Sun Wukong

Sun Wukong: the Monkey King that Challenged Heaven

In this in-depth bio, you will learn who Sun Wukong is, his history, and the many exploits credited to his name.

You will also learn:

  • Why Sun Wukong is known as the Monkey King
  • The inspirations for the character of Sun Wukong
  • How to distinguish the Monkey King in Chinese artwork
  • The hidden meaning behind Sun Wukong’s name
  • Who is Sun Wukong in Chinese mythology
  • The many legends of the Monkey King

Sun Wukong

In Chinese mythology, Sun Wukong is known as the Monkey King. While made famous by the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West in the 16th century, myths concerning the monkey god have been circulating in Southeast Asia for almost 3,000 years. Sun Wukong is known as a monkey trickster who caused many problems within the heavenly realms but eventually attained enlightenment by serving a cause other than his own.

Sun Wukong is a formidable foe in Chinese mythology. Gifted with incredible strength, he could run with the speed of a falling star while supporting the weight of mountains. He could also somersault at the speed of 54,000 kilometers (108,000 li). Other formidable talents of the Monkey King were his abilities to freeze people and animals in place and controlling the weather.

Sun Wukong’s most intimidating talent was his ability to transform at will into the seventy-two Earthly transformations, allowing him to shapeshift into different animals and objects. Sun Wukong was a master of multiple fighting styles and he could defeat the best warriors of the celestial armies. Even his fur possessed magical attributes, as the Monkey King could make duplicates of himself to aid him in battle or he could use his fur to transform into weapons and animals.

– Inspirations for the character of Sun Wukong

Historians believe that the inspirations for Sun Wukong came from a combination of the myths of ancient Southeast Asian cultures, primarily those of India and China. The first influences of the character of the Monkey King came from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, found in the Sanskrit writings of the Ramayana.

As Indian Buddhists travelled into China, their stories came with them, syncretically evolving with Chinese folk tales. For instance, in Journey to the West, before he became the Monkey King, Sun Wukong was originally a stone which came alive when the wind blew upon it. The Indian monkey god Hanuman was the son of the god of the wind.

Legends from the Chu Kingdom of 700 BC also influenced the character of the Monkey King. The Han Dynasty also contributed a number of legends of a monkey god, all of which later influenced the persona of Sun Wukong.

While Sun Wukong is celebrated by the public and is recognized as a cultural icon, Buddhist monks do not revere him as a religious figure and look at the Monkey King as more of an artistic and literary character. As the Monkey King was a stone before he came into being, Sun Wukong does not have any relatives or children, therefore he is not revered as an ancestor in the religions of China. Before Sun Wukong joined the heavenly courts of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey King ruled over a group of monkeys that wandered the jungles.

– Appearance

Sun Wukong is one of the easiest characters to distinguish in Chinese artwork as the Monkey King is the only Chinese god that appears as a monkey. In depictions of the Monkey King before he achieved enlightenment, Sun Wukong is often shown as a naked macaque.

After being released from his mountain imprisonment and becoming a disciple of the Buddhist master Tang Sanzang, Sun Wukong is depicted wearing his Monkey King crown (a cap with a phoenix feather), a chainmail shirt made of gold, cloud walking boots, and the staff of the Monkey King – a staff weighing eight tons that he can shrink to size of a small pin needle.

– Name Meaning

The name Sun Wukong is made up of the characters for space, awakened, and grandson. However, the character sun, in context, means monkey. Therefore, the name Sun Wukong actually means a monkey awakened from emptiness.

This plays into one of the central motifs of the work Journey to the West of moving from ignorance to enlightenment, in this case, moving from a belligerent trickster monkey who causes terrible problems to an enlightened buddha.

Who is Sun Wukong in Chinese mythology?

Sun Wukong is known as the Monkey King in Chinese mythology. The legend of the Monkey King first appeared in the novel Journey to the West, a classing of the Song Dynasty.

In the book, the trickster Monkey King, who believes himself equal with the gods of heaven, comes to serve as a Buddhist monk’s bodyguard after being released from a five-hundred-year imprisonment underneath a holy mountain due to stealing and eating the Peaches of Immortality, and for leading a revolt against heaven.

– The origin of the Monkey King

In the novel Journey to the West, atop the Mountain of Flower and Fruit there was a stone of strong magic. The stone had a magic womb that could absorb the heavenly principles of yang energy and earthly yin.  One day, a small stone egg was released from the magic rock. And as the wind kissed the magic stone egg, it turned into a stone monkey that could walk and speak.

When the stone monkey opened its eyes, two beams of golden light shot into the heavens and into the palace of the Jade Emperor. Upon seeing the light, the emperor sent two emissaries to investigate the source, but when they tell the Jade Emperor it is just a stone monkey, he lost interest and believed it to be nothing extraordinary.

As he began to explore his new world, the stone monkey joined a group of wild monkeys that regularly played in a stream. One day, the monkeys declared that whoever discovered the source of the stream would become the king of the monkeys. Before anyone else, the stone monkey jumped into the water and swam through a waterfall, finding an iron bridge and a cave.

Convincing the other monkeys to follow him, they soon make the area their new home. The stone monkey reminds the monkeys of their promise and tells them that he desired to be called the Handsome Monkey King.

– The Quest for Immortality

After ruling for some time, one of the Monkey King’s friends died. Upset with the idea of mortality and the suffering that comes with it, Sun Wukong began to search out an immortal being that could show him how to defeat death.

After searching all over the island he lived upon, Sun Wukong could find no immortals to answer his questions. Deciding to leave his home behind, the Monkey King built a raft and sailed across the see.

When he came ashore, the humans that saw him thought him to be a monkey-humanoid monster and ran away from him. Seeing that he would need a disguise, he took clothes that were drying outside and began to search for immortals in towns and villages, making sure to cover his face. As he traveled, he begins to see the depravity of human kind, and decided to go into the forest to search for an immortal.

After walking for some time, he learned that an immortal lived at a nearby temple. After inquiring at the temple, he was refused entrance by the martial artist that lived there, Puti Zhushi. Undeterred, Sun Wukong sat down upon the temple steps and vowed not to leave until he was allowed in.

The Monkey King sat on the steps unmoving for months. Impressed with Sun Wukong, Puti Zhushi allowed the Monkey King into the temple and began to disciple him. The Monkey King proved to be an excellent student, learning advanced Taoist techniques, including the Way of Immortality.

Many years passed. Due to the speed and skill of the Monkey King, Puti Zhushi told Sun Wukong to never show off, because if he does, then others would want Sun Wukong to teach them. If the Monkey King was to teach students, the students would create troubles. If he refused to teach, then he would be resented. Puti Zhushi then made the Monkey King vow to never reveal the Master that taught him.

After vowing to never reveal Puti Zhushi to anyone, the Monkey King awoke in the forest. Looking around he realized that all of the teaching had been in a dream, as no time had passed from when he had first entered the forest. Sun Wukong would never reveal his Master, and when anyone asked where he had learned his incredible techniques, he would say he learned them all in a dream.

– Acquiring the weapons and armor of the Monkey King

With so many skills at his disposal, Sun Wukong decided he need a magical weapon. His hunt for a magic weapon took him to the underwater palace of one of the Dragon Kings, Ao Guang. At the palace door, Sun Wukong asked to be introduced to the Dragon King, but the guards attempted to turn him away. Instead of acquiescing to their demands, the Monkey King pushed through, saying that the Dragon King should never turn away a fellow king.

After meeting Ao Guang, Sun Wukong asked for a weapon that befit his skills. Seeing that the Monkey King was indeed quite formidable, the old Dragon King had many weapons brought out for Sun Wukong to test. Finally the Monkey King settled on a staff known as Ruyi Jingu Bang / Ding Hai Shen Zhen – the stabilizer of the four seas.

The weapon was a favorite treasure of Ao Guang and none else was strong enough to wield it, except the Monkey King. Because Sun Wukong can easily use the staff, the Dragon King is impressed and offers him the weapon, and the staff became known as the staff of the monkey king. The staff weighed almost nine tons, could change size, fly, and could attack enemies on its own. And when it was not being used, it could be shrunk down to the size of a needle.

The Dragon King then called upon his brothers to find the Monkey King attire befitting a king. One of the treasures was to become known as the Monkey King crown – a cap made from the feathers of a phoenix. He was also given a shirt made of gold chain mail, and cloud walking boots. But the Dragon Kings were not happy with the giving of gifts to the Monkey King, as they felt they were being extorted.

After leaving the domain of the Dragon King, the Monkey King returned to his mountain home. After demonstrating his new powers to his tribe, others became aware of the power he wielded and soon the Monkey King joined with the Suarian Demon King, the Bull Demon King, the Single-Horned Demon King, the Roc Demon King, the Lion Spirit King, the Macaque Spirit King, and the Snub Nosed Monkey Spirit King.

Unbeknownst to the Monkey King, however, the Dragon Kings had made an appeal to heaven for vengeance. As the Monkey King slept, two messengers came to him to claim his soul for hell. However, the Monkey King went before King Yama and wiped his name, and the name of every monkey he knew, from the Book of Life and Death.

Infuriated, King Yama (the king of hell) and the Dragon Kings went before the Jade Emperor, but the heavenly armies proved powerless against the skills of Sun Wukong.

– The Monkey King Becomes a Heavenly Headache

Believing that the Monkey King could be controlled if he was given a heavenly title, the Jade Emperor invited Sun Wukong to his palace and gave him the title of Protector of the Horses. Yet, when the Monkey King found out that Protector of the Horses was the lowest rank in heaven, Sun Wukong released the horses, returned to earth and called himself Great Sage, Heaven’s Equal.

Infuriated, the Jade Emperor was about to order an attack until he was advised to be cautious, for if the Monkey King was defeated it would be wonderful. But if Sun Wukong defeated the heavenly armies, it would be disastrous. Instead, the Jade Emperor was advised to recognize the Monkey King’s self-proclaimed title, but bring him back to the palace so he would cause less problems on earth.

In truth, the Monkey King’s title was meaningless and in the heavens it was thought of as a joke about the Monkey King’s ignorance of the importance of the heavenly realm.

Sun Wukong was thrilled with the development, and when an envoy arrived and told the Monkey King that he was being promoted to the position of the Guardian of the Peaches of Immortality, he readily accepted the position.

However, when he entered the peach grove, the Monkey King could not resist the temptation of eating from the peach trees. Soon, he saw that the Queen Mother of the West had sent her maidens to pluck peaches for the Peach Banquet, where all the gods and goddesses are offered continued immortality by the Queen Mother. To avoid them knowing that he had eaten the choicest of peaches, Sun Wukong shrunk down and crawled into a peach to hide.

It was when hiding inside the peach that he finally heard the truth, as he overheard the maidens giggling about how the Monkey King was just an immortal that looked over the peach garden and wasn’t a god. He hadn’t even been invited to the Peach Banquet!

Furious, the Monkey King left the grove and snuck into the banquet hall, helping himself to the food and wine. Then, as the gods and goddesses were making their way to the banquet themselves, Sun Wukong roamed the halls and levels of heaven. When he realized he had achieved the level of Dou Shuai palace at the top of the 33rd layer, Sun Wukong stole the Pills of Immortality, took even more of the Peaches of Immortality, stole the rest of the royal wine, and then fled to his mountain kingdom on Earth.

This time the Jade Emperor called for all-out war upon the Monkey King. However, Sun Wukong had now become quite powerful, and defeated the 100,000 strong celestial army of the Jade Emperor, the twenty-eight constellations of the sky, the four heavenly kings, and even had fought Nezha and Erlang Shen to a draw.

It was only through the workings of Taoists and the Buddha, along with the goddess Guanyin that the Monkey King was captured and sentenced to be imprisoned in Laozi’s Eight-Way Trigram for 49 days. Yet on the 47th day, the Monkey King escaped again, his imprisonment actually giving him a new power, that of the golden gaze. Destroying the Trigram, he made his way to face the Jade Emperor.

– Imprisoned under the mountain

Appealing to the Buddha himself, the Jade Emperor waited for Sun Wukong to face him. As the Monkey King made his way into the palace, he demanded that he should be the Jade Emperor, as the armies of heaven could not defeat him and no prison could hold him.

Buddha, however, had a plan. Knowing the Monkey King’s weakness was his self-confidence, the Buddha asked a wager of the Monkey King. The Buddha wagered that the Monkey King could not find his way out of the Buddha’s palm. Accepting the bet, the Monkey King leapt from the heavens and flew to the ends of the world. Seeing only five pillars, he marked them with his urine and declared himself his title of Great Sage Equal to Heaven.

When he returned to the Buddha, Sun Wukong was ready to take the throne. However, the Buddha revealed that the five pillars he had marked were simply the fingers of Buddha’s hand. Before the Monkey King can escape, Buddha turned his hand sending the Monkey King hurtling towards earth, trapping him under a mountain that the Buddha sealed with a paper talisman, not to be unsealed for 500 years so that the Monkey King would learn patience and humility.

– Serving Tang Sanzang

500 years after Sun Wukong was imprisoned under the mountain, a monk named Tang Sanzang was sent upon a quest to collect the Buddhist sutras. When finding out about the monk’s quest, the Monkey King offered his services if after the quest was fulfilled, he would be set free. The goddess Guanyin, suspicious of the Monkey King, gave Tang Sanzang a magic circlet that would help keep the Monkey King under control. After being released from underneath the mountain, Sun Wukong began to serve Tang Sanzang, following him on his journey.

While traveling with Tang Sanzang, the Monkey King began to learn the deeper teachings of the way of Buddha. Sun Wukong also faithfully defended the monk from monsters and demons, as they believed that in eating Tang Sanzang, they could become immortal. Acting as his bodyguard, along with Pigsy and Sandy (two other beings attempting to redeem themselves), the Monkey King helped the monk achieve his quest and return to China.

Through serving Tang Sanzang and upon returning to China, the Monkey King achieved enlightenment and was awarded with the name Victorious Fighting Buddha.

Sun Wukong, the Monkey King who challenged the armies of heaven

Sun Wukong, known as the Monkey King in Chinese mythology, was made famous in a 16th century classic novel, Journey to the West.

  • While the character of Sun Wukong was made famous in the 16th century, myths of monkey gods had circulated throughout China for 3,000 years
  • The story of Sun Wukong is believed to be an amalgamation of Indian myths of monkey gods and Chinese folk tales
  • Sun Wukong, unlike many other ancient Chinese gods, is not revered as an actual god per se, but more of a beloved cultural hero and literary figure
  • Gifted with incredible strength, the Monkey King could run as fast as a falling star. He could also somersault at the speed of 54,000 kilometers (108,000 li). Other formidable talents of the Monkey King were his abilities to freeze people and animals in place and controlling the weather.
  • Sun Wukong’s most intimidating talent was his ability to transform into the seventy-two Earthly transformations, allowing him to shapeshift into different animals and objects.
  • Sun Wukong was a master of multiple fighting styles and he could defeat the best warriors of the celestial armies.
  • Even the Monkey King’s fur possessed magical attributes, as the Monkey King could make duplicates of himself to aid him in battle or he could use his fur to transform into weapons and animals.
  • Sun Wukong is one of the easiest characters to distinguish in Chinese artwork as the Monkey King is the only Chinese god that appears as a monkey
  • In depictions of the Monkey King before he achieved enlightenment, Sun Wukong is often shown as a naked macaque. After being released from his mountain imprisonment and becoming a disciple of the Buddhist master Tang Sanzang, Sun Wukong is depicted wearing his Monkey King crown (a cap with a phoenix feather), a chainmail shirt made of gold, cloud walking boots, and the staff of the Monkey King – a staff weighing eight tons that he can shrink to size of a small pin needle.
  • Sun Wukong’s name literally means a monkey awakened from emptiness, and much of Journey to the West is about Sun Wukong evolving from a stone monkey, to a trickster, then to an arch enemy of heaven, to imprisonment, to servant, to a benevolent Buddha

The legend of the Monkey King, while considered high adventure, is more than just an action-packed myth. The story of Sun Wukong is ultimately about realms of possibilities, as even a monkey, a monkey that began as a rock no less, could achieve enlightenment. And if a stone monkey could shake the very gates of heaven, what more could a human do? The possibilities are endless.

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