Monkey King in Journey to the West

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Though he is technically a supporting character, Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, is the most popular and memorable character in the Chinese classic 'Journey to the West'. He is also a classic example of the trickster figure in literature.

A Legendary Hero

The classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, first published in 1592, is one of the most beloved and popular works of literature in China. It is also perhaps the best-known work of Chinese literature in the Western world as well, having been frequently translated into English and other languages. Much of its popularity both in China and abroad is due to the character of Sun Wukong, better known as the Monkey King, who is one of the most endearing and memorable characters in literature.

For most of Journey to the West, Sun Wukong is a supporting character, helping the monk Xuanzang in his long journey to recover a set of sacred Buddhist texts. However, he is by far the most popular character in the story, and many translations and adaptations focus primarily on Sun Wukong. For example, a recent Japanese TV series based on Journey to the West was titled simply Monkey, as was the most popular English translation of the story, published by Arthur Waley in 1942.

Sun Wukong's popularity is largely due to his status as a trickster figure. A trickster is a character in folktales or mythology who is very smart and uses his smarts to trick those around him and otherwise not live by the normal rules of society. Sun Wukong does this throughout the story, first to help only himself, and then later to protect Xuanzang on his journey.


Journey to the West collects many of the folktales and oral storytelling of medieval China into a single narrative. Therefore, most of the important characters, including Sun Wukong, existed in stories and tales before Journey to the West.

Sun Wukong's mythical origins are told in the beginning section of Journey to the West, which is largely separate from the rest of the narrative. According to this legend, Sun Wukong is born from a magic stone on a mountaintop and grows up to be the smartest creature who has ever lived. He masters the Tao, the Chinese philosophy about the underlying force of the universe, learns how to fight and change his shape, and eventually conquers mortality itself.

Sun Wukong is given the title of ''Great Sage Equal to Heaven'' and is more powerful than all of the Chinese deities. He causes the sun to rebel against Heaven, an event known as the Havoc in the Heavenly Kingdom. Eventually he is stopped by the Buddha, who traps him under a mountain.

In these early tales, Sun Wukong displays great hubris, or excessive pride, and he must atone for this in the main story of Journey to the West.

Role in 'Journey to the West'

After telling the backstory of Sun Wukong, Journey to the West flashes forward 500 years and focuses on Xuanzang, a monk who is tasked by the Buddha with traveling to the west (modern-day India) and recovering some sacred texts that are hidden there. However, because Xuanzang is a monk, he is not able to fight, even in self-defense, so the Buddha gives him companions who will accompany him and protect him.

The Buddha frees Sun Wukong from the mountain, where he had been trapped for 500 years, and makes him Xuanzang's chief protector. Throughout the rest of the story, Sun Wukong gets into all manner of battles with people and monsters attempting to attack Xuanzang, using his smarts, his power of transformation, and his magic staff, which can change to any size.

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