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Sun Wukong, known in the West as the Monkey King, is the main character in the classical Chinesemarker epic novel Journey to the West. In the novel, he accompanies the monk Xuanzang on the journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from Indiamarker.

Sun Wukong possesses an immense amount of strength, being able to lift his 13,500 jīn (8,100 kg) Ruyi Jingu Bang with ease. He also has superb speed, traveling 108,000 li (54,000 kilometers) in one somersault. Sun knows 72 transformations, which allows him to transform into various animals and objects; he is, however, shown with slight problems transforming into other people, since he is unable to complete the transformation of his tail. He is a skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against the best generals of heaven. Each of his hairs possesses magical properties, and is capable of transforming into a clone of the Monkey King himself, or various weapons, animals, and other objects. He also knows various spells in order to command wind, part water, conjure protective circles against demons, freeze humans, demons, and gods alike.


Birth and early life

Sun Wukong was born from a mythical stone formed from the primal forces of chaos, located on the Huāguǒ-shān (Chinese: 花果山;mountain of flowers and fruit). After joining a clan of monkeys, he earned their respect by discovering the Shuǐlián-dòng (Chinese: 水帘洞;water-curtain cave) behind a large waterfall; the clan made it their new home. The other monkeys honored him as their king, and he called himself Měi Hóuwáng (handsome monkey king). He soon realized that despite his power over the monkeys, he was not beyond mortality. Determined to find immortality, he traveled on a raft to civilized lands, where he found and became the disciple of a Buddhist/Taoist Patriarch Bodhi. He was able to acquire human speech and manners through his travels.

Bodhi was initially reluctant to take him because he was not human; but the monkey's determination and perseverance impressed the patriarch. It was from him that the monkey received his official name Sun Wukong ("Sun" implies his origin as a monkey, and "Wukong" means aware of emptiness). Soon, his eagerness and intelligence made him one of the favorite disciples of the patriarch, whose guidance and training taught the monkey a number of magic arts. He acquired the powers of shapeshifting known as the "72 transformations", supposedly the more versatile and difficult set of skills that allows him to transform into every possible form of existence, including people and objects. He also learned about cloud-traveling, including a technique called the Jīndǒuyún (cloud-somersault), which covers 108,000 li (54,000 km) in a single flip. Finally, he could transform each of the 84,000 hairs on his body into inanimate objects and living beings, or even clones of himself. Sun Wukong became proud of his abilities, and began boasting to the other disciples. Bodhi was not happy with this, and cast him out of his temple. Before they parted, Bodhi ordered that Sun Wukong promise never to tell anyone how he acquired his powers.

At Huāguǒ-shān, 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 fighting staff Ruyi Jingu Bang (also known as Lork bong Jin Jan in Khmer), 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 golden chain mail (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). 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

Sun Wukong as depicted in a scene in a Beijing opera
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. 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 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 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 - 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 cauldron to be distilled into an elixir by the most sacred and the most severe samadhi fires. After 49 days, the cauldron was opened and Sun Wukong jumped out, stronger than ever. 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.

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, by name Xuanzang, a monk of the Tang Dynasty Empire, in exchange for his freedom. 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, could never be removed. With a special chant, the band would tighten and cause unbearable pain to the monkey's head. To be fair, she 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 Journey to the West, Sun Wukong faithfully helped Xuanzang on his journey to Indiamarker. 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 who believed that his flesh, once consumed, would bring them longevity, 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 before accomplishing their mission and returning safely to Chinamarker. There, Sun Wukong was granted Buddhahood for his service and strength.


Celebrations and festivals

The Sun Wukong festival is celebrated on the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month on the Chinese calendar. Festivals feature recreations of his ordeals such as walking on a bed of coals and climbing a ladder of knives.

In Hong Kongmarker the festival is celebrated at the Buddhist Temple in Sau Mau Ping, which contains a shrine to Sun Wukong.

In politics

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".


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 Chinamarker during the Han Dynasty. Various legends concerning Sun Wukong date back to before written Chinese history. They tend to change and adapt to the most 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.
  • There are some scholars who believe this character may be originated from the first disciple of Xuan Zang, Shi Bantuo.
  • 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 Universitymarker 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 Dynastymarker. 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 Songmarker and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi (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.

Names and titles

Sun Wukong is known as Syun Ng Hung in Cantonese, Son Oh Gong in Korean, Tôn Ngộ Không in Vietnamese, Son Gokū in Japanese and Sun Go Kong in Indonesian (derived from Hakka), and Sun Wukong in Cambodian .

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. 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 differs 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". This is translated into Japanese as Son Gokū.
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 translated into 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 translated into 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 Kongmarker and Guangdongmarker): "Monkey Imp" (called by his enemies)

See also


  1. Journey to the West, Wu Cheng'en (1500-1582), Translated by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1993.
  2. Chinaposters - front
  4. Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008 (ISBN 0824831101)

External links

  • 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.

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