Sun Wu Kung

the monkey king


The Monkey King, Sun Wu Kung, ( 孫悟空 )

The Monkey King (Sun Wu Kung) is one of the most memorable superheroes in world literature. High-spirited and omnipotent, he can become anything he wants (much-needed flexibility nowadays…), but his penchant for mischief gets him into trouble time and again. On his westward march through the Silk Road’s dangerous wilderness – through Xinjiang, Tibet, Nepal, and finally India – he encounters murderous Buddhists, perfidious Taoists, vast expanses of rotten tomatoes, and monsters of all shapes and sizes. He is continually captured, sautéed, liquefied, roped, and is about to be hacked to pieces, boiled, pickled, cured, and mated with various lawless fiends. Luckily for him, he always hatches a cunning plan to get himself and his fellow travelers out of his latest problem (Isn’t it what we call now resilience and the spirit of struggle and self-improvement?).


Being born on Earth, the Sun Wu Kung manages to ascend to Heaven full of officials who do not cease to see Wu Kung as unworthy of them. After climbing to Heaven on a cloud, the Monkey King is met with the unpleasant surprise that he has to queue up. Later, the guardian does not let the Monkey King because he has no shoes. Wu Kung is not of their heavenly, perfect (and powerful) kind. He is a mere «human,» and, whatever he does, he will always remain «human» and never be like them, let alone one of them. The Monkey King is incensed and alleges his legion of followers and his actions to become a divinity. The guard says that he may be so; however, he is still a monkey and must leave. Those around the gate of Heaven laugh at his humiliation. Enraged, he yells «Die!» and beats the guard over the head. Using his Kung-Fu skills, the Monkey King knocks all the officials present into a heap.

The monkey king

Apart from being «a bit» temperamental, as we have seen, Sun Wu Kung’s character is irreverent, especially in the face of (heavenly or earthly) power. The Monkey is a «human» character with human impulses and flaws who tries to find his place in a world of (mighty) immortals and (superstitious) magic. He does not want to be less than anyone else, significantly less than the elite who hold power even if they have only obtained it by inheritance or by blind (and self-interested) obedience to superiors. He struggles to make sense of the world and strives to find it. In his numerous attempts to attain immortality, the Monkey King acquires knowledge and tools to serve him on his journey. But time and again, he is dragged down by his irrepressible fondness for mischief. Sun Wu Kung’s most prominent personality is courage and fearlessness, and he is not afraid of anything except death, thus its search for immortality.

The Monkey King manages to get in and out of many dangerous circumstances. He is a mischievous and misguided fellow who «can never be trusted» (if you are one of his enemies). Sun Wu Kung is a «sinner» (he does not obey the established power which he considers unjust), forging his path in a constant quest towards self-enlightenment, the only way to be respected and not to be despised as he was on his first visit to «Heaven».

The monkey king

The three religious traditions present in the Monkey (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) could illustrate the idea that there is no specific path to enlightenment but that there are many different spiritual (or, why not, non-spiritual) paths one can choose to reach it. Confucianism appears less directly in the book, probably because it is not a religion (i.e., a powerful institution). Still, a belief system centered on the ethics, values, and morals needed for an «age of moral chaos, in which common values were widely rejected or simply despised…, the government was routinely corrupt and distrusted by the people, who did not fail to observe the lack of productivity of the rich and powerful» (Confucius)». Quite applicable to contemporary times…

At the end of the book, he declares that «Now that evil has been destroyed…. …I hope that you will combine the three teachings by honoring both the Buddhist clergy and the Way of Taoism, and by also educating men of talent in the Confucian tradition. I guarantee that in this way, your kingdom will be secure forever…, which shows that he may have drawn a valuable lesson from his adventure: that there is no single religion or universally valid ethical values, but different ways of making sense of his life and guiding his actions. Is not it what we call tolerance…?

The journey to the east

The Monkey King embodies these problems in various ways in the story. He is always loyal to the monk Hsuan Tsang even though the monk punished him unjustly, the same way that the people can be devoted to their government although the government inflicts so many injustices on them. It is difficult to know if Sun Wu Kung experiences any positive change or spiritual growth during his journey. Still, he is undoubtedly quite determined in his beliefs and actions, and he defends them vehemently wherever he goes, especially before those who, either want to take advantage of him, want to limit his freedom, or are part of the unjust and corrupt establishment in power.


The book’s central argument is the importance of humility and the classic moral of «pride comes before a fall,» which is shown evidently in Sun Wu Kung’s growing ego as his wisdom progresses. The Monkey King becomes arrogant and therefore makes unwise decisions; for example, he shows no gratitude when he is given a place in Heaven (perhaps because deep down Sun Wu Kung despises it and thinks of them as undeserving inhabitants of that privileged place) and always wants to display how powerful he is. Humility is not one of his strengths (or perhaps he does not feel lesser in the eyes of «superiors» and does not feel he has anything to thank the elite for).

The monkey king, journey to the west

Sun Wu Kung only reacts more emotionally and dramatically to certain situations showing his energetic and robust character, particularly when his enemies insult him or when his master and companions are captured. In any case, he gets angry quickly, which gets him into trouble on countless occasions.

Despite this, The Monkey King is an optimistic and self-confident person. He does not lose heart when faced with difficulties but instead imagines ways to overcome them, bringing a smile to his face even when he has been defeated. He is also brilliant and strives to know his enemies, and uses different formulas to defeat them. Sun Wu Kung is a master at discovering his opponent’s weaknesses and using them. In any case, he can call for support anywhere. His outgoing and friendly personality and his notorious reputation guarantee him it.

The Monkey King has no mercy when it comes to evil: he kills all demons that pilgrims encounter on their journey. His sense of justice is solid and, during the trip, he helps humans in trouble caused by demons and the established power, reuniting families and saving entire countries. But best of all, he has a great sense of humor.

In short, Sun Wu Kong represents hope, justice, and the spirit of struggle against corrupt, inefficient and classist power and against the fact that people are valued for their heritage, their powerful friendships, and not for their own merits.


It is also clear that the Monkey King is not patient, not humble, not discreet…but nobody is perfect…