Interesting Facts About Journey to the West

Mar 2011
Interesting Facts About Journey to the West


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.

1) The connection between Monkey’s staff, Yu the Great, and flood control [Personal research]

Posted: 10-04-16

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 were submerged in rivers in southern China during the Song (fig. 2). The spirit is mentioned in Tang records as being a fiery-eyed beast who was chained to the bottom of the Huai River in Jiangsu by a length of iron chain. It was known to cause devastating floods, so Yu trapped the creature under Turtle Mountain. This story has obvious parallels with Monkey's fiery eyes and imprisonment under the Five Elements mountain (Andersen, 2001).

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, Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (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 Cast Iron Recumbent Ox - X.0518

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.

2) Monkey’s birth from stone and more connections to Yu the Great

Posted: 12-07-16

Have you ever wondered why Monkey was born from a stone? Ancient Chinese fertility cults placed stones on altars to creation goddesses. A few such fertility cults are associated with Yu the Great, and it is this connection that culminated in stories from the Han dynasty claiming that Yu was born from a stone. A story appearing in section three of the Huainanzi states that 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 [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 (Wang, 2000, p. 54).​

What I find interesting about this is that Yu and his son Qi went on to become great heroes and/or rulers after their births from stone. This parallels Monkey's birth, enthronement, and later adventures. So not only does Wukong wield Yu's iron ruler as a weapon, but he was also born in a similar fashion. Plus, both have grand titles: Yu the Great (大禹) and Great Sage Equaling Heaven (齐天大圣). This makes Monkey Yu's spiritual and heroic literary successor.


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.

3) The origin of Sun Wukong’s name

Posted: 12-18-16

Did you know Sun Wukong was named after a historical Tang Dynasty monk? Originally a Chinese diplomat of Tuoba origin, Che Fengchao (車奉朝, 731-812) was part of a royal mission sent to Kashmir in 751. Che was too sick to return with them in 753, so he stayed in country and was eventually ordained as a Buddhist monk with the religious name Fajie, or "Dharma Realm" (法界). He lived abroad for several decades before returning to China in 790. There, he presented Emperor Dezong with various translated Sutras and a Buddha relic in the form of a tooth. The emperor was so pleased that he renamed the monk Wukong, or "Awakened to Emptiness" (悟空) (Wang, 2006, p. 66).

It's interesting to note that the name Sun Wukong does not appear in The Story of Tang Tripitaka Procuring the Scriptures, the 13th-century precursor of JTTW. Instead, the novelette refers to him simply as the "Monkey Pilgrim" (hou xingzhe, 猴行者) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). Therefore, the name Sun Wukong was most likely coined by the compiler/author of the version we know and love today.


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.

Wang, Z. (2006). Dust in the wind: Retracing dharma master Xuanzang's western pilgrimage. Taipei: Rhythms Monthly.

4) Sun Wukong and Indiana Jones


Did you know that Sun Wukong almost appeared in an Indiana Jones film? George Lucas wrote a brief eight page treatment as early as September 1984 (during the theatrical run of Temple of Doom), and later brought on Chris Columbus to flesh the story out. Columbus' script sees Jones racing against the Nazis to find a fountain of youth in Africa, located in the lost city of the Monkey King (Jones, 2016, p. 368). Titled Indiana Jones and the Monkey King, a second draft depicts Wukong as an evil immortal who forces Jones to play a game of human chess, killing those living pieces taken from the board (Indiana Jones and the Monkey King, n.d.). A full version of the supposed script, incorrectly titled "Indiana Jones IV", is available online. The end sees a benevolent Great Sage giving Jones his magic staff, telling him, "The Golden Hooped Rod will be a faithful friend. It is capable of one hundred transformations...and will always remain by your side" (Columbus, n.d.).

The script was eventually scrapped in favor of what would become Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) (Indiana Jones and the Monkey King, n.d.).


Columbus, C. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from INDIANA JONES IV

Indiana Jones and the Monkey King. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from Indiana Jones and the Monkey King | Indiana Jones Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia

Jones, B. J. (2016). George Lucas: A life. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

5) Monkey and Cinderella

Posted: 02-28-17

Did you know that Monkey has a connection to Cinderella? The earliest known version of her story is based on "Rhodopis", a tale set in ancient Egypt. It describes how the god Horus sends an eagle (or takes the form of one) to steal the slipper of the titular Greek slave and deliver it to an Egyptian Pharaoh, who launches a search for and eventually marries the woman. The tale was first recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in 7 BCE. However, the work is part of a wider story cycle evident throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The earliest version that appears to have many of the familiar elements from the final European version hails from China. Titled "Yexian", the story describes the titular heroine working as an imprisoned servant for her evil stepmother, the bestowal of a beautiful dress and slippers by a female ancestor from heaven, her attendance of a local festival, the loss of one of her slippers while fleeing the festivities, the discovery of the shoe by a foreign king, and a search that results in their eventual marriage. The story is based on the oral tales of the Zhuang ethnic people (of the Vietnamese-Chinese border) and was first recorded by Duan Chengshi in the 9th-century CE.

Hanuman giving Sita Rama's ring (larger version)

Certain elements of the story appear to have been influenced by the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, written by Valmiki around 500 BCE. The story tells how Sita, the wife of Vishnu’s reincarnation Prince Rama, is kidnapped and held prisoner by the demon Ravana (with the intent of making her his wife) on the island of Lanka. It is during her time in captivity that she is visited by Rama’s servant, Hanuman, a monkey demi-god, who brings her the prince’s ring to prove himself a trustworthy ally. The simian character then brings her anklet to Rama to prove she is still alive. Rama’s army assaults Ranava’s fortress, and he is eventually reunited with his wife. This at first may not seem like it matches at all, but you have an imprisoned beauty (Sita vs Yexian), supernatural assistance from heaven (Hanuman vs. the female ancestor), the exchange of personal items to prove one’s identity (the ring and anklet vs the slipper), and a campaign that brings together the woman and a man of royal blood (Sita and Rama vs Yexian and the foreign king).

Scholars believe that secularized snippets of the Rama story cycle came to China in several waves, one of which was via Southeast Asian Hindu converts who settled in Southern China from the 7th-century onwards.

As some of you may know, many scholars believe Monkey was influenced by Hanuman, and this fact is best illustrated in chapters 68 to 71. The episode sees a queen being kidnapped and held prisoner by a demon (with the intent of making her his wife) in a faraway land. Sun Wukong is employed to find her. He brings back a bracelet to her husband as proof of life and identity, and eventually reunites the couple after defeating the demon.


* - Realm%…
* Ripley, Dore, "The Maiden with a Thousand Slippers: Animal Helpers and the Hero(ine)'s Journey" in Goddesses in World Culture (Vol. 1), ed. Patricia Monaghan (Praeger, 2010), pp. 185-200

6) JTTW and Islamic Lore

Posted: 5-12-17

Did you know that certain portions of JTTW were influenced by Indo-Persian and Arab Islamic lore? For instance, in chapter six Sun Wukong and Lord Erlang engage in a magical battle of skill in which they freely transform into myriad animals, each trying to one-up the other. This battle is unusual as Chinese stories going back to pre-Tang dynasty sources show characters could not transform at will. Conversely, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1704), which is based on stories as far back as the 9th-century, contains a tale featuring a magical battle of transformations between a princess and a genie. Literary critic C.T. Hsia (1996) notes that the similarities in magical combat ”does not mean…the makers of the Monkey legend were specifically indebted to [the Arabian Nights], but it certainly indicates their general awareness of the popular literature of the Middle and Near East” (pp. 132-133).

Fig. 1 - (Left) Modern pears grown in molds to imitate ginseng baby fruit.
Fig. 2 - (Right) A 15th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the women
fruit of the Waqwaq tree (Larger version).

Additionally, chapters 24 to 26 of JTTW features a magical tree that produces crying, baby-shaped fruits capable of extending the lives of those who eat them to 48,000 years (fig. 1). Chapter 11 of the 13th-century version of JTTW features an immortal peach tree with fruits that transform into edible children once they drop into water. Each is capable of answering when asked a question. The concept of speaking, human-shaped fruit most likely comes from tales associated with those from The Book of the Wonders of India (Kitaab Ajaaib al-Hind), a set of Indo-Persian sailor stories collected between 900 and 953. For example, the 37th entry, titled “Deceitful fruit”, reads:

Muhammad b. Babishad told me that, according to what he had learnt from men who had been to the Waqwaq country, there is a large tree there, with round leaves, or sometimes oblong, which bears fruit like a marrow, only larger, and looking something like a human being. When the wind blows, a voice comes out of it. The inside is full of air, like the fruit of the usher. If one picks it, the air escapes at once, and it is nothing but skin (Buzurg & Freeman-Grenville, 1981, p. 39).​

The 15th-century Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi took the concept further by describing the fruit as being shaped like voluptuous women (fig. 2) with the power of speech:

On this island are trees that bear as fruit women: shapely, with bodies, eyes, hands, feet, hair, breasts, and vulvas like the vulvas of women. Their faces are exceptionally beautiful and they hang by their hair. They come out of cases like big swords, and when they feel the wind and sun, they shout “Waq Waq” until their hair tears (Toorawa, 2000, p. 393).​

Various sources respectively locate this “Waqwaq tree” and its home of “Waqwaq”, a faraway, exotic land or island, somewhere within the Indian Ocean, beyond Iraq, or, further still, beyond China. The Waqwaq term was most likely used to describe the limits of the known world at given times (Toorawa, 2000). The tree itself can possibly be traced to a passage in the Quran (Sura 37, verses 60-64) that describes how the “Tree of Zakkum” produces fruit shaped like the heads of demons. The earliest mention of the Waqwaq tree in Chinese sources appears in the late 8th-century encyclopedia Tongdian (通典) by the travel writer Du Huan (杜環). This is apparently based on an earlier Arabic source (A floral fantasy, n.d.).


A floral fantasy of animals and birds (Waq-waq). (n.d.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from…0Waq%20waq.pdf

Buzurg, . S., & Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. (1981). The book of the wonders of India: Mainland, sea and islands. London: East-West.

Hsia, C. (1996). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Ithaca (N.Y.: East Asia program, Cornell University.

Toorawa, S. M. (2000). WaÃq al-waÃq: Fabulous, fabular, Indian Ocean (?) island(s). Emergences, Volume 10 (2), pp. 387-402.

7) Origins of a JTTW film villain and a Buddhist art motif [Personal research]

Posted: 05-13-17

A female villain appearing in Stephen Chow’s recent film Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017) is revealed to be a large, golden celestial bird. She is actually based on a male villain from JTTW called "The Roc of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles" (fig. 1). This male bird demon appears in chapters 74 to 77 as one of three sworn brothers who threaten Sanzang's life. We learn he is a powerful demon as old as creation and the Buddha's spiritual uncle. He is so powerful that the Buddha himself intercedes (much like he had done during Monkey's rebellion) and traps the demon atop his throne to serve as a Buddhist guardian (fig. 2).

Fig. 1 - (Left) The Roc of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles (larger version). Fig. 2 - (Middle) The bird trapped
above the Buddha's head (larger version). Fig. 3 - (Right) A 15th-century relief of a Gate of Glory from
the Zhenjue Temple Pagoda in Beijing, China. Take note of Garuda above the Buddha's head (larger version).​

My research has traced the motif of a bird, in this case Garuda, sitting above the Buddha’s throne to ancient Buddhist architecture portraying the bird god above the Torana, or gateway, of some early stupas from the 1st-century BCE. Early examples portray him in an amicable relationship with the naga, his eternal enemies from Hindu lore. However, later examples highlight his struggle against his serpentine foes. The torana was replaced in popularity as a temple entrance by post and lintel doorframes by the 5th-century. It was around this time that Hindus began building temples and adopted the Garuda and serpent motif above their doorways. Garuda was after all a symbol of the supreme god Vishnu.

With the second coming of Buddhism to Tibet in the 11th-century, adherents flocked to India to study and came into contact with the motif. This caused it to jump the gap from architecture to art when Tibetan Buddhists absorbed the imagery into their “Throne of Enlightenment” or "Gate of Glory", which depicts Garuda at the top of Buddha’s throne (fig. 3). The motif then spread into China thanks to the Mongol’s patronage of Tibetan Buddhism during the 13th and 14th centuries. Later Chinese emperors of the Ming (and Qing) were adherents of Tibetan Buddhism as well, which insured that the image of Garuda sitting above the Buddha’s throne was commonplace enough for the author of JTTW to provide a folkloric explanation for the phenomenon.


Based on ongoing research. I’ll post a paper about this in the future. Those interested can see pictures I posted in an earlier thread here.

8) Monkey and the Rhesus Macaque

Posted: 05/17/17

Did you know that Sun Wukong is based on a real species of monkey? In chapter one, the patriarch Subodhi tells Sun: "Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a [husun (猢猻)]" (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). The master dismisses the Hu (猢) character for linguistic reasons, and he drops the animal radical (犭) for religious reasons, leaving Sun (孫, "grandson") as Monkey's surname. Possibly quoting an earlier source, the noted Ming physician Li Shizhen (1518-1593) explains the meaning of husun and associates it with a particular genus: "Since a macaque resembles a Hu-barbarian, he is also called hu-sun, 'grandson of a barbarian'" (Gulik, 1967, p. 35). There are several species of macaque native to China, but anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) believes the Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) is the best fit:

Monkey goes bare-headed and wears a red dress, with a yellow sash, and black shoes. This is a fitting description of M. mulatta, whose reddish fur on shoulders and back yields to lighter, more yellowish fur on the abdomen, and whose feet and hands are black. The 'pouch' to which the Monkey King himself refers [to in the novel] would likely be the cheek-pouches common in macaques, but not gibbons or leaf-eating monkeys.


One of Monkey King's epithets is 'Fiery Eyes". His red eyes--a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [Fig.
1][...]--resulted from his punishment in a crucible. [...] He is also a 'red-bottomed horse ape', which suggests M. thibetana or, again M. mulatta, both of which are large animals, with pronounced redness on the bottom, especially during reproductive phases (p. 148).​

Fig. 1- A comparison of Rhesus macaques with red-rimmed eyes during mating
season (top left) and other times (bottom left) (larger version). Fig. 2 - An 1865
piece by Yoshitoshi (larger version).​

In chapter two, a monster describes Monkey as being "not [even] four feet tall" (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 128). Rhesus males measure on average 1.74 feet (Lang, 2005). But I imagine these measurements were taken while they were in a quadrupedal posture (on all fours), which would make them taller if they stood.

I think all of this information is important as modern day depictions of Sun portray him as a man (or the size of a man) or a hulking brute with huge muscles. Such depictions are extremely inaccurate. He is a short monkey, plain and simple. His great strength, martial arts skill, and magical abilities make him a formidable warrior, not his size. I think the Japanese produced the most accurate renderings of monkey. The work of Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) is a good example (Fig. 2).


Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: basis for a conservation policy?. In Fuentes, A., & Wolfe, L. D. (Eds.), Primates face to face: Conservation implications of human-nonhuman primate interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Lang, K. C. (2005). Rhesus macaque Macaca mulatta. Retrieved May 17, 2017, from Primate Factsheets: Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology

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

9) Monkey's religious name and its connection to Daoist doctrine

Posted: 05/20/17

Did you know Monkey's religious name is a pun for immortality? I've previously mentioned that his surname Sun (孫, "macaque" or "grandson") was chosen because he resembles a macaque monkey (猢猻, husun), and his given name Wukong (悟空, "awakened to emptiness") is most likely based on the religious moniker of an 8th-century Chinese Buddhist monk who lived in India. However, the name as a whole references Daoist internal practices. Talking about the individual components of the surname, the patriarch Subodhi states: "Zi means boy and xi means baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy. So your surname will be Sun" (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). So the full name has a contextual reading of "Baby Boy Awakened to Emptiness". Comparative religious scholar and JTTW translator Anthony C. Yu explains, "The Baby Boy is none other than the 'holy embryo or shengtai 聖胎,' the avatar of the realized state of immortality in the adept's body" (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 86). Daoist doctrine dictates that the combination of the three vital essences of jing (semen), qi (breath), and shen (spirit) combine to create this holy embryo. Daoist and Buddhist texts sometimes illustrate realized immortality or enlightenment as the image of a baby on a practitioner's stomach.


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

10) Origins of the Chinese Underworld Appearing in the Novel

Posted: 05/30/17

Did you know that the underworld presented in JTTW is actually an amalgam of native Chinese and foreign Hindu-Buddhist beliefs? As far back as the Han Dynasty, hell was considered an otherworldly bureaucracy where souls were kept en masse. With the coming of Buddhism from India, a different view of the underworld evolved wherein souls would be reborn in one of six paths (deva, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell) and burn off any bad karma via suffering in life until they were pure enough to be reborn in a Buddha realm. But starting around the 7th-century, the idea of purgatory appeared and brought with it the concept of the Ten Judges or Kings. This is where the two previous views were combined. Souls would be brought before a magistrate and suffer punishment for a given sin before being sent onto the next court and so forth. After suffering for a three year period, the soul would finally be sent onto their next life (Teiser, 2003, pp. 4-7).

Detail from a 20th-century hell scroll (larger version)

Two of the Ten Judges stand as perfect examples of the intermixing of the two belief systems. The seventh judge, King of Taishan, is an allusion to a famous Chinese holy mountain. The fifth judge, King Yama, is a Buddhist holdover from Hinduism who originally ruled as the god of the underworld (Teiser, 2003, pp. 2-3).

Not everyone living in medieval China could read Buddhist scriptures, so the purgatories were eventually illustrated as a powerful teaching tool. Nothing says behave like seeing a demon eviscerating someone in full bloody color. Such “Hell Scrolls” remain quite popular even to this day. Charles D. Orzech (1994) suggests that one of the reasons why they remained popular through the end of dynastic China was because they served as not so subtle reminders to be a law abiding citizen. Otherworldly judges doling out painful punishments mirrored the actions of their earthbound counterparts. Real-world magistrates were known for using torture to gain confessions. One such device was used to slowly fracture the ankles and shins.

Those interested can see full color versions of hell scrolls here:

Main Gates


Orzech, C. D. (1994). Mechanisms of Violent Retribution in Chinese Hell Narratives. Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, 1. Retrieved from

Teiser, S. F. (2003). The scripture on the ten kings and the making of purgatory in medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

11) The Mysterious Ninth Chapter and Sun Wukong's Links to Chinese Opera

Posted: 6-11-17

Did you know that the current ninth chapter of JTTW did not appear in the original version anonymously published in 1592? Those who have read the novel may recall that it details the tragedy surrounding Xuanzang’s birth, namely the murder of his father and the kidnapping of his mother, years prior to him becoming a monk. This narrative first appeared in a slightly later version of the novel titled The Chronicle of Deliverances in Tripitaka Tang’s Journey to the West (唐三藏西游释尼傳) compiled by Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Canton in 1595 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 18).

Fig. 1 - (Left) Monkey as portrayed in Beijing Opera (larger version). Fig. 2 - (Right) Sun Wukong
angrily biting one of his cap feathers. From a live action adaptation of JTTW (larger version).

The third chapter of JTTW describes how, in addition to his magical staff, Monkey receives a phoenix feather cap, a set of golden chainmail armor, and cloud-treading boots from the undersea dragon kingdom. The armor and phoenix cap are highly recognizable elements of Sun’s iconography. I suggest this attire was directly influenced by that worn in Chinese opera, an artistic medium that presented popular events from the JTTW story cycle long before the novel was published. In Beijing opera, for example, Monkey is often portrayed as a Wusheng (武生), a heroic role focused on martial combat and acrobatics. Regarding the costume, Bonds (2008) explains, “The Wuxiaosheng [武小生, a variant of the Wusheng role] generally wear kao [armor (靠)], high-soled boots, and often have [six-foot] long feathers (Lingzi [领子]) attached to their silver or gold filigree helmets” (p. 3) (fig. 1). She goes on to say, “[F]eather movements enlarge the gestures and emotions of the wearer. For example, rotating the head in circles...expands a sense of anger. Shaking the head back and forth quickly...adds to extreme frustration. Biting crossed feathers in the mouth heightens the appearance of aggressive feelings” (p. 44). This feather biting can be seen in numerous live-action adaptations of JTTW (fig. 2). So by referencing such attire, the author/compiler of JTTW was not only providing a mythical origin for the clothing worn by the character in operatic stage plays, but they were also highlighting Monkey's status as a great hero.


Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

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

12) Modern Depictions of Sha Wujing's Weapon and its Origins [partial personal research]

Posted: 7-9-17

Sha Wujing (沙悟淨), or “Sandy” for short, is commonly portrayed in modern media wielding a Monk’s Spade (月牙鏟), a wooden polearm capped with a sharpened spade on one end and a crescent-shaped blade on the other (fig. 1). But did you know that this weapon does not appear in the novel? Chapter 22 contains a poem that describes the original weapon and its pedigree. A section of it reads:

For years my staff has enjoyed great fame,
At first an evergreen tree in the moon.
Wu Gang [an Immortal of the Han Dynasty] cut down from it one huge limb:
Lu Ban [the god of builders] then made it, using all his skills.
Within the hub [is] one solid piece of gold:
Outside it’s wrapped by countless pearly threads.
It’s called the treasure staff for crushing fiends
[...] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 428)

As you can see the staff is described as a wooden polearm devoid of any metal blades. So how did Sandy become associated with the Monk’s spade? It can be traced to a common motif appearing in late Ming Dynasty woodblock prints. Sha Wujing is just one of a number of famous literary staff-wielding monks to be portrayed brandishing a polearm topped with a small crescent shape. Others include Huiming (惠明) from the Story of the Western Wing (Xixiangji 西廂記, c. 1300) (fig. 2) and Lu Zhishen (魯智深) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳, c. 1400) (fig. 3) (Shahar, 2008, p. 97).

Fig. 1 - A modern depiction of Sandy wielding a Monk's Spade (larger version). Fig. 2 - A 1614 woodblock print of
Monk Huiming with a crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 3 - A late Ming woodblock of Lu Zhishen with a crescent
staff (larger version). Fig. 4 - Sha Wujing from Ehon Saiyuki (circa 1806) (larger version). Fig. 5 - Sha from
Xiyou yuanzhi (1819) (larger version). Fig. 6 - A detail from a Long Corridor painting (circa 1890) (larger version)

The exact origin or purpose of the blade is unknown, however. Martial historian Meir Shahar (2008) comments:

Future research may determine the origins of the crescent shape, which is visible in some Ming period illustrations of the staff. Here I will mention only that an identical design is common in a wide variety of twentieth-century martial arts weapons, whether or not they are wielded by Buddhist clerics. The crescent’s significance in contemporary weaponry can be gauged by its appearance in the names of such instruments as the “Crescent-Shaped (Yueya) [Monk’s] Spade,” “Crescent-Shaped Spear,” “Crescent-Shaped Battle-ax,” and "Crescent-Shaped Rake" (pp. 97-98).​

A woodblock print appearing in the first section of Journey to the West Illustrated (Ehon Saiyuki 画本西遊記), published in 1806, depicts Sandy holding a staff with a large crescent blade (fig. 4), showing how the once small accent had been enlarged by this time to become a more prominent feature of the polearm. This same weapon is echoed in a print from The Original Intent of The Journey to the West (Xiyou yuanzhi 西遊原旨, 1819) (fig. 5), as well as in multiple circa 1890 JTTW-related paintings from the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace in Beijing (fig. 6, for example). So depictions of Sha Wujing's polearm were most likely associated with the Monk’s Spade due to their physical similarities, and this probably took place no earlier than the early 20th-century.


Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press.

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

13) Monkey's Connection to Sex

Posted: 9-5-17

“Monkey of the Mind” (xinyuan, 心猿) is a title often associated with Sun Wukong. It is one half of the common phrase “Monkey of the Mind, Horse of the Will” (xinyuan yima, 心猿意馬), which refers to the disquieted mind and uncontrollable wants that plague humankind. Allusions to the monkey of the mind appeared in Indian Buddhist sutras as far back as circa 30 BCE. The double metaphor of the monkey and horse appeared in religious and lay Chinese Buddhist writings by the sixth-century CE (Dudbridge, 2009, pp. 168-169).

But did you know that by the 16th-century, when JTTW was written, that the phrase had become a popular euphemism for sexual desire? Dudbridge (2009) provides an example from the famous novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen Yanyi, 封神演義): "In the lamplight [Zhou Wang] saw Ximei two or three times part her red lips—a little dot of cherry—and breathe a lovely cloud of sweet air; she turned her liquid eyes—two pools of moving water—and gave him all kinds of wanton glances, till Zhou Wang could not suppress the Monkey of the Mind, and the Horse of the Will strained at the leash…" (p. 175)

Given Monkey’s connection to the phrase, Liu (1994) suggests the primate and his staff have a sexual dimension: “In the novel both Sun Wukong and his ‘Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod’ represent the human mind and desires, especially sexual desires, which must be under control, as indicated by the tightening fillet on Monkey King’s head and the two hoops on the magic weapon. Specifically, the rod is a symbol of the male sex organ…” (pp. 142-143)

I'm not sure if I accept this agument given that Monkey doesn't show any interest in sex even before attaining immortality. It is Zhu Bajie who suffers from sexual addiction in the novel. Nonetheless, I find Liu's comparison hilarious, especially if you think about the growing of Monkey’s magic pole! Pardon me while I giggle like a teenage boy.


Dudbridge, G. (2009). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the west. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

14) The Location of Monkey's Home and the Origin of His Daoist Master

Posted: 9-25-17

1) Despite being associated with China, did you know that Sun Wukong does not come from the Middle Kingdom? His home, Flower Fruit Mountain, is described in the first chapter 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” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places this continent, along with the Western Godaniya (Aparagodaniya) continent, the Northern Uttarakuru continent, and the Southern Jambudvipa continent, around the four respective cardinal directions of Mt. Sumeru, a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos and the abode of assorted gods and sages (Robert & David, 2013, p. 869)(fig. 1). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India (i.e. the known world to the ancient people of South Asia) (Robert & David, 2013, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Most importantly, when Monkey goes in search of a Daoist master, he sails from Eastern Purvavideha to Southern Jambudvipa (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 108).

I suggest the author supplanted the traditional geography because Jambudvipa is associated with the "known world" (in this case China) and India is located to the west of the Middle Kingdom, which explains why South Asia is placed in Western Godaniya.

2) Did you know Sun studies Daoism in India? Failing to find a master to teach him how to prolong his life, Monkey sails further onto the Western Godaniya continent where he discovers the sage Subhuti. Upon meeting the primate, the immortal asks him, “[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 114). Sun then tells him of his decade long search across the world. Placing the immortal in India leads me to my next point.

Fig. 1 - A diagram of sacred Buddhist geography (Robert & David, 2013, p. xxix)(larger version)

3) Did you know Subhuti is based on a similarly named disciple of the Gautama Buddha? The historical Subhuti was considered the most accomplished of the Buddha’s students in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pali: Metta; Sanskrit: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 518 and 861-862). The sage was also known for contemplating emptiness, a subject with many textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to “the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence” (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 872). Shao (2006) suggests the Daoist master was named after the Buddhist sage “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to "emptiness" (sunyatā) that the Chan Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:

Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey's Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti's Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that "emptiness" constitutes the core of Monkey's religious being (p. 724).​


Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). "Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey's Religion in Xiyou ji," The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65 (No. 4), pp. 713-740

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