Indigenous or Foreign?: A Look at the Origins of the Monkey Hero Sun Wukong

by Hera S. Walker

Table of Contents


The integration of foreign elements into a culture's consciousness is a gradual progression. Furthermore, it cannot occur unless there are sufficient grounds for acceptance by the adopting culture. As S. Schrieke notes in his essay "Some Remarks on Borrowing in the Development on Culture,"

It is a well-known fact that we do not absorb everything that we might potentially observe --only certain impressions become ours consciously and unconsciously. The human mind selects, and what it selects is determined by the relations between that which is observed and that which is already present. A man's originality is determined by his capacity to combine heterogeneous elements. "There is nothing new under the sun; " the new is the combination of the known. An invention is not created out of nothing; it is rooted in the old. But even then, if a novelty is to gain currency in spite of the conservatism of the human mind, the times must be ripe, that is, the factors needed to make its acceptance possible must be present. (230-1)

If we consider Schrieke's words, it becomes more reasonable to understand just how and why a mythical character could develop from a combination of indigenous and foreign elements.

Since the first half of this century, there has been an ongoing scholarly debate concerning the origins of the Monkey-hero Sun Wukong in the Chinese epic novel Xiyouji. Is he a character developed from indigenous monkey figures or does his origin stem from Hanuman, the monkey- general of India's Rama tradition? In this paper I will present evidence showing that Sun Wukong is a product of both indigenous and foreign elements. The indigenous elements provided factors needed to make the acceptance of foreign elements possible (Schrieke 231).

When the theory of a possible connection between Sun Wukong and Hanuman existed was first proposed by Hu Shi, many of his contemporaries adamantly opposed the idea that China would have had to import foreign elements and claimed that Sun Wukong's origins lay solely in the legend of Wu'erji, a monkey-shaped water spirit whom the great Yu subdued when he harnessed the flood. However, after half a century of debate, several prominent scholars have shown that the Wu'erji legend itself is suspect of having been influenced by foreign elements.

Within their respective spheres of influence, the Rama tradition and the Xiyouji (translated as Journey to the West) have had a profound impact upon society. The Xiyouji is one of the most popular and well-known novels in the canon of Chinese literature. Likewise, the Rama tradition is not only pervasive in India, but is known and studied throughout Southeast Asia. Throughout the whole of Asia, representations of both monkey figures are depicted in oral narration, theater, art, and, in modem times, television shows. Shrines have been erected by devote worshippers to pay homage to them. Clearly, the popularity of these monkey heroes is without question.

The Xiyouji is based on the real life journey of Xuanzang, also known by the Buddhist honorific Tripitaka, to India along the overland route of the Silk Road. In this epic novel, Tripitaka is accompanied by four disciples: Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, Sha Heshang, and the Dragon Prince as the white horse. The novel begins with the birth and early years of Sun Wukong, the hero of the novel. Chapters one through six recount his quest for immortality, his unruly behavior, and finally his capture and punishment. From Chapter six to the end of the novel, the plot focuses on the birth of Tripitaka and his pilgrimage to Buddha's mountain, where he obtains sutras.

Since there are hundreds of renditions of the Rama saga within India alone, this paper will use the third-century epic Ramayana, written by Valmiki, for reference. The Ramayana is reputed to be the most prestigious and the most comprehensive of all the renditions. Hanuman is the monkey-general of the Monkey-king Sugriva. By the king's command, Hanuman is ordered to aid Prince Rama, the central hero of the saga, in finding his captive wife, Sita. The demon titan Ravana steals Sita from Rama. Hanuman occupies a central role in the search and rescue of Sita. He is the one who finds Sita and leads the charge against the titan arny to rescue her.

So how was the Rama tradition transmitted to Southeast Asia and China? Trade, more than any other factor, provided different civilizations with a vehicle for cultural exchange, motivating people to cross over mountains, deserts, and large bodies of water. Of all the civilizations that participated in long-distance trade across the Eurasian landmass and throughout the eastern oceans, India's was one of the most influential. In an overview of history it is easy to see the effect left by India's culture in the arts, statecraft, and religion of many Southeast Asian countries. For example, the early plastic arts of Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia exhibit a strong Indian flavor in their style and subject matter.

Unlike Southeast Asian civilization, Chinese civilization had already begun to develop independently of India's cultural influence, and thus the impact of Indian culture was not as powerful in China as it was in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, several elements of Chinese culture, including literature, were affected by Indian culture.