Story Idea: The Ape Immortals - The Origin of Sun Wukong
Post Reply
Thread Rating:
  • 0 Votes - 0 Average
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
22-01-2014, 04:57 PM (This post was last modified: 22-01-2014 05:14 PM by ghostexorcist.)
Story Idea: The Ape Immortals - The Origin of Sun Wukong
I have been a devoted fan of the 16th-century Chinese classic Xiyouji (西游记), Journey to the West: hereafter “JTTW”) and the lead character Sun Wukong (孙悟空), the Monkey King, ever since I first discovered the work almost 15 years ago. As someone who studies primates and enjoys mythology, I've always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Monkey. I originally wanted him to be the son of Sun Wukong or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Monkey and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of Sun; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [1] I thought the character could be an ape immortal (猿仙). It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons mate for life.

A rough sketch of the story is presented below. The tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes contain pertinent information on the texts I used and why the particular plot choices were made.


In the beginning of the universe, the Dao (道, the way) produces the one, yiqi (一气, the first breath); one produces two, yin and yang (阴阳); two produces three, the Three Pure Ones (三清); and three produces the myriad things. [2] The Three Pure Ones, the supreme Immortals, manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. The first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female. They are the progenitors of all apes and monkeys just like the vermillion phoenix and his mate, the second in line to be created, are the parents of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (气), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. Once their family grows to titanic proportions, they relocate to the island country of Flower-Fruit Mountain (花果山) and the couple constructs the immortal Water Curtain Cave (水帘洞) from which they rule. [3] A particular bolder on the mountain is where by chance the amorous couple happens to make love after being overwhelmed with passion while on a moonlight stroll. The lithic form absorbs these powerful sexual energies and later issues forth a stone egg. [4]

As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [5] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the eons. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, the song topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the deva Nu Wa (女娲) has to mend the heavens with magic stones. [6] The early primordial devas and spirits fear what will happen if the couple continues, so they plead with them to separate to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.

The immortal lovers reluctantly isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [7] the male becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (西的猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (猿家长), while the female becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (东的猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (猿女家长). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subhodhi (须菩提). [8]

The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [9] The newly appointed August Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost in the chaos.

[Image: ybzr.jpg]

A pair of mated gibbons.

It is during the interim when the previously mentioned stone egg, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, transforms into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of apes and monkeys had long forgotten about after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under the immortal Subhodhi, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong, and gains great magic powers with which he uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for his misdeeds for 500 years, he later redeems himself by escorting the Monk Xuanzang (玄奘) to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures.

After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the ancient gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses because of the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals, second to only the Three Pure Ones. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. In addition, their individual songs are powerful enough—after continued self-cultivation in exile—to level mountains. [10]

The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the enlightened one, the Tathagata asks them to pacify their rage instead of trying to use trickery to halt the onslaught. [11] The pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine about the great injustice that has been done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows that their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.

After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element; there are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm. This way they will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [12]


[1] The Chinese viewed the gibbon (猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi (Jp: ki, 气); this resulted in long lives and occult powers (Thomas Geissmann, “Gibbon Paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical Distribution, Production Rate and Context” Gibbon Journal no. 4 (May 2008): 1-3. Accessed December 4, 2013.

[2] This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德经), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and William Scott Wilson, Tao Te Ching: An All-New Translation (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2012), 197 n. 82 and 83. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals (Keith Stevens, Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons (London: Collins & Brown, 1997), 68-70).

[3] JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.

[4] JTTW states the following about the stone: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu Cheng'en and Anthony C. Yu, The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 101). I realize the book is fiction, but I’ve never been satisfied with its explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love on the stone. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (阴阳) (Douglas Wile, Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women's Solo Meditation Texts (Albany: State University of New York Press, 19920, 11-12 and 28-29.). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.

[5] Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It's interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Kathryn Lougheed, "Helium reveals gibbon's soprano skill: Ape uses operatic technique to be heard across the forest,", Nature Publishing Group, 23 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. ).

[6] The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.

[7] I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey's imprisonment and their exile, both of which are connected to mountains.

[8] The Buddha’s training under them would probably happen in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subodhi because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of his spiritual parents are transmitted to him by a former student of theirs.

[9] This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演义), Investiture of the Gods). In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones (三清), uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, Chinese Gods, 60).

[10] The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha when he was still a Bodhisattva and the immortal Subodhi. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. They rebel like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that such lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. I could present them as the living embodiment of yin and yang. Douglas Wile states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (Wile, Arts of the Bedchamber, 29).

[11] An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to trick Monkey into thinking that he has left his hand in the seventh chapter of JTTW.

[12] A Mahakalpa (大劫) is the longest period of time in Buddhist Cosmology; it is believed to last 1,347,000,000 years (William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2005), 85 and 232-233). What I wrote about the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind is based on Buddhist doctrine (Randy Kloetzli, Buddhist Cosmology: From Single World System to Pure Land: Science and Theology in the Images of Motion and Light (Oxford: Motilal Books (U.K.), 1983), 73-76).


Geissmann, Thomas. “Gibbon Paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical Distribution, Production Rate and Context.” Gibbon Journal no. 4 (May 2008): 1-38. Accessed December 4, 2013.

Kloetzli, Randy. Buddhist Cosmology: From Single World System to Pure Land: Science and Theology in the Images of Motion and Light. Oxford: Motilal Books (U.K.), 1983.

Lougheed, Kathryn. "Helium reveals gibbon's soprano skill: Ape uses operatic technique to be heard across the forest." Nature Publishing Group, 23 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Soothill, William Edward, and Lewis Hodous. A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2005.

Stevens, Keith. Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown, 1997.

Wile, Douglas. Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women's Solo Meditation Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Wu, Cheng'en, and Anthony C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1). Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Visit this user's website Find all posts by this user
Like Post Quote this message in a reply
Post Reply
Forum Jump: