I love tricksters, and possibly my favorite is Sūn Wùkōng (孫悟空), the Monkey King. Recently, I got to read Professor Anthony C. Yu’s annotated and revised English translation of Journey to the West /Xīyóujì (西遊記). Seeing the original Monkey King in all his mischievous glory just made me fall in love all over again. His larger-than-life personality is instantly recognizable in every story he appears in. At the same time, however, the Great Sage Equal to Heaven is incredibly difficult to pin down identity-wise. Is he a god or a demon, a mythical being or a novel character? Or maybe he was always meant to be constantly outside the lines. Since the Hong Kong version of his festival was on the 22nd of this month, I thought I’d post a celebration of this quirky hero’s slippery nature. Here’s to you, Marvelous Monkey King!
Updated note, 10/1/21: The spelling and translation of names are mostly based on Professor Yu’s work. You may find other versions in different sources. Nézha is a notable exception because that name is more recognizable in a Chinese mythology context than Nata. I have also corrected some of the Chinese characters and phonetic pronunciations based on feedback.
Some quick backstory: The Monkey King was born from a stone on Flower-Fruit Mountain. The energies of Heaven, Earth, sun, and moon combined inside this rock, which cracked to release a “stone monkey.”1 That was his first name before he became “Handsome Monkey King” for leading a troop of monkey spirits to shelter in Water-Curtain Cave.2 Struck by a fear of death, he sought immortality by training in Taoist cultivation, erasing his name from “the register of death,”3 and gorging on immortality peaches and elixir in Heaven. Along the way, he acquired the Rúyì Jīngū Bàng (如意金箍棒) or Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod from the East Dragon King Aó Guǎng (敖廣), rioted until granted the title Great Sage Equal to Heaven/Qítiān Dàshèng (齊天大聖), and crashed the Grand Festival of Immortal Peaches. The Jade Emperor then ordered him executed, but not even 49 days in Lǎozǐ’s Brazier of Eight Trigrams did him in.4 Only when Śākyamuni Buddha sealed him under a mountain did he settle down.
Most of Journey occurs after Wùkōng is freed on the condition of guiding the monk Chén Xuánzàng (陳玄奘) as he travels to India for Buddhist scriptures. Along the way, they also pick up the pig-like Zhū Wùnéng (豬悟能)or Bājiè (八戒), whose snout alone is “three feet,”5 and twelve-foot tall river monster Shā Wùjìng (沙悟淨).6 Despite standing “less than four feet”7 and resembling a “consumptive ghost,”8 Wùkōng is by far the most powerful. His abilities include 72 transformations, a cloud somersault that carries him 108,000 miles at a time,9 invisibility, and spells for lock-picking and “immobilization.”10 Each of his 84,000 golden hairs can become a copy of himself or take other forms.11 After the brazier incident, he acquires “fiery eyes and diamond pupils” that see through outer appearances to the truth within.12 Though initially a little too eager to turn people into “meat patties” at times, he’s generally full of laughter and devoted to Xuánzàng for freeing him.
A Simian Star is Born
Though generally traced to the 16th century novel, Wùkōng likely has much deeper roots. One of the most obvious inspirations in Hanuman, a monkey god worshiped in Hinduism with connections to Jainism and Buddhism as well.13 Like Wùkōng, Hanuman is mischievous but wise, strong in both body and mind. He can change his size and take any form, fly, and leap over an ocean.14 His close relationship with Prince Rama may parallel Wùkōng’s attachment to Xuánzàng. And I’m sure Wùkōng would grin at the episode where Hanuman, tasked with finding two glowing herbs from the Himalayas to save Rama’s son, returns carrying the whole mountain when he realizes all the herbs there glow.15 He is a patron to police and wrestlers, and Vikram Chandra’s novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain calls him a “refuge of poets.16 Many of these traits could apply to the Great Sage too.
There are some notable differences, however, especially in their origins. Rather than hatching from a rock, Hanuman was born to Anjana or Punjikasthala, an “apsara” celestial maiden transformed into a monkey.17 His father was Pavana or Vayu, a wind god. Wùkōng does “quicken” from a gust of wind,18he says, “My father was Heaven, my mother, Earth.”19 He also wasn’t born with all his powers, gradually gaining them through his efforts to become immortal. Hanuman was clearly godly from infancy, as his youthful attempts to snatch the sun earned him a curse preventing him from remembering his power until someone reminded him.20 Wùkōng never forgets his powers, and he won’t let anyone else forget either, frequently reciting them in poetic form to both friends and foes along the journey. Similar they may be, but Wùkōng is not simply a copy of Hanuman.
Wùkōng probably drew on multiple mythical inspirations, many Chinese, rather than a single source. A trio of “monkey saints” or sages hail from Fuzhou province,21 and one Jataka tale of the Buddha’s past incarnations has him as a “monkey king.”22 Both the “sage-king” Yǔ (禹) and his son Qǐ (啟) or Kāi (開) were born from stones in some stories.23 Two other possible inspirations make cameos in the novel. The Preceptor of State-King Bodhisattva says he can’t aid Wùkōng because he needs to keep the Great Sage Water Ape subdued.24 This is likely the Wūzhīqī (巫支祁), a violent monkey-like river spirit sealed under a mountain by Yǔ.25 Wùkōng also briefly chats with Dōngfāng Shuò (東方朔), ribbing him about stealing peaches.26 Historically a court jester from the Han Dynasty, Dōngfāng famously used his sharp wit to admonish Emperor Wŭ (漢武帝).27 In mythology, he was an incarnation of Suì /Jupiter or Tàibái /Venus who stole peaches of immortality.28 Maybe that’s why Tàibái frequently sides with Wùkōng in Journey.
Wùkōng may reference a few historical figures too. Xuánzàng is based on a real monk who made a semi-illegal trek to India for Buddhist scriptures in the 600s.29 Among the later monks who followed his lead, one from 790 gained the religious name Wùkōng, meaning “Awakened to Emptiness.”30 Xuánzàng’s westward journey remained the most celebrated, though. One 664 record has him guided by a “hú” (胡),31 a a member of an ethnic group from Northern China.32 Wùkōng is identified as looking like a “húsūn,” (猢猻)33 possibly a Rhesus macaque.34 A Ming physician once claimed “húsūn” meant “grandson of hú,” probably an insult to the hú people. The character for “hú” is different, but it’s possible that the hú was reimagined as a húsūn during the many retellings prior to the novel. There’s even a group of Chinese Buddhist monasteries that kept monkeys. Troops from Língyǐn (靈隱) bore the surname Sūn just like Wùkōng.35 So Wùkōng’s roots come from both human figures and true monkeys.
Mind the Monkey
Like many characters in Journey, Wùkōng is strongly symbolic. The many poems interlaced with the prose often use metaphorical names to discuss the characters and their interactions. Wùkōng’s aliases here are generally “Metal Squire” or “Mind Monkey.” In the Five Elements systems used in Taoist “internal alchemy,”36 metal or gold is linked to the zodiac sign of “Shēn” or “Monkey,” as well as to Tàibái /Venus.37 Another possible reason why those two are pals. “Mind Monkey” is a Buddhist expression for the restless mind that must be calmed but also harnessed to achieve enlightenment.38 The gold “fillet” or headband Xuánzàng tricks Wùkōng into wearing can be interpreted as a device for controlling the over-active mind, since it forces him into submission through unbearable pain when the monk chants a certain formula.
Wùkōng can also be seen as a part of the fictional Xuánzàng’s self. The historical monk was quite the “young religious zealot, [who] defied the law” in his quest for scriptures.39 I suspect the author wanted a more law-abiding hero, so he channeled those rebellious elements into Wùkōng and made Xuánzàng a worshiper of authority. Zhū, Shā, and the dragon prince horse probably also represent externalized elements of the monk, but Wùkōng as “mind” is easiest to grasp. In modern metaphors, Wùkōng is the prefrontal cortex that analyzes, plots, and reflects but sometimes goes overboard. Xuánzàng is the reactive amygdala, literally falling down when startled, despairing at the sight of each mountain in his path, and sobbing in the face of danger. Without Wùkōng talking him through his fears and fighting the monsters that attack him (often because he ignored Wùkōng’s warnings), this monk would never have survived such a dangerous journey.
The One and Only Cosmic Misfit
For all the possible inspirations behind him, Wùkōng is still more or less one-of-a-kind. One “demon” comments, “that monkey is unique on earth and rare even in Heaven.”40 Indeed, the only time we see a match for Wùkōng is when the Sixth-Eared Macaque impersonates him so perfectly that only Buddha can tell them apart. In the process, he reveals that both are among the “four kinds of monkeys” that belong to no other species,41 with Wùkōng being the “intelligent stone monkey.” A 17th century sequel, Later Journey to the West/Hòu Xīyóujì (後西遊記), does invent a “descendant” who shares most of Wùkōng’s traits,42 proving Hollywood wasn’t the first to try that ploy. But in Journey itself, Wùkōng is pegged as an “irregular number,”43
Of course, many tricksters are misfits. In Norse mythology, Loki walks a fine line between the opposing gods and giants. Yet Wùkōng’s situation is more complicated. His main job in Journey is protecting Xuánzàng from “demons” who view the monk as a superfood because he’s a 40-ish virgin with ten incarnations of spiritual power.44 Wùkōng is never tempted to do the same. He’s often compared to a “thunder-god,45 for being “ugly” as well as smiting. The Chinese thunder god Léi Gōng looks more like a dragon and wields a hammer, but he also got started by killing robbers and eating an immortality peach.46 Yet when warning Xuánzàng about the tactics used by monsters to lure in victims, Wùkōng draws on memories from “[w]hen I was a monster” and “wanted to eat human flesh.”47 He specifically calls himself a yāomó (妖魔),48 often translated as “demon.” Which side, exactly, does he stand on?
Again, it’s complicated because Taoist cosmology emphasizes a world of constant evolution. Though commonly translated as “demons,” “monsters,” or “spirits,” yāo (妖), yāoguài (妖怪), jīng(精), and yāojīng (妖精) aren’t necessarily evil like yāomó or mó (魔). They are non-human spirits who have cultivated their energy to gain supernatural abilities and long life.49 While they can become xiān (仙), “immortals,” or even “shén/deities” (神) with enough merit or cultivation, the “higher” beings tend to be more human-derived and so look down on the nature spirit “low-lives.”50 That might explain why the Jade Emperor initially disdains Wùkōng as a monkey jīng and a “bogus immortal” fit only to tend horses.51 Yet the high fall and the low rise frequently in the story. Several of the “demons” Wùkōng defeats turn out to be servants of deities and one is actually a runaway star deity. Red Boy goes from “fiend” to dharma disciple after his defeat by Wùkōng.52 It’s therefore not unreasonable for the Monkey King to move from “monster” to something resembling a deity.
Wukong’s preferred method of handling “demons,” in this case Princess Iron-Fan. Image by shizhao (talk)拍摄，画者不明, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
What seems to make Wùkōng special even in this dynamic system is that he manages to encompass nearly all states at once. Zhū and Shā were both once humans who became immortals in Heaven before being punished with incarnation as monsters. Even Xuánzàng once sat with Buddha before being sentenced to humanity. Only Wùkōng seems to have no Heavenly backstory. The one claim that he’s the “incarnation of a heavenly god” is probably just PR from Tàibái.53 Yet he is also the only one whose “divine breaths” can transform objects and give mortals immortal strength.54 He regularly commands dragons, kings of the Underworld, and local deities through sheer fierceness and reputation. Èrláng and Nézha, deities who once fought him, treat him like an old friend. Yet people still cry “monkey-spirit” on seeing him,55 and even after being declared the Buddha Victorious in Strife, he still wants to “smash” his headband,56 which disappears because he has learned self-control. Though he certainly develops and changes, in the end he seems to be simultaneously a spirit, an immortal, a deity, and a Buddha.
One more wrinkle in sorting Wùkōng: Does he belong to myth or media? He has been worshiped as a god since at least the 17th century in Fújiàn province, and today he has followers “in southern China, Taiwan,…Malaysia, Singapore, and even Thailand.”57 He is primarily known for exorcism and guarding children. Though the date of his “birthday” varies, the Monkey King Festival is often listed as the day after Mid-Autumn Festival.58 Yet as early as 1740, a story has the younger of two brothers scoffing at “worshiping a fictional character.”59 He then gets sick and is only cured when his older brother prays to Wùkōng, but some modern readers might have similar questions. He probably does predate the novel. An 11th century cave painting shows a “Monkey Pilgrim” accompanying Xuánzàng,60 and a similar character appears in a 13th century poem.61 There’s even a 15th century zaju play also titled Journey to the West/Hòu Xīyóujì that uses the name Sūn Wùkōng.62 Wú Chéng’ēn (his authorship of the novel is actually disputed)63 likely drew on this long heritage when crafting the “character” of Wùkōng.
New Times, New Transformations
As Wùkōng’s tale is retold in modern media, he only gains new interpretations of his identity. I’ve seen him called a superhero, and little wonder since he does share several traits with the famous Man of Steel. When first born, Wùkōng’s eyes shoot “golden beams,”64 and his ability to see through deception resembles Superman’s x-ray vision. More recently, both Marvel and DC have recently added him to their universes. Marvel makes the unfortunate choice of having him be a human with a problematic queue hairstyle. Really, why would any successful “crime lord” sport a high-maintenance, outdated, historical “sign of subjugation” that’s also an easy handle for enemies to grab?65 DC does better as their Monkey Prince at least has a monkey form and a “golden headband.”66 His introduction even references a less-well-known episode from the novel where Wùkōng takes Xuánzàng’s place to face a king who wants the monk’s heart as medicine.
Another new potential interpretation I was struck by while reading Journey was Wùkōng as a cyborg. All those metal metaphors sometimes make it questionable whether he is actually a flesh-and-blood monkey. He says he’s “[b]orn with a bronze head and a crown of steel,”67 and when confined under the mountain he survives only on “iron pellets” and “molten copper.”68 It makes me wonder if he was actually made of living stone to begin with and turned to metal during the “smelting process” in the brazier.69 After all, the running gag of people whacking Wùkōng’s head while he just grins only starts after the brazier. Sure, he eats, breathes, pees (a lot), and cries, and he can bleed, but it’s often under his conscious control. The fact that he gives a set number of hairs and always puts them back into his body implies he doesn’t shed either. In the novel, these features come from gaining a “birthless and deathless body” through Taoist cultivation.70 Yet cyborgs and androids serve a similar role in modern science fiction, imagined as invulnerable and nearly immortal beings with precise control of their bodies. Other than the image below, I haven’t seen any media that plays with the cyborg idea. If you know of any, please share!
“Forever transforming, he changes still.”71
~The Journey to the West, vol. 1, Wú Chéng’ēn, translated by Anthony C. Yu
I may have gone a little long here, yet I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface on the Monkey King. I’ve skipped going into his modern interpretations too much, but you can certain I’ll touch on those another time! For now, though, what are your views on Sūn Wùkōng? Do you think it’s important to define him, and if so, how? What are some of your favorite interpretations of him? And if this is your first time meeting him, what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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- Allard, Syama, “5 Things to Know About Hanuman,” Hindu American Foundation, posted April 23, 2021, accessed Sep. 13, 2021, https://www.hinduamerican.org/blog/5-things-to-know-about-hanuman.
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