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Interesting Facts About Journey to the West - Part II

Posted October 1st, 2017 at 06:14 AM by ghostexorcist
Updated Yesterday at 09:41 PM 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.

All posts are now available as individual entries on an external blog.

15) Flower Fruit Mountain as the Center of the Universe and the Source of Monkey’s Power [partial personal research]

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 Between Monkey’s Spiritual Training and Historical Daoist Internal Alchemy [partial personal research]

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). Photos from Kohn (2008).

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 is most likely 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 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.
__________________________________________________ __________________________

18) Pigsy as a Late Addition to JTTW and Revelation of Monkey's Lustful Nature

Posted: 10-28-17

1) Did you know Zhu Bajie (豬八戒, “Pig of Eight Prohibitions”, a.k.a., “Pigsy”), the lecherous swine spirit, was a later addition to the JTTW story cycle? He does not appear in the 13th-century precursor of the novel, while a variant of Sha Wujing (沙悟淨), the complacent water spirit, appears in said precursor and even in Xuanzang’s historical biography from the 7th-century (this is even before the development of Monkey!).[1] But all three of Tripitaka’s demonic disciples appear in a late Yuan-early Ming dynasty (14 to 15th-century) operatic stage play (zaju, 雜劇) by Yang Jingxian (杨景賢) titled Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記). Regarding Pigsy (fig. 1), acts thirteen to sixteen of the twenty-four act play describe him taking human form, tricking a woman into marrying him, and later kidnapping her, forcing Monkey to take her place in order to defeat the monster (readers will surely recognize this as being identical to Zhu Bajie’s early adventures in chapters eighteen and nineteen of the original novel) (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 197-198; Ning, 1986, pp. 69-78 & 151-157). Such a complex tale no doubt took time to develop before it was included in the play, and since it doesn’t appear in the 13th-century precursor, I suggest Pigsy’s addition to the story cycle most likely took place during the 14th-century.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 - (Left) A depiction of Pigsy by Deviantart user Tianwaitang
(see the original drawing). Fig. 2 - (Right) A postcard depicting
Monkey's battle with Princess Iron Fan (larger version).

2) Did you know the aforementioned play depicts Sun Wukong as a lustful monster? Act nine describes him kidnapping the princess of the Golden Cauldron Kingdom (Jinding Guo, 金鼎國) to be his wife (compare this with Pigsy kidnapping his wife as mentioned above). She is, however, freed by Heavenly King Li Jing (李天王), and the Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) eventually traps Monkey under Flower Fruit Mountain (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 195; Ning, 1986, pp. 63-66 & 145-146). In act seventeen, the four monks are leapt upon by lasciviousness maidens in the Country of Women (女國). Tripitaka resists, while Pigsy and Sandy succeed in bedding their respective partners. Monkey tries but is unfortunately stopped by his golden headband.
My lustful nature was about to be aroused, when suddenly the golden hoop on my head constricted, and the joints and bones up and down my whole body began to ache. The throbbing reminded me of a bunch of vegetables. My head hurt so my hair stood up like radish-tops, my face turned as green as smart-weed sprouts, my sweat beaded up like the moister on an egg-plant soaked with sauce, and my cock fell as limp as a soft, salted cucumber. When she saw me looking for all the world like chives sizzling in hot oil, she came around, suppressed her itch and set me free (Ning, 1986, p. 90; see also Dudbridge, 1970, p. 198).
Act nineteen sees Monkey resort to seduction in an attempt to gain access to Princess Iron Fan’s magical weapon (fig. 2). Upon meeting her, Monkey recites a poem chocked full of saucy innuendo: “The disciple’s not too shallow / the woman’s not too deep. / You and I, let’s each put forth an item, / and make a little demon” (Ning, 1986, p. 141). The princess, however, proves immune to his advances, and after an exchange of heated words, she brandishes a sword against him. This is when Sun threatens to rape her: “You Hussy! If I should lay my hands on you, I won’t beat you or scold you, just guess what I’ll do!” (Ning, 1986, pp. 141-142). Ning (1986) ties Monkey’s lustful nature in the play to longstanding Chinese myths involving ape spirits abducting and raping human woman (pp. 143-145). [2]


1) For the evolution of Sha Wujing, see Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 18-21.
2) See also Wu (1987) for descriptions of said ape tales.


Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic elements in the Xiyouji zaju. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8612591)

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.
__________________________________________________ __________________________

19) The Historical Origins of Zhu Bajie’s Previous Incarnation and his Battle Rake [Partial personal research]

Posted: 11-4-17

1) The novel depicts Zhu Bajie as a reincarnation of the Marshall of the Heavenly Reeds (Tianpeng Yuanshuai, 天蓬元帥) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 212).[1] But did you know that this general was actually venerated as a deity? Sui Dynasty (581-618) sources describe him serving under the Northern Emperor (Beidi, 北帝), the Hades of Daoism, as a powerful exorcist. This is best exemplified by the “Northern Emperor’s Method of Killing Demons” (Beidi shagui zhi fa, 北帝殺鬼之法), a sixth-century rite which contains a prayer invoking Tianpeng by name (Davis, 2001, p. 75; Pregadio, 2008, p. 979). Another text identifies him as one of nine stellar gods associated with the Big Dipper constellation and “assign[s him] the function of security and protection” (Davis, 2001, p. 75; see also Andersen, 1989, pp. 35-36). Early Song Dynasty (960-1279) sources expand on Heavenly Reed’s position under the Northern Emperor and describe him as head of the thirty-six generals of the Department of Exorcism (Pregadio, 2008, p. 992). Most importantly, this is when he was associated with two other powerful exorcist deities, namely Black Killer (Heisha, 黑煞) and Dark Warrior (Xuanwu, 玄武), to form the trinity of the “Three Great Generals of Heaven” (Davis, 2001, p. 75). This was later expanded to a quaternity known as the “Four Saints” (Sisheng, 四聖), which included Heavenly Reed, Black Killer, the True Martial God (Zhenwu, 真武, a variant of the Dark Warrior), and Heavenly Scheme (Tianyou, 天猷) (Pregadio, 2008, p. 479; Little, Eichman, & Ebrey, 2000, p. 298).

Heavenly Reed’s position as a protector and association with the military led to his worship by soldiers. Davis (2001) writes, “The cult of Tianpeng remained popular among military circles into the Southern Song, when [legend has it] he aided various generals in their battles with the Jin” (p. 75). The Song was also when the deity was bestowed the military rank of Marshall (Yuanshuai, 元帥) (Pregadio, 2008, p. 979), the name by which he is called in JTTW (Marshall of the Heavenly Reeds) . During the Ming, a martial arts style (Tianpeng’s Fork, 天蓬釵) and a weapon technique (Tianpeng’s Spade, 天蓬鏟) were named in his honor.

Tianpeng is described in one Song dynasty source as a multi-armed god “dressed in black clothes and a dark hat” (Davis, 2001, p. 75). The names of his trinity companions also reveal their connection with black (i.e, “Black Killer” and “Dark Warrior”). This is because the color is associated with the direction north and thereby the Northern Emperor, whom the three serve (Davis, 2001, p. 75; Welch, 2008, p. 223). A circa 1460 painting of the aforementioned Four Saints actually portrays the Marshall of Heavenly Reeds with black Skin (fig. 1). Why is this important? Because JTTW describes Pigsy as having a black face (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 375, for example). I therefore suggest Zhu Bajie is described as such because of his previous incarnation’s association with the color.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) The circa 1460 painting depicting the Four Saints (Sisheng, 四聖)
(larger version). Heavenly Reed is the black-skinned figure in the upper left.
Fig. 2 - (Center left) A modern Zhu Bajie action figure with an ornate silver-head-
ed rake (larger version). Fig. 3 - (Center right) A pair of Pa (鈀) military rakes from
the San Cai Tu Hui (三才圖會, 1609)(larger version). Fig. 4 - (Right) A Yundang
(耘盪, hand harrow) from a Ming Dynasty agricultural treatise that borrows
heavily from the Nongshu (農書) (larger version).

2) JTTW describes Pigsy’s rake as being a pole arm with nine teeth (fig. 2). But did you know that, despite serving as a general in heaven, his weapon is not the kind that was historically used by the Chinese military. Those of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when the book was written, “were [two] meters in length and used to unseat enemy riders and hook and grab enemy weapons” (Swope, 2009, p. 78). The Pa (鈀, rake) (fig. 3), for example, was covered with hooks in place of teeth to aid in the aforementioned hooking action.[1] But noted Ming General Qi Jiguang (戚繼光, 1528-1588) considered it useless in his battle against Japanese pirates (Tang Pa (钂鈀), 2015).

Pigsy’s weapon more closely resembles agricultural tools that were traditionally used by peasant farmers as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Book of Agriculture (Nongshu, 農書, 1313) by the Confucian scholar and inventor Wang Zhen (王禎, fl. 1290-1333) includes descriptions and woodblock prints of several manual and water-powered farming implements. The book itself was written in response to the devastation that the Mongols had wrought on China over decades of war. So the featured tools were meant to help make life easier for farmers toiling away in the fields (Bray & Needham, 2004, pp. 59-60). One such innovation to come from the book was the Yundang (耘盪, hand harrow) (fig. 4), a bamboo-handled rake with metal teeth designed to weed rice crops (Bray & Needham, 2004, pp. 61-62). I suggest this and other tools like it most likely influenced Zhu Bajie’s weapon.

I also posit the hog spirit was given such a weapon because it added to his image as a country bumpkin. Whereas Monkey wields a magic iron staff once used by Yu the Great to tame the world flood, Pigsy brandishes a gardening tool. The weapon itself is comical in that it is said to have been handcrafted by Laozi (老子) from “divine ice steel” and etched with arcane symbols (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 382-383). That’s one fancy rake!


1)A more accurate translation for Tianpeng is “Heaven's Mugwort”. Van Glahn (2004) explains that this "curious name...alludes to the plant's demonifugic properties" (p. 121). This suggests the ancient Chinese folk belief that mugwort kills demons was anthropomorphized and defied as Tianpeng.
2) Other kinds of military rakes included the pitchfork-like Yi Pa (㑥耙), the trident-like Tang (钂) and Tangpa (钂鈀), and the more rare halberd-like Mao Lian Tang (茅鐮钂) (Tang Pa (钂鈀), 2015).


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.

Bray, F. & Needham, J. (2004). Science and civilisation in China: Volume 6, biology and biological technology; part 2 – agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.

Davis, E. L. (2001). Society and the supernatural in Song China. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaií Press.

Little, S., Eichman, S., & Ebrey, P. B. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.

Pregadio, F. (2008). The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volumes 1 and 2. London [u.a.: Routledge.

Swope, K. (2009). A dragon's head and a serpent's tail: Ming China and the first great East Asian war, 1592-1598. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Tang Pa (钂鈀). (2015, March 24). Retrieved November 02, 2017, from https://greatmingmilitary.blogspot.c...3/tang-ba.html

Welch, P. B. (2008). Chinese art: A guide to motifs and visual imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub.

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

Von Glahn, R. (2004). The sinister way: The divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
__________________________________________________ __________________________

20) Sun Wukong’s Connection to the Boxer Rebellion

Posted: 11-11-17

Did you know Sun Wukong was among the various martial spirits that the fighters of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) channeled to gain what they believed to be superhuman fighting ability? Such a ritual is described by the German catholic missionary Georg Maria Stenz in his 1907 book Contributions to the Folklore of Southern Shandong (Beiträge zur Volkskunde Süd-Schantungs):
On any day of the first month, the [possessing spirit of] the monkey is invited [to earth] […] In order to invite the monkey, money is collected to buy incense in the village. On that particular day, four young men, who are not allowed to be … born in the year of the dragon or tiger, are led to any temple or cemetery … There the incense candles are lit and the following prayer is spoken:

One horse, two horses.
Great Grandfather Sun, please come and play.
One dragon, two dragons.
Great Grandfather Sun, please descend from Heaven and fight.
Then the four fall on their faces and remain in this position for a while. Suddenly someone flops to one side: the [spirit of the] monkey has taken hold and the young man can no longer move himself. After being carried home, lighted incense candles are held under his nose until he jumps up by himself. Once a long saber is put in his hand, he makes a scandalous display accompanied by much fanfare and cymbals. The “possessed” is constantly brandishing the saber in the air and jumping over tables and benches. If one believes the display is too scary, then one lets the incense candles extinguish and the possessed falls immediately as if lifeless to the ground. After some time you call him by his name and he wakes up slowly as if from a deep sleep (Stenz, 1907, pp. 47-49).[1]

Esherick (1987) notes the term “horse” from the poem was often used by boxers to refer to the possessee (p. 56 and 62), or the human vessel that spirits command like a rider on a horse. I imagine both the horses and dragons refer to all four men who volunteer for the ritual. This practice shows Monkey became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his rightful place among the heavenly hierarchy.


1) Adapted from the original German.


Esherick, J. (1987). The origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stenz, G. M. (1907). Beiträge zur Volkskunde Süd-Schantungs. Leipzig: R. Voigtländer.
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21) Why Monkey Wears a Tiger Skin Loincloth and How it Ties Him to Supreme Esoteric Buddhist Guardian Deities

Posted: 11-24-17

After being released from his mountain prison in chapter fourteen, Sun Wukong effortlessly kills a tiger with his iron staff and uses a magic hair-turned-knife to skin the beast. He cuts a large square from the fur and uses half to create a loincloth to cover his naked body (Wu & Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, pp. 309-310). This tiger skin clothing is a highly recognizable element of Monkey’s iconography (fig. 1). But did you know it has a connection to the Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles (Sanskrit: krodha-vighnantaka), [1] a class of supreme guardian deities in Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism?

Before I continue, some historical background is needed. Esoteric Buddhism first developed in India as an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism during the sixth-century CE. Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles (WDO, hereafter) appear in three recognized iconographic phases stretching from the sixth to the twelfth-century. The first and longest phase (6th-12th cent.) depicts the WDO as a dwarfish attendant to a full-size Bodhisattva. [2] He serves as the personification of his master’s wisdom and abilities. The second phase (8th-10 cent.) represents the WDO as an independent deity with his own attendants. He serves as the personification of the attributes of the five directional Buddhas. The third phase (late 10th-12th cent.) represents the WDO as the equal of Buddhas (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 11-14).

Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles are often depicted as fierce, multi-armed figures bearing weapons and, most importantly, wearing tiger skin loincloths (Sanskrit: Vyaghracarma-nivasana). For example, the Manjusrimulakalpa, an eighth-century esoteric text, dictates the prescribed iconography of Manjusri’s WDO guardian Yamantaka (“the Destroyer of Yama, god of death”): “Six faces, six arms and feet/Black in color, with a big belly/Bearing a skull, his hair flaring out in anger/A tiger skin wrapped around the hips/Holding all kinds of implements and weapons” (fig. 2) (Linrothe, 1999, p. 66). The Hevajra Tantra, another eighth-century esoteric work, ties tiger skin clothing to Yogin practices. The text instructs them on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping the WDO Heruka: “The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears the bone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin…” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Furthermore, it describes how each of the ritual adornments and implements used in the ceremony represents each of the five esoteric Buddhas, as well as other religio-philisophical elements:
Aksobhya is symbolized by the circlet, Amitabha by the ear-rings, Ratnesa by the necklace, and Vairocana (by the rings) upon the wrists. Amogha is symbolized by the girdle. Wisdom by the khatvanga [staff] and Means by the drum, while the yogin represents the Wrathful One himself [Heruka]. Song symbolizes mantra, dance symbolizes meditation, and so singing and dancing the yogin always acts (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251).
The scholar Van Kooij comments, "Heruka is more or less a deified hypostasis of the ... yogin himself" (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251). This suggests the WDO are dressed according to what is worn by the very Yogin ascetics who worship them. But I would like to take this one step further. It is important to note that many of these elements, such as the earrings, bracelets, arm bangles, bone necklace, tiger skin dress, khatvanga staff, drum, and dancing, are all attributes of the Hindu God Shiva. He is considered the yogin par excellence, as well as a wrathful deity in his own right (Elgood, 1999, pp. 44-54). I therefore suggest the practice of wearing tiger skin was just one of many elements that esoteric Buddhism borrowed from Hindu asceticism.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 - (Left) A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).
Fig. 2 - (Center) A 13th-century Japanese depiction of the Wrathful Destroyer of
Obstacles Yamantaka (larger version). Fig. 3 - (Right) A modern depiction of the
Hindu god Shiva (larger version).

Shiva is often depicted as wearing a tiger skin and/or using it as a meditation mat (Skt: Asana) (fig. 3). This skin has two interpretations: first, it represents his power over nature; or second, it represents him killing the personified “tiger of desire” (Elgood, 1999, p. 52; Beer, 2003, p. 65). When viewed from a Buddhist context, it seems only natural that Buddhist ascetics and deities would use the skin to represent the cessation of desire. It should also be noted that tigers and their skin were symbols of strength in ancient India. For instance, the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (circa 4th-cent. BCE), describes the martial feats or attributes of many powerful warriors and kings as being tiger-like (Śarmā, 1988, p. 66). In addition, during the royal consecration ceremony (Skt: Rajasuya), newly appointed Vedic kings would step on a tiger skin to gain the animal’s strength (MacDonell & Keith, 1995, p. 337).I therefore suggest the WDO tiger skin loincloth serves a secondary function as a symbol of the WDOs spiritual or physical strength.

There are numerous classes of Buddhist deities that share similarities with the WDO, such as having a wrathful appearance and serving a protective function, but do not rank as high in the esoteric pantheon. These include the Heavenly Kings (天王, tianwang); Skt: Lokapala) (fig. 4), who protect righteous kingdoms and monasteries; Gate Guardians (門神, Menshen; Skt: Dvarapala), who protect the doorways of monasteries and temples; the Protector of Fields (Skt: Ksetrapala), who protect plots of land; the Guardians of the Directions (Skt: Dikpala), former Hindu gods who protect the eight directions; and the Dharma Protectors (Skt: Dharmapala), who protect the Buddha’s teachings (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 20-22).

Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles stand high above these other guardians because they are charged “with the destruction of barriers which prevent the experience of enlightenment” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 25). These barriers include external threats like manifested demons and internal threats like demon-caused mental and bodily illness, the “three poisons”, and karmic debt (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 24-25). [3] And they have the power to subdue even supreme devas. For example, the Compendium of the Truth of All Buddhas (Skt: Savra-tathagata-tattva-samgraha, late 7th-cent.) tells of the Cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana ordering the WDO Trailokyavijaya (the wrathful form of Vajrapani) to conquer Mahesvara (a.k.a., Shiva), king of the gods and master of the three realms. After being subdued, the fallen god asks the Buddha: “[H]ow it can be that Vajrapani, whom in anger [I]…called a mere Yaksa, can be so strong, stronger even than the Tathagata as Lord of the Trikaya[?]” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 26). [4]

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 4 - (Left) Statues of the Four Heavenly Kings located in Beihai Park, Beijing, China
(larger version). Fig. 5 - (Right) A modern toy depicting Monkey's fearsome three-headed,
six-armed form (larger version).

Many of Sun Wukong’s attributes and abilities align with those mentioned above, I would therefore like to argue that he is a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles. First, he wears the tiger skin loincloth, which ties him to the same spiritual tradition represented by WDOs and Yogin ascetics. Second, he has a wrathful appearance (Skt: krodha). During his war with heaven, he takes on a fearsome form with three heads and six arms and multiplies his iron staff to defeat wave after wave of celestial opponents (fig. 5) (Wu & Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, pp. 157 and 191). This is similar to the multiple heads, arms, and weapons of the WDO Yamantaka, as well as other such deities (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 188, 268-269, and 279-280, for example). Third, he serves as a destroyer of obstacles (Skt: vighnantaka). By vanquishing the various monsters, spirits, and fallen stars that threaten the life of his master Tripitaka, Sun clears the path of manifested demons that obstruct the monk’s path to enlightenment. Thanks to his help Tripitaka becomes an enlightened Buddha at the end of the novel (Wu & Yu (Vol. 4), 2012, p. 381). Fourth, Sun serves as the guardian and strong-arm of a Bodhisattva, per phase one of the recognized WDO iconography. Tripitaka is after all the Golden Cicada Bodhisattva reborn on earth (Wu & Yu (Vol. 4), 2012, p. 381). Fifth, Monkey is so powerful that he poses a threat to the August Jade Emperor of Heaven, just like the WDO Trailokyavijaya did for the supreme deva Mahesvara. This ultimately explains why the celestial army is no match for Sun and why other guardian deities, like the Heavenly Kings, fear and respect him. [5] Identifying the Great Sage as a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles helps locate his position in the novel’s Buddhist pantheon prior to his elevation to Buddhahood. This means Monkey is no longer the Buddho-Daoist “wild card” that doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere.

The author/compiler of Journey to the West would have had plenty of esoteric material to influence his depiction of Monkey. Esoteric Buddhism filtered into China by the early Tang Dynasty (618-907) and continued into the Song (960-1279) thanks to royal patronage. People of the neighboring foreign Khitan Liao (907-1125), Tangut Western Xia (1038-1227), and Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) dynasties, all of whom conquered northern China at one time or another, adopted the religion. The Mongols, another foreign ruler of the Middle Kingdom, were great adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), which ensured the continued presence of esoteric imagery in China. And during the Ming (1368-1644), when Journey to the West was first published, the Yongle (r. 1402-1424) and Zhengde (r. 1505-1521) emperors, as well as other elite members of society, patronized the religion (Stoddard, 2008; Orzech, Sorensen, & Payne, 2011).


1) The krodha-vighnantaka term was coined by Rob Linrothe (1999) since the names traditionally given to said wrathful deities over the centuries are not appropriate to cover all three historical phases of their existence (pp. 19-20).

2) The first artists to represent WDOs drew on previous depictions of semi-divine Yaksa spirits, the dwarf-like Gana attendants of Shiva, and the humanoid personification of divine Hindu weapons (Skt: ayudhapurusa) (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 12-13).

3) The three poisons are stupidity, greed/lust, and anger. These are often depicted in the center of Buddhist Wheel of Life art as a boar, a snake, and a rooster, each bighting the others tail, forming a circle.

4) Rob Linrothe (1999) writes that Shiva in this case represents the conquering of ego instead of “a Hinduism which must be humiliated” (p. 26).

5) During the Great Sage’s rebellion, the August Jade Emperor is forced to ask the Buddha to intervene because Sun Wukong is too strong (Wu and Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, p. 191-192). Monkey defeats the celestial army, along with the Heavenly Kings, prior to being subdued (Wu and Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, p. 172). And later the guardians “ben[d] low to bow to him and dare not bar his way” when he visits heaven some centuries after his rebellion (Wu and Yu (Vol. 4), 2012, p. 118).


Beer, R. (2003). The handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols. Chicago, Illinois: Shambhala.

Elgood, H. (1999). Hinduism and the religious arts. London, u.a.: Cassell.

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

Orzech, C. D., Sorensen, H. H., & Payne, R. K. (2011). Esoteric Buddhism and the tantras in East Asia. Leiden: Brill.

MacDonell, A. A., & Keith, A. B. (1995). Vedic index of names and subjects. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Stoddard, H. (2008). Early Sino-Tibetan art. Bangkok: Orchid Press.

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

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