Sun Wukong’s history is revealed in the first seven chapters of the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592):
After having ruled as the “Monkey King” for centuries, a stone monkey born from a boulder high atop the mystical Mountain of Flowers and Fruit sets out on a quest for immortality. He becomes a student of the Sage Subhuti and, after receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (“Monkey Awakened to Emptiness”), quickly masters not only the secrets of eternal life, but also Daoist magic and martial arts. The immortal sets out once more to locate a celestial weapon befitting his newfound power and discovers the “As-You-Wish” Gold-Banded Cudgel, a nine tone iron pillar with size-changing properties in the Eastern Dragon King’s undersea treasury. Sun later uses the weapon to bully the magistrates of death when his soul is mistakenly taken to the underworld in his sleep. He wipes his name from the Book of Life and Death, achieving a second level of immortality. Heaven appoints Monkey the “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” in order to keep his impulsive adventures in check; however, Sun soon leaves and defiantly proclaims himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” when he learns he’s not recognized as a full-fledged god. After a brief confrontation in which Monkey overwhelms the heavenly army with his magical and martial might, the celestial hierarchy is forced to bestow on him the title of Great Sage, as well as promote him to “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”. The uneasy truce does not last long, for Sun gobbles up the immortal peaches, thereby achieving a third level of immortality, and then crashes a heavenly feast before the celestial guests arrive, eating all of the food and drinking all of the wine. He then steals into the laboratory of Laozi, the high god of Daoism, and eats all of the patriarch’s alchemically derived elixir, achieving a fourth level of immortality. After a second confrontation, Monkey is briefly subdued and sentenced to burn inside of Laozi’s mystical furnace. The Great Sage survives, however, and unleashes his immortal rage on heaven, forcing the Buddha himself to intervene. The Enlightened One wagers Sun will be made the emperor of heaven if the immortal can successfully jump from his palm. Monkey accepts and leaps to the furthest reaches of creation, only to discover upon returning that he had failed since the Buddha’s hand encompasses the universe. Finally, the Buddha traps Sun under a mountain as punishment for his crimes against heaven.
Monkey’s subsequent adventures are told in chapters 14 to 100 of the novel. After being imprisoned under the mountain for 500 years, the Great Sage is released to protect Tripitaka, a celestial-born-Buddhist monk sent from China to acquire sutras from the Buddha in India. The immortal's unruly nature is kept in check by a golden headband that tightens painfully around his head when a magic spell is cited. Together with Zhu Bajie, a lecherous pig spirit, and Sha Wujing, a complacent river spirit, Sun battles hordes of monsters, demons, and ghosts who wish to eat the monk to attain eternal life. In the end, Sun Wukong is elevated to the rank of a Buddha and given the title “Victorious Fighting Buddha”.
Stories about a "Monkey Pilgrim" appeared by at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and possibly even earlier. His adventures were so well known by the 11th-century that he and his master Tripitaka were included in a religious mural from the Thousand Buddha Caves, a series of Buddhist cave grottos and a major pilgrimage site located in Gansu Province, China close to the Chinese end of the Silk Road. Due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling, records for the earliest repertoires do not exist; however, stories were eventually gathered into Master of the Law, Tripitaka of the Tang, Procures the Scriptures, a 17-chapter novelette that possibly served as a prompt for storytellers during the late 13th-century. The story therein differs greatly from the final version. For example, the Monkey Pilgrim fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk's staff and the other an iron staff (these were later combined to create his signature weapon). The stories continued to evolve over time and eventually started to solidify into familiar episodes by the 15th-century, as evidenced by an early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) zaju play called Journey to the West. Act 9, for example, mentions the immortal being crushed under a mountain for his crimes against heaven.
The complete 100 chapter edition of Journey to the West was published anonymously in 1592. Several people have been suggested as its author. For example, a story appearing in a famous 17th-century collection of popular tales claims the 12th to 13th-century Daoist master Qiu Chuji wrote the novel. The minor Ming official Wu Cheng'en (1500-1582) was associated with the novel by scholars of the 19th and 20th-centuries. Today, Wu is widely considered the author, but many historians remain divided on the issue. Regardless, the "author", be it Wu or someone else, compiled existing, centuries-old stories and did not write the novel from scratch.
Sun Wukong has appeared in countless sequels, prequels, stage plays, movies, cartoons, comic books and video games. Since the character is in the public domain, Monkey's modern adaptations can be considered the brainchildren of their respective creators.
Sun Wukong influenced Son Goku from the Dragon Ball franchise. Goku took on his namesake's monkey tail, martial arts skill, extending staff, and ability to fly on clouds. Even the round spaceship that transports the infant Goku to earth in Dragon Ball Z is based on the stone egg from which Sun Wukong is born.
Powers and Abilities
The Monkey King has been shown to have these abilities:
- Quadruple Immortality - Gained through Daoist practices, wiping his name from the book of life and death, eating immortal peaches, and eating Laozi's elixir of immortality, respectively.
- Invulnerability to celestial weapons, lightning, fire, drowning, being crushed under the weight of three celestial mountains, etc.
- Cloud Jumping, or the ability to fly on clouds.
- Super strength - Capable of supporting the weight of Mount Sumeru, the axis of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, on one shoulder and the weight of another celestial mountain on the other, while running "with the speed of a meteor". He fights with a magic iron staff that weighs 17,550 lbs (7,960.5 kg).
- 72 Heavenly Transformations - A hyperbole for an endless array of transformations, from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. This skill allows him to grow as tall as the sky or shrink to the size of a gnat, as well as manipulate his body to appear as if, for example, he is capable of cutting open his stomach, inspecting his organs, and instantly healing the wound. In addition, he can transform each of the hairs on his body into anything he desires, including an army of clones to do his bidding.
- Golden Pupils and Fiery Eyes - His eyes are capable of seeing for hundreds of miles and seeing the true nature of a being, whether they be a god or a demon, in disguise.
- Daoist magic - This skill allows him to command gods and spirits, part fire and water, create an impassable barrier, give others superhuman strength, cast illusions, freeze someone in place, call for rain and thunder, bring the dead back to life (via fetching their soul from the underworld), etc.
- Expert in the art of unarmed and armed combat.
- Mental Acuity - He can learn new subjects at a superhuman speed. For example, he achieves immortality and masters Daoist magic, martial arts, and Chinese medicine in just three years. The novel describes him as "someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred."
- Chinese medicine - He is able to analyze a person's body, diagnose the problem, and treat the ailment with hand-prepared medicines.