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10 Facts About Sun Wukong the Monkey King

Posted July 14th, 2018 at 06:45 PM by ghostexorcist

I recently created a youtube video detailing ten lesser-known facts about the Monkey King. Below I link to the video and present the script.


Stone Monkey, Handsome Monkey King, Keeper of the Heavenly horses, Great Sage Equaling Heaven, Pilgrim, Victorious Fighting Buddha. Sun Wukong is known by many names. This much beloved character is a staple of modern pop culture, appearing in countless movies, television shows, videogames, and other related media. His most famous adaptation is of course Son Goku from the Dragon Ball Franchise. But he is best known from his adventures in the great 16th-century Chinese classic Journey to the West. In this video we will explore ten facts that even superfans of the novel may not know about the history of the Monkey King. References for each fact are available in the description. Let’s get started.

10. He’s not Chinese

Jiangsu province, China is home to Huaguoshan Park, a popular tourist attraction touted as the home of the Monkey King. However, the novel describes Flower Fruit Mountain as being located in a vast ocean “at the border of the small Aolai Country, which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent.” The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places this continent, along with the Western Godaniya continent, the Northern Uttarakuru continent, and the Southern Jambudvipa continent, around the four cardinal directions of Mt. Sumeru, a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos. Each continent is separated by an ocean, making traveling between them very difficult.

While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India, or the known world to the ancient people of South Asia, the novel places China within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya. This means Monkey’s home is located well to the east of China.

9. His surname references both monkeys and Daoist immortality

The exact word Master Subhuti uses for Monkey’s appearance is husun, meaning “grandson of the barbarian”. This word references the nomadic tribes that constantly plagued ancient China’s northern border. The Chinese believed these people were less than human with animal-like qualities. The term Husun refers to the Rhesus macaque, an Old World monkey species native to Asia. The Chinese believed this monkey also had animal and human qualities. This is why the words for barbarian and grandson include the animal radical.

Monkey’s resemblance to the macaque is highlighted throughout the novel. For example, the many demonic features used to describe our hero are shared with the primate. These include a furry, jowless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears.

After choosing Sun as Monkey’s surname, Master Subhuti removes the animal radical and provides a folk etymology for the character, breaking it down into its individual components and associating them with Daoist thought.

Zi means boy and xi means baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy.
This doctrine refers to the Shengtai, or holy embryo or fetus, the realized state of immortality. Daoist internal alchemy views the human body as a living cauldron capable of smelting vital essences into an immortal elixir. This process involves manipulating semen, qi, and spirit within the body and combining them to produce the holy embryo. The achievement of eternal life is sometimes symbolized in alchemical treatises as a baby on the practitioner’s stomach. Hence the baby boy mentioned by Master Subhuti.

8. He’s the literary successor of a legendary emperor

Monkey’s birth from stone mirrors legends associated with the birth of Yu the Great, a legendary emperor of the Xia Dynasty and a demigod famous for quelling the fabled world flood, as well as killing many flood demons in the process. Even his son Qi is said to have been born from a stone. One particular Han dynasty tale reads:

When Yu went to appease the floods, he pierced through Huanyuan Mountain and transformed himself into a bear. Earlier Yu had said to his pregnant wife Tushan, ‘At the sound of the drum, please bring me food.’ But during his efforts, Yu jumped on a rock and a piece fell, hitting the drum by mistake. Tushan brought the food as promised and saw the bear. Feeling embarrassed and distressed, she fled as far as the foot of Songgao Mountain 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.
Furthermore, Sun Wukong comes to wield Yu’s cosmic ruler, the famous “As-you-wish” gold-banded cudgel. In chapter 3, the Dragon King reveals the magic staff “was the measure with which Yu the Great fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood.” Therefore, the novel presents Monkey as a great hero literally cast from the same mold as Yu the Great.

7. He’s really short

Modern media often depicts Sun Wukong as the size of a human man. A prime example is his portrayal in the popular online video game SMITE as a hulking warrior with huge muscles. However, the novel describes his base form as being very short and skinny. For example, one passage in chapter 20 reads:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!"
That’s right, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the conqueror of the heavenly army, is the size of a child. This is why Sun Wukong is so short in Stephen Chow’s 2013 film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.

6. He predates Journey to the West by hundreds of years

Stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the novel and even the name Sun Wukong by centuries. Such tales would have been told in storytelling stalls like this one from the famous 12th-century painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival. Records for the earliest repertoires do not exist, but thankfully pictorial evidence from two Buddhist cave grottos in Gansu Province, China survive. Eastern Thousand Buddha cave number two houses an 11th-century painting of Monkey and his master paying homage to the Bodhisattva Guanyin. Monkey is depicted with his famous golden fillet and what one might call a “derpy” expression. A 12th-century painting in Yulin cave number three depicts the two paying homage to the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Our hero is portrayed with a more monkey-like appearance but lacks his headband.

5. His golden headband is based on a real object

In chapter 14, Monkey is tricked into wearing the fillet as punishment for killing bandits who accost his master. It painfully tightens around his skull whenever Xuanzang recites a spell. The self-control-inducing headband is based on one of eight ritual objects historically worn by esoteric Buddhist yogins. These items are best exemplified by a 13th-century stone relief carving of Monkey from Quanzhou in Fujian province, China. The esoteric source mentioning these items reads:

The practitioner should wear divine earrings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars.
The source goes onto mention the circlet symbolizes Akshobhya, one of the five esoteric Buddhas. This deity is known for his vow to attain Buddhahood through moralistic practices like right speech and action. Therefore, the ritual headband served as a physical reminder of self-restraint, just like the fillet does in the novel.

4. He originally fought with two staves

Monkey appears in a 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West called Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures. In this brief 17 chapter novelette, the supreme deva Vaisravana gives him a magic Khakkhara, or ringed monk’s staff like the one often depicted with the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. He uses this staff in battle against a white tiger demon and transforms the weapon into a titanic yaksa wielding a club. Later, Monkey transforms the staff into an iron dragon to battle a group of nine-headed dragons, and after their defeat, he uses an iron staff borrowed from heaven to beat them as punishment.

Storytellers would later combine these two staves to create Monkey’s signature weapon. The golden rings from the monk’s staff were attacked to the ends of the iron staff, creating a cudgel with the ability to grow or shrink according to the user’s wishes.

3. He has siblings and a wife

Monkey appears in Journey to the West, a 15th-century zaju play that predates the similarly named Ming novel by nearly 200 years. In his opening dialogue to act 9 Monkey describes being one of several siblings.

We are five brothers and sisters: my elder sister is the Venerable Mother of Mount Li, my second sister is the Water Spirit Sage; my older brother is the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, I myself am the Great Sage Reaching Heaven, and my younger brother is Shuashua Sanlang.
Yes, you heard that right. The play calls Monkey the Great Sage Reaching Heaven, while an older brother is known as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. One scholar suggests the older brother is the result of confusing similar titles given to Monkey during the long history of his story cycle. However, the sisters each have their own history. The Venerable Mother of Mount Li was historically worshiped as a deity from at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and myths often associate her with the creation/flood-conquering goddess Nuwa. The Water Spirit Sage, more commonly known as Wuzhiqi, is a monkey-like flood demon appearing in stories as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907). So both sisters are associated with flooding.

Monkey’s wife, the Princess of the Golden Caldron Country, is introduced in act 9 and sings a song revealing how the immortal had kidnapped her and forced her to be his bride. She is eventually rescued by Devaraja Li Jing and his son Prince Nezha, who both appear in the subsequent Ming novel.

Monkey’s affinity for women does not end there. For example, in act 19, he tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan to gain access to her magic palm leaf fan. Upon meeting her, Monkey recites a poem chocked full of sexual 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.
2. He’s worshiped as a god

Fujian province, China has a long history of worshiping monkeys. For example, one source from the 12th-century mentions a Buddhist monk pacifying the vengeful spirit of a female “Monkey King” worshipped by the local people as the “Spirit protecting hills and woods”. Scholars are reluctant to tie Sun Wukong’s worship to this historical monkey cult, but it shows his faith evolved in the same cultural environment.

The earliest evidence for Monkey’s worship comes from the early Qing Dynasty. One report from the 17th-century, for example, describes Monkey appearing in the clouds and driving back invading Japanese pirates from the Fujian coast during the preceding 16th-century. Scholars suggest the publishing of Journey to the West in 1592 played a large part in the development of his cult and the spread of his mythos. Chinese emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties never officially recognized the Great Sage or built temples in his honor due to the monkey’s rebellious nature. However, due to the popularity of the novel, his cult spread from Fujian to other areas of Southern China, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Modern GIS mapping shows temples dedicated to him on the Putian Plains of the Fujian coast cluster in the northern highlands where poorer, less educated communities reside. It’s important to remember that Monkey is worshiped under his rebellious title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, instead of his Buddhist name Wukong. Therefore, Monkey may have historically appealed to poorer communities because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored the rich over the poor. Therefore, this class of people may have been responsible for the spread of his cult beyond China.

The Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan is just one example of the many temples dedicated to Monkey throughout Asia. Here he is worshipped as a powerful exorcist and healer. Monkey’s cult recognizes a pantheon of Great Sages, from a holy trinity and administrative managers down to lowly soldier monkeys. Adherents visit every day to pay their respects and to pray for blessings. Here we see a time lapse of Temple members celebrating the Great Sage’s birthday. They leave him offerings of fruit and candy and burn incense and paper money as a way of repaying Monkey’s generosity.

Spirit Mediumship plays a large role in the temple’s religious life, giving worshipers direct access to the divine. Twice a week Wanfu’s spirit medium calls down the Great Sage from heaven to hold audience with believers seeking blessings. Here we see the medium-turned-Great Sage using incense to draw magical fu talismans on a baby’s body, starting from the front and then mirroring the design on the back. He then writes out a series of paper talismans using the same incense. One is folded and put inside of a red pouch to be worn as a good luck charm. The second is packaged to be later burnt and the ashes combined with an included tea leaf and water to be given to the baby as a magical brew. Finally, the third is lit and waved over the baby’s head and around their body.

Even a particular ginger-bearded researcher took part in the ritual. Not everyone can say they’ve been blessed by the Monkey King.

1. There was a real monk named Wukong

Scholars suggest Monkey may have been named after a real Buddhist monk originally called Che Fengchao. He was born in 731, nearly 90 years after the historical monk Xuanzang returned to China from India. He grew up to become a diplomat for the Tang court and was chosen to be part of a royal mission to Kashmir in 751. An illness kept him from returning to China in 753 and so he was left in the care of a noted Buddhist monk, eventually being ordained as a monk himself with the religious name Fajie, or “Dharma Realm”. He lived in India for decades before returning to China in 790. There, he presented Tang Emperor Dezong with various translated Sutras and a Buddha tooth relic. The emperor was so pleased that he renamed the monk Wukong, or “Awakened to Emptiness”.


This ends our look at 10 facts about Sun Wukong. I hope this video was enlightening. If you liked what you saw, please like, comment, and share. Also, please visit my research blog Journey to the West Research for more information on the history of the novel and its characters. Thank you.

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