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CHAPTER ONE: The Monkey in Legend and Lore

The most famous monkey in Chinese legend is the hero of the saga A Journey to the West, one of the most popular Chinese stories of all time. It was probably written down around the sixteenth century AD but drew upon many far more ancient tales from all three of the three main Chinese religions (broadly speaking) – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Journey to the West, commonly known as just Monkey, was probably written by Wu Ch’eng-en and at its heart is the true story of the Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-tsang and his great journey in the seventh century to bring the true Buddhist scriptures to China. An unpromising theme for a popular folk tale it may seem, but the story is so full of wonders, monsters and Monkey’s comical antics that it is as popular with children as with their parents and grandparents.

Like all the best tales it operates on many levels at the same time. Far from debasing the original tale by turning it into comical entertainment, Wu Ch’eng-en’s version of the story includes elements of the most abstract traditional Chinese philosophy, and so gives even the highest scholars something to ponder. On the simplest of these levels it is of course a moral tale of redemption in which Monkey and the scripture pilgrim’s other companions have to overcome their weaknesses in order for the quest to succeed.



Legend says that Monkey came into being this way – long ago when the world was young, a strange rock formed high on a mountainside. For aeons this stone absorbed all the subtle influences of the world until finally, mysteriously, the rock cracked to reveal a stone egg. Wind and rain and lightning worked on this egg till it took the form of a monkey. Then one day the monkey stirred and woke. He stretched and yawned and looked around at the four quarters of the world, and from his eyes sprang twin beams of golden light. Then he looked up at the fifth quarter and the Jade Emperor in his heavenly Golden Palace by the Pole Star, started on his throne.

‘What on earth was that?’ he asked his court. ‘Some mighty creature has just been born into the Middle Kingdom. Go and see what it is.’

Courtiers rushed to the Southern Gate of Heaven to look down on our world, then back to report. ‘Majesty’ they puffed, ‘the shock you felt comes from the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, east of the Exalted Continent on the borders of Ao-lai. There a magic rock has just given birth to a stone monkey who bowed to the five quarters, shooting golden beams from his eyes. That is what you felt, but now he is eating and the light has dimmed.’

The Jade Emperor listened with mild interest, then dismissed the matter from his mind. Many strange creatures were appearing on earth in those days and a monkey, even a supernatural one, did not seem very important. Which goes to show that even the greatest gods are sometimes blind to the future.

Stone Monkey meanwhile was exploring the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, helping himself to its delicious fruits and making friends with its creatures. Finally he met some common monkeys who let him join their games, though they teased him for being made of stone.

They romped over the mountainside, swinging through the trees and making mischief wherever they went. Then one day they came to a marvellous waterfall that tumbled like a sparkling veil down the face of a cliff into a pool. A rainbow hovered in the mist arising from it and it was the most beautiful scene Stone Monkey had come across in his short life. The other monkeys were just as enchanted. They gazed at the waterfall and watched its stream tumble down the mountain slopes to where it flowed out onto the plain and meandered away towards the distant ocean. For once they were humbled by beauty into silence. Then one of them said: ‘Surely this waterfall holds a mighty mystery. And if we could only find its secret we would probably learn the answer to many other things.’

The other monkeys all agreed. More than that, they decided that whoever found the waterfall’s secret could be their king. Well, this was balm to Monkey’s ears because despite his divine origins the other monkeys were still very rude and made fun of his being born from a rock. Here seemed a way to win their respect. So without a second thought, having yet to learn fear, he leaped towards the waterfall determined to climb to its source. He crashed into the waterfall and to his surprise passed straight through it into a cave beyond. The cave led to an iron bridge leading to a valley filled with magical light and mist, grass, pine trees and fruits of every kind in abundance. Most magical of all was a little palace garlanded with strings of dragon pearls and flowers growing all over it. Besides a few birds and small creatures the place seemed entirely deserted.

Halfway across the bridge was a jade tablet that read: ‘This Water Curtain Cave in the Blessed Land of Flower Mountain Leads to Heaven’. This was enough for Stone Monkey. Without further investigation he turned back and dived out through the waterfall to carry news of his discovery back to the others.

So in short the monkeys made the palace in the Water Curtain Cave their home – their secret, safe hideaway from the dangers of the outer world. In reward for finding it, Stone Monkey became their king and his first decree was that henceforth he would be known as Handsome Monkey, banning forever the use of the word ‘stone’ in connection with his name.


For many years the monkeys lived happily in their palace in the hidden valley, only visiting the wider world when looking for adventure. Monkey, now known as Handsome Monkey King, was waited on hand and foot and constantly praised for his cleverness in finding the Water Curtain Cave. But one evening in the middle of a great feast he was suddenly overcome by gloom.

‘What’s the matter, Handsome Monkey King?’ the others asked in alarm. ‘Is your wine sour? Are you ill?’

‘No, no, my friends’ said Monkey glumly. ‘It’s neither of those things. It just suddenly occurred to me to wonder where are our lives going? It’s true we have everything we could wish for here. This is a heaven on earth but it’s not Heaven itself. One day we’ll get old and die, and then what? Who knows what miserable lives we’ll get next? And who knows what tortures Yama, king of the underworld, has in mind for us before then?

Now most of the monkeys felt their king had gone a bit mad to talk like this in the middle of a feast, but one of the more thoughtful ones, a gibbon, said: ‘Highness, such thoughts as these are said to be the first steps on the way to enlightenment. Only three classes of being are beyond such worries.’

‘Who are they?’

‘The Buddhas, the Immortals and the Sages.’

‘And where are they found?’

‘In the world of humans, in caves or lonely mountains searching for the truth through meditation.’

So Monkey promptly abandoned his throne and his followers and set off alone into the world of humans to find a master to show him how to evade death. For ten years he wandered far and wide, acquiring the dress and manners of humans so well that he almost passed for one of them; but in all his travels he met no-one who could teach him how to become immortal. Then finally in the Western Continent on the Heart-Mind Mountain, Monkey found the great sage Subodhi who was reputed to have found the secret.


Subodhi allowed him to become a disciple and after ten years of study Monkey had learned from him the art of cloud-soaring, whereby he could leap from one end of the world to another in the blink of an eye using the clouds and sky as his trapeze. Also he could transform himself into any creature he chose, or multiply himself simply by chewing up a mouthful of his hair and chanting a magic formula. And many other tricks too, which was not surprising, given his divine origins.

Monkey soon surpassed all the other disciples, but unfortunately he couldn’t resist showing off and entertaining them with his tricks. This caused so much trouble that finally Subodhi asked him to leave and kindly not tell anyone where he had learned his magic skills, because they were sure to cause even more trouble in future.

Very wise he was too because, armed with his new magical powers, Monkey was unstoppable, conquering demons, gods and dragons with equal ease and causing general mayhem and panic in the world. It was a committee of the Dragon Kings of the Four Quarters that finally brought Monkey to the attention of the Jade Emperor again. The Dragon Kings visited Heaven and complained that through a mixture of force and cunning Monkey had stolen their most powerful weapon and had thus made himself mightier than ever. This was a piece of magic iron said to be the staff with which the Great Yu had carved the rivers of China and drained its floods at the dawn of time. Its magic was such that Monkey could make it any size he chose just by command. So if he changed himself into a giant it would become a cudgel fit to demolish mountains, but when not needed it shrank to the size of a needle that Monkey kept tucked behind his ear.

The Jade Emperor consulted his generals and ministers and finally Gold Star, spirit of the planet Venus, said: ‘Highness, we should not be surprised by the strength of this demon monkey, for was he not he conceived by the Sun and Moon, shaped by the Elements and born from a stone egg? It’s plain he is also a sentient being, though a wild and unruly one. I suggest instead of punishment we try the path of compassion. Invite this Monkey here to Heaven and give him some position so we can keep an eye on him. ‘

The Jade Emperor thought this very wise and so Monkey was invited to the Heavenly Palace, given the title of Prima wen and charged with caring for the Jade Emperor’s thousand milk-white flying horses. Monkey was delighted with his new post, especially as he had an army of grooms and other assistants to do all the hard work. All he had to do was patrol the stables occasionally making sure the horses were happy, comfortable and well fed.

After a couple of weeks the stable staff held a banquet to welcome Monkey to his new post. He was just settling back to enjoy it and thinking how pleasant it was to live in Heaven, when a question occurred to him. ‘Tell me’ he asked one of his officers, ‘what exactly does Prima wen mean? Where do I rank among the Jade Emperor’s other ministers?’

‘Why, it means just what it says: “Master of the Stables”. And you do not rank among the Emperor’s ministers, the position is far too humble for that. But maybe if you take good enough care of his beasts you will be made a minister some time in the future when a vacancy arises.’

‘What! Not even the lowest of his ministers?’ stormed Monkey in a sudden fury. ‘Too humble? ME!!!??’ Tipping up the table and scattering both banquet and guests, Monkey stormed to the Southern Gate, somersaulted over the guards, picked up a cloud and soared back to his monkey kingdom on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit where they greeted him with delight as a long-lost hero. Which was just what it seemed to them because during their king’s fortnight in Heaven, ten years had passed in the world below. Setting up a banner outside the Water Curtain Cave proclaiming himself ‘Great Sage Equal of Heaven’, Monkey settled down to feasting with his followers and entertaining them with tales of what he had seen in Heaven.


This time the Jade Emperor sent an army to fetch Monkey back to answer for his insult to Heaven. The battle raged for days till finally the heavenly host had to retreat in failure before Monkey and his tricks and his magical iron staff. While the Jade Emperor consulted his advisors whether to send reinforcements, Gold Star spoke up again:

‘Your Most Highness’ he said, ‘why waste so much trouble on this trickster when you can have him back under your eye again with just a few words? Let him keep the vain title he has chosen and register him as one of your ministers, because after all the title is empty and carries no salary or duties. Let him call himself what he likes so long as we can keep an eye on him here. And find some harmless occupation to keep him out of mischief.’

Again this seemed sound advice so the offer was made and Monkey willingly returned to Heaven as ‘Great Sage Equal of Heaven’. To keep him busy he was made Guardian of the Immortal Peach Gardens of Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West.

There were in fact three gardens. In the first were 1200 trees with tiny flowers and small fruit that ripened every 3,000 years. Eating just one of these peaches made anyone immortal and imparted full knowledge of the Tao. In the second garden were 1200 trees with abundant blossom and large fruit that ripened every 6,000 years. Anyone tasting one of these rose to Heaven on a cloud and enjoyed eternal youth. In the third garden were 1200 trees with purple-veined fruit and yellow stones that ripened only once every 9,000 years. These made the eater as eternal as Heaven and Earth and equal to the Sun and Moon.

Monkey was delighted with his post because he intended to make sure of his immortality when the fruit ripened. He took to visiting the orchards every few days and soon noticed that the purple-veined peaches in the third garden were ripening. On the excuse of tending them extra carefully himself, Monkey locked himself alone in the third garden and as soon as the first peach ripened, he gulped it down. It was delicious beyond his wildest dreams, quite apart from the white-hot charge of immortality that went coursing through his veins.

Now, Monkey had intended to steal just the one fruit, which would surely not be missed. But when the next peach ripened he couldn’t resist gulping that one down too. And the next. And the one after that. In fact he couldn’t resist eating every single one of the peaches as they ripened, and each tasted as delicious as the first.

Meanwhile preparations were beginning for the great celebration Xi Wang Mu held whenever her peaches ripened. All those worthy were invited to share of the fruit and either gain or renew their immortality. Finally on the day of the feast her servants went to gather peaches from the third garden, only to find that Monkey had eaten the lot. Casting a freezing spell on them, Monkey went to investigate the feast being prepared. It looked so delicious that soon he was drunk on the heavenly wine and stuffed as full as he could be on the wonderful foods.

‘Oh dear, this is bad’ he groaned. ‘Soon the guests will arrive and see what I’ve done and then I’ll be in trouble. I must get back to my rooms to sleep it off. ‘

He staggered off looking for his chambers and on the way happened to stray into Lao Tzu’s quarters. There in the sage’s alchemical laboratory Monkey found five flasks of Immortality Potion and a dish of Immortality Pills prepared for the Queen Mother’s banquet. Thinking they might sober him up, Monkey swallowed the lot.

‘Oh Dear’ he groaned, ‘now I feel worse than ever. And I’m in deeper trouble. Maybe it’s time I went home.’

So, casting a spell of invisibility about himself, Monkey staggered to the Western Gate and slipped away unsteadily on a cloud back to the Water Curtain Cave on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.


All Heaven was in uproar when it was found that Monkey had scoffed all the Peaches, Potions and Pills of Immortality intended for the feast, spoiled the feast itself and even stolen some heavenly wine to share with his monkey followers. The Jade Emperor sent his entire army to bring Monkey to justice but days of battle passed and still Monkey and his magic cudgel stood unconquered. Finally Erh Lang, the Jade Emperor’s nephew, engaged Monkey in a battle of transformations and fought him to a standstill. But even he could not finally subdue him until Lao Tzu, watching the battle from Heaven, dropped a magical snare net over Monkey’s head and he was wrestled to the ground.

The Jade Emperor and his court decided there was nothing for it but Monkey must be destroyed. The trouble was, after all the potions he had drunk no way could be found to harm even the smallest hair on his head. Sword, axe, spear, fire and thunderbolts, all bounced uselessly off him. Finally Lao Tzu said the only thing for it was to smelt Monkey with alchemical fire in the Cauldron of Eight Trigrams. This he did for forty-nine days but when he lifted the lid to scoop out the ash, there was Monkey looking no more than singed and very cross.

Monkey burst out of the Cauldron and rampaged around Heaven with his iron cudgel, scattering everyone and everything before him like straw and declaring himself the Emperor of Heaven. In alarm the Jade Emperor sent to the Buddha for help and soon the Buddha arrived and walked into the midst of the battle.

‘Stop fighting,’ said the Buddha calmly, raising one hand, and such was his authority that the fighting stopped. Monkey, who had been fighting in the form of a three-headed, six-armed giant, lowered his six iron cudgels and resumed his natural form.

‘Who are you to stop the battle?’ he asked. ‘Just when I was enjoying myself and about to win.’

Buddha introduced himself and asked Monkey what right he had to declare himself Emperor of Heaven and cause such chaos.

‘Why should I not be Emperor of Heaven since none here is strong enough to deny it?’ replied Monkey.

Buddha laughed: ‘You’re just a monkey who has become immortal and invincible through luck. What special powers have you to justify becoming ruler of Heaven?’

Monkey began listing all his magical powers, but Buddha interrupted him: ‘For all your boasting of being able to leap 8,000 miles at a time, I bet you cannot even jump off the palm of my hand. If you can, then I’ll salute you as Emperor of Heaven, and so will everyone else. But if not you must submit to my judgement.’

‘That’s simple enough then’ said Monkey, ‘I agree.’ Tucking his magic cudgel behind his ear, Monkey hopped onto the palm of Buddha’s outstretched hand and leaped with all his might towards the horizon. After an immense flight he landed in a strange country where five great flesh-coloured pillars rose steeply from the ground towards the sky. Just in case Buddha didn’t believe how far he had jumped, Monkey went to the central pillar and in large letters wrote: ‘Monkey, Great Sage Equal of Heaven, was here!’ Then he somersaulted back to where he had started.

‘Well, I’m back,’ he told the Buddha, stepping down from his palm. ‘Better tell the Jade Emperor to move over.’

‘But you never left my hand,’ Buddha objected.

‘What do you mean? I jumped to the far end of the world. Go and see for yourself because I left my mark there on one of the great pillars that hold up the sky.’

‘You mean this one?’ Buddha replied with a smile, pointing at his hand where, at the base of his middle finger, Monkey’s tiny mark was just visible.

‘This is some trick!’ Monkey shouted, but before he could act Buddha’s fingers closed around him, transforming themselves into a cage made of the five elements. Buddha threw this cage down into the Middle Kingdom and lowered a mountain onto it so that just Monkey’s head and hands were free. Then he set a seal on the mountain and appointed local spirits to see that Monkey was fed iron pills when he was hungry and molten copper when he was thirsty.

That is how Monkey became an Immortal and almost conquered Heaven, but it is far from being the end of his story. That picks up again five hundred years later when he is set free and joins the monk Tripitaka on his pilgrimage to India for the holy Buddhist scriptures.

Monkey approaches the Five Pillars

The story of Monkey is best known in the West due to a cult late 70s TV series and the stage musical launched at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in 2007 with music by Damon Albarn.


The Tiger and Monkey are natural enemies and some say it first came about this way: Long ago, Yu Yu the spotted deer got lost in the jungle. Usually he grazed in the open grasslands but one day some hunters gave chase and Yu Yu fled into the trees and couldn’t find his way out. For days he wandered aimlessly and all the jungle creatures marvelled at the strange new arrival, for they had never seen a spotted deer before. Luckily all those Yu Yu met in the first few days were friendly and eager to teach the ways of the jungle – what was good to eat and what dangers to avoid.

Sometimes Yu Yu’s antlers got tangled in the bushes and creepers, but otherwise he soon began to feel quite comfortable and even considered making the jungle his new home. His one worry was the Tiger that everyone spoke of with such awe and dread – the Tiger who was king of the beasts and partial to eating quite a few of them, especially timid, juicy ones like Yu Yu. However, he comforted himself that he had only heard rumours of the Tiger so far, and maybe people were exaggerating.

Then one day Yu Yu walked straight into the Tiger, who was dozing in the bushes of a small clearing. Yu Yu began to back away ever so quietly, hoping the Tiger had not heard, but then one golden eye opened with the glint of a diamond and the deer froze with terror. ‘Well well’ said the Tiger lazily, ‘what have we here? I don’t recall coming across your kind ever before. What are you? Are you tasty? And what are those little trees growing out of your head?’

From the midst of his terror, divine inspiration came to timid Yu Yu. Suddenly filled with a courage he had never known before, he said ‘Why, your Highness, ‘I’m Yu Yu the spotted deer, and these little trees on my head are my Tiger Chopsticks. Tiger meat is so smooth and tender that it just slips off normal chopsticks.’

The Tiger sat up sharply ‘What nonsense are you saying?’ he snapped. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life. How could a dainty little morsel like you even dream of saying such a thing to me?’

‘I can demonstrate if you like,’ Yu Yu replied calmly, the words seeming to come out of his mouth of their own accord. ‘Each spot on my back marks a tiger I’ve eaten with these very chopsticks. The Jade Emperor of Heaven himself set me this task and when I have a thousand spots on my back I shall become immortal.’ He took a few purposeful steps towards the Tiger.

Well, the Tiger was astonished. He could not remember when anyone had spoken to him so boldly. Then a cold sliver of fear crept into his cruel heart. What if the Jade Emperor really had given this strange little creature supernatural strength? What if he was not bluffing? ‘No no, a demonstration is not necessary’ the Tiger said as casually as possible. ‘I’ll take your word for it and now, if you’ll excuse me, I have urgent matters to attend to.’ He turned and stalked away with as much dignity as he could summon, only glad no-one else had witnessed his humiliation.

When he was far away, the Tiger settled down under a pine tree to wrestle with the strange thing that had happened to him. If word got around, he could easily be toppled as King of the Jungle. He was so engrossed he didn’t realise he was thinking aloud, so he was astonished when a voice said from the branches above:

‘So what exactly was it about this speckled deer that was so frightening? I can’t quite see it myself. I heard they were timid little creatures’

Dangling from the branches above was a Monkey, who had been listening with great interest for some time. When it came to trying to explaining why he had been so frightened, the Tiger found he just could not quite find the words. ‘You had to be there to understand,’ he ended lamely.

‘Very well’ replied the Monkey, ‘let’s go and take a look together at this terrible monster that has tigers for dinner.’

‘All right,’ said the Tiger, feeling that he had to prove his courage ‘but I know you, Monkey, at the first hint of danger you’ll be scampering away through the treetops. ‘I’ll take you to meet this Yu Yu creature but first you must tie yourself to my back so if you do try to escape you’ll carry me up into the trees with you.’

Monkey was sure the Tiger had been tricked so he tied himself willingly enough to the Tiger’s back and off they went in search of the speckled deer. They found Yu Yu easily enough because after meeting the Tiger he had been feeling too weak to go far. When he turned to find the Tiger approaching again, Yu Yu sprang into the air in fright. The Tiger thought Yu Yu was attacking and jumped too. Then all his earlier fears rushed back and panic took hold, so Tiger fled into the jungle with no thought other than to get as far away as he could. Away he crashed through the bushes till the Monkey on his back felt he was being thrashed by an army. Finally the Tiger collapsed in exhaustion and there they both lay for a while feeling more dead than alive.

‘See I told you he was scary,’ the Tiger said at last, and the Monkey was past caring whether it was Yu Yu who was scary or Tiger who was scared. All he wanted was to get as far away as possible from the Tiger. All Tiger wanted was to keep as far as possible away from the Monkey who had witnessed his shame. And that is how they have remained ever since. As for Yu Yu, well he decided not to risk meeting the Tiger a third time and found his way out of the jungle and back to the plains.


The Monkey is a favourite character in Chinese folklore, famous for its clever wit and sense of mischief. Typical of the stories about it is this one, reputedly told by the Buddha himself:

Once, long ago, all the animals of field and forest grew fed up with Fox and his sly, stealing ways. They determined to teach him a lesson but none of them could think up a plan till Monkey had a bright idea. Lying in wait for Fox one day (but making it seem like an accident) he casually asked Fox what he thought was the tastiest food in the world. Well, thinking about food was one of Fox’s favourite games, so he enthusiastically started going through all his favourite delicacies, trying to decide which was the best of all, till the monkey interrupted, saying:

‘I’ve heard that the tastiest food in the world is a bite of Horse’s rump. But few hardly anyone has ever tasted it because they do not know the trick.’

‘What trick? What trick?’ asked Fox, jumping up and down in excitement.

‘Well’ said Monkey, ‘what you must do first is find Horse lying down asleep; and as it so happens I saw him doing this just a little way back through the trees. Then you must creep up and tie your tail to Horse’s tail, otherwise you won’t be able to hold on. You tie it tightly, but not so tightly as to wake him up. Then you take a big bite of his rump and let me know if it truly is the most delicious food in the world.’

Well, Fox was delighted by this adventure and followed Monkey’s instructions to the letter. He crept up on the sleeping Horse, tied his tail tightly to its tail and then took a great big bite of Horse’s plump, juicy haunch. Horse lunged to his feet in alarm and plunged kicking and rearing like a dervish around the clearing. Fox opened his mouth in fright and fell to the ground. Horse then galloped away like a thunderstorm through the trees, with Fox bouncing along the ground behind it like a bundle of washing.

When Monkey saw this he laughed so hard he fell out of his tree and landed with a tremendous thump on his bottom, which is why he has had a red bottom ever since, though it was worth it just to teach Fox a lesson. Fox too was never quite the same afterwards and has had a speckled coat ever since from scraping along the ground. Horse meanwhile took to sleeping standing up ever since.

‘And that Monkey,' Buddha is supposed to have concluded his tale, ‘was me in a former life.’

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