Sun Wukong depicted in Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1889.
|Vietnamese||Tôn Ngộ Không|
|RTGS||Heng Chia (from Hokkian pronunciation of "行者" (Xíng Zhě))|
Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King, is a main character in the 16th century novel Journey to the West and in many later stories and adaptations. In the novel, he is a monkey born from a stone who acquires supernatural powers through Taoist practices. After rebelling against heaven and being imprisoned under a mountain by the Buddha, he later accompanies the monk Xuanzang on a journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India.
Sun Wukong possesses an immense amount of strength; he is able to lift his 13,500 jīn (8,100 kilograms (17,900 lb)) staff with ease. He is also extremely fast, able to travel 108,000 li (54,000 kilometres (34,000 mi)) in one somersault. Sun knows 72 transformations, which allow him to transform into various animals and objects; however, he is troubled in transforming into other forms, due to the accompanying incomplete transformation of his tail. Sun Wukong is a skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against the best warriors of heaven. Also, each of his hairs possess magical properties, capable of being transformed into clones of the Monkey King himself, and/or into various weapons, animals, and other objects. He also knows spells that can command wind, part water, conjure protective circles against demons, and freeze humans, demons, and gods alike.
One of the most enduring Chinese literary characters, Sun Wukong has a varied background and colorful cultural history. For example, Sun Wukong is considered by some American, Chinese, and Indian scholars to be influenced by both the Hindu deity Hanuman from the Ramayana and elements of Chinese folklore.
Birth and early life
 There was once a magic stone on the top of a mountain which was thirty-six feet five inches high and twenty-four feet round. It was thirty-six feet five inches high to correspond with the 365 degrees of the heavens, and twenty-four feet round to match the twenty-four divisions of the solar calendar. On top of it were nine apertures and eight holes, for the Nine Palaces and the Eight Trigrams. There were no trees around it to give shade, but magic fungus and orchids clung to its sides. Ever since Creation began it had been receiving the truth of Heaven, the beauty of Earth, the essence of the Sun and the splendour of the Moon; and as it had been influenced by them for so long it had miraculous powers. It developed a magic womb, which burst open one day to produce a stone egg about the size of a ball.
When the wind blew on this egg it turned into a stone monkey, complete with the five senses and four limbs. When the stone monkey had learned to crawl and walk, he bowed to each of the four quarters. As his eyes moved, two beams of golden light shot towards the Pole Star palace and startled the Supreme Heavenly Sage, the Greatly Compassionate Jade Emperor of the Azure Vault of Heaven, who was sitting surrounded by his immortal ministers on his throne in the Hall of Miraculous Mist in the Golden-gated Cloud Palace. When he saw the dazzling golden light he ordered Thousand-mile Eye and Wind-accompanying Ear to open the Southern Gate of Heaven and take a look. The two officers went out through the gate in obedience to the imperial command, and while one observed what was going on the other listened carefully. Soon afterwards they reported back:
“In obedience to the Imperial Mandate your subjects observed and listened to the source of the golden light. We found that at the edge of the country of Aolai, which is East of the ocean belonging to the Eastern Continent of Superior Body, there is an island called the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. A magic stone on the top of this mountain produced a magic egg, and when the wind blew on this egg it turned into a stone monkey which bowed to each of the four quarters. When he moved his eyes, golden light shot towards the Pole Star Palace; but now that he is eating and drinking, the golden light is gradually dying.”
In his benevolence and mercy the Jade Emperor said, “Creatures down below are born of the essence of heaven and earth: there is nothing remarkable about him.”
On his mountain the monkey was soon able to run and jump, feed from plants and trees, drink from brooks and springs, pick mountain flowers and look for fruit. He made friends with the wolves, went around with the tigers and leopards, was on good terms with the deer, and had the other monkeys and apes for relations. At night he slept under the rockfaces, and he roamed around the peaks and caves by day. As the saying so rightly goes, “There is no calendar in the mountains, and when winter's over you don't know the time of year.” On hot mornings he and all the other monkeys would play under the shade of some pines to avoid the heat. After playing, the monkeys would go and bathe in the stream, a mountain torrent that tumbled along like rolling melons. There is an old saying, “Birds have bird language and, animals have animal talk.”
All the monkeys said to each other, “I wonder where that water comes from. We've got nothing else to do today, so wouldn't it be fun to go upstream and find its source?” With a shout they all ran off, leading their children and calling to their brothers. They climbed up the mountain beside the stream until they reached its source, where a waterfall cascaded from a spring. The monkeys clapped their hands and explained with delight, “What lovely water. It must go all the way to the bottom of the mountain and join the waves of the sea.”
Then one monkey made a suggestion: “If anyone is clever enough to go through the fall, find the source, and come out in one piece, let's make him our king.” When this challenge had been shouted three times, the stone monkey leapt out from the crowd and answered at the top of his voice, “I'll go, I'll go.” Splendid monkey! Watch him as he shuts his eyes, crouches, and springs, leaping straight into the waterfall. When he opened his eyes and raised his head to look round, he saw neither water nor waves. A bridge stood in front of him, as large as life. He stopped, calmed himself, took a closer look, and saw that the bridge was made of iron. The water that rushed under it poured out through a fissure in the rocks, screening the gateway to the bridge. He started walking towards the bridge, and as he looked he made out what seemed to be a house. It was a really good place. The other monkeys were all so delighted to hear this that they said, “You go first and take us with you.”
The stone monkey shut his eyes, crouched, and leapt in again, shouting, “Follow me in, follow me in.” The braver monkeys all jumped through. The more timid ones peered forward, shrank back, rubbed their ears, scratched their cheeks, shouted, and yelled at the top of their voices, before going in, all clinging to each other. After rushing across the bridge they all grabbed plates and snatched bowls, bagged stoves and fought over beds, and moved everything around. Monkeys are born naughty and they could not keep quiet for a single moment until they had worn themselves out moving things around.
The stone monkey sat himself in the main seat and said, “Gentlemen, A man who breaks his word is worthless. Just now you said that if anyone was clever enough to come in here and get out again in one piece, you'd make him king. Well, then. I've come in and gone out, and gone out and come in. I've found you gentlemen a cave heaven where you can sleep in peace and all settle down to live in bliss. Why haven't you made me king?” On hearing this all the monkeys bowed and prostrated themselves, not daring to disobey.
They lined up in groups in order of age and paid their homage as at court, all acclaiming him as the “Great King of a Thousand Years.” The stone monkey then took the throne, made the word “stone” taboo, and called himself Handsome Monkey King.
At the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, Sun Wukong established himself as one of the most powerful and influential demons in the world. In search of a weapon worthy of himself, Sun Wukong traveled into the oceans, where he acquired the Golden-banded staff Ruyi Jingu Bang, which could change its size, multiply itself, and fight according to the whim of its master. It was originally used by Dà-Yǔ to measure ocean depth and later became the "Pillar that pacifies the oceans", a treasure of Ao Guang, the "dragon-king of the Eastern Seas". It weighed 13,500 jin (8.1 tons). Upon Sun Wukong's approach, the pillar started to glow, signifying that it had found its true master. Its versatility meant that Sun Wukong could wield it as a staff and keep it inside his ear as a sewing needle. This drove fear into the magical beings of the sea and threw the sea itself into confusion, since nothing but the pillar could control the ebb and flow of the ocean's tides. In addition to taking the magical staff, Wukong also defeated the dragons of the four seas in battle and forced them to give him a golden chain mail shirt (鎖子黃金甲), a phoenix-feather cap (鳳翅紫金冠 Fèngchìzǐjinguān), and cloud-walking boots (藕絲步雲履 Ǒusībùyúnlǚ).
Upon his triumphant return, he demonstrated the new weapon to his followers, growing his size in proportion to the original length of the staff. The uproar drew attention of other beastly powers who sought to ally with him. Sun Wukong formed a fraternity with the Bull Demon King (牛魔王), the Saurian Demon King (蛟魔王), the Roc Demon King (鵬魔王), the Lion Spirit King (獅狔王), the Macaque Spirit King (獼猴王) and the Snub-nosed monkey Spirit King (禺狨王).[Note 1]
Sun Wukong then defied Hell's attempt to collect his soul. Instead of reincarnating like all other living beings, he wiped his name out of the "Book of Life and Death" and with it the names of all other monkeys known to him. The Dragon Kings and the Kings of Hell then decided to report him to the Jade Emperor of Heaven.
Havoc in the Heavenly Kingdom
Hoping that a promotion and a rank amongst the gods would make him more manageable, the Jade Emperor invited Sun Wukong to Heaven, where the monkey believed he would receive an honorable place as one of the gods. Instead, he was made the Protector of the Horses to watch over the stables, which was the lowest job in heaven. When he discovered this, Sun Wukong rebelled and proclaimed himself the "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven", and allied with some of the most powerful demons on earth. Then he got revenge by setting the Cloud Horses free. The Heavens' initial attempt at subduing the Monkey King was unsuccessful, and they were forced to recognize his title; however, they tried again to put him off as the guardian of Heavenly Garden. When he found that he was excluded from a royal banquet that included every other important god and goddess, Sun Wukong's indignation again turned to open defiance. After stealing and consuming Xi Wangmu's "peaches of immortality", Lao Tzu's "pills of longevity", and the Jade Emperor's royal wine, he escaped back to his kingdom in preparation for his rebellion.
Sun Wukong later single-handedly defeated the Army of Heaven's 100,000 celestial warriors - each fight an equivalent of a cosmic embodiment, including all 28 constellations, four heavenly kings, and Nezha, the son of Li Jiang Jun who proved himself worthy - and proved himself equal to the best of Heaven's generals, Erlang Shen. Eventually, through the teamwork of Taoist and Buddhist forces, including the efforts from some of the greatest deities, Sun Wukong was captured. After several failed attempts at execution, Sun Wukong was locked into Lao Tzu's eight-way trigram Crucible to be distilled into an elixir, (so that Lao Tzu could regain his "pills of longevity"), by the most sacred and the most severe samadhi fires. After 49 days, however, when the cauldron was opened, Sun Wukong jumped out, stronger than ever before. He now had the ability to recognize evil in any form through his huǒyǎn-jīnjīng (火眼金睛) (lit. "fiery-eyes golden-gaze"), an eye condition that also gave him a weakness to smoke, and proceeded to destroy Heaven's remaining forces.
With all of their options exhausted, the Jade Emperor and the authorities of Heaven appealed to the Buddha, who arrived from his temple in the West. The Buddha made a bet with Sun Wukong that he (Sun Wukong) could not escape from his (Buddha's) palm. Sun Wukong, knowing that he could cover 108,000 li in one leap, smugly agreed. He took a great leap and then flew to the end of the world in seconds. Nothing was visible except for five pillars, and Wukong surmised that he had reached the ends of Heaven. To prove his trail, he marked the pillars with a phrase declaring himself "the great sage equal to heaven" (and in other versions, urinated on the pillar he signed on). Afterward, he leaped back and landed in the Buddha's palm. There, he was surprised to find that the five "pillars" he had found were in fact the five fingers of the Buddha's hand. When Wukong tried to escape, the Buddha turned his hand into a mountain. Before Wukong could shrug it off, the Buddha sealed him there using a paper talisman on which was written the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum in gold letters, wherein Sun Wukong remained imprisoned for five centuries.
Disciple to Xuanzang
Five centuries later, the Bodhisattva Guanyin went out in search for disciples that could protect a pilgrim from the East to journey to India to retrieve the Buddhist sutras. In hearing this, Sun Wukong offered to serve this pilgrim, Xuanzang, a monk of the Tang Dynasty, in exchange for his freedom after the pilgrimage was complete. Guanyin understood that the monkey would be hard to control, and therefore gave Xuanzang a gift from the Buddha: a magical headband which, once Sun Wukong was tricked into putting it on himself, could never be removed. With a special chant, the band would tighten and cause unbearable pain to the monkey's head. To be fair, Guanyin also gave Sun Wukong three special hairs, which could be used in dire emergencies. Under Xuanzang's supervision, Sun Wukong was allowed to journey to the West.
Throughout the epic novel Journey to the West, Sun Wukong faithfully helped Xuanzang on his journey to India. They were joined by "Pigsy" (猪八戒 Zhu Bajie) and "Sandy" (沙悟浄 Sha Wujing), both of whom offered to accompany the priest in order to atone for their previous crimes. It was later revealed that the priest's horse was in fact a dragon prince. Xuanzang's safety was constantly under threat from demons and other supernatural beings (some who believed that his flesh, once consumed, would bring them longevity, and others who did not want him to succeed with his quest to obtain the scriptures), as well as from bandits, wherefore Sun Wukong often acted as his bodyguard and given free access to the powers of Heaven to combat these threats. The group encountered a series of eighty-one tribulations, (because 9 × 9 = 81), before accomplishing their mission and returning safely to China. There, Sun Wukong was granted Buddhahood for his service and strength.
In spite of their popularity (or perhaps because of it), legends regarding Sun Wukong have changed with Chinese culture. The tale with Buddha and the "Pillars" is a prime example, and did not appear until Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han Dynasty. Various legends concerning Sun Wukong exist, and they tend to change and adapt to the popular Chinese religion of a given era.
- Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn's Chinese opera "Monkey: Journey to the West" is based on the legend of the Monkey King. They were subsequently commissioned by the BBC to produce a two-minute animated film to promote their coverage of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which features the characters involved in various sporting activities.
- Some scholars believe this character may have originated in the first disciple of Xuan Zang, Shi Banto.
- The Hindu deity Hanuman from the Ramayana is also considered by some scholars to be an inspiration for Sun Wukong.
- Sun Wukong is so prominent in Journey to the West that the famous translation by Arthur Waley, entitled Monkey, led to other versions of Journey to the West, also called Monkey, among them a well-known Japanese television show.
In his book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Tel Aviv University Prof. Meir Shahar claims that Sun influenced a legend concerning the origins of the Shaolin staff method. The legend takes place during the Red Turban Rebellion of the Yuan Dynasty. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant big enough to stand astride both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Shaoshi Mountain (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold him. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was the Monastery's guardian deity, Vajrapani, in disguise. Shahar compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun Wukong's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun Wukong and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions.
Mao Zedong consistently used Sun Wukong as a role model, and often spoke about the good example of the Monkey King, citing "his fearlessness in thinking, doing work, striving for the objective and extricating China from poverty".
Names and titles
Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is known/pronounced as Suen Ng Hung in Cantonese, Son Oh Gong in Korean, Tôn Ngộ Không in Vietnamese, Son Gokū in Japanese (also the name of the character inspired by Sun Wukong, Son Goku from the Dragon Ball franchise), and Sun Go Kong in Indonesian.
Listed in the order that they were acquired:
- Shí Hóu (石猴)
- Meaning the "Stone monkey". This refers to his physical essence, being born from a sphere of rock after millennia of incubation on the Bloom Mountains/Flower-Fruit Mountain.
- Měi Hóuwáng (美猴王)
- Meaning "Handsome Monkey-King", or Houwang for short. The adjective Měi means "beautiful, handsome, pretty"; it also means "to be pleased with oneself", referring to his ego. Hóu ("monkey") also highlights his "naughty and impish" character.
- Sūn Wùkōng (孫悟空)
- The name given to him by his first master, Patriarch Bodhi (Subodhi). The surname Sūn was given as an in-joke about the monkey, as monkeys are also called húsūn (猢猻), and can mean either a literal or a figurative "monkey" (or "macaque"). The surname sūn (孫) and the "monkey" sūn (猻) only differ in that the latter carries an extra "dog" (quǎn) radical to highlight that 猻 refers to an animal. The given name Wùkōng means "awakened to emptiness".
- Bìmǎwēn (弼馬溫)
- The title of the keeper of the Heavenly Horses, a punning of bìmǎwēn (避馬瘟; lit. "avoiding the horses' plague"). A monkey was often put in a stable as people believed its presence could prevent the horses from catching illness. Sun Wukong was given this position by the Jade Emperor after his first intrusion into Heaven. He was promised that it was a good position to have, and that he, at least in this section, would be in the highest position. After discovering it was, in actuality, one of the lowest jobs in Heaven, he became angry, smashed the entire stable, set the horses free, and then quit. From then on, the title bìmǎwēn was used by his adversaries to mock him.
- Qítiān Dàshèng (齊天大聖)
- Meaning "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven". Wùkōng took this title suggested to him by one of his demon friends, after he wreaked havoc in heaven people who heard of him called him Great Sage. This is pronounced in Japanese as seiten-taisei ("great sage", dàshèng and taisei, is a Chinese and Japanese honorific). The title originally holds no power, though it is officially a high rank. Later the title was granted the responsibility to guard the Heavenly Peach Garden, due to the Jade Emperor keeping him busy so he won't make trouble.
- Xíngzhě (行者)
- Meaning "ascetic", it refers to a wandering monk, a priest's servant, or a person engaged in performing religious austerities. Xuanzang calls Wukong Sūn-xíngzhě when he accepts him as his companion. This is pronounced in Japanese as gyōja (making him Son-gyōja).
- Dòu-zhànshèng-fó (鬥戰勝佛)
- "Victorious Fighting Buddha". Wukong was given this name once he ascended to buddhahood at the end of the Journey to the West. This name is also mentioned during the traditional Chinese Buddhist evening services, specifically during the eighty-eight Buddhas repentance.
In addition to the names used in the novel, the Monkey King has other names in different languages:
- Kâu-chê-thian (猴齊天) in Minnan (Taiwan): "Monkey, Equal of Heaven".
- Maa5 lau1 zing1 (馬騮精) in Cantonese (Hong Kong and Guangdong): "Monkey Imp" (called by his enemies)
The brief satirical novel Xiyoubu (西游补, "Supplement to the Journey to the West," c. 1640) follows Sun as he is trapped in a magical dream world created by the Qing Fish Demon, the embodiment of desire (情, qing). Sun travels back and forth through time, during which he serves as the adjunct King of Hell and judges the soul of the recently dead traitor Qin Hui during the Song Dynasty, takes on the appearance of a beautiful concubine and causes the downfall of the Qin Dynasty, and even faces King Paramita, one of his five sons born to the demoness Princess Iron Fan, on the battlefield during the Tang Dynasty. The events of the Xiyoubu take place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62 of Journey to the West. The author, Tong Yue (童说), wrote the book because he wanted to create an opponent—in this case desire—that Sun could not defeat with his great strength and martial skill.
- List of media adaptations of Journey to the West
- Festival of Monkey King (God), China
- Birthday of the Monkey God
- Journey to the West, Wu Cheng'en (1500-1582), Translated by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1993.
- Hera S. Walker, "Indigenous or Foreign?: A Look at the Origins of the Monkey Hero Sun Wukong," Sino-Platonic Papers, 81 (September 1998)
- Wendy Doniger. "Hanuman (Hindu mythology)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2010-02-22.
- Ramnath Subbaraman, "Beyond the Question of the Monkey Imposter: Indian Influence on the Chinese Novel The Journey to the West," Sino-Platonic Papers, 114 (March 2002)
- (Chinese) http://web.archive.org/web/20090423014805/http://www.cctv.com/program/tsfx/topic/geography/C17917/02/
- Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008 (ISBN 0-8248-3110-1)
- Chinaposters - front
- King Paramita is the only son to make an appearance and to be called by name in the novel. These sons did not originally appear in Journey to the West.
- Tong, Yue, Shuen-fu Lin, Larry James Schulz, and Chengẻn Wu. The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Michigan classics in Chinese studies, 1. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000
- Tong, The Tower of Myriad Mirrors, p. 5
- Tong, The Tower of Myriad Mirrors, p. 133
- Naming the demon kings is tricky (as are many other things in Journey to the West). First, there are several translations into English. Second, some of them translate some names incorrectly. Third, Chinese characters used to describe certain animals at the time Journey was written are much less specific than we might want. Hopefully, the 6th brother belongs (with decreasing probability) to Colobinae, Snub-nosed monkey, Golden snub-nosed monkey.
- Sun Wukong Character Profile A detailed character profile of Sun Wukong, with character history, listing and explanations of his various names and titles, detailed information on his weapon, abilities, powers, and skills, and also a detailed explanation of his personality.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sun Wukong.|
- Story of Sun Wukong with manhua
- Sun Wukong's entry at Godchecker is a tongue-in-cheek take on the Great Sage.
- (Chinese) 'Journey to the West'
- History of Monkey King with links to performances of "Journey to the West" by New York City's Official Storyteller
- Annotated text of the Monkey King, mouse over any Chinese words for popups with definitions and explanations of usage.