Skip to content

The Monkey King

The Monkey King is one of the most popular characters among Chinese classical works.

The Monkey King, known as Xi You Ji (Journey to the West), written by Wu Ch’eng-en (1500- 1582), is one of the greatest classical Chinese epic tales.

The Monkey King is based on the life story of a legendary monk, Xuan Zang (Monk Tang), who was said to have lived during the Tang dynasty (602-664 A.D.). After a decade of trials and tribulations he arrived on foot in what is today India, the birthplace of Buddhism. He had traveled there to find the true Buddhist holy book. When he returned to China, then known as The Tang, Xuan Zang translated the Indian Sutras into Chinese, thus making a great contribution to the development of Buddhism in China.

The Monkey King is an allegorical rendition of the journey, mingled with Chinese fables and stories of monsters, fairy tales, legends, and popular beliefs. The Monkey King, together with the forever-hungry pig Ba-jie and the klutzy carp Sha Sen, all get kicked out of heaven. Now they must earn their way back by accompanying the gentle Monk Tang on an extraordinarily perilous journey to rescue the sacred scrolls and return them to China. Through the adventurous stories of the Monkey King fighting adversities along his journey with prowess and wisdom, the author most fascinatingly embodies the essence of the Chinese Daoist and Buddhist tradition. Monkey King’s magical powers, his cleverness, as well as his mischief and fearless rebellion against authority make him a favorite character for children all over the world.

According to the story, Monkey King is born out of a rock and fertilized by the grace of Heaven and Earth. Being extremely intelligent, an immortal Daoist master teaches him all the magic tricks and Kung Fu. He can transform himself into 72 different images, such as a tree, a bird, a beast of prey, or an insect that can sneak into an enemy’s body to attack from the inside out. Using clouds as a means of transportation, he can travel 108,000 miles at a single somersault.

He proclaims to be The King in defiance of the only authority over the heavens, the seas, the earth, and the subterranean world—Yù Huáng Dà Dì, or "The Great Jade Emperor." That act of high treason, coupled with complaints from the masters of the Four Seas and Hell, incurs the relentless scourge of the heavenly army. The monkey battles into the ocean and seizes the Dragon King’s crown treasure—a huge gold-banded iron rod used as the ballast of the waters. Able to expand or shrink at his command, this iron rod becomes the monkey’s favorite weapon in his later feats. The first test of its power comes when the monkey storms into hell and threatens the Hadean King into sparing his and his followers mortal life so that they could enjoy eternity.

After many showdowns with the fearless Monkey King, the heavenly army suffers numerous humiliating defeats. The celestial monarch has but to give the dove faction a chance to try their appeasement strategy—to offer the monkey an official title in heaven with little authority. When he learns the truth, that he is nothing but an object of ridicule, the enraged monkey revolts, fighting all the way back to earth to resume his original claim as The King.{mospagebreak}

Eventually, the heavenly army manages to capture the barely invincible monkey with the help of tricky warriors. He is sentenced to capital punishment, but all methods of execution fail. Having a bronze head and iron shoulders, the monkey dulls many a sword. As a last resort, the emperor commands that he be incinerated in the same furnace where his Daoist minister Tai Shang Lao Jun refines his immortality elixir. Instead of killing the monkey, the fire and smoke gives his eyes magic powers so that he now can see through things that others cannot see. He fights his way back to earth again.

At his wit’s end, the celestial emperor asks Buddha for help. Buddha imprisons the monkey under a great mountain known as Wu Zhi Shan (The Mount of Five Fingers). The tenacious monkey survives the enormous weight and pressure. Five hundred years later, Tang dynasty monk Xuan Zang, who is mentioned at the beginning of the story, rescues the monkey with the help of reincarnated aides and disciples.