The Location of Monkey’s Home and the Origin of His Daoist Master

1) Despite being associated with China, did you know that Sun Wukong does not come from the Middle Kingdom? His home, Flower Fruit Mountain, is described in the first chapter as being located in a vast ocean “at the border of the small Aolai Country [傲來國], which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent [東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places this continent, along with the Western Godaniya (Aparagodaniya) continent, the Northern Uttarakuru continent, and the Southern Jambudvipa continent, around the four respective cardinal directions of Mt. Sumeru, a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos and the abode of assorted gods and sages (Robert & David, 2013, p. 869)(fig. 1). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India (i.e. the known world to the ancient people of South Asia) (Robert & David, 2013, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Most importantly, when Monkey goes in search of a Daoist master, he sails from Eastern Purvavideha to Southern Jambudvipa (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 108).

I suggest the author supplanted the traditional geography because Jambudvipa is associated with the “known world” (in this case China) and India is located to the west of the Middle Kingdom, which explains why South Asia is placed in Western Godaniya.

2) Did you know Sun studies Daoism in India? Failing to find a master to teach him how to prolong his life, Monkey sails further onto the Western Godaniya continent where he discovers the sage Subhuti (須菩提). Upon meeting the primate, the immortal asks him, “[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 114). Sun then tells him of his decade long search across the world. Placing the immortal in India leads me to my next point.

#14 - Monkey's Home and Subhuti

Fig. 1 – A diagram of sacred Buddhist geography (adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxix) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of Subhuti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock). 


3) Did you know Subhuti is based on a similarly named disciple of the Gautama Buddha? The historical Subhuti (fig. 2) was considered the most accomplished of the Buddha’s students in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pali: Metta; Sanskrit: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 518 and 861-862). The sage was also known for contemplating emptiness, a subject with many textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to “the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence” (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 872). Shao (2006) suggests the Daoist master was named after the Buddhist sage “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to “emptiness” (sunyatā) that the Chan Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:

Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (p. 724).


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

Shao, P. (2006). “Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in Xiyou ji,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65 (No. 4), pp. 713-740

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

The Monkey King and Cinderella

Did you know that the Monkey King has a connection to Cinderella? The earliest known version of her story is based on Rhodopis, a tale set in ancient Egypt. It describes how the god Horus sends an eagle (or takes the form of one) to steal the slipper of the titular Greek slave and deliver it to an Egyptian Pharaoh, who launches a search for and eventually marries the woman. The tale was first recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in 7 BCE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 185-188). However, the work is part of a wider story cycle evident throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The earliest version that appears to have many of the familiar elements from the final European version hails from China. Titled “Yexian” (葉限), the story describes the titular heroine working as an imprisoned servant for her evil stepmother, the bestowal of a beautiful dress and slippers by a female ancestor from heaven, her attendance of a local festival, the loss of one of her slippers while fleeing the festivities, the discovery of the shoe by a foreign king, and a search that results in their eventual marriage. The story is based on the oral tales of the Zhuang ethnic people (of the Vietnamese-Chinese border) and was first recorded by Duan Chengshi (段成式) in the 9th-century CE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 191-192; Beauchamp, n.d.).

Click the image to open in full size.

Hanuman giving Sita Rama’s ring (larger version)


Certain elements of the story appear to have been influenced by the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, written by Valmiki around 500 BCE. The story tells how Sita, the wife of Vishnu’s reincarnation Prince Rama, is kidnapped and held prisoner by the demon Ravana (with the intent of making her his wife) on the island of Lanka. It is during her time in captivity that she is visited by Rama’s servant, Hanuman, a monkey demi-god, who brings her the prince’s ring to prove himself a trustworthy ally. The simian character then brings her anklet to Rama to prove she is still alive. Rama’s army assaults Ranava’s fortress, and he is eventually reunited with his wife. This at first may not seem like it matches at all, but you have an imprisoned beauty (Sita vs Yexian), supernatural assistance from heaven (Hanuman vs. the female ancestor), the exchange of personal items to prove one’s identity (the ring and anklet vs the slipper), and a campaign that brings together the woman and a man of royal blood (Sita and Rama vs Yexian and the foreign king) (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Scholars believe that secularized snippets of the Rama story cycle came to China in several waves, one of which was via Southeast Asian Hindu converts who settled in Southern China from the 7th-century onwards (Walker, 1998).

As some of you may know, many scholars believe Monkey was influenced by Hanuman, and this fact is best illustrated in chapters 68 to 71. The episode sees a queen being kidnapped and held prisoner by a demon (with the intent of making her his wife) in a faraway land. Sun Wukong is employed to find her. He brings back a bracelet to her husband as proof of life and identity, and eventually reunites the couple after defeating the demon (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Beauchamp (n.d.) provides a diagram showing the similarities between the stories of Yexian, Sita, and the queen from Journey to the West.


(larger version)


Beauchamp, F. (n.d.). In the Realm of the Dragon King: Sita and Hanuman meet Cinderella and Sun Wukong. Retrieved from [Original link dead. Click on article title to read.]

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

Ripley, D. (2010). The maiden with a thousand slippers: Animal helpers and the hero(ine)’s journey In Patricia Monaghan (Ed.). Goddesses in world culture (pp. 185-200). Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

A Historical Source for Monkey’s Staff?

Note: Since writing this article, I have come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the staff. Please see the entry for 09-26-16 below. I am keeping this article up for posterity so other scholars may see my thought process.

Last updated12-09-16

Much of my recent work has focused on the origins of Monkey’s magic staff. This is because scholars have not attempted to trace the influences of the weapon beyond the earliest version of the story from the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). The most recent blog entry traces the staff to the ringed and metal staves carried by religious and martial Buddhist monks, respectively. The Song-era version sees Monkey using these two kinds of staves in defense of his master Xuanzang (玄奘) (Mair 1994: 1189-1190). Over time these were combined into a single weapon; the rings from the former were fused at the ends of the latter. This could have been the invention of Yuan/Ming storytellers or the author of the final Ming version (the novel was actually published anonymously) (Wu and Yu 2012: 21).

However, this doesn’t explain all aspects of the weapon. Take for example the initial description of the staff as a black iron pillar with an inscription:

[Sun] Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: [seventeen thousand five hundred-fifty pounds]” (Wu and Yu 2012: 135). [1]

If the weapon is based on historical objects, could it be possible that this description is based on something real? I believe I have found the object that may have influenced Monkey’s treasure: the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi (fig. 1).

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Fig. 1 – The Iron Pillar of Delhi (4th-cent. CE).


This Hindu monument was erected by King Chandragupta II (r. 380–413) of the Gupta Empire and dedicated to the deva Vishnu (Balasubramaniam 2005: 14). It is nearly 24 feet long, 21 feet of which is sticking out of the ground (“an iron rod more than twenty feet long”). The shaft has a very wide diameter, 24 inches at the base and 17 inches at ground level (“as thick as a barrel”) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 30). It has an ornamental bell capital that was originally topped by a chakra disc (“He found a golden hoop at each end”) (fig. 2)(Balasubramaniam 2005: 36-42). [2] And it also carries an inscription describing the military feats of the king (“Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription…”) (fig. 3) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 6-8).

Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.

(Left) Fig. 2 – A reconstruction of the chakra disc (Balasubramaniam 2005: 42).

(Right) The inscription.

What’s most interesting is the fact that the pillar is famous for resisting corrosion over the last 1,600 years. Scientists have analyzed its composition to find that it has a high phosphorous content, which forms a protective barrier against corrosive agents (Balasubramaniam 2005: 3 and 50-51). This means that the metallurgists of ancient India were far more advanced than originally thought. In addition, a local tradition in Delhi associates the pillar with Bhima, a supernaturally strong warrior from the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (4th-cent. BCE). A legend circulating from at least the 19th-century (maybe earlier) claims that he wielded the monument as a club in his ancient war against a rival army (Chunder 1869: 152). Therefore, a black iron rod that defies time and is associated with martial heroes would surely make a fine weapon for an immortal monkey, no?

I unfortunately don’t know of any Chinese sources mentioning the pillar, so connecting it directly to Xiyouji is difficult. However, the pillar was around for 1,200 years prior to the final Ming version, and Buddhist monks such as Faxian and the historical Xuanzang made pilgrimages to northern India were the monument is located. Not to mention there is the possibility that Indian and Chinese merchants traveling back and forth between the two countries could have spread tales about the marvelous iron rod to China. These oral tales could have then reached the ear of the novel’s author during the Ming. I’ve contacted experts in Chinese history, religion, and literature to determine whether or not I’m on the right path. I’ll make a sister entry in the future if I happen upon any more information.

Update: 06-04-14

I recently learned that famed Muslim sojourner Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) referenced the pillar in his travel log:

In the center of the [Mosque of Delhi] is the awe-inspiring column of which [it is said] nobody knows of what metal it is constructed. One of their learned men told me that it is called Haft Jūsh, which means ‘seven metals’, and that it is composed of these seven. A part of this column, of a finger’s length, has been polished, and this polished part gives out a brilliant gleam. Iron makes no impression on it. It is thirty cubits high, and we rolled a turban round it, and the portion which encircled it measured eight cubits (Ibn 2002: 622). [3]

Ibn Battuta traveled to China after his time in India, so this is just an example of how stories of the pillar could have come to the Middle Kingdom.

Update: 12-30-14

I just posted the third and final installment of my investigation on the history of Monkey’s staff. It can be read here.

Update: 09-26-16

Since writing the top entry, I’ve come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the staff’s depiction as an iron pillar. This entry serves as an addendum until I can write a longer blog on the subject…

Update: 12-09-16

I recently learned about the origins of Monkey’s birth from stone, which may have influenced the hero’s connection with Yu’s ruler.


[1] Emphasis added. Anthony Yu’s original translation uses the word “pounds.” However, Chinese versions of the novel use jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin 2004: 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs.

[2] Balasubramaniam (2005) states that the discus was probably removed during the Muslim era for iconoclastic reasons (43). I’m not sure when (if it all) stories of the pillar made it to China. Whether before or after the Muslim conquest, the ornamental nature of the discus and/or the remaining bell capital could have influenced the fusion of the rings from the religious staff to the ends of the martial iron staff.

[3] A big thanks to Historum member Jinit for bringing the reference to my attention.


Balasubramaniam, R. 2005. Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar. Delhi: Foundation Books.

Chunder, Bholanauth. 1869. The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India (Vol. 2). London: N. Trübner.

Elvin, Mark. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Ibn Batuta, and H. A. R. Gibb. 2000. The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325-1354 (Vol. 3). London: Hakluyt Society.

Wu, Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. 2012. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1). Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.