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Interesting Facts About Journey to the West - Part II

Posted October 1st, 2017 at 05:14 AM by ghostexorcist
Updated Yesterday at 09:26 AM by ghostexorcist

Interesting Facts About Journey to the West - Part II


By Jim R. McClanahan


This blog will serve as a repository of facts I find interesting about the famous Chinese Classic Journey to the West (1592) (JTTW, hereafter). It is based on a series of posts I've made on a Facebook group page dedicated to the novel's main character, the immortal monkey demon-turned-Buddhist guardian Sun Wukong. The point of the original posts was to enlighten people who have surely read and enjoyed the novel but may not be aware of its background and influences. The information presented here is either gleaned from various sources or based on my own personal research. I will continue to update this page in the future.

15) Flower Fruit Mountain as the Center of the Universe and the Source of Monkey’s Power

Posted: 10-1-17

Did you know JTTW presents Flower Fruit Mountain as the center of the universe? The end of a poem describing the mountain states, “This is indeed the pillar of Heaven, where a hundred rivers meet—/The Earth’s great axis, in ten thousand kalpas unchanged” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). Eliade (1959) notes that “communication [between heaven, earth, and the underworld in world religions] is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth” (p. 36). Why is this important? Because the novel describes how Monkey was born from a stone that “had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of heaven and earth and by the essences of the sun and moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). As a pillar of heaven, the height of Flower Fruit Mountain positions the boulder where heaven meets earth, allowing there to be a passage of energies between the two plains of existence through the stone, like electricity through a fuse. This ultimately explains why Sun is so powerful.

Click the image to open in full size.

A complex diagram of Mount Sumeru and the associated
heavens above and hells below it. If this portrayed Flower
Fruit Mountain, Sun Wukong's boulder would have been lo-
cated where the summit meets the first heaven
(larger version).

As described in entry #14, the author of JTTW supplanted traditional Buddhist geography by placing China in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent and moving India to Western Godinyia. So by making Flower Fruit Mountain the axis mundi, it supplants Mount Sumeru as the center of the cosmos (fig. 1). Admittedly, there is a discrepancy between the literary narrative and the religious cosmology since the book states Flower Fruit Mountain is located “at the border of the small Aolai Country, which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). By definition, the mountain can’t be in the center of the world if it’s located to the east of the easternmost continent. But discrepancies are bound to arise when you tell and augment a story cycle for hundreds of years. Flower Fruit Mountain is mentioned in the 13th-century precursor to the JTTW titled The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras (see Wivell, 1994).


Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and the profane: The nature of religion (W. R. Trask, Trans.). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

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 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.
__________________________________________________ __________________________

16) The Origin of Monkey’s Battle with Lord Erlang and its Ties to Han Dynasty Funerary Rites and Folklore

Posted: 10-06-17

Did you know the battle between Monkey and Lord Erlang is tied to Han Dynasty funerary rights and folklore? Wu (1987) notes that, during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), the people of Sichuan often buried their dead in stone tombs decorated with brave heroes, such as archers and crossbowmen, and fierce animals, such as tigers and hounds. Regarding the latter, the canines are sometimes depicted attacking or intimidating apes, which were considered emblems of disease or bad luck (fig. 1). Therefore, by portraying the subjugation of such evil forces, the carvings are thought to have served the ritual function of protecting deceased loved ones from dark influences on their wayward journey to the afterlife (pp. 100-101).

(The idea of dogs overcoming apes should bring to mind Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s loyal hound at the end of chapter six.)

One recurring motif depicts an archer drawing his bow to fall an ape in a tree (fig. 2). This is based on a third-century BCE tale about the legendary Chu archer Yang Youji (養由基) shooting an elusive white ape held in the palace of the King of Jing. This in turn is based on an even older tale about the archer Yi (羿) bringing order to the primordial earth by killing nine of ten suns that took the form of monstrous crows. Han era tombs are known to portray Yi drawing a bow to shoot said birds flying around a tree, so it most likely influenced the motif of Yang shooting the ape in a tree (Wu, 1987, pp. 102-106). Despite his later connection with the three-pointed polearm, Erlang was also portrayed as an archer in early media.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 - (Top left) A Han Dynasty tomb rubbing of oversized dogs intimidating apes (larger version). Fig. 2 - (Bottom left)
A Han tomb decoration depicting an archer shooting at an ape (larger version). Fig. 3 - (Center bottom) The 13th-
century painting depicting Erlang and his soldiers rounding up and executing ape demons. A captive ape can be seen
on the bottom left between the two soldiers (larger version). Fig. 4 (Center right) A detail from the 15th-century painting
showing the ape, his humanoid wives, and their gibbon-like children being rounded up (larger version). This section is
located in the last four-fifths of the scroll. Fig. 5 - (Right) A detail showing Erlang near the front of the same scroll
(larger version). His armor differs slightly from that of the 13th-century version. Also take note of how a young page
holds his bow, while a spirit soldier bears his (slightly obscured) three-pointed polearm.

Lord Erlang was originally worshipped during the Han as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. His cult grew and absorbed other deities and heroes under his mantle. For instance, Wu (1987) writes:
The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country.

When the Er-lang cult became increasingly popular in Sichuan, the previous divine archers such as Yang Youji and Yi, (like many other legendary demon-quellers), were mologized into this new cult, and their defeat of an ape demon became an important part of the Er-lang legend. Er-lang's traits in later stories and art works clearly disclose this transformation (pp. 107-108).
(It should also be noted that Erlang was at some point associated with the historical engineer Li Bing (李冰, c. 3rd-cent. BCE) and the official Zhao Yu (趙昱, c. 6th/7th-cent CE), both of whom were worshipped for defeating flood demons (Wu, 1987, p. 107). I suggest this may have led to his cult being connected to that of Yu the Great (大禹), the flood-queller par excellence in Chinese folklore. This is important because Tang Dynasty legends state Yu battled a simian water demon and eventually imprisoned it under a mountain (see Andersen, 2001). Sound familiar? This may have been another avenue in which Erlang was associated with quelling ape demons.)

One anonymous 13th-century album leaf ink painting portrays Erlang seated in a kingly fashion and watching as his spirit soldiers round up and execute ape demons (fig. 3). (One anonymous 15th-century scroll painting reproduces the scene in color, along with other animal spirits (fig. 4 and 5).) The image of the deity as a queller of ape monsters culminated in an anonymous Yuan-Ming Dynasty play called The God Er-lang Locks up the Ape-Demon "Great Sage-Equal to Heaven" (二郎神鎻齊天大聖, Er-lang Shen suo Qitian Dasheng). Much like JTTW, the god is sent to capture a magical primate, in this case an ape, who has stolen immortal food and wine from heaven. (Wu, 1987, pp. 108-109). This no doubt influenced Monkeys mischief in heaven and subsequent battle with the deity.


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

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.
__________________________________________________ __________________________

17) The Connection of Monkey’s Spiritual Training with Daoist Internal Alchemy

Posted: 10-21-17

Did you know Monkey’s early spiritual training in chapter one is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? After becoming a student of the great immortal Subhuti in India, Sun receives a private lesson in which his master recites an instructional poem, part of which reads:

All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit;
Store these lest there be a leak. Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!
Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive
You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames.
Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth—
When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will! (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subhuti warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak”, he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178). “You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace. The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal spirit embryo (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179). The third stage involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 - (Left) A diagram of the organs and energy path-
ways in the human body (larger version). Fig. 2 - (Right)
A daoist sage subduing a tiger with his magic powers
(larger version).

Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180)(fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.

Although dogmatic internal alchemy emerged during the Song, various facets of the practice, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Wu and after the hour of Zi" (before noon and after midnight). [1] This time-based practice is described in the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄): “always practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84). [2] So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to forge his immortal spirit body.


1) The original source says "breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). I've changed the quote because this might be an error. See below.
2) There is a glaring contradiction between what the novel says (before Zi and after Wu) and what Daoist practice prescribes (before Wu and after Zi). I think this is possibly a transcription error in the original text.


Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese healing exercises: The tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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

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