Episode 6A Show Notes
Source: Chinese Mythology
This week on MYTH, it’s a superhero origin story. I’ll be telling the story from Chinese Mythology about how an immortal monkey demon became a god and fucked with the heavenly hierarchy. This is the first of several episodes on the epic tale of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. In this episode, you’ll learn how to become a multiple immortal, how to grow a monkey from a rock, and why monkey hairs are incredibly valuable. Then, in Gods and Monsters, we’ll discuss the the serious dragon king with the funny name. This is the Myths Your Teacher Hated podcast, where I tell the stories of cultures around the world in all of their original, bloody, uncensored glory. Modern tellings of these stories have become dry and dusty, but I’ll be trying to breathe new life into them. This is Episode 6A, “Who’s Your God Now?” As always, this episode is not safe for work.
- Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, is one of the most beloved figures in Chinese literature. He’s a trickster god (and you know how much I love trickster gods) famous for wreaking havoc in the heavens. He’s strong, clever, and a smartass, so he has been adapted in a lot of different media. Even if you’re sure you’ve never heard of him, you probably have. The character of Goku in the well-known anime Dragonball is based heavily on the character of the Monkey King. He’s a main character in the classic novel Journey to the West, which has been made into several films. He’s starred as the main character in a fantastic video game called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (loosely based on the novel) and I cannot recommend it highly enough. He’s even met Big Bird in the children’s movie Big Bird Goes to China, which was my first introduction to this fantastic character. Monkey is based loosely on the true story of the famous monk Xuan Zang of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, who walked to India to retrieve the true holy books of Buddhism from their birthplace, and brought them back to China to translate.
- There’s no perfect western equivalent to Monkey, but you could say he’s some weird combination of Hellboy, Robin Hood, and Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s inquisitive, honorable, and heroic, but he can never seem to suppress his mischievous nature, which gets him into trouble time after time. When push comes to shove, though, he’ll be in the thick of it fighting for the little guy. He might be the world’s first goddamned superhero. To the first people to hear Monkey’s story, he was someone who could do what they could not: flip the bird to the powerful and tell them to go fuck themselves. To avoid spoiling the story, I won’t say any more about him now and I’ll just get on with it. I will say that these names are very hard for me to pronounce, so after mangling them once, I’ll use translated or simplified names to avoid offending the Monkey King.
- In the beginning, mystical energies of heaven and earth swelled together and took root in a boulder perched high atop Hua-kuo Shan, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. On a rocky point 36’-5” high and 24’ in circumference on the mountainside (yes, the story is that fucking specific), an egg formed from the boulder. It gestated for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty, when from it emerged a stone monkey. The stone monkey looked around and then bowed to the four cardinal directions as light burst forth from his eyes and mouth (think X-men’s Cyclops, only also from his mouth) and is so bright that it reaches the heavens, startling Yu Huang Da Di, the Great Jade Emperor and his celestial retinue. Once Monkey eats for the first time, the light subsides. The stone monkey scrambled down the mountain and soon found other normal monkeys on the island. Monkey decides that he wants to be king, and blindly leaps through a roaring waterfall to prove his bravery, discovering the cave of a long-forgotten immortal.
- The handsome monkey king rules his small kingdom for 400 years in peace and happiness, but he found one wordy that wouldn’t go away. Monkey knew that one day, all of this would end and he would die. Monkey feared death (because of course he did) and talked to his advisors about it. One suggests that he seek out a Daoist immortal to teach him the secret of eternal life. Monkey declared that a fan-fucking-tastic idea, built a raft, and abandoned his kingdom to go explore (he is the spirit of rebelliousness, so he’s not a terribly responsible entity).
- He explored the world for ten years. Along the way, he decided that he liked this human idea of clothes, and decided to wear them himself. Finally, he manages to get accepted as a student of the Immortal Subodhi, who gives him the name Sun Wukong, which means “monkey awakened to emptiness”. He is taught the seventy two methods of heavenly transformation, which basically means he can change his shape and size more or less at will, although he often forgets to change his tail. He is also taught to jump between the clouds, a type of flying which allows him to travel 108,000 miles in a single leap. He learns many spells to command gods and spirits, long and short range martial arts, and a breathing technique that will greatly lengthen his life (though he is still not immortal). Finally realizing that teaching a monkey how to be a nearly immortal shapeshifting ninja wizard might have been a bad idea when he can’t stop showing off to his less accomplished classmates (yeah, he was that asshole your class), Subodhi disowns him and drives him from the school.
- Monkey returned to his home, Hua-kuo Shan, and found that in his absence, it had been overtaken by a demon named Hun-shih Mo-wang because again, Monkey was kind of a shitty king. The demon had spent his days torturing the monkeys on the island, and the Monkey King was pissed. Using his new ninjutsu, shape shifting, and magical spells, he slew the demon. To protect them in the future, he organized his 47,000 monkeys into an army and trained them in combat. Proud of himself, he decided that he was now far too powerful to wield mere earthly weapons. The same extremely helpful advisor suggested that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Kuang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea for a celestial weapon. Forgetting that the last time he left on a quest his island was taken over by a goddamned demon, he decides to go in search of the Dragon King.
- He soon finds the undersea palace (between shapeshifting and magic spells, breathing under water apparently isn’t much of a challenge for him) and breaks into the weapons storeroom. He tries out several heavenly weapons weighing thousands of pounds each, but they are all too light. Through a window, he seas a massive iron rod planted in the ocean bed. “That seems about right,” he thinks. The nine ton rod was originally put there by Yu Wang, a mythical king from the Xia Dynasty, to measure the depth of the world flood (think back to Episode 1B, when Zeus flooded the world). He pulls it out of the ocean floor, caps both ends in gold because he’s kind of vain, and names it the Ruyi Jingu Bang, or the “Gold-Banded Staff of My Desires” (I’ll just call it his iron staff from here on out). When he touches it, the weapon immediately shrink to the size he wants, signifying (at least in Monkey’s mind) that he was fated to wield this weapon. The weapon can, at a thought from Monkey, shrink to the size of a needle, grow as tall as the sky, or anything in between. Often, he’ll shrink it down to the size of a needle and keep it behind his ear. Deciding that a mythical staff isn’t enough, Monkey uses his new weapon to terrorize the Dragon King and his three brothers, kings of the four seas. He dressed himself and fed himself at their expense, and bullied them into giving him a suit of magical armor as well.
- Seeing that monkey was straight up embarrassing four god kings, the seven neighboring kings decide to ally with Monkey. They hold a great feast to seal the alliance, and Monkey parties. Hard. He gets shit faced (probably not literally, but he is a monkey, so who knows) and passes out on the table.
- The four Dragon Kings, pissed and, though they wouldn’t admit it even to each other, a little afraid of the ninja wizard monkey, go to Yen Wang, the King of the Hells, and ask him to take Monkey to hell for crimes against their kingdoms. The god, figuring that being owed favors from four powerful gods for taking one soul is a great bargain, agrees. Monkey wakes from his drunken revels to find himself bound in chains in front of the front gate to Hell.
- Monkey, being ridiculously overpowered for this particular dungeon, shatters his fetters and kills the two guards who were supposed to be watching him. He realizes that he has been given an incredible opportunity, draws his magical staff from behind his ear, and beats down the gates of Hell. He then proceeds to power through the kingdom of hell, destroying anybody stupid enough to try and stop him. He finally makes his way to the throne room and confronts Yen Wang. He stands before the Lord of the Dead and says that he, Monkey, will continue to terrorize his infernal kingdom unless Yen Wang agrees to bring him the Book of the Living and the Dead. The ten lesser death gods are summoned and bring Monkey the book. He takes it, and tears out the page with his name on it and, for good measure, tore out all of the pages with his monkey subjects on them. Being now an immortal shapeshifting ninja wizard monkey with an army of immortal soldiers, he declares himself no longer subject to the laws of death. Yen Wang, realizing he doesn’t really have a choice at this point, agrees, though he’s pissy. He’s supposed to terrorize mortals, not the other way around. Thus, Monkey is able to return from the land of the dead, immortal for the first time., and wakes up in his own body, still passed out on the table. “That was one hell of a bender,” he says.
- At this point, both the Dragon King and the Lord of Hell go to heaven to inform the upper gods about this fucking monkey who’s been making a mockery of gods. Monkey is summoned to the Heavenly Court. T’ai-po Chin-hsing, one of the August Jade Emperor’s advisors and an embodiment of the planet Venus, recommends that Monkey be granted the position of Grand Master of the Heavenly Stables in reward for his marvelous deeds. Monkey takes this to mean that he is being granted a place in the pantheon as a god, and happily accepts. He again completely forgets about his kingdom, but he did at least make them immortal, so maybe they can get by without him for a while.
- Monkey is surprisingly diligent in his duties, which mostly involve putting food into one end of the horses and cleaning shit from the other end, until one of the palace servants accidentally lets slip that Monkey is not in fact a god, but a glorified stable boy. Pissed as fuck, Monkey storms off, still covered in horse shit, and turns over the emperor’s throne. He then breaks down the south gate of heaven, and hops a cloud for a ride home to proclaim himself the Grand Saint, Governor of Heaven. That’s some serious hubris right there: he just declared himself above all the gods. At the same time, it’s hard not to root for him. The gods tried to have him killed and then gave him an insulting fake job when that didn’t work.
- The Emperor gets pissed of that his throne has been overturned (and probably has some horse shit on it) and that the gate is broken, so he marshals the forces of heaven to assault Monkey Island. They led several assaults on the island, but were repulsed each time by the immortal monkey army. Think about how scared that must have made them: the armies of the gods could not beat an army of monkeys to take a single island. Pleased with the turn of events, Monkey has his self-appointed title emblazoned on his banners and goes to parlay with the gods. He tells them that unless they recognize his new dignity, by which he means his crazy ass title, he’s going to take the fight to them and lead his army of insane, immortal monkeys to heaven to fuck the place up.
- The Emperor, worried that he might be able to do exactly that, agrees to a compromise. Monkey will keep his army on the island, and he will be granted the position of Grand Superintendent of the Heavenly Peach Garden. Now I know this sounds like it was meant as the smallest possible upgrade (he went from being stable boy to gardener), and it was probably meant that way, but Monkey thought this was grand and agreed, provided they built him a palace in heaven.
- Now it sounds like the gods got the better end of the deal (after all, a palace is cheap for immortal beings), but Monkey was clever. During his time as stable boy, he had realized that the peaches were what the gods used to grant themselves immortality. If you’re familiar with the Norse concept of the golden apples, this is very similar. The garden is heavily protected to keep the world from being overrun with immortals, but Monkey had the keys now. Sure, he had ripped his name out of the Book of the Living and the Dead, but Monkey wasn’t sure if that was foolproof or not. Besides, why be immortal when you can be double immortal? Despite it being explicitly against the rules, Monkey steals and eats all but the youngest peaches. Since these magic fruits only ripen once every thousand years, this is a big deal.
- Around this time, Wang-mu Niang-niang, Queen Mother of the West, sent one of her fairy attendants to the garden to gather peaches for the long-awaited P’an-t’ao Hui, or immortal peach banquet. The fairy finds all of the peaches already eaten, and correctly blames Monkey. “Fuck you, you filthy animal! I guess the Queen Mother was right not not fucking invite you to her feast. You really are a complete asshole.”
- “Wait, there was a feast for the citizens of Heaven, and I wasn’t invited? This shit won’t stand.” He binds the fairy with his magic and goes to crash the party. Unfortunately, he’s too early, and no one has arrived yet. Food and drink has already been set out in anticipation, though, and Monkey thinks “Fuck it. If I can’t have a party, then no one can” and he consumes everything. Every last goddamned bite. Having drunk enough wine for dozens of gods, he’s now three sheets to the wind.
- Drunk and angry, he remembers overhearing that Lao Chun, the supreme god of Daoism, had been making immortality pills in his lab. At this point, it seems like a great fucking idea to break in and steal them. If you’re already double immortal, why not go for a hat trick? He breaks into Lao Chun’s palace and finds the pills, stored in five gourds. Naturally, he eats all of them, and is now triple immortal.
- Monkey knows what’s going to happen next, so he goes back to his island to wait for the forces of heaven to arrive. He beat them once, he figures he can do it again. The Jade Emperor is fucking sick of Monkey’s shit. Not fucking around this time, he calls up an army of 100,000 celestial troops and several Buddhist and Daoist gods and sends them after this goddamned monkey demon.
- Monkey, for his part, uses his magic to grow large enough to span the fucking sky, then grows two more heads and four more arms. He’s now a mountain sized, three headed and six-armed monkey demon wielding a staff big enough to destroy the earth. You know that lever Archimedes wanted to move the earth? This was fucking it. Unsurprisingly, Monkey proceeds to route the entire god army pretty much by himself.
- One of the gods gets clever and realizes that if they can’t beat Monkey, they can beat his monkey children instead. A small force sneaks behind enemy lines and captures them in large nets. Monkey gives up the fight and takes off, with the emperor’s nephew, Lord Erlang, chasing after him. They are both master wizards and go through a long shapeshifting duel, which Monkey wins and escapes. Erlang uses a devil-finding mirror, because apparently that’s a thing he just happens to have for some reason, to figure out where Monkey is going and ambush him. He throws a magic diamond bracelet at Monkey and hits him in the head, which makes Monkey stumble. Because Erlang is a trust fund god with all the latest toys, he also has a celestial dog that he sicks on Monkey. The dog bites him in the calf, causing him to fall long enough for Erlang to catch him and chain him up.
- Monkey is dragged back to the imperial court to stand trial, where he is immediately found guilty (I never said it would be a fair trial, although Monkey did actually do pretty much everything he’s accused of). The emperor sentences him to death.
- A chopping block is brought in and very quickly, the god brings the sword down on Monkey’s neck. Much to their surprise, it bounces. Monkey is perfectly fine. They proceed to try everything: stabbing, hanging, drowning, fire, even lightning. Nothing works. Not only won’t this fucker die, he’s completely invulnerable to all of their weapons. Triple immortality seems to have worked better than even Monkey expected.
- The Emperor is more than a little alarmed at this point. Even gods don’t usually stay alive after he’s decided they must die.
- Lao Chun, still pissed about the immortality pills, offers to burn Monkey to death in his magical furnace. The Emperor, glad to have a solution, agrees. They throw Monkey in and, to be extra sure, they leave him in with the heat on full blast for 50 days. At the end, they open the door expecting to find nothing but ash.
- Instead, Monkey bounds over their heads, completely unscathed. In fact, the intense heat somehow refined his eyes (magic furnace, remember) so that now he could see for hundreds of miles and could recognize the auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace because, while it couldn’t kill him, it could still hurt a lot. He then begins to wreak havoc with his iron staff.
- At fucking wit’s end, the Emperor goes to the Western Paradis and asks Buddha (yes, that Buddha) for help. Buddha says “You’ve been going about this all wrong, Your Holy Dumbass. You can’t fight a fucking whirlwind like the Monkey King. You have to use his own force against him. I’ll show you.”
- Buddha goes to heaven, where Monkey is still working on razing that shit to the ground, and asks him if he’d like to be emperor. Monkey says shit yeah. “Why do you think you should be in charge?”
- “Because I’m powerful as shit, man. I’m invulnerable, I’m immortal, I can change into 72 forms, I can ride the clouds, and I can jump for thousands of miles, just as a start.
- “I’m not sure you’re as awesome as you think you are, Monkey. Tell you what. I bet that you can’t even jump out of my hand. If you can’t, you go to prison quietly. If you can, I’ll make you the new Emperor of Heaven. Sound fair?” “Seriously? All I have to do is jump out of your fucking hand? Deal, shit for brains. This is gonna be easy. Let’s do this.”
- Monkey jumps into Buddha’s palm and then jumps with all his might. The clouds whizz by as he sails across the whole goddamned cosmos. He lands before five great pillars that stand at the edge of the universe. He starts to jump back, but stops.
- He doesn’t want them trying to pull some shit saying he didn’t get here, so he decides to mark the pillars. He carves his name into one of them and he pisses on another. Seriously, I didn’t make that up. He pees on the boundary of creation. How can you not love this guy?
- Then, he jumps back and demands that Buddha pay up. Buddha smiles. “No.” Monkey pulls his staff. “We had a deal, asshole.” “Yes, Monkey, we did. You never left my hand.” “The fuck I didn’t. I jumped all the way to the pillars of creation. Hell, I fucking peed on them.”
- “Yeah, I know,” said Buddha, shaking piss off his hand. Take a look.” He held his hand out to Monkey, who was shocked to see his name carved on Buddha’s finger in his own handwriting (and a little bit of piss still on another). “Fuck. You tricked me.” “Yup. I clouded your mind so that you only thought you left. But a deal’s a deal.” And Buddha grabbed Monkey, turned his fingers into the five elements (metal, wood, fire, water, and earth), overturned his hand, and slammed it to earth where it formed five high mountain peaks called Wu Hsing Shan or Five Elements Mountain. Monkey was trapped inside them for 500 years.
- And, like the gods, we’re going to leave Monkey trapped there for the time being, because it’s time for Gods and Monsters. This is a segment where I get into a little more detail about the personalities and history of one of the gods or monsters from this week’s pantheon that was not discussed in the main story. This week’s gods are The Dragon Kings, who appeared briefly in this episode. Ao Kuang, one of four dragons collectively known as Sihai Long wang (which is a great name for a chinese dragon, by the way), is a water and weather deity.
- He is the dispenser of rain and the zoomorphic representation of the masculine yang power (think, yin-yang), so he’s a phallic symbol of masculinity named long wang, and all of this happened by accident since none of this is funny in chinese.
- Ao Kuang is the Blue-Green Dragon King of the East Sea (the East China Sea) and is the most important of the four dragon kings. His brothers are Ao Chin, the Crimson Dragon King of the South Sea (the South China Sea), Ao Run, the White Dragon King of the West Sea (usually the Indian Ocean), and Ao Shun, the Black Dragon King of the North Sea (usually Lake Baikal), though the names and controlled bodies of water for all four dragons vary from story to story.
- Although the true form of the dragon king is, naturally, a dragon, each can shape shift into multiple forms, including human. There is often a fifth dragon, known as the Yellow Dragon, who does not have a specific body of water to which he is patron. Instead, he is the zoomorphic embodiement of the Yellow Deity with Four Faces or the King in Yellow (and if you’re up on your Lovecraft or your True Detective, you know that name), and represents the mystical elements of the universe.
- Although the dragons are extremely powerful and dangerous, they are humiliated in nearly every story they appear in (including this one). They even get deposed by Nezha, a three-headed child god, for a while in a story that we may get to in a later episode.
- Their biggest claim to fame, however, is in worship. There are many temples built to the dragon kings across the world, and they are often sought out in times of drought or flood. They love a good party and a good sacrifice, so a festival in their honor with drinking, dancing, and blood letting would often get their attention and favor and either bring the rains or drive them away, depending on what you were hoping for. So, if you’re having trouble getting enough rain in your neck of the woods, just get a bunch of your friends to have a big party, dress up in a dragon costume, and kill some animals.
That’s it for this episode of Myth Your Teacher Hated. Keep up with new episodes on our Facebook page, on iTunes, on Stitcher or on TuneIn, or you can follow us on Twitter as @HardcoreMyth. You can also find news and episodes on our website at myths your teacher hated dot com. If you like what you’ve heard, I’d appreciate a review on iTunes, since it helps increase the show’s standing and let more people know it exists. If you have any questions, any gods or monsters you’d want to learn about, or any ideas for future stories that you’d like to hear, feel free to drop me a line. I’m trying to pull as much material from as many different cultures as possible, but there are all sorts of stories I’ve never heard, so suggestions are appreciated. The theme music is by Tiny Cheese Puff, whom you can find on fiverr.com.
Next time, we’ll be picking back up with the story of the Monkey King. This will be the story most famously told in the ancient novel Journey to the West of the Monkey king being made into a buddhist monk’s magical bitch to retrieve some magical prayers from India. Not that India, one that’s much, much farther away, but still totally walkable. We’ll also meet some of their other crazy monster friends as the monk stumbles from one disaster to another. That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.