Sun Wukong

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Old Book Illustration, 15th century

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

Sun Wukong was known to have incredible strength, being able to lift his 13,500 jīn (6,750 kg) Ruyi Jingu Bang with ease. He also has super 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. His hairs also contain magical properties, each being able to transform into a clone of the Monkey King himself, as well as weapons, animals, and other objects. He also knows other various spells such as commanding the wind, conjuring protective circles against demons, or freezing humans, demons, and gods alike with one word.



Birth and early life

Wukong was born into a monkey family from a mystical stone made of primal chaos. After exploring his surroundings on the monkey's island Huāguǒ-shān (Chinese: 花果山;mountain of flowers and fruit), he jumped through a waterfall and discovered the Shuǐlián-dòng (water-curtain cave or waterfall cave). The other monkeys proclaimed him Měi Hóuwáng (handsome monkey-king) for his feat. After initially celebrating, he soon realized that like all monkeys, he would someday die; thus he desired immortality. Determined to find immortal beings and learn their ways, he traveled on a raft to civilized lands, and there he found the Patriarch Subhuti and became one of his disciples.

Subhuti rejected him at first, but Houwang's determination, and eventually his intelligence, impressed the Patriarch. It was from him that Houwang received the Buddhist name Sun Wukong (Wukong meaning aware of emptiness). Under the Patriarch's teaching and training, he acquired the powers of shape-changing and cloud-traveling, including a technique called the Jīndǒuyún (cloud-somersault), where one can fly 108,000 li (54,000 km), in a single flip.

Sun Wukong was taught the 72 "earthly methods of transformations" by his master, Subhuti. (He had been offered a choice between the 72 earthly transformations and 36 heavenly ones.) These transformations apparently cover every possible form of existence, i.e. people, objects, etc. He was given three special hairs by Guanyin (who received them from the Buddha himself), which could be used in dire emergencies. All the other hairs on his body could be transformed into other things, such as inanimate objects and clones of himself.

Wukong became proud of his new abilities, and began boasting to the other disciples. Subhuti was not happy with this, and they parted ways. Subhuti was certain that Wukong would get into trouble, so he made Wukong promise never to tell anyone who had been his teacher.

Wukong eventually obtained the "As-you-will Golden-banded Cudgel", known as Ruyi Jingu Bang, which he could shrink to the size of a needle and keep inside his ear. The staff could also be expanded to be as high as Heaven. It was originally a stick for measuring sea water depth by Dà-Yǔ in his flood control and treatment efforts, hence its ability to vary its shape and length. It weighed 13,500 jin (6,750 kilograms), and could multiply, transform, and act intelligently. After Da-Yu left, it remained in the sea and became the "Pillar holding down the sea", an unmovable treasure of the undersea palace of the "Eastern-sea dragon-king", Ao Guang. One of Wukong's senior advisors had told him to seek out the dragon-king in order to get a powerful weapon befitting his skill. There in the dragon palace, he tried out several kinds of ancient heavenly weapons, many of which bent or completely broke as he wielded them. Ao Guang's wife then suggested the "pillar" (thinking he would not be able to lift it). But when Wukong neared the pillar, it began to glow, signifying that the monkey king was its true owner. It obediently listened to his commands and shrank to a manageable size so Wukong could wield it effectively. This not only awed the dragon and his wife, it also threw the sea into confusion, since the monkey king had removed the only thing controlling the ebb and flow of the ocean's tides. In addition to the magic staff, Wukong also forced Ao Guang to give him other magical gifts; including golden chain mail, a phoenix-feather cap, and cloud-walking boots...

Havoc in the Heavenly Kingdom

Hoping that a promotion and a title would make him more manageable, the Jade Emperor invited Wukong to the Heavenly Kingdom, where Wukong thought he would have a place among the gods. However, this did not work out as hoped, as he was made the guardian of the Heavenly Stables to watch over the horses. After a series of slights, the last being his exclusion from a royal banquet, a rebellious Wukong ate empress Xi Wangmu's "Peaches of Immortality" and Lao Tzu's "Pills of Longevity". He later felt guilty about this, but only slightly so, and continued to be a nuisance to everybody in the Jade Emperor's palace. Finally, the heavenly authorities had no choice but to attempt to subdue him.

He defeated the Army of Heaven's 100,000 soldiers, then Nezha and the Four Heavenly Kings, and finally even Erlang Shen. Eventually, through the efforts and teamwork of the Heavenly forces, including the contributions of many famous deities, Wukong was captured. After several execution attempts failed, Wukong was locked into Lord Lao Zi's eight-way trigram cauldron to be distilled into an elixir by the cauldron's sacred flames, which were thought to be hot enough to consume him. However, after cooking for 49 days, the cauldron exploded and 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), or "fiery-eyes golden-gaze ".

With all their other options exhausted, the Jade Emperor and the authorities of Heaven appealed to the Buddha himself, who arrived in an instant from his temple in the West. The Buddha made a bet with Wukong that he could not jump out of his palm. Wukong, knowing that he could cover 108,000 li in one leap, smugly agreed. He took a great leap and landed in what seemed to be a desolate section of Heaven. Nothing was visible except five pillars, and Wukong surmised that he had reached the ends of Heaven. To prove he'd been there, he wrote "The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, was here" on the middle pillar, and marked the space between the first and second with his urine. Afterwards, he leaped back and landed in Buddha's palm. Smiling, Buddha asked him to turn around. Wukong did, and saw that the five "pillars" he had jumped to before were actually the five fingers of the Buddha's hand, therefore, lost the bet. Immediately, he tried to escape, but Buddha turned over his palm and dropped a mountain on Wukong. There, Wukong remained imprisoned for five centuries until he offered to serve Xuanzang, the Tang Priest, who was destined to make the journey to the West to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures for Tang. The bodhisattva Guanyin helped the priest by giving him a magical headband which, when Wukong was tricked into putting it on, could not be taken off by anyone, and with a special chant from the priest, the band would tighten and cause unbearable pain to Wukong. Under Xuanzang's supervision, Wukong was allowed to journey to the West.

Disciple to Xuanzang

Throughout the epic Journey to the West, Sun Wukong faithfully helps Xuanzang on his journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras in (India). They are joined by "Pigsy" (猪八戒 Zhu Bajie) and "Sandy" (沙悟浄 Sha Wujing), both of whom were ordered to accompany the priest to atone for their crimes. The priest's horse is actually a dragon prince who had been defeated by Wukong and tamed by Guanyin. Xuanzang's safety is constantly threatened by supernatural beings, and Wukong often acts as a bodyguard. The group encounters a series of eighty-one tribulations before accomplishing their mission and returning safely to China. Wukong is 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 Kong the festival is celebrated at the Buddhist Temple in Sau Mau Ping, which has a shrine to Sun Wukong.

In politics

During Mao Zedong's reign in China, he consistently used Sūn Wǔkōng as a role model. Mao Zedong often talked about the good example of the Monkey King, citing “his fearlessness in thinking, doing work, striving for the objective and extricating China from poverty.”[1]


In spite of its popularity (or perhaps because of it), legends regarding Sun Wukong have changed with the ebb and flow that is 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 date back to before written Chinese history. They tend to change and adapt to the most popular Chinese religion of a given era.

  • Some scholars believe that the character Sun Wukong was partly based on Hanuman, the "monkey god" of Hinduism described in a book by the historical Sanzang. Wukong became so well-known in China that he was once worshiped (and still is) by some as a real god.
  • There are some scholars who believe this character may be originated from the first disciple of Xuan Zang, Shi Bantuo.[2]
  • Sun Wukong is so prominent in Journey to the West that the famous translation by Arthur Waley is entitled Monkey, leading to other versions of Journey to the West also being called Monkey, such as the Japanese television show, Monkey.
  • The phrase "You burst out from a stone" is one of the most common excuses used by Chinese parents when answering the "where do babies come from" question.
  • Sun Wukong is said to be the influence behind the creation of various Monkey Kung Fu styles.

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 Mount Shaoshi (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than the Monastery's guardian deity, Vajrapani, in disguise. Shahar compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions.[3]

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).

Listed in the order that they were acquired:

Shí Hóu (石猴)
"The Mountain-Rock Monkey" or the "Stone monkey". This refers to his physical birth after millennia of spiritual incubation of his soul inside a rock in Bloom Mountains/Flower-Fruit Mountain.
Měi Hóuwáng (美猴王)
Meaning "Handsome Monkey-King", or Houwang for short. The surname Měi means "beautiful, handsome, pretty", as well as "satisfactory"; it also means "self-satisfied" and "to be pleased with oneself", connecting it to his ego. Hóu ("monkey") also means "clever boy, smart chap", as well as describing someone as "naughty and impish".
Sūn Wùkōng (孫悟空)
The name given to him by his first master, Subhuti. The surname Sūn, "grandchild" (sūnzǐ for "grandson", sūnnǚ for "granddaughter"), was given as an in-joke about Houwang. Another form of "monkey-king" is húsūnwáng, húsūn meaning a literal or figurative "monkey" (or "macaque"); a "king of monkeys" is a term for a teacher of small children, and a "monkey entering a cloth bag" (húsūn rù bùdài) means someone submitting to discipline reluctantly (both of which could easily apply to Wukong). "Grandchild"-sūn and "monkey"-sūn are pronounced the same, and would look the same except for the latter having the radical "dog" (quǎn) in it to denote the character's animal form. 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 (辟馬瘟; 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 enemies and opponents to mock him.
Qítiān Dàshèng (齊天大聖)
Meaning "Equal of Heaven, Great Sage". Sun Wukong demanded this title from the Jade Emperor and was eventually granted it. 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 that many Heavenly Officials noticed that Sun Wukong had nothing to do.
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 (鬥戰聖佛)
"Fight-victorious-buddha". Wukong was given this name once he ascended to buddhahood at the end of the Journey to the West. This name is mentioned during the 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 Taiwanese (Taiwan): "Monkey, Equal of Heaven".
  • Maa5 lau1 zing1 (馬騮精) in Cantonese (Hong Kong and Guangdong): "Monkey Imp" (called by his enemies)

Appearances in other media

Sun Wukong has been a staple character in many forms of media from many East Asian countries.

Film and television

Many actors including Liu Xiao Ling Tong, Stephen Chow, Yueh Hua (of Shaw Brothers fame), and Dicky Cheung have portrayed Sun in films and television shows. Jet Li portrays the character in the 2008 movie The Forbidden Kingdom.

In 1995, filmmaker Chris Columbus wrote a rejected screenplay for Indiana Jones IV (Indiana Jones and the Garden of Life/the Monkey King)[4] which centered around Sun Wukong.

Animation and comics

In anime, Sun Wukong appears in various guises, usually with some variant of the name Son Goku. He also features in the Japanese manga/anime Saiyuki, which is based on the original Journey to the West legend. The main character Son Goku from Akira Toriyama's Dragonball was originally based on Sun Wukong, and many other major characters in the series were also originally based on characters from the Monkey King/Journey West story (though they all diverge from the original source material as time goes on).

In the anime series Starzinger, he was the inspiration for Jan Kugo, who wields a similar-looking weapon.

In the anime series Naruto, he is depicted as a summon named Enma and is used by the Third Hokage. When summoned, Enma even wields a similar-looking weapon to the Ruyi Jingu Bang.

He is one of the central characters in Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese" graphic novel, as a story revolves around his origins.

Video games

SonSon is a 1984 Capcom video game loosely based on Journey to the West. In this game, the player assumes the role of the titular character, which is monkey boy based on Sun Wukong. A second player assumes the role of TonTon, who is based on Zhu Wuneng. The granddaughter of SonSon, who shares his name, is a playable character in a later Capcom game, the fighting game crossover Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes.

In DotA All-Stars (a custom scenario for Blizzard Entertainment's real-time strategy computer game Warcraft III), players can obtain an Item named The Monkey King Bar, which contains great power.

Just recently, Sun Wukong is confirmed as a playable character in Warriors Orochi: Rebirth of the Demon Lord[5], the sequel to a video game crossover of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors, all made by Koei. However instead being portrayed a good guy he is one of the new officers of Orochi's army.

Also, the design of the Pokemon, Infernape is based on Sun WuKong. The gold elements in his design seem to indicate this, and his name can also be linked to Japanese interpretations of the character (e.g. Son Goku).


  1. Chinaposters — front
  3. Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008 (ISBN 0824831101)
  4. INDIANA JONES IV (First Draft of Chris Columbus' script, dated February 10, 1995)
  5. Official Musou Orochi Maou Sairin Website

External links