Generals Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear

Last updated: 04/26/20

After Monkey’s birth from stone in chapter one, two beams of light shoot forth from his eyes, [1] alarming the Jade Emperor in heaven (fig. 1). The cosmic ruler then orders the personification of his eyes and ears, generals Thousand-Mile Eye (Qianliyan, 千里眼) and Fair-Wind Ear (Shunfenger, 順風耳), respectively, to trace the source:

At this command the two captains went out to the gate, and, having looked intently and listened clearly, they returned presently to report, “Your subjects, obeying your command to locate the beams, discovered that they came from the Flower-Fruit Mountain at the border of the small Aolai Country, which lies to the east of the East Pūrvavideha Continent. On this mountain is an immortal stone that has given birth to an egg. Exposed to the wind, it has been transformed into a monkey, who, when bowing to the four quarters, has flashed from his eyes those golden beams that reached the Palace of the Polestar. Now that he is taking some food and drink, the light is about to grow dim.” With compassionate mercy the Jade Emperor declared, “These creatures from the world below are born of the essences of Heaven and Earth, and they need not surprise us” (vol. 1, p. 102).

Monkey Lazer Eyes - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey’s laser eyes. From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939) (larger version). 

I. History

Today, these generals are celebrated as the guardians of Mazu (fig. 2), a popular sea goddess worshiped in Southern China, Macao, and Taiwan. Thousand-Mile Eye is commonly portrayed as a fierce, red warrior scanning the horizon with one hand shielding his eyes (fig. 3), while Fair-Wind Ear is green with one hand to his ear (fig. 4). According to Ruitenbeek (1999), the story of their subjugation is told in a series of circa 1880 mural paintings from the Temple of Divine Mercy (Lingcimiao, 靈慈廟) in Fengting village (楓停), Xianyou district (仙遊), Fujian.

Thousand-Miles Eye (in the murals called Jinxing yan [金星眼], “Venus-eye”), in the disguise of a lovely girl, lures men into a cave, and then dismembers and devours them. [2] When With-the-Wind Ear sees this, he starts a fight with Thousand-Miles Eye, but in the end the two monsters pledge to become sworn brothers. Guanyin, seated on Mount Potala, orders the Dragon’s Daughter to tell Mazu to subdue the monsters. In the first round of the battle, Mazu is forced to retreat. She then implores heavenly warriors to help her, and with their assistance is able to defeat the two monsters. Thereafter, Thousand-Miles Eye and With-the-Wind Ear become her loyal servants. First they help Mazu to fight a man-eating lion, thereafter they subdue the Evil Dragon Monster (p. 316).

Mazu with generals - small

Fig. 2 – Mazu with her generals (larger version). Fig. 3 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 4 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Original artist unknown.

I am unsure when the generals where first associated with Mazu. They are only alluded to in passing as subjugated planetary spirits in the goddess’ early 17th-century pious novel Record of the Miracles Performed by the Heavenly Princess (Tianfei xiansheng lu, 天妃顯聖錄) (Ruitenbeek, 1999, p. 319). However, it is clear from their appearance in Journey to the West that they were associated with the Jade Emperor during the late 16th-century. [3] This association stretches back to at least the Shaoxing (紹興, 1131–1162) period of Song Emperor Gaozong, for they appear with the cosmic monarch among the rock carvings of the Shimen Mountain Grotto (Shimen shan shiku, 石門山石窟), one of many sites making up the world famous Dazu rock carvings in Sichuan (fig. 5-7). [4]  

Qianliyan and Shunfeng'er with Jade Emperor - Shimen Mountain Grotto - Danzu Rock Carvings - Song Dynasty - For article (small)

Fig. 5 – Song-era statues of generals Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) guarding the Jade Emperor’s alcove (larger version). From the Shimen Mountain Grotto. Photo originally from this article. Fig. 6 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Photos originally from this article

Readers will notice that, apart from being dressed differently, neither statue is striking their characteristic pose. These poses came later and may have been influenced by earlier deities. For example, Nikaido (2011) writes that a Song-era sea god named Zhaobao Qilang (招寶七郎) is sometimes depicted shielding his eyes just like Thousand-Mile Eye, and so he cautiously suggests that, once the deity’s cult waned in popularity and yielded to Mazu, this trait may have been passed on to her general (pp. 89-90). Conversely, the poses could simply be based on postures used by the very sailors who worshiped such gods. After all, keen eyesight and hearing are skills needed to successfully navigate the open ocean.

II. Golden headbands

The generals are normally depicted wearing flowing clothing or open armor to show off their muscular physiques. Apart from their divine sashes, they are commonly shown wearing golden armbands, bracelets, and / or anklets, as well as a tiger skin at the waist. These traits appear to be consistent from all the examples that I’ve seen in Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, the statues in Taiwan stand out the most to me because they are often depicted wearing golden fillets on their heads just like Sun Wukong (fig. 8). This is because these headbands share a common origin.

Qianliyan and Shunfenger religious statues

Fig. 8 – Religious statues of Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) (larger version). Take note of the headbands. Also refer back to figures 4 and 5. Photo originally found here

I explain in this article that the golden fillet can be traced to a list of prescribed ritual items worn by ancient Buddhist yogins in their worship of Hevajra / Heruka, a wrathful protector deity. These items appear in the 8th-century Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經):

The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62; Cf. Linrothe, 1999, p. 250).

You will notice that all of the items associated with the generals, including the headband, the rings on the arms, wrists, and ankles, and the tiger skin are listed here. This is because wrathful protector deities were often depicted in the same attire as their followers, leading to the fillet becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits. For instance, the Hevajra Tanta describes Hevajra / Heruka as a wrathful youth wearing such clothing:

Dark blue and like the sun in colour with reddened and extended eyes, his yellow hair twisted upwards, and adorned with the five symbolic adornments,/ the circlet, the ear-rings and necklace, the bracelets and belt. These five symbols are well known for the purificatory power of the Five Buddhas./ He has the form of a sixteen-year-old youth and is clad in a tiger-skin. His gaze is wrathful. In his left hand he holds a vajra-skull, and a khatvahga [staff] likewise in his left, while in his right is a vajra of [a] dark hue… (Linrothe, 1999, p. 256; Cf. Farrow & Menon, 2001, p. 44).

The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455), allowing this iconography to spread eastward. A prime example is the 13th-century Kaiyuan Temple Pagoda carving of Sun Wukong in Fujian. He is depicted with the headband, armbands, bracelets, anklets, and possibly even a tigerskin apron (fig. 9). 

Given the close cultural connection between Fujian and Taiwan, the generals’ depiction with fillets is likely based on previous examples from the southern Chinese province.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 9 – The  Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .

It’s interesting to note that Fair-Wind Ear’s statue from Shimen Mountain Grotto in Sichuan has the aforementioned body rings (refer back to fig. 6). His head is unfortunately damaged, though. I would be interested in analyzing similarly dressed guardian figures in the area to see if they wear a fillet.

Update: 04/22/20

Here is a lovely Dutch engraving of a Mazu temple from a 17th-century book by Olfert Dapper (fig. 10). The generals can be seen standing in their characteristic poses to the left (fig. 11) and right (fig. 12) of the main altar stage. Their attire includes the aforementioned body rings (and possibly tiger skin pants) but no headband.

Mazu temple with detials of generals, from Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Oost-Indische Maetschappye (1670) - small

Fig. 10 – Engraving from Memorable Mission of the Dutch East India Company up the Coast to China and into the Empire of Taising of China (Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Ooste-Indische Maetschappye, op de kuste en in het keizerrijk van Taising of Sina, 1670) (larger version). Image from the Clark Collection. Fig. 11 – A detail of General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 12 – A detail of General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version).

Update: 04/26/20

The Puji Temple (普濟寺) in Datong district (大同區), Taipei (near my home) includes door god paintings of the two generals (fig. 13-16). They are depicted with bejeweled headbands. These demonstrate the variability of fillet designs. 

Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear (Puji Temple, Taipei) - For Article - small

Fig. 13 – General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of his head (larger version). Fig. 15. General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 16 – Detail of his head (larger version).


1) This feat may be based on Daoist mind-training exercises where adepts try to expand their vision to the ends of the earth/cosmos. According to Robinet (1979), one source reads: “Consider that your two eyes radiate a single light which is like liquid fire and as brilliant as the stars; glowing red, it extends for ten thousand miles. The mountains, marshes, rivers, thickets and forests of the four directions are all resplendent with its light” (p. 55). 

2) Wukong states in chapter 27 that he used the same trick to eat humans:

When I was a monster back at the Water-Curtain Cave, I would act like this if I wanted to eat human flesh. I would change myself into gold or silver, a lonely building, a harmless drunk, or a beautiful woman. Anyone feeble-minded enough to be attracted by me I would lure back to the cave. There I would enjoy him as I pleased, by steaming or boiling. If I couldn’t finish him off in one meal, I would dry the leftovers in the sun to keep for rainy days (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).

3) The generals are associated with Huaguang Dadi (華光大帝) in Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). They are referred to as Li Lou (離婁) and Shi Kuang (師曠) (Nikaido, 2011, p. 90). They also make an appearance in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620). Ruitenbeek (1999) writes:

[T]hey occur, without the context of Mazu, in the guise of the brothers Gao Ming and Gao Jue. In reality, these were a Peach-tree Spirit and a Willow-tree Ogre, who had availed themselves of the divine power of two clay statues of Qianli yan and Shunfeng er in the temple of Xuan Yuan in Qipanshan. Only after these statues were smashed to pieces did they lose their power. They were subsequently transformed into Shenshu and Yulei, better known as the Door Gods (p. 319).

4) See Zhao (n.d.). These carvings are described by Hu (1994). I unfortunately don’t have access to it at the time of this writing.


Bangdel, D., & Huntington, J. C. (2003). The circle of bliss: Buddhist meditational art. Chicago, Ill: Serindia Publications.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Hu, W. (1994). Sichuan jiaodao fojiao shiku yishu [Taoist and Buddhist Sichuan rock cave art]. Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Nikaido, Y. (2011). The transformation of gods in Chinese popular religion: The examples of Huaguang dadi and Zhaobao Qilang. A Selection of Essays on Oriental Studies of the Institute for Cultural Interaction Studies. Osaka: Kansai University, 85-92.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Ruitenbeek, K. (1999). Mazu, the patroness of sailors, in Chinese pictorial art. Artibus Asia 58(3/4). 281-329. Retrieved from

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

Zhao, W. (n.d.). Yuhuang dadi jianglin Shimenshan [The Jade Emperor Descends to Shimen Mountain].  Retrieved April 21, 2020, from


Idea: Sun Wukong Animated Music Short

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen here and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Back in 2010 I thought of a short music-based animation set in the Journey to the West universe. The music is a modern arrangement of the 19th-century classic “In the Hall of the Mountain King” composed by Edvard Grieg for Henrik Ibsen‘s play Peer Gynt in 1876. The original play is based on an old Norwegian tale about a man named Per Gynt who travels the land rescuing maidens from the clutches of trolls. The music is used during the play to enhance the drama and action of a particular scene where Peer attempts to hide and then escape from the hall of the mountain king. This plot obviously shares many similarities with Journey to the West. Sun Wukong spends the majority of the novel rescuing Tripitaka from the mountain strongholds of various demon kings.

The arrangement I’ve chosen is performed by the Finnish operatic metal band Apocalyptica, who originally gained fame by covering Metallica songs with cellos. I recommend reading the time-stamped material once, then listening to the song, and then reading and listening in unison to better understand. You can possibly use the stopwatch on your phone and start it the same time as the music.

Apocalyptica’s arrangement of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.

The animation would be completely silent to accommodate the music, the various notes acting as dialogue or sound effects.

0:00 – 0:29 – The scene opens in a cave where a mountain demon is celebrating news that the Tang monk is headed to his territory. An imp runs in to inform him that Tripitaka has been spotted in the mountain with only two of his three disciples.

0:30 – 1:03 – The demon king leaves the cave and silently spies on them from afar as Tripitaka on his dragon-horse, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing walk down a path through the mountains. When it’s obvious that Wukong is off running errands for his master, the demon magically disguises himself as an elderly man or woman and waits for them, drawing them near.

  • The notes in this section sound like someone is sneaking around.

1:04 – 1:42 – He reveals his true form, grabs the monk, and orders his imps to attack Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing. The two fight but are over powered by sheer numbers.

  • The change up from the sneaky notes is when he reveals his true self.
  • Each of the high-pitched notes here represent imps attacking the disciples in wave after wave, coming faster and faster until they are overwhelmed.

1:43 – 1:52 – The monk calls out Sun Wukong’s name. I imagine the words would come out as Chinese characters that drift through the air to Monkey’s ear. He forcefully turns his head towards the sound, his eyes flash with a fiery light.

1:53 – 2:20 – Wukong lands in an explosion of multicolored clouds and light. He waves his staff in front of him, thus forcing the imps away from his brothers. He then pulls out magic hairs and blows on them, creating an army of monkeys to do battle with the imps. The monkeys do all manner of things to the imps while Wukong rolls around on the ground in laughter.

  • 1:58 – Wukong creates the army of monkeys. Also, notice how a few seconds in the notes sound almost like monkeys.

sc137582 - small

“Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).

2:21 – 2:26 – The imps run away in defeat. Monkey stands outside the cave screaming and hopping up and down while shaking his fist in order to entice the mountain demon outside.

  • 2:23 – Double hop while shaking fist and screaming obscenities. The words come out as Chinese characters. They could be “coward” or something demeaning like that. The particular sound of “bwah bwah” in the song at this point is when he screams and hops.
  • 2:26 – Second double hop, same.

2:27 – 2:31 – His trick works as the demon king pokes his head out of the doors and shakes his fist back at Wukong.

  • 2:28 – First fist shake and screams obscenity. Same “bwah bwah” sound but with lower register.
  • 2:31 – Second fist shake, same.

2:32 – 2:50 – The demon emerges with his armor and weapon ready to fight and the two begin their bout. The earth shakes, mountains crumble, forests tumble, and the gods shiver in the realm above.

2:51 – 3:08 – Both take to their clouds, the warriors circling each other, rising higher and higher into the heavens, leaving a double helix-like pattern in their wake.

3:09 – 3:12 – The demon makes one last attack with his weapon. Wukong disappears in a puff of smoke, only to reappear instantly in his 100,000-foot-tall cosmic form, breathing fire from a mouth full of tusk-like teeth, his eyes like the sun and moon. The demon realizes he is not Wukong’s match and flees in terror.

cosmic transformation

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

3:13 – 3:16 – Wukong reverts to his original form and rockets towards earth with his staff held high.

3:17 – 3:21 – He lands a mortal blow to the demon and stands over his remains.

  • 3:17 – The exact moment the demon is turned into hamburger.

3:22 – 3:24 – Wukong kicks open the double door of the mountain stronghold. The view would be from the inside out (i.e. it’s dark and then the doors are kicked inward, revealing the dark silhouette of Monkey holding his staff against a bright background).

  • The “boom” at the end is when he kicks in the doors.

After the song stops, the animation silently ends with them all continuing their journey to India. The entire animation would probably be around three minutes and forty seconds long. I would really love to work with an animator to make this a reality.

Archive #15 – Sun Wukong and Chinese Medicine

In my previous article, I noted medicine was among the skills acquired by Monkey while training under the Buddho-Daoist sage, Master Subhuti. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long-standing malady of the Scarlet-Purple Kingdom emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, Sun is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. He deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a secret recipe and administers the elixir with dragon king saliva. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowls, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.

Monkey analyzes the Emperor's Pulse (from Mr. Li Zhouwu's Lit. Criticism) - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey uses golden threads to analyze the emperor’s pulse (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

I. Analyzing the pulse

We were telling you about the Great Sage Sun, who went with the palace attendant to the interior division of the royal palace. He stood still only after he had reached the door of the royal bedchamber. Then he told the attendant to take the three golden threads inside along with the instruction: “Ask one of the palace ladies or eunuchs to tie these three threads to the inch, the pass, and the foot sections of His Majesty’s left hand where the radial pulse are felt. Then pass the other ends of the threads out to me through the window shutters” [fig. 1].

The attendant followed his instruction. The king was asked to sit up on the dragon bed, while the three sections of his pulse were tied by the golden threads, and their other ends were then passed out to Pilgrim. Using the thumb and the index finger of his right hand to pick up one of the threads, Pilgrim first examined the pulse of the inch section; next, he used his middle finger and his thumb to pick up the second thread and examine the pulse of the pass section; finally, he used the thumb and his fourth finger to pick up the third thread and examine the pulse of the foot section.

Thereafter Pilgrim made his own breathing regular and proceeded to determine which of the Four Heteropathic Pneumatics, the Five Stases, the Seven External Images of the Pulse, the Eight Internal Images of the Pulse, and the Nine Pulse Indications were present. [1] His pressure on the threads went from light to medium to heavy, and from heavy to medium to light, until he could clearly perceive whether the condition of the patient was repletion or depletion of energy and its cause. Then he made the request that the threads be untied from the king’s left wrist and be attached as before to the positions on his right wrist. Using now the fingers on his left hand, he then examined the pulse on the right wrist section by section. When he had completed his examination, he shook his body once and retrieved his hairs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 270).

Baring the strings, Monkey’s method of reading the pulse aligns with real Chinese medicinal practice. The area of the forearm analyzed by traditional Chinese doctors is known as Cunkou (寸口, the “inch opening”), and this is broken up into the three spots Cun (寸, “inch”), Guan (關, “pass”), and Chi (尺, “foot”) (fig. 2). The mirrored spots on each arm are believed to correspond to specific internal organs. For example, the Cun spot (nearest the wrist) on the right hand corresponds to the lung, while that of the left hand corresponds to the heart (Liao, 2011, pp. 55-56). Therefore, analyzing the pulse at these spots is believed to reveal the health of the corresponding organs.

TCM hand chart

Fig. 2 – The spots analyzed during pulse diagnosis. Picture originally found here.

II. The Elixir of Black Gold and its historical origins

Wukong selects his ingredients from among 808 requested substances in order to keep the recipe a secret from the foreign kingdom’s doctors. It is made from an ounce of powderizedahuang (大黃), which is said to “loosen phlegm and facilitate respiration [and] sweep out the chill and heat congealed in one’s stomach” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 273-274); an ounce of shelled, powerderized badou (巴豆), which is said to “break up congestion and drain the intestines [and] take care of swellings at the heart and dropsy in the abdomen (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); half a flask of “‘Hundred-Grass Frost” (baicao shuang, 百草霜), or frying pan soot, which is said to “soothe a hundred ailments” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); and half a flask of dragon (horse) urine, which is said to “cure any kind of disease a human may have when it is ingested” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274). The resulting paste is rolled into three pills and presented to the emperor as the “Elixir of Black Gold” (Wujin dan, 烏金丹) (video 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 276).

Video 1 – Episode 20 of the 1986 Journey to the West series portrays this story. See minute 19:19 for the preparation of the Elixir of Black Gold.

Andrew Schonebaum’s (2016) fascinating book Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China explains the historical significance of the real world ingredients used in this elixir. He introduces the first two ingredients to us by way of their anthropomorphization as Badou Dahuang, the ruler of the fictional Hujiao (胡椒, black pepper) kingdom from the vernacular novel Annals of Herbs and Trees (Caomu chunqiu yanyi, 草木春秋演義, c. 17th/18th-century), a work that gives human form to Chinese medicines, pitting armies of mortal, immortal, and demonic characters/remedies against one another. Badou is depicted as having the mandate of heaven (the right to rule) in his own country but wanting to invade the Han empire. This dual nature can be explained by the properties of the ingredients making up his name. Schonebaum (2016) writes:

[B]adou (croton) and dahuang (rhubarb), are two of the most common drugs in Chinese medicine. Badou is toxic and a strong purgative, and it was used to treat stagnation in the viscera and bowels, as well as to facilitate urination, eliminate malignant flesh, and purge vicious agents such as invading ghosts or worms. Dahuang is nontoxic and is sometimes referred to by the name “military general” because “the drug pushes away the old and brings in the new, like a military general putting down a riot and bringing peace” (pp. 99-100).

Regarding the “Elixir of Black Gold,” Schonebaum (2016) explains “black gold” was the name of a common prescription and that badou and dahuang were part of its core, while other ingredients could be replaced with those of similar properties:

One commentator had never heard of this medicine, saying that it had a strange name, but this only reveals his own highbrow background (or general ignorance), since “black gold” was the name of various prescriptions common among hereditary doctors. In fact, it was mentioned in the Systematic Materia Medica repeatedly, and Xu Dachun recommends it in Medical Cases of Huixi, so it was not exclusively the purview of nonelite healers.

“Black gold pills” (wujin wan) was a name and a concoction similar to “elixir surpassing [the value of] gold” (shengjin dan) and “black spirit pills” (heishen wan). All of them were core formulas that could be modified in their effects by ingesting them with different liquids. These “black gold” medicines, along with the likes of “the prescription offering Guanyin’s all-encompassing help” (Guanyin puji fang) and “pills prepared with old ink” (gumo wan), treated a wide variety of ailments (in one medical manuscript, twenty-nine, forty, and seventy-one ailments, respectively), and were extremely common formula in the Qing. The “black gold” formulas had at their core the drugs dahuang and badou. One medical manuscript from the Republican period states in its introduction, “Black gold powder [wujin san] cures all ailments, just as the wind bends the grasses. Other names [of this prescription] are ‘pine smoke elixir’ [songyan dan] and ‘black spirit pills’ [heishen wan]. It cures thousands of illnesses, just as the sun melts the frost.”

Black gold pills (wan), powder (san), paste (gao), and elixir (dan) were commonly employed to cure gynecological issues. A prescription named “black gold powder” was first recorded in the Song work A Spring of Recipes in the Magic Park (Lingyuan fangquan) and was followed by references in the Southern Song prescription collection “Complete Collection of Effective Prescriptions for Women” (Furen daquan liangfang, 1237), Formulas for Universal Benefit (Puji fang, 1390), and other works. Over the centuries, numerous formulas, each with different ingredients, became known under the names “black gold powder,” “black gold pills,” and “black gold elixir.” The three designations of this formula result from the use of pitch (mo), a vernacular name for which is the “black gold” of these prescriptions.

Monkey’s prescription reflects a historical reality, namely that the advent of the imperial pharmacy (huimin yaoju) in the Song required doctors who had previously relied on simple medicines with one or two ingredients to employ formulas with numerous substances whose composition followed theories of systematic correspondences. From this conflict between empirical and theory-based recipes arose a new type of prescription eventually consisting of a nuclear formula that could be adapted to the requirements of a given patient’s disease by omitting or adding individual constituents in accordance with his pathological condition. Monkey is preparing simple, trusted medicine at the core, namely badou and dahuang, and adding to it many exotic, unobtainable ingredients (pp. 103-104).

As noted above, black gold medicines were sometimes used to treat gynecological issues. This makes Monkey’s prescription all the more comical as he had partly attributed the foreign emperor’s ails to a “cessation of the menses” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 271), obviously a woman’s problem. Schonebaum (2016) comments: “To understand this aspect of the carnivalesque comedy, or to realize that it was a mistake in the incorporation of medical materials into the novel, readers would have had to be quite familiar with medicine, at least enough to know that the medicine Monkey is preparing is consistent with his diagnosis” (p. 104). 

III. Archive link

Chapter three of Novel Medicine (2016) is archived here.

Click to access novel-medicine-healing-literature-and-popular-knowledge-in-early-modern-china-chapter-3-contains-jttw-ch.-68-69-material.pdf


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


1) Anthony C. Yu provides explanations for these terms in the end notes of his wonderful translation. See Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 448-449, notes 3-7.


Liao, Y. (2011). Traditional Chinese medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schonebaum, A. (2016). Novel medicine: Healing, literature, and popular knowledge in early modern China. Seattle : University of Washington Press

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Volume 3. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #13 – Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode

Chapters 44 to 46 of Journey to the West sees the pilgrims enter the Cart-Slow Kingdom (Chechi guo, 車遲國) where they find Buddhist monks have been enslaved by local Daoists to haul a cart full of materials up an impossibly narrow, steep, spine-like ridge in order to construct buildings behind an abbey. After some investigation, Sun Wukong discovers their enslavement is a royal punishment for losing a rain-making competition some years prior to three mysterious Daoist priests, Tiger Strength Great Immortal (Huli daxian, 虎力大仙), Deer Strength Great Immortal (Luli daxian, 鹿力大仙), and Goat Strength Great Immortal (Yangli daxian, 羊力大仙) (fig. 1). (For their victory in saving the country during a time of drought, the three priests are bestowed the royal titles “Precepts of State” (Guoshi, 國師).) Monkey and his brothers break into the abbey and trick the three priests, under the guise of the Three Pure Ones, into thinking their urine is heavenly elixir. The enraged priests then gain permission from the country’s ruler to engage our heroes in a series of magical competitions in order to defend their dignity. After aiding Tripitaka in contests of meditation and clairvoyance, the Great Sage personally faces each of the three priests in contests of surviving corporal punishment, namely beheading (vs Tiger Strength), evisceration (vs Deer Strength), and being boiled in oil (vs Goat Strength). Each priest dies as a result of having lesser magical skills born from heretical practices, and in the end they are revealed to have been animal spirits (a tiger, a deer, and a goat) in disguise. The country’s ruler releases the monks from their bondage and our pilgrims continue their journey to India.

Three Animal Priests (Tiger Strength, Deer Strength, Goat Strength) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the three animal priests (larger version). Artist unknown.

Oldstone-Moore’s (1998) paper “Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode” explores the history and hidden meaning of the three chapters. She reveals certain aspects of the episode serve as allegories for internal alchemical processes. For background she explains Daoism sometimes presents the body as a microcosmic mountain landscape. In the case of the story, the ridge represents the spine and the building material being hauled by the monks represents unrefined qi, seminal essence, and spiritual energies that, when purified via circulation up the spine and down the front of the body numerous times, bolster the body and aids in the attainment of immortality. The cart itself represents a meditation technique used in the Quanzhen school of Daoism to transport the aforementioned energies up the spine. Interestingly, one Zhong-Lü scripture [1] notes this “River Cart” (heche, 河車) is pulled by a number of animals, including an oxen, a deer, and a goat. Therefore, Deer Strength and Goat Strength likely represent these animals. Oldstone-Moore (1998) suggests Tiger Strength is based on Uncle Eyes Great Immortal (Boyan daxian, 伯眼大仙), a tiger spirit appearing in an earlier version of the Slow-Cart Kingdom episode recorded in a 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese. Additionally, she highlights the conflict between orthodox and heretical practices in the episode. Sun Wukong is shown to have stronger magic because his early Daoist cultivation was guided by a teacher. This differs from the three priests, whose lesser abilities are the result of self study. So taken together, the episode is a warning that esoteric alchemical cultivation should only be pursued under the guidance of an initiated teacher.   


Fig. 2 – A 14th-century painting of the Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (larger version). Image from Wikipedia. 

Oldstone-Moore (1998) also mentions the rain-making competition between Buddhist and Daoists at the beginning of the episode is based on historical events. This is laid out by Yu (1987), who suggests it is based on Tang-era magic competitions between the Indo-Sogdian Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (Bukong, 不空) (fig. 2) and the Daoist Luo Gongyuan (羅公遠). What’s interesting is that, just like the three priests, Luo was also a Precept of State.

Archive link

Click to access alchemy-and-journey-to-the-west-the-cart-slow-kingdom-episode.pdf


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


1) This refers to teachings associated with the immortals Zhongli Quan and his student Lü Dongbin.


Oldstone-Moore, J. (1998). Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode. Journal of Chinese Religions, 26(1), 51-66, DOI: 10.1179/073776998805306930

Yu, A. C. (1987). Religion and literature in China: The ‘Obscure Way’ in The Journey to the West In C. Tu (Ed.), Tradition and creativity: Essays on East Asian civilization (pp. 122-24). Publisher City, State: Publisher.

The Alchemical Metaphor of Subhuti’s Mountain Home

The Monkey King’s quest for immortality spans some ten years, taking him passed two cosmic continents and two great oceans. After sailing to a continent in the west, our hero is directed to the abode of the Sage Subhuti, a place often translated as “The Mountain of Mind and Heart / Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山,斜月三星洞) (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 113, for example). This translation, however, glosses over deeper meanings associated with the original Chinese. The term lingtai (靈臺/台), literally “spirit platform/tower” or “numinous platform/tower”, was sometimes used in Daoist literature to refer to the “heart” or “mind” (xin, 心, “heart-mind” hereafter), the center of spiritual intellect. Going back centuries to the Zhuangzi (c. 3rd-century BCE), it was represented as something that had to be guarded against malevolent influences:

Utilize the bounty of things and let them nourish your body; withdraw into thoughtlessness and in this way give life to your mind; be reverent of what is within and extend this same reverence to others. If you do these things and yet are visited by ten thousand evils, then all are Heaven-sent and not the work of man. They should not be enough to destroy your composure; they must not be allowed to enter the Spirit Tower. The Spirit Tower has its guardian, but unless it understands who its guardian is, it cannot be guarded (Chuang & Watson, 1968, p. 194).

Subuti's cave, from Mr. Zhuo's literary criticism of Xiyouji - 2mall

Fig. 1 – Monkey kneeling before the entrance of Subhuti’s school asking to become a disciple (larger version). A detail from Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

The term fangcun (方寸), literally “square inch”, was also used historically to refer to the heart-mind. [1] But it’s important to note that Daoist alchemical literature sometimes uses the term to refer to the lowest cinnabar or elixir field located approximately “two inches below the navel, three inches within, where the mind is focused” (Saso, 1995, p. 128). For instance, the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing, 黃庭經, c. 4th-century), a treatise associated with the Highest Clarity tradition, recognizes three fields: brain (upper), heart (center), and belly (lower) (fig. 2), each one represented by a series of place names or an anthropomorphic persona (Saso, 1995, pp. 106-107). The scripture presents the lower field/square inch as the storehouse of vital spiritual energies, the synergy of which is thought to bolster the body and bring about immortality. A portion of the fifth stanza reads: “Inside the square inch, carefully cover and store qi. / Shen spirit and jing intuition returned there, though old, are made new / Through the dark palace make them flow, down to the lower realm. / Nourish your jade tree, now a youth again”. [2]

The scripture treats the central heart-mind field as the seat of the spirit (shen, 神), sometimes anthropomorphizing it as a red-robed man (Saso, 1995, p. 125, for example). But it also calls the field the spirit platform. A section of the sixth stanza reads: “The spirit platform meets heaven in the central field. / From square inch center, down to the [dark] gate, / The soul’s doorway to the Jade Chamber’s core is there”. [3] Saso (1995) explains the first line refers to the interaction between the heart-mind and the Dao, with the second and third referring to spiritual energies being directed into the lower field via a passage near the kidneys (p. 129). Despite the cryptic Daoist jargon, what’s important here is the link between the center field/spirit platform and the lower field/square inch. 

Given the information above, a better translation for Subhuti’s mountain might be the “Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Cinnabar Mind” or the “Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind” (or any combination of the two).

Daoist Dantian Chakras - small

Fig. 2 – An example of the upper, center, and lower cinnabar fields indicated by red dots (larger version).

I propose the name of Subhuti’s mountain home was specifically chosen by the author-compiler of the Journey to the West as a metaphor for the alchemical practices taught in the Scripture of the Yellow Court. This conclusion is supported by the mention of the scripture in the very first chapter of the novel. This happens when Monkey confuses a lowly woodcutter for an immortal just because the man was singing a Daoist song, one taught to him by Subhuti:

The Monkey King explained, “When I came just now to the forest’s edge, I heard you singing, ‘Those I meet, if not immortals, would be Daoists, seated quietly to expound the Yellow Court.’ The Yellow Court contains the perfected words of the Way and Virtue. What can you be but an immortal?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 111)

I find it interesting that Wukong touts the authority of the Scripture of the Yellow Court even before having begun his Daoist training. From where did he learn this? Could this be projection of the author-compiler?

heart calligraphy

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for heart (xin). Original image found here.

Another aspect of Subhuti’s location that requires explanation is the cavern housing his temple, the “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (xieyue sanxing dong, 斜月三星洞). The name is a literal description of the Chinese character for heart-mind (xin, 心). It looks just like a crescent moon surmounted by three stars (fig. 3). This means all three sections of the location name (spirit platform, square inch, cave name) are associated in some form with the heart-mind. The reason for this could be because Sun Wukong is an embodiment of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). Additionally, a poem in chapter seven reads: “An ape’s body of Dao weds the human mind. / Mind is a monkey—this meaning’s profound” (yuanhou dao ti renxin / xin ji yuanhou yisi shen, 猿猴道體配人心 / 心即猿猴意思深) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 190). Anthony Yu suggests this poem is related to the Buddha’s statement that Wukong is “only a monkey who happened to become a spirit, … merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 70), thereby alluding to a Confucian hierarchical scale present in the novel where animals are able to attain human qualities through Daoist cultivation. So Monkey’s Daoist training under Subhuti allows him to wed his monkey form to the human heart-mind.


1) In Buddhism, for example, the fourth Chan patriarch Daoxin is quoted as saying: “All schools of the Law find their way to the Square Inch; all rivers and sand of wonderful virtues come from the Source of the Mind (xinyuan 心源)” (Liu, 1994, p. 28).

2) See Saso, 1995, p. 127 for the full stanza and explanation. I have changed all quotes used from this source from Wade-Giles to Pinyin. I also slightly modified the translation.

3) See Saso, 1995, p. 129 for the full stanza and explanation. Again, I slightly modified the translation.


Chuang, T., & Watson, B. (1968). The complete works of Chuang Tzu. Columbia University Press.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: Univ. Press of America.

Saso, M. R. (1995). The Gold pavilion: Taoist ways to peace, healing, and long life. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

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

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subhuti:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.


Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).


Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subhuti observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 5). One passage from the tale reads: 

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subhuti. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subhuti teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.


1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

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

Mair, V. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307

Archive #12 – Huineng, Subhuti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”

I present an archived copy of Ping Shao’s (2006) wonderful paper exploring the origin of Sun Wukong’s characterization and how it effects his story cycle. [1] Shao presents a three-fold objective: first, highlight Daoist and Buddhist concepts in chapters one and two that have previously been overlooked or not given enough weight, showing that they serve a function and are not just expendable story elements; second, provide a unified religious vision based on the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of the Daoist southern lineage patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?–1082); and 3) demonstrate that Zhang’s philosophy dictates the course of Sun’s story cycle from unruly immortal to enlightened Buddha. 

Shao (2006) suggests Monkey’s portrayal in the first two chapters is influenced by the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638–713), founder of the “Sudden Enlightenment” school of Buddhism. [2] For example, Sun’s quick-wittedness, demonstrated by his deciphering of his teacher, Subhuti’s, chastisement for refusing to learn certain Daoist skills in chapter two as secret code to receive a private lesson at night, [3] is based on a similar episode involving Huineng and the previous patriarch Hongren. Additionally, Monkey’s 108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km)-spanning somersault cloud (fig. 1) is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. [4] Only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping there instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years. Shao provides further examples, but I feel these suffice.


Monkey flying on clouds. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The unified religious vision is demonstrated by Sun Wukong’s name, which contains both Daoist and Buddhist elements. When broken into its individual components, the surname Sun (孫) refers to an immortality spirit embryo brought about via Daoist cultivation exercises. The given name Wukong (悟空) refers to a vacuous state of mind needed for attaining Buddha-nature. Here, Shao (2006) notes the literary Subhuti is based on a historical disciple of the Buddha who was known for meditating on emptiness and having a superior grasp of the Enlightened One’s teachings. In later chapters, Sun himself shows a grasp of scripture far surpassing even that of Tripitaka. Therefore, an additional influence on Monkey was likely the historical monk. Shao (2006) contextualizes this information by comparing it to Zhang Boduan’s Buddho-Daoist philosophy. Zhang believed Daoists must first attain the elixir (i.e. a method increasing one’s lifespan) and then attain Buddha-nature to truly become an enlightened transcendent. Conversely, he warned Buddhists that achieving Buddha-Nature alone wouldn’t help them escape the wheel of reincarnation. 

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong becoming a Buddha (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

Shao (2006) illustrates how Zhang’s views are played out in the novel. Sun achieves immortality and is even invited to heaven like the hagiographies of famous transcendents, but his unruly nature symbolizes his lack of true spiritual attainment, causing him to wage war against the realm above. He remains a “deviant” or “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙) until the journey proper, the tribulations serving to temper his mind. Moreover, when the pilgrims arrive in the Buddha’s paradise, they must first pass through a Daoist temple (referring again to Zhang’s philosophy). In the end, Sun is bestowed Buddhahood (fig. 2)—thereby Buddha-nature—completing the second step of Zhang’s two-part path to true transcendence.

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


1) The paper is copied almost verbatim from chapter three of Shao’s doctoral thesis Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (1997). I am currently reading this and may add an update later.

2) In this article, I discuss how the “Monkey Pilgrim”, Sun Wukong’s precursor from Song Dynasty material, is based on the monk Mulian (Sk. Maudgalyayana), another of the Buddha’s disciples. 

[3] The particular passage reads:

When the Patriarch heard this, he uttered a cry and jumped down from the high platform. He pointed the ruler he held in his hands at Wukong and said to him: “What a mischievous monkey you are! You won’t learn this and you won’t learn that! Just what is it that you are waiting for?” Moving forward, he hit Wukong three times on the head. Then he folded his arms behind his back and walked inside, closing the main doors behind him and leaving the congregation stranded outside […] But Wukong was not angered in the least and only replied with a broad grin. For the Monkey King, in fact, had already solved secretly, as it were, the riddle in the pot; he therefore did not quarrel with the other people but patiently held his tongue. He reasoned that the master, by hitting him three times, was telling him to prepare himself for the third watch; and by folding his arms behind his back, walking inside, and closing the main doors, was telling him to enter by the back door so that he might receive instruction in secret (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 118-119).

4) Huineng explains in the Platform Sutra:

This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person […] Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling ten [thousand li]. Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand [li]. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

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