In Chinese mythology, Sun Wukong (孫悟空), also known as the Monkey King, is a trickster god who plays a central role in Wu Cheng’en’s adventure novel Journey to the West. Wukong is blessed with unmatched superhuman strength and has the ability to transform into 72 different animals and objects.
Each of the hairs on his body can transform into various weapons or even clones of himself. He can also magically manipulate wind, water and fire. Characterized by his short temper, impatience and proclivity towards anger, Sun Wukong is one of the most important and beloved literary figures in Chinese culture.
Sūn Wùkōng’s name is comprised of the characters for “grandson” (孫), “awakened” (悟) and “space”(空). Though the character sūn (孫) usually refers to grandsons, in this context it refers to monkeys. His name literally translates as the “monkey awakened by the emptiness.” Wukong’s name is meant to represent his spiritual journey from an ignorant, short-tempered monkey to a benevolent, enlightened being.
Sun Wukong has a very distinct appearance that sets him apart from the other gods—he’s a monkey. In art that refers to earlier parts of his myth, he’s simply depicted as a naked macaque. After he devotes himself to the Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang, Wukong is usually shown decked out in full warrior gear with special items like a golden chain mail shirt, a phoenix feathered cap, boots that let him walk on clouds and an eight ton staff that can shrink down to the size of a needle.
Since Sun Wukong was born from a magical rock, he doesn’t have any blood relatives. However, in the years before he joined the Jade Emperor’s court, he lorded over a group of wandering monkeys who took care of him and regarded him as their leader.
The legend of Sun Wukong first appeared in the Song Dynasty-era adventure novel Journey to the West by the writer Wu Cheng’en. The book follows the story of a humble Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang, who travels from his home in Southern China to India in order to bring back holy texts to enlighten his countrymen. Wukong, after being released from the mountain he was trapped under for 500 years, offers his services to the monk and serves as a guard on Tang’s journey to India.
In ancient times, a magical rock that rested on top of Mount Huagou suddenly grew a womb. One day when a stiff breeze blew upon the rock, a fully formed monkey burst forth from its stone face. Despite having just been born, the young monkey already had the ability to walk and speak.
When he opened his eyes, golden beams of light shot forth from his pupils, pierced through the clouds and startled the Jade Emperor. When the Jade Emperor looked down to find the source of the strange light, he only saw a small, baby monkey and thought no more of the incident.
As he began wandering around, Sun Wukong discovered other monkeys in the forest and decided to live with them. One day when the group was playing near a waterfall, they decided that whoever was brave enough to jump through the waterfall and find the stream’s source would be named the King of Monkeys.
Sun Wukong immediately leapt through the waterfall, traveled up the stream to find its source, quickly came back and declared himself king. With the support of all the monkeys of the forest behind him, Sun Wukong went on to establish himself as a powerful forest demon and would go on to battle the Dragon King and other sea demons. His exploits earned him a number of powerful weapons like his signature gold chain mail shirt, phoenix cap, cloud-walking boots and magical eight ton staff.
When the time came for Yan Wang and the Kings of Hell to collect Wukong’s soul, Wukong tricked Yan Wang into allowing his return to earth without reincarnation. Before leaving Hell, Wukong managed to wipe his and every other monkey’s name that lived on Mount Huaguo from the Yan Wang’s scribe’s Book of Life and Death. Troubled at the thought of the balance of life being upset by a mere monkey, Yan Wang appealed directly to the Jade Emperor for help.
Sun Wukong and the Jade Emperor
Upon hearing about this new, irascible demon that lived on Mount Huaguo, the Jade Emperor felt the best way to subdue Wukong was to let him live in Heaven with the other gods, so that he would feel a sense of importance.
Flattered that the Jade Emperor would send him an invitation to live in Heaven, Wukong promptly said goodbye to all of his friends on Mount Huaguo and set off for the Jade Palace.
Once he got there, however, Sun Wukong discovered he was assigned to the lowest-ranking task in all of Heaven: guarding the Jade Emperor’s horses. He quickly realized that because he was a monkey, the other gods would never see him as a peer. In hopes of finding a way to prove himself an equal, the Monkey King became obsessed with the idea of immortality and devoted himself to the pursuit of everlasting life. When the Jade Emperor encouraged him to take up other, more fruitful pursuits in Journey to the West, Wukong scorned him:
‘Can this sort of practice lead to immortality?’ asked Wukong.
‘Impossible! Impossible!’ said the Patriarch.
‘I won't learn it then,’ Wukong said.
One day, the Jade Emperor held a party to celebrate his wife, Xiwangmu. Wukong, unknowingly excluded from the party, decided to drop by and was laughed out of the hall by the other gods. Hurt by the actions of his peers, Wukong declared himself to be Qítiān Dàshèng (齊天大聖), or the “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” and even made an enormous banner to taunt the Emperor.
The Jade Emperor sent a battalion of soldiers to arrest Wukong for his insolence, but they were no match for him. After defeating the last solder, he shouted, “Remember my name, Great Sage Equal to Heaven, Sun Wukong!”
Forced to acknowledge the might of Sun Wukong’s power, the Jade Emperor promoted him to guard Xiwangmu’s Peaches of Immortality. The Monkey King, however, truly believed that he was the Jade Emperor’s equal and saw the promotion as yet another insult. In a final act of defiance, Wukong ate all of the peaches in the garden as quickly as he could. The Jade Emperor sent twice as many troops as he did the first time to subdue him, but again, Wukong defeated them all.
The Jade Emperor, out of options, confided in Buddha what had happened and begged him to intervene. Buddha immediately struck down Wukong from Heaven and pinned him underneath a mountain so that he could reflect on his actions.
Journey to the West
For 500 years, Wukong lay immobilized beneath the weight of Buddha’s mountain. A traveling monk, Tang Sanzang, found him and offered to release him—but only on the condition that he would repent and become the monk’s disciple.
At first, the Monkey King refused to serve anybody—especially not a human. Once Tang started to walk away, Wukong quickly changed his mind and told him that he would gladly serve the monk.
Before Tang freed Wukong, Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, gave Tang a magical band that would grant him the ability to control the Monkey King. After being freed from the weight of the mountain, Sun Wukong joined Tang’s two other demonic traveling companions, Zhū Bājiè (猪八戒) or “Piggy” and Shā Wùjìng (沙悟浄) or “Sandy.”
Sun Wukong, grateful to be released from his imprisononment, served Tang faithfully and loyally throughout their journey to India, cheerfully battling demons whenever the need arose. Through his noble deeds and dedication to Tang’s teachings, Sun Wukong eventually achieved enlightenment at the end of their journey and put an end to his angry, greedy and envious tendencies.
Though he’s not commonly worshipped by Buddhist and Taoist practitioners, Sun Wukong is an important Chinese cultural figure and has been featured in a number of TV series, movies and plays.
Journey to the West has been adapted into film a number of times, but was most recently redone in 2013 by Chinese film director and actor Stephen Chow. In the anime Dragon Ball, the main character, Son Goku, is actually based off of the myth of Sun Wukong, hence his superhuman strength and tail, as is the character of the same name in RWBY.
Sun Wukong is featured as a video game character in the Sonson, Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes and Warriors Orochi.
British Council - https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/monkey-king-worlds-most-popular-superhero
New World Encyclopedia - http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Journeytothe_West
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Wukong