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Sun Wukong: The Monkey King of Chinese Mythology

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Sun Wukong, otherwise known as the Monkey King or simply Monkey, is a supernatural Chinese character popularized by the novel Journey to the West.

The Monkey King has appeared in some form or another all around the world, spanning cultures and spawning stories based on the powerful character. With immense powers, a trickster’s knack for causing trouble, and an epic storyline, Sun Wukong is one of the most popular and endearing characters in Chinese mythology.

Origins

It’s unclear where or when the Monkey King first originated, although he is likely the result of a combination of Indian and Chinese folklore. Some scholars suppose that he originated with Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s disciple, Shi Banto. Xuanzang travelled to India from China in the seventh century and later described the interaction between Chinese and Indian Buddhism. The Journey to the West is said to be based on Xuanzang’s journey.

There are some similarities between the Monkey King in Journey to the West and the Hindu god Hanuman. While Hanuman is the son of the wind god Vayu, the Monkey King was born of a magical rock after wind (and other elements) formed his features and gave him life.

Some scholars point to certain Chinese cultures that worshiped monkeys long before the famous Chinese novel was published in the 16th century. A localized religion in the Fuzhou province worshipped once-demon monkey gods while also practicing aspects of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism.

The character may have also taken inspiration from the gibbon-revering Chu kingdom (700 – 223 BC), whose White Monkey legends could have contributed to the monkey-god figure of the Monkey King.

Appearance and Abilities

Sun Wukong’s appearance changes as he goes through his journey. Prior to his enlightenment, he appears as a monkey. Afterwards, he is often depicted in robes, armor, and other human attire.

Just as Wukong’s appearance changes, so do his abilities as his story in Journey to the West plays out. He gains the ability to change his form after he learns the 72 Earthly Transformations. He also learns the art of cloud somersaulting, which allows him to “fly” for 34,000 miles with a single somersault. He learns spells, medicine, and how to fight with and without weapons, which, in addition to his immense strength, make him a great fighter. He also learns a breathing method that grants him immortality.

Sun Wukong finds his way to possessing many magical objects on his journey, including a nine-ton pillar that he can shrink down to the size of a needle, cloud walking boots, golden chain-mail, and a phoenix feather cap. His hair is also magical, as he can transform a strand of his hair into almost any object, including a copy of himself.

While Sun Wukong’s appearance in the epic novel is decidedly simian, the numerous live-action movie adaptations depict the Monkey King with more human attributes. This is more due to technological limitations than anything, but it’s worth mentioning, as the appearance of the character as entirely simian in Journey to the West sets this mythological figure apart from most other Chinese gods.

Family

The Monkey King Sun Wukong has no direct family members, as he was born from a rock. The closest thing he has to a family is a group of monkeys he joins in the forest soon after his birth.

Sun Wukong Myths

Stories about Sun Wukong all originate from Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Cheng’en (although there is some dispute as to the true author of the work). As mentioned above, it’s unclear where Cheng’en got the basis for the character, but it’s likely a combination of Indian and Chinese religious folklore. For the purposes of this section, we’ll focus on the story of the Monkey King as outlined in the Chinese novel Journey to the West, and not any later iterations.

Birth

The Monkey King’s journey begins atop the island Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, where the light of the sun and the moon, and the energies of heaven and earth, combine to impregnate a boulder on the top of the mountain. Centuries pass before the magic stone lays a stone egg the size of a ball.

Wind and other elements wear down the stone into the shape of a Rhesus macaque monkey. The Stone Monkey becomes animated. Soon after, two bright beams of light shoot from his eyes, reaching all the way into heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor, who searches for the source of the light and only finds the baby monkey. The light from Wukong’s eyes had died down after he ate some food, so the Jade Emperor thinks no more about the strange occurrence.

Becoming King

Sun Wukong joins a group of monkeys in the forest not long after his birth. One day, when playing by a waterfall, Sun Wukong makes a wager with the other monkeys. The first to jump through the waterfall and come back out will be the king of the monkeys. Wukong jumps through first and finds a cave on the other side. He brings the monkey tribe into the cave to live, and he is bestowed the title of “Handsome Monkey King” for his bravery and in accordance with the wager.

The Search for Immortality

The Monkey King rules over the monkeys in the forest for many years before one of his monkey friends dies of old age. With mortality staring him in the face, Sun Wukong heads out to seek immortality.

He travels off the island of his birth by raft and comes among humans for the first time. He learns to conceal himself with robes and a hood as he wanders among humans, learning their language and seeing all kinds of vices and degenerative behavior.

Finally, he comes upon a temple, inside which resides the great sage Puti Zhushi (believed to be based on Subhūti, one of the Buddha’s disciples). Zhushi, who initially refuses to teach Monkey, finally acquiesces and agrees to take him under his wing. It is Zhushi who gives the Monkey King the name Sun Wukong, which means “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey awakened to emptiness.”

It is at this temple that Sun Wukong learns (among other things) martial arts, magic spells, the 72 Earthly Transformations, and the breathing technique that grants him immortality.

Eventually, Sun returns home and fights off a demon that had taken control of his kingdom. Afterward, he decides he needs a weapon to match the magical power he possesses. He seeks out this weapon by heading to the Eastern Sea to find the Dragon King.

After being initially turned away, Sun Wukong forces his way past the guards and introduces himself to the Dragon King, who sees how powerful the Monkey King is and so is forced to show Wukong many weapons. After finding most of the heavy and formidable weapons too light, Wukong finally decides on a 17,500-pound gold-banded pillar that feels just right. The staff, known as Jingu Bang, has many powers, and Monkey can shrink it down to the size of a pin and store it in his ear. Before he leaves, the Monkey King forces the Dragon King’s brothers to give him magical armor, cloud walking boots, and a phoenix feather cap.

The Wrong Side of Heaven

After returning home and demonstrating the power of his mighty weapon, Sun Wukong forms an alliance with many other demons, who recognize the power of the demon Monkey King. Soon after, while Sun is asleep, agents of Hell come for his soul as punishment for extorting the Dragon Kings.

Sun Wukong, who has mastered immortality, rages at this, causing havoc and frightening the ruler of the underworld to the point of surrender. He’s allowed to leave Hell, but before he does, he wipes his name and the names of his simian brethren from the Book of Life and Death, making them immortal for all time.

The ruler of the underworld and the Dragon King contact the Jade Emperor in heaven, alerting him to Wukong’s misconduct. They offer him a place in heaven as the “Protector of the Horses,” hoping that giving him a place among the gods will calm him down and keep him from causing more havoc.

However, it isn’t long before Sun Wukong realizes that he’s just a glorified stable boy. Angered, he releases the heavenly horses and heads back to earth, declaring himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” upon his return. This act of rebellion is too much for heaven. They send an army of demon hunters to subdue Wukong, but none succeed, thanks to the Monkey King’s immense strength and magical powers.

Once again, the Jade Emperor is forced to control Wukong by other means. He appoints the Monkey King as the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Grove.” This doesn’t last long, as Wukong can’t help but eat all the ripe immortal peaches. This is soon discovered, and Wukong learns that he hasn’t been invited to an upcoming banquet. This enrages the Monkey King, so he crashes the banquet before it even starts, eating and drinking all the heavenly food and refreshments.

Heaven mobilizes its forces and sends them after Wukong again. After a great battle, Sun Wukong is finally captured thanks to a magical steel bracelet and a celestial hound. He’s taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but he can’t be killed.

After once again getting free and causing havoc in heaven, Sun Wukong is pinned under a mountain when the Buddha intervenes on behalf of the Jade Emperor. He stays under the mountain for 500 years until the hero of Journey to the West, Tang Sanzang of the Tang Dynasty (known as the monk Tripitaka in some English translations), needs disciples to help him on his journey to India to get the Buddhist sutra.

Serving the Buddhist Tang Sanzang

Although much of the first twelve chapters of Journey to the West outline the Monkey King’s origins, he’s not really the main character of the story. Sun Wukong’s story is a kind of preface that sets up the story of the monk Tang Sanzang.

Sun Wukong volunteers to help the monk on his journey in exchange for freedom from his imprisonment under the mountain when the journey ends. Knowing how much of a trickster the Monkey King is, Guanyin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of compassion, gives the monk a magical headband which can’t be removed once Wukong puts it on. The headband tightens when the monk utters a certain chant, causing the Monkey King a terrible headache, keeping him under control. Guanyin gives the Monkey King three magical hairs and grants permission for Monkey to travel with the monk to the west.

Much of the rest of the famous work of Chinese literature details the dangers the monk faces on his journey. In addition to Monkey, he’s joined by Zhu Bajie, or “Pigsy,” and Sha Wujing, or “Sandy.” Like Sun Wukong is a magical deity, these are both demon-like deities that are hoping to atone for their sins by aiding the monk. These creatures protect the monk on the way, vanquishing enemy after enemy that arrive in the form of ghosts, monsters, and demons.

Sun Wukong learns about Buddhism from the Buddhist monk and, by the end of the legend, he earns the name “Victorious Fighting Buddha” for becoming enlightened, helping the monk on his journey, and leaving behind all his self-centered ways.

Sun Wukong has appeared in a bevvy of plays, movies, video games, manga, and television shows. Many of these have been adaptations of Journey to the West, but many others have not. Here are a few of the most popular appearances of the Monkey King in pop culture.

  • Son Goku from the Dragon Ball series is based on Sun Wukong. In fact, the anime character’s name is the Japanese translation of Sun Wukong. Son Goku has a monkey tail, can fly, has superhuman strength, and fights with a staff, to name just a few similarities.
  • Jet Li played Sun Wukong in the 2008 film Forbidden Kingdom, which takes inspiration from Journey to the West.
  • The character of Sun Wukong makes an appearance in the animated film Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny.
  • The character Mori Jin in the Korean webtoon The God of High School is based on Sun Wukong.
  • In the anime Shinzo, Mushra has a telescoping staff and a golden headband, which are based on those attributes of The Monkey King.
  • The following are some of the many video games that feature characters based on Sun Wukong:
    • League of Legends
    • Dota 2
    • Fortnite (as a character in the Wukong set)
    • Honor of Kings
    • Heroes of the Storm
    • Heroes of Newerth
    • Warframe
    • Mobile Legends: Bang Bang
    • Black Myth: Wukong (set to release in 2023)

Conclusion

Although most Chinese Buddhists don’t worship Sun Wukong as a deity, he’s still a popular and important character in Chinese culture. He’s one of the most powerful characters—and certainly one of the most enduring—in Chinese literature. From trickster demon to powerful immortal to enlightening Buddhist, Sun Wukong’s journey is the stuff of legendary myths.

Bibliography and Further Reading