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 [ten] 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.

(Note 06-15-19: Feng Dajian of Nankai University notified me via Twitter that he disagrees with Anthony C. Yu’s 2012 revised translation (cited above) associating the “True Sayings” with the Buddhist Dharani. This is because he feels the ritual is overtly Daoist, noting that the religion also has its own True Sayings.)


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 hours or 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 hours or 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 hours or 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 and sages through the medium of a divine wizard.


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


1) The original English translation says “a thousand arms”, but the Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation has been corrected

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.

The Origin of Monkey’s Punishment Under Five Elements Mountain

Last updated: 06-29-2019

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 (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 193-195).

Sun Wukong trapped under mountain - In Flames toy - small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong’s imprisonment under a section of Five Elements Mountain (larger version).

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 bu, 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 [fig. 2] (Andersen, 2001, pp. 15-16). [2]


Fig. 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 [fig. 3]. 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]


Fig. 3 – A Japanese depiction of a Tarsier-like Wuzhiqi based on its description from the Song dynasty source (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]

Update: 06-29-2019

The idea of the Buddha magically transforming his hand into Five Elements Mountain can be traced to a Song-era Daoist ritual in which an exorcist draws the character for “well” (jing, 井 / 丼) on the ground, thereby dividing the ritual space into nine sections, representing the Nine Palaces (jiugong, 九宮), [7] and in the center is placed a liquid-filled jar. After the target demons are coaxed or forced inside, the opening is sealed with paper and the exorcist performs a hand mudra representing the immense pressing weight of a mountain. [8] Meulenbeld (2007) writes:

The spirits captured within the grid of the Nine Palaces were kept inside their prison by symbolically pressing them down underneath a mountain. The symbolism here lies in the fact that the mountain was represented by a posture of the hand forming the character for mountain (“Mountain Mudrā” 山字訣 with the thumb, index-finger, and little finger all pointing upward [fig. 4 and 5]. Oftentimes the specific “mudrā of Mt. Tai” 泰山訣 [fig. 6], was used, representing the heaviest of all mountains. Moreover, many present-day exorcist talismans contain a character composed of a “demon” 鬼 underneath a “mountain” 山, namely the character wei 嵬 (p. 145, n. 92).

Mountain mudra with Chinese character

Fig. 4 – The Chinese character for mountain (shan, 山) (larger version). Fig. 5 – The Mountain mudra (shanzi jue, 山字訣) (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 6 – The double-handed Mount Tai mudra (Taishan jue, 泰山訣) (larger version). Original picture from here.

The “Mountain” and “Mount Tai” mudras are connected to a similar concept called the Taishan stone (taishan shi, 泰山石) (fig. 7), a class of “evil-warding stones” (shigandang, 石敢當) often placed outside of homes and temples or at the intersection of roads as protection from malevolent forces (pp. 71-72). The Taishan stone represents Mount Tai, a holy mountain in Shandong province, China, and its deity. The landmass is considered the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. This means any evil would be completely immobilized under its great weight. Therefore, this shows Five Elements Mountain serves as a cognate for Mount Tai because it is actualized in a similar manner⁠—i.e. the landmass is represented by a hand—and its great weight is used to weigh down an evil spirit, in this case Sun Wukong.

Taishan stone example - small

Fig. 7 – A modern Japanese example of a Taishan stone (larger version). They often read “Taishan stone takes upon itself” (Taishan shi gandang, 泰山石敢當), denoting its duty of protection (Wang, 1992, p. 71). Original image from Wikipedia


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.

7) The nine palaces are a cosmic geographical concept in which stars are mapped according to the five Chinese cardinal directions (N, S, E, W, and center) and the four intermediate directions. Thus, they represent the universe as a whole.

8) See Meulenbeld, 2007, pp. 143-145 for more information about the jar ritual. It likely influenced media that influenced Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame to create the Mafuba (魔封波; Ch: mofengbo), or “Demon Containment Wave” ritual. Padula (2016) describes the etymology and background of the Mafuba (pp. 122 to 126). He graciously provided me with a digital copy of his book.


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.

Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

Wang, J. (1992). 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, N.C: Duke University Press.

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

Sun Wukong and Births From Stone in World Myth

Last updated: 05/16/2020

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 from the same mold 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. 

Updated: 05/10/2020

Sun Wukong wishes you a Happy Mother’s Day! Photomanipulation by me.

Monkey Mother's Day

“Happy Mother’s Day, mom!” (larger version)

Updated: 05/13/2020

Figure five above lists the hermaphroditic, monstrous god Agdistis as another figure from Western mythology born from stone. Vermaseren (1966) presents his myth reconstructed from multiple sources by previous scholarship:

In Phrygia there is an enormous rock … near Pessinus known by the name of Agdus which took the form of the Great Mother. While she was sleeping Jupiter wanted to make love to her … but the Goddess refused and Jupiter, struggling to obtain … her, lost his seed … According to Pausanias, however, Zeus lost his seed while sleeping. The Goddess is the petra, the mountain, the venerable Terra Mater. Now, against her will, in the tenth month she brings a bisexual being into the world whose name, Agdistis, is derived from Agdus. We must note that Agdistis, like Mithras, is born from the rock (petra genetrix). In the legend this monstruous person is distinct from the goddess Agdistis, whose cult has left some traces in Asia Minor.

Because of his bisexual character the new creature has the power to create by himself, to have offspring without the aid or intervention of any other being—he may be divine or mortal. Hence Agdistis has an insana et furialis libido et ex utroque sexu. [1] He does not worry about the gods or mankind and he believes that he is the most powerful being in the world. In many respects he has the traits of evil god[s] in Iranian and Indian literature and the jealous gods now use similar tricks against him. When the other gods in the divine council are too fearful and hesitate Liber, or Bacchus,—possibly in order to obtain immortality (though this is not stated)—arranges to tame him … The water in the spring where Agdistis drinks is mixed with wine. When Agdistis sinks into a deep sleep … after having drunk this mixture, Dionysus ties Agdistis’ virile parts to a tree with ropes …, wakening the wild god. From the blood the earth conceived a pomegranate tree with fruit (Arnobius), or an almond tree which bore fruit in due time (Pausanias) (pp. 3-5).

Both Monkey and Agdistis are sired by the union of heaven and earth—the “seeds of heaven and earth” in the case of Sun Wukong and the semen of Zeus (heaven) and the rock goddess Agdus (earth) in the case of Agdistis. These stone-born monsters share a superiority complex, believing they are more powerful than the gods. The deities fear their power and therefore seek ways to tame them—Monkey is placated for a time with celestial posts before ultimately being imprisoned by the Buddha, while Agdistis is striped of his manhood (and thereby his power). I must admit the number of similarities between the two are fascinating.

Again, the presence of stone-born deities in both Eastern and Western mythologies is interesting. This speaks to the generative power of earth in world myth.

Updated: 05/16/2020

Birrell (1999) discusses the mythography and historiography of the previously quoted story describing the stone birth of Yu the Great’s son Qi / Kai (see the first entry above). She reveals Qi’s birth is referenced in early 4th-century material and that it’s a later addition to Tushan’s tale from the Han. Furthermore, she discusses scholarly debate over the age of the myth and notes its sparing use of words and ancient syntax:

The account of the birth of Yu’s son, Qi, is similarly archaic in form and content. The laconic narrative contains several motifs that have resonances with other myths of deities and heroes. Yu’s metamorphosis into a bear links him with his father’s dead spirit (in that version of the Gun myth which relates that Gun’s corpse turned into a bear). The motif of food and drum music connect this myth with the narrative of Jiandi, marking the Yu episode as his nuptial feast with the woman who was to bear his son. His son is conceived by an error, when Yu makes a sound like a drumbeat as his feet pound a stone in rhythmic ecstasy before his marriage. It is worth noting that ancient Chinese drums were made of stone, among other materials. The second metamorphosis in the narrative when Tushan girl turns into a stone links the birth of Qi to music and connects it to the myth of Qi ([Also] known as Kai) receiving the gift of music from God. Other motifs are the godlike command of Yu that his son be brought forth from his mother’s stone womb, and the miraculous splitting of the stone mother to reveal the child god. There is also the linked motif of Yu’s error of pounding the stone and his later lameness, called “the Yu walk.”

The source of this myth is significant for mythography. It is said by the Tang classical scholar and commentator Yan Shigu (A.D. 581-645) to be a reference he located in a text from Huainanzi, compiled circa 139 B.C. That text, however, does not appear in the extant editions of Huainanzi. The only reference the latter makes to the Yu/Qi myth is: “Yu was born of a stone.” Embroidered versions of the metamorphosis of the Tushan girl into stone begin to appear in the writings of Han commentators such as Gao You (third century A.D.), and Ying Shao (second century A.D.). The fourth-century commentator of The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Guo Pu, however, specifies that the mother of Qi (Kai) metamorphosed into stone and gave birth to Qi on the mountain (Mathieu 1989, 125). Thus the tradition of Qi’s miraculous birth is confirmed by at least the early fourth century A.D. and probably derives from an earlier tradition. The question the mythographer and mythologist must decide, therefore, is whether to reject the text of the myth supplied by Yan Shigu because it does not appear in extant editions of the putative source, or whether to accept it as authentic on the assumption that Yen was citing an edition of Huainanzi which is no longer extant but was available to him in the early Tang dynasty. It will be recalled that most extant editions of the classics were fixed in orthodox versions in the Song dynasty, four centuries after Yan. Karlgren concluded in “Legends and Cults in Ancient China” that because Yan appears only to refer to the text in question rather than citing it verbatim, and because Han and post-Han commentators in general fail to cite the passage, it must be rejected as a valid mythic text of the late second century B.C. (1946, 310). On the other hand, Wolfram Eberhard, in his critical review of Karlgren’s methodology in that article, countered Karlgren’s rejection of the Yan Shigu passage with this general principle of mythographic methodology: “All Ethnologists and Sociologists accept the fact that a myth, a custom or a cult reported earlier than a second myth, custom or cult, must not be a priori older or more primitive than the second; otherwise no Ethnology would be possible! A myth reported only in a later text, may very well represent a form, reflecting quite an early state of development” (1946, 360). Additional support for Yan’s text of the myth resides in its intrinsic style: its syntax is archaic, it lacks consecutive narrative links, it is laconic, and it lacks the explanatory material typical of later narratives. Of course, the text could be a forgery of the early Tang era, but stylistically it is quite different from the Tang mode of narrative (p. 122-123). [2]


1) “a furious, raging libido and of both sexes”.

2) I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.


Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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.

Vermaseren, M. J. (1966). The legend of Attis in Greek and Roman art. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 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.