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My Favorite Sun Wukong Moments from Journey to the West

Posted September 1st, 2017 at 06:10 PM by ghostexorcist
Updated January 19th, 2018 at 08:42 PM by ghostexorcist

My Favorite Sun Wukong Moments from Journey to the West

By Jim R. McClanahan

Click here to learn more about the historical, religious, and folklore influences on Journey to the West

What are your favorite Sun Wukong moments from the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592)? Is it his birth from stone and quest for immortality, or his attainment of the golden-hooped iron staff and rebellion against heaven? Perhaps it’s his battle with the rhinoceros demon or his own doppelganger? The three moments I have in mind have less to do with grand adventures or shows of strength and fighting ability and more to do with rare examples of mortal danger, hidden skills, and intellectual wit. I would love to hear from others about their favorite moments.

1) Near death experience in battle against Red Boy (chapter 41)

After Tripitaka is kidnapped by Red Boy, the son of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan, Monkey seeks out his residence at the Fiery Cloud Cave in the Roaring Mountain in order to appeal to the child’s sense of family loyalty. Sun is after all the sworn-brother of the Bull Demon, making him the boy’s uncle. This appeal, however, enrages Red Boy, leading to a fierce battle that pits his fire-tipped spear against the immortal’s gold-hooped iron staff. But fearing that he will lose out on gaining merit, Pigsy unexpectedly joins the fray, leading the overwhelmed child demon to resort to his ultimate weapon, divine Samadhi fire that bellows from his mouth and engulfs the entire area. The intense heat and smoke from the flames cause both heroes to flee, while the demon returns to his cave in triumph. Monkey takes Sandy’s advice and enlists the help of the four Dragon Kings, who agree to unleash torrents of rain upon the demon the next time he calls forth his hellish fire. But this plan later backfires when, upon their next battle, the rain only serves to intensify the resulting flame like water on a grease fire. The heat and smoke overpowers Monkey’s fire-repelling magic and sets him ablaze. He leaps into a nearby stream, but the shock of going from superhot to supercool in matter of seconds nearly kills him. Pigsy pulls his unconscious body from the water and performs emergency massage that brings him back from the point of death. Sun realizes that the Bodhisattva Guanyin is the only being capable of quelling Red Boy’s flame, and so he sends his second brother to retrieve the goddess from her abode in the Southern Ocean. But the pig is captured by the demon before he can even do so. Being in a weakened state, Monkey resorts to trickery in order to infiltrate the child’s lair in order to learn of both Pigsy and Tripitaka’s whereabouts.

Why I like it: This is the only instance in the novel where he almost dies. Nearly dying makes him a more human character that you can sympathize with. Completely invulnerable characters like Superman are hard to relate to because they can never be hurt or killed. The threat of death never hangs over their heads. I also like this episode because the explanation for his injury aligns with science. Hard materials that are superheated and then supercooled become brittle and break easily. Monkey is often described in the novel as being a stone monkey with a bronze head, so his body would surely be damaged by the rapid transition from super hot to super cold.

Click the image to open in full size.

A depiction of Red Boy from a live action television show.

2) Using medicine to heal an emperor (chapters 68 and 69)

Monkey notices a crowd standing around a guarded imperial edict as he gathers supplies in the capital city of the Scarlet-Purple Kingdom. The edict announces the emperor’s longstanding illness and promises to divide half his kingdom with anyone capable of curing his sickness. Sun takes this as an opportunity to flex his medical knowledge, and so he uses magic to take down the edict and, after initially framing Pigsy as the person who removed the document, the immortal is eventually introduced to the emperor by a crowd of officials. Tripitaka, who had traveled to the palace to get their travel rescript signed, is quick to admonish Monkey for falsely claiming to be a doctor, but the elder disciple assures his master that he has the skills necessary to cure the illness. Monkey, however, is forced to analyze the emperor from outside the royal bedchamber as the latter is too scared of the monk’s monstrous appearance. So he turns three of his tail hairs into three magical golden strings, each of which are attached to three specific areas on the emperor’s arm to measure his pulse. He ultimately determines the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the ruler’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Sun requests the imperial doctors prepare three pounds each of eight hundred and eight different ingredients in order to keep his methods a secret. He then concocts three pills comprised of two herbs, a collection of pot soot scrapings, and a vial of magical dragon horse urine. The comically named “Elixir of Black Gold” is administered to the emperor along with “sourceless water” (saliva gathered from Aoguang, the dragon king of the Eastern Ocean). The elixir 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.

Why I like it: This episode shows Monkey is more than just a warrior, he is also a classically trained doctor. To my knowledge, this skill never appears again throughout the rest of the novel. The episode is also memorable because Sun manages to gain the intellectual high ground over Tripitaka, who does nothing but complain about and belittle Monkey and his abilities. The priest is such a useless, annoying character, in my honest opinion. He is a pale shadow of the historical monk on which he is loosely based.

3) Saving Tripitaka from earthly punishment (Chapter 97)

In the Numinous Earth District of the Bronze Estrade Prefecture, the four monks are framed for the theft and murder of a rich layman who originally hosted them for a month. Sun Wukong captures the real perpetrators and rounds up their stolen bounty, but is forced to release the bandits for fear that Tripitaka will chant the band-tightening spell for killing them. However, imperial troops later capture the monks with the stolen items, making them look guilty. After the group is brought to court and tortured for some time (only affecting the weaker members), Monkey escapes from the prison at night to use his magic powers to influence the monks’ release. First, he imitates the voice of the slain layman at his wake and threatens heavenly retribution if his widow, the person who framed the monks, doesn’t recant her false claims. Second, he imitates the voice of the deceased uncle of the city magistrate who imprisoned them and again threatens heavenly retribution if the official doesn’t reexamine the case. And third, at dawn he transforms himself into a titan-sized apparition before the district level magistrates and threatens to stomp the city and surrounding area into oblivion as heavenly retribution if they don’t put pressure on their superior to free the group. In the morning, three of the monks and all the officials travel to the layman’s home, while Sun goes to the underworld of Diyu to retrieve the man’s soul, which has been granted a dozen more years of life by the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha. Monkey returns and brings the man back to life by forcing his soul into his body. The layman then explains how he had been murdered by bandits who robbed his mansion. The City Magistrate therefore pardons the monks and even the wife.

Why I like it: This is one of those rare instances where Monkey relies completely on his wit in place of brute force and violence to solve a problem. Plus, it reminds me of cases of mistaken identity and false imprisonment on police procedural shows like Law & Order.

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