in order not to suffer from the waves and rainstorms of the Huai (Andersen, 2001, pp. 17-21). [5]


A Japanese depiction of a Tarsier-like Wuzhiqi (larger version).

This entry presents Wuzhiqi as a supernaturally strong monkey demon with flashing eyes and the ability to perform transformations (by stretching its neck). The gods then imprison him below a mountain to punish his affront to the natural order (calm the waves created by him). It’s no wonder then how it influenced the final novel.

Update: 05-16-2018

Another source comes from the early Ming (14th-15th-cent.) zaju play Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) by Yang Jingxian (杨景賢). But instead of it being the Buddha, the monkey is trapped by the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and instead of Five Elements Mountain, it is his home of Flower Fruit Mountain. Dudbridge (1970) paraphrases scene nine, titled “The Holy Buddha Defeats Sun”:

Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] now appears: after an initial poem vaunting his celestial birth, his ubiquity and power, he lists out the members of his ape family, alludes to his career of misdeeds and his wife, the abducted Princess of Jindingguo [金鼎國, the Golden Cauldron Country].

Devaraja Li appears, with orders to recover the possessions stolen by Sun from the Queen Mother of the West. He issues orders to his son Nezha, who enters with troops upon orders from the Jade Emperor to capture Sun Xingzhe in his home Ziyun luo dong [紫雲羅洞, Purple Cloud Cave] on Huaguoshan.

The princess-wife now enters (the singer in this act) and tells in song the story of her abduction and the life on this mountain. She is joined by Sun and they prepare to feast.

The celestial troops surround them, Sun’s animal guards flee and Sun himself escapes. Devaraja Li ‘combs the hills’ and meanwhile finds the princess, who now sings through the remainder of her suite of songs until it is decided to give her escort back to her home.

Sun Xingzhe eludes the forces of Nezha and is captured only by intervention by Guanyin, who has him imprisoned beneath Huaguoshan to await the arrival of Tripitaka, his future master (p. 195). [6]


1) Anderson (2001) explains that no such entry for Wuzhiqi exists in this historical bestiary (p. 16).

2) The demon Wuzhiqi is presented as a sister to Sun Wukong in a Yuan-Ming era stage play.

3) Li Gongzuo (c. 770-c. 848) was a historical story teller and the presumed author of this particular tale (Andersen, 2001, p. 16).

4) This is most likely a fictional version of the aforementioned Shanhai jing (Andersen, 2001, p. 16).

5) One such statue dating to the Song Dynasty is held in the Museum fur Ostasiatische kunst in Berlin. It is discussed at length in Anderson (2001).

6) Source slightly altered. The Wade-Giles was changed to Pinyin.


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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

Monkey’s Birth from Stone and more Connections to Yu the Great

Last updated: 03/09/2019

Chapter one of Journey to the West describes Sun Wukong‘s birth from stone (fig. 1).

There was on top of that very mountain [Flower Fruit Mountain] an immortal stone, which measured [36 feet 5 inches (11.09 m) in height and 24 feet (7.31 m) in circumference]. Though it lacked the shade of trees on all sides, it was set off by epidendrums on the left and right. Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo [xian bao, 仙胞]. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg [shi luan, 石卵] about the size of a playing ball [yuan qiu, 圓毬]. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Monkey's stone birth, by Zhang Moyi - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article.

I. Origins

So why was Monkey born from a stone? Ancient Chinese fertility cults placed stones on altars dedicated to creation goddesses because the earth element symbolized the fertile, creative forces of nature. For example, one such goddess, Nuwa (女媧), is said to have fashioned mankind from mud and mended the heavens with five magic stones. A few such fertility cults are also associated with Yu the Great (大禹), a legendary sage emperor of the Xia Dynasty, via his marriage to Nuwa (in some traditions), and it is this connection that culminated in stories from the Han Dynasty claiming that Yu was born from a stone. An ancient tale said to be from the Huainanzi (淮南子, c. 139) states the same happened to his son:

Yu went to appease the floods. He pierced through Huanyuan Mountain, and transformed himself into a bear. [Earlier] Yu had said to Tushan [土山, his wife], ‘At the sound of the drum, you would bring me food.’ Yu jumped on a piece of rock, and thus hit the drum by mistake. Tushan [brought the food and] went. She saw the transformed bear. Feeling embarrassed and distressed, she went away as far as the foot of Songgao Mount where she was transformed into a stone. Yu said to her, ‘Return my son.’ Facing north, the stone split open and gave birth to Qi [啓, fig. 2] (Wang, 2000, p. 54).

Qi of Xia from the Shanhai Jing - Small

Fig. 2 – A woodblock print of Emperor Qi of Xia from a Ming-era version of the Shanhai jing (larger version). Plate XLIV from Strassberg, 2002, p. 168. 

What I find interesting about this is that Yu and his son Qi went on to become great heroes and rulers after their births from stone. This parallels Monkey’s birth, enthronement, and later adventures. In a way, this makes Monkey a sort of literary spiritual successor to Yu. The compiler/author of JTTW may have wanted to literally cast Wukong as a cultural hero in the same vein as the flood conqueror by giving him a similar origin. This then would explain why Monkey comes to wield Yu’s cosmic ruler, the gold-banded cudgel, the means by which the future Xia emperor put the world into order, as a weapon.

Also of interest is the fact that a later alternative name for Qi (啓) is Kai (開). Both of these names mean “open”, which no doubt refers to his legendary origins (Strassberg, 2002, pp. 169 and 219).

Updated: 03/09/2019

Thanks to my friend Jose Loayza on twitter, I was surprised to learn that there is a Western counterpart to Sun Wukong’s supernatural birth. The Persian-turned-Roman god of light, Mithras, is often depicted being born from a stone, sometimes called the Petra Genetrix, or the “Fecund rock.” Manfred Clauss notes the symbolism of the rock is tied to the earth and the cosmic egg (I have uploaded the relevant chapter section here).

The multi-layered quality of Mithraic symbolism…reappears in the case of the rock: represented and understood not only as the kosmos but also as the earth, on many images it is encircled by a serpent, [fig. 3] a creature associated with the earth (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 67).


We can discern the influence of Orphic speculation in a Greek inscription from one of the numerous mithraea in Rome, on a statue-base dedicated Διi ‘Hλω Miθpa Φávητı, that is to Deus Sol Mithras Phanes. Phanes is the embodiment of unlimited light, an Orphic deity who emerged from the cosmic egg. There is also literary evidence for the syncretism of Mithras with Phanes. In this community, therefore, Mithras’ identification with the sungod grounded an allusion to the Orphic-Platonic ideas current among the intellectual élites. Mithras-Phanes is also known to us in iconographic form: a relief from Vercovicium (Housesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall shows Mithras emerging from the cosmic egg, [fig. 4] which is represented both as such and by the shape of the zodiacal ring (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 70).

Mithra birth from stone images for Monkey stone birth article

Fig. 3 – An example of Mithras’ serpent-wrapped birth rock from Austria. A larger version is available on Wikicommons; Fig. 4 – The deity emerging from a cosmic egg surrounded by the western Zodiac symbols (larger version). From the Homesteads Roman Fort along Hadrian’s Wall. Found on this article

Like Yu the Great, Mithras’ son is said to have also been born from a stone.

An unidentified writer of the second century ad, for convenience termed Pseudo-Plutarchrelates the following story (De fluviis 23.4). Mithras spilled his seed onto a rock, and the stone gave birth to a son, named Diorphos, who, worsted and killed in a duel by Ares, was turned into the mountain of the same name not far from the Armenian river Araxes (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 62).

Jong (1997) comments this tale is part of a wider story cycle present in many cultures.

The hero (good or evil) born from a rock is a recurring topos in a cycle of myths that has known a wide circulation in the Caucasus. These myths are usually connected with the song of Ullikummi known from Hittite and Hurrian sources. There are many more myths or complexes of myths which largely follow the same pattern: the cycle of Agdistis from Phrygia, the Nart-epics of the Ossetes, the Jewish myths of the monster Armillus and—for some aspects—the Georgian myth cycles of Amirani (fig. 5) (p. 292).


Fig. 5 – A chart showing the existence of the rock-born son trope from other cultures (larger version). From Jong, 1997, p. 293.

By presenting this information, I am by no means suggesting the birth of Mithras directly influenced that of Monkey. Far from it. This just shows the supernatural life-giving stone is a concept that has popped up in other cultures throughout the centuries. Therefore, it’s not unique to China. Such a story arising is only natural given that the earth can be used to grow crops, as well as shape pottery and figurines. In other words, the element can be used to both give life and imitate it. And since ancient people no doubt used earth to make effigies of their gods, it’s not a huge stretch to suggest they believed it could also give birth to supernatural beings. This means the idea could have arisen independently many times. 


Clauss, M., & Gordon, R. (2001). The Roman cult of Mithras: The god and his mysteries. New York: Routledge.

Jong, A. (1997). Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin literature. Leiden; New York: Brill.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002). Chinese bestiary: Strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. University of California Press.

Wang, J. (2000). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin and the journey to the West. Durham [u.a.: Duke Univ. Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2013). Journey to the West, Revised Edition, Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Connection Between Monkey’s Staff, Yu the Great, and Flood Control

Have you ever wondered why Monkey’s staff was stored in the underwater palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, or why it was associated with Yu the Great? The weapon is most likely based on a number of native Chinese mythic and historical iron objects.

First and foremost is a famous Chinese story concerning the immortal Xu Xun (a.k.a. Xu Jingyang, 239-374) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Xu was a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province considered a paragon of filial piety. Popular stories describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century story titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace” describes how the immortal chained the patriarch of the flood dragons to an iron tree that he had constructed and submerged it into a well, thus blocking the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm (Feng, 2005, pp. 673-744). Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 1) (Little, Eichman, & Ebrey, 2000, pp. 314-317). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

There are numerous historical examples of iron objects from the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-13th cent.) being used to control water. Tang official Li Deyu (787-848) erected the great Iron Pagoda on Mt. Beigu in Jiangsu “in order to subdue the tidal waves of the [Yangzi] river” (Andersen, 2001, p. 72). Iron oxen, such as the one by Pujin Bridge in southern Shanxi, were cast during the Tang and Song dynasties and placed along river banks, some serving as bridge anchors or possibly Daoist altar pieces. The thought was that the oxen would ward off flood waters. The first iron oxen is said, according to legend, to have been created by Yu the Great to ward off future floods. Yu is connected to other iron figures placed in or near flowing bodies of water (Andersen, 2001, pp. 73-75; Cast Iron Recumbent Ox, n.d.). Small statues of the monkey-like river spirit Wuzhiqi (無支祁) were submerged in rivers in southern China during the Song (fig. 2). The spirit is mentioned in Tang-Song records as being a fiery-eyed beast known to cause devastating floods, so Yu trapped the creature under Turtle Mountain (Andersen, 2001). This story has obvious parallels with Monkey’s fiery eyes and imprisonment under the Five Elements mountain.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting Xu the immortal overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement in a well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version). Fig. 2 – A Song Dynasty iron figurine of the monkey river spirit Wuzhiqi (larger version).


The 88th chapter of JTTW notes that the staff was created by Yu the Great to aid in his legendary quest to quell the fabled world flood:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 201)

As previously noted, Five Elements Theory dictates that metal has dominion over water. Therefore, an iron pillar would have been the best tool for controlling vast bodies of water, including the Eastern Ocean. This explains why the pillar was in the dragon treasury. The connection between Yu and Monkey comes in the form of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi tale.

The pillar has ties to two literary precursors of Sun’s staff appearing in the earliest known edition of the novel, Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures(13th-century). Our hero uses an iron staff borrowed from the Queen Mother of the West and a Golden Ringed Monk’s staff given to him by the Mahabramha Deva, king of the gods. One chapter sees the latter being changed into a “gigantic yaksha whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth” in order to fight a demon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). The transformative powers of the monk’s staff was eventually grafted onto the iron staff to create the current incarnation of Monkey’s staff. These powers were, in effect, transferred to the pillar, giving it the ability to grow or shrink to any size. This is why the novel states Yu used the pillar as a ruler to set the depths of the rivers and oceans.


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

Cast Iron Recumbent Ox – X.0518. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2016, from…ntOxX0518.html

Feng, M. (2005). Stories to caution the world: A Ming dynasty collection. (S. Yang & Y. Yang Trans.). University of Washington Press (Original work published 1624)

Little, S., Eichman, S., & Ebrey, P. B. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.

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 4. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

The Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.

In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), which lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches an egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time. The stone primate happens upon other monkeys on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave.

The Handsome Monkey King (Mei houwang, 美猴王) rules the island for nearly four hundred years before the thought of his impending death begins to cause him great anxiety. One of his monkey advisers suggests that he seek out a Daoist immortal to teach him the secrets of eternal life; and so he sets sail on a makeshift raft, exploring new lands and adopting human dress along way. He searches the world for ten years before he is finally accepted as a student by the supreme immortal Subhuti (Xuputi, 须菩提) on the Western Aparagodāniya continent. He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to emptiness.” The immortal teaches him the 72 methods of heavenly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud jumping, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 miles with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; long and short range martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by Subhuti for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

Sun eventually returns to his island home and faces a demon who had taken control of it during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he is far too strong to wield mere earthly weapons, and so his adviser suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, to retrieve a celestial weapon. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythical king of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), to measure the depths of the fabled world flood. Named the “As-You-Wish Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim—as small as a needle or as tall as the sky—thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.

Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, Sun falls asleep and his soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he was no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.


Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).

Both the Eastern Dragon King and King Yama submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court adviser, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the August Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial position of “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” (Bimawen, 避馬瘟) in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey is steadfast in his duties until he learns from an assistant that he is not considered a full-fledged god but a glorified stable boy. He immediately storms out of the heavenly gates and returns home to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qi tian dasheng, 齊天大聖) in rebellion. Heaven mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing Tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Prince Nezha (哪吒), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the August Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s wishes, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to be the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”.

Sun tours the heavenly orchard housing the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years. The sweet aroma of his charge is too much for him to resist, and so he eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits. His theft is soon discovered when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xi wangmu, 西王母), an ancient primordial goddess, arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. It is from these fairies that Monkey learns he has not been invited due to his rough nature. Enraged, Sun then incapacitates the fair maidens with magic and crashes the party before the guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), the supreme god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived pills of immortality, thus increasing his level of invincibility.

Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up the 100,000 strong heavenly army and the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods to deal with him. Monkey uses his magic to take on giant proportions spanning the sky; he grows three heads and six arms and multiplies his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical diamond bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.

Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his charred remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, and not only that, the intense flames refined his pupils the color of gold, giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles and to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, he demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain. Yet the Buddha explains that he had used his infinite powers to cloud Sun’s mind, tricking him into thinking he had left, when he actually stayed in his hand the entire time. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.

Fig. 2 – (Left) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong”, October 10, 1889 (larger version). Fig 3. – (Right) Son Goku (孫悟空) from the Dragonball Franchise (larger version).

Chapters eight to one hundred tell how five hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (who is based on the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602–664)) from China to India on his mission to procure sutras from the Buddha in order to release untold souls from the torments of hell. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.

A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.

Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang fashi qu jing shihua, 大唐三藏法師取經詩話), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China and Taiwan that worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.

Copies of the Master of the Law were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.

Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball (Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995;anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to the pig demon Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995;anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).