A Hero’s Journey
Many would argue, including Monkey himself, that Sun Wukong the Monkey King is the central character in the 16th-century Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.”
This novel was first published during the Ming dynasty and its authorship is most often attributed to a Chinese novelist, poet, and politician named Wu Cheng’en. Some scholars dispute this attribution, but no evidence exists that proves definitively who wrote this novel. One thing that is indisputable is the story’s popularity and importance in East Asia.
Despite the popularity of “Journey to the West” in China, it is not as well known outside of that region as legends and folktales from other parts of the world are. There have, however, been numerous English translations of the text, the most commonly recognized of these being an abridged version of the tale by Arthur Waley named “Monkey".
“Journey to the West” is a lengthy tale of a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who travels to obtain sacred Buddhist texts and return them to China. Referred to in the novel as Tang Sanzang, the monk is accompanied on his journey by a number of companions, including Zhu Bajie the pig demon (commonly called “Pigsy”), Sha Wujing the sand ogre (commonly called “Sandy”), and a dragon prince named Bai Long Ma who acts as Tang Sanzang’s “White Dragon Horse”. Joining these companions is the most powerful of them all, Sun Wukong the Monkey King. Together, these pilgrims encounter 81 tribulations on their journey to retrieve the sacred scrolls and achieve enlightenment.
The Rebellious Monkey King
"Journey to the West” is broken up into 4 distinct sections which span a total of 100 chapters. The first 7 chapters of the story tell what is essentially the origin story of Sun Wukong. While not meant to be a complete and comprehensive retelling of the Monkey King’s story, the following passage summarizes this part of the book and endeavors to present the key narrative pieces of Sun Wukong’s tale.
As mentioned at the start of this article, the simian who would be known as the Monkey King was born from a magical stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. This stone is caught between the positive powers of Heaven and the negative pull of Earth. These contrasting powers eventually cause the stone to burst open, revealing a stone egg. It is from this egg that a “stone monkey”, who is able to crawl around and move about, rises. As the monkey opens his eyes, a pair of brilliant beams of light pour forth. This light makes its way to Heaven, startling the Jade Emperor who rules over that celestial place. This is the first time, but certainly not the last, that Monkey will come to the notice of Heaven.
Monkey eventually finds a place amongst the other residents of the Mountain, and after finding his fellow simians a new home behind a rushing waterfall, they name him their leader and dub him the Monkey King.
After a friend of his dies, Monkey decides that he must gain Immortality. Seeking out Grand Master Puti, Monkey eventually convinces the Taoist master to take him on as a pupil. The Grand Master teaches Monkey, whom he renames Sun WuKong, many things. These lessons include a series of transformations and the secrets of Immortality.
Returning to his mountain home, Sun WuKong finds his fellow monkeys enslaved by the Demon King of Confusion. He rescues the monkeys and arms them with weapons so that they will not be captured again, but he cannot find a weapon which he feels is suitable for himself. This sets the Monkey King on a search for a weapon befitting his kingly status. This quest leads him to the ocean palace of Ao Guang, dragon king of the East Sea. After initially refusing his demanding guest, Ao Guang grants the Monkey King an audience and presents him with an arsenal of magical weapons, none of which meet with Sun Wukong’s approval. Eventually the Monkey King selects a golden-banded staff, which is in truth the stabilizer of the Four Seas. Only the Monkey King can lift the staff, which can magically change in size, fly, and attack opponents according to the will of its wielder.
Happy with his new weapon, the Monkey King now realizes that he is in need of new clothes as well. With none of his own to offer, Ao Guang calls upon his fellow dragon kings and asks them to outfit Sun WuKong so that they can be rid of their demanding guest. The dragon kings give Monkey a golden mail shirt, a phoenix-feather cap, and a pair of cloud walking boots. Happy with the gifts he has received, the Monkey King leaves the dragon kings, but he had angered them with his demands, and they find a way to have a death sentence placed upon him. The Monkey King is captured and brought to Hell, but things do not go as planned for his captors.
Having previously gained Immortality, the Monkey King complains that he should not be in the land of the dead. The Kings of Hell apologize for the confusion, stating that there must have been a mix-up with Sun WuKong’s name, which is a common one after all. The Monkey King demands to see the Book of Life and Death so that he can cross out his name. In the process, he crosses out the names of all the monkeys known to him, thereby removing them from the jurisdiction of Hell as well. Crossing his name out of the book makes Sun Wukong Immortal for a second time.
This latest stunt causes both the Kings of Hell and the dragon kings of the seas to complain to the Jade Emperor about Sun Wukong. An army from Heaven attacks the Monkey King in order to bring him to justice, but despite their efforts, none can best Sun Wukong in battle.
Realizing that a new approach is needed in dealing with the rebellious Monkey King, the Jade Emperor invites him to heaven and adds him to the godly ranks. Monkey is dubbed “the Protector of Horses”, which is in truth just a fancy title for a celestial stable-boy. When Monkey discovers that he has been given the lowest title in Heaven, he rebels and instead proclaims that his true title is “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven.”
Accepting the futility of fighting with the impetuous Monkey King, the Jade Emperor eventually agrees to recognize his self-proclaimed title, still hoping that they can keep Sun Wukong under control by keeping him close. He is assigned a more important role as “Guardian of the Heavenly Peach Garden.” The peaches of this garden bestow Immortality upon any who eat them. After feeling like he has been disrespected once again, this time by not being invited to a Heavenly banquet, Monkey eats all the peaches of the garden and drinks Heavenly wine (which also grants Immortality, making him Immortal four times over at this point) before leaving Heaven and returning to his home on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
Angered by Sun Wukong’s continued antics, the Jade Emperor sends all of Heaven’s forces to defeat him, yet none can best the Monkey King. In fact, Sun Wukong finds the entire experience quite enjoyable and entertaining.
Unable to defeat or contain the Monkey King, the Jade Emperor appeals to the Buddha to intervene. Arriving from the West, the Buddha confronts Sun Wukong and offers him a challenge. He asks the Monkey King to see if he can escape from Buddha’s palm. Sun Wukong readily accepts this challenge, launching himself from Buddha’s hand into the sky. The Monkey King flies all the way to the Edge of the Universe. There he sees 5 giant white pillars. To prove he has made this journey, Monkey writes his name on one of the pillars. He then pees on it for good measure.
Returning to Earth, the Monkey King declares himself the victor of the challenge, but Buddha shows Sun Wukong his hand, including a small inscription of Monkey’s name on one of his fingers. Monkey never left Buddha’s palm. The pillars were Buddha’s fingers, and the inscription, as well as the faint scent of urine, proves this point.
Defeated and humiliated, the Monkey King tries to escape, but Buddha drops a mountain upon him in order to keep him trapped. A golden seal of protection is placed upon the mountain and the Monkey King remains there for the next 500 years. Buddha hopes that Monkey will learn patience and humility during his time under the mountain.
The story related above summarizes what is featured in those first seven chapters of “A Journey to the West.” In chapters 8-12, the monk, Tang Sanzang is introduced. Monkey is eventually found by the monk, who explains that he is on a pilgrimage to return the Buddhist sutras to China. He frees Monkey in exchange for his promise that Sun Wukong will accompany him on his quest.
Knowing that Sun Wukong can be tricky and dangerous, the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, presents the monk with a golden circlet that is placed on Monkey’s head. This circlet cannot be removed, and when a certain sutra is chanted, the band tightens and causes Sun Wukong great pain. In this way, the Monkey King is kept under control as a loyal companion to Tang Sanzang.
Chapters 13-22 of “Journey to the West” introduce the rest of Tang Sanzang’s traveling companions. It is in these chapters where the monk actually meets Sun Wukong, as well as Pigsy, Sandy, and the White Dragon Horse.
The remainder of the novel, chapters 23-100, is presented in somewhat of an episodic way, almost like the “monster of the week” format that would later become popular on many television shows from Scooby Doo, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Supernatural and many others. During this journey, the companions encounter and defeat many demons, monsters, and other supernatural beings. Eventually they return to China with the sacred sutras. Upon the completion of their journey, the companions each receive a reward. Both Tang Sanzang and the Monkey King achieve Buddhahood and enlightenment. Sun Wukong becomes known as the "Victorious Fighting Buddha", adding one more chapter to the legend of the Monkey King.
Versions of the Monkey King
While the character of Sun Wukong may not be as well known outside of China as some other legendary heroes, the stories of the Monkey King have indeed inspired many other characters and stories. One of the most notable of these characters is Son Goku from the popular Dragon Ball series. In fact, “Son Goku” is simply the Japanese reading of the name Sun Wukong!
Other characters inspired by the Monkey King have appeared in Force Five, Kung-fu Panda, and both Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Sun Wukong has appeared in numerous video games (Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends, and Pokemon, to name a few) and there have been a number of film adaptations of the legends, including a new animated version coming to Netflix in 2023.
The Monkey King in Figura Obscura
Creating an action figure of Sun Wukong has been high on Eric Treadaway’s “to do” list for many years, and the introduction of the Figura Obscura line gave him the perfect vehicle in order to make this project a reality.
Work on the Figura Obscura Monkey King figure actually began in early 2022. Behind the scenes, we had Sun Wukong fully sculpted and painted before we released the second and third Figura Obsura figures (the Headless Horseman and Father Christmas), so he had been hanging around in our studio for almost a year before finally being revealed and released!
This particular Figura Obscura release was an important one for us as it allowed the line to break away from the “holiday” format that had been a key element in previous releases. Since the beginning we said that Figura Obscura was not a “holiday line”, but then we proceeded to release 3 holiday-themed figures in a row! With Sun Wukong, we were able to add a mid-year surprise release for Figura Obscura and show another aspect of this exciting “you never know what to expect next” series.
In terms of the figure itself, the Monkey King features more new tooling than any of our previous Figura Obscura releases. The new parts on this figure include the lower arms and lower legs, as well as the multiple hands and feet he comes with. His armor is also brand new, including his chest plate, shoulder pauldrons, and his multi-piece waist armor. Of course, Monkey’s bendable tail and his heads are also brand new! The head is designed in a way that it is made up of a base head plus a face plate that plugs into the front. The figure comes with 2 base heads (one with his phoenix-feather cap and one with the golden circlet that forces him to behave) and 4 face plates (normal and yelling, both with make-up and without). These heads and face plates allow you to create a wide range of different options by combining them in the way you most prefer.
Besides the new figure parts, Sun Wukong also comes with some brand-new accessories. These new pieces include his golden-banded staff, some scrolls, a gourd, his necklace, and one of the Peaches of Immortality. The Monkey King figure also includes soft goods prototyped by our partners at CJESIM, including a fully wired belt sash that fits through the new waist armor and a kerchief that goes around his neck.
Due to the secret-drop nature of Figura Obscura, we kept quiet on the Monkey King’s existence until a teaser was sent to fans the day before the figure would be released. That release happened on Saturday, May 13th, 2023. Along with the new figure, other goodies were offered for sale with this same theme.
The Art of the Monkey King
The packaging artwork for Figura Obscura has become as important a piece of the release as the toy contained inside, and once again studio illustrator Nate Baertsch did an incredible job for this release! Nate took inspiration for these paintings from traditional Chinese line art and watercolors, blending elements of those art styles with his own to create the package illustrations for Sun Wukong.
This new package features the magnetic “cover” that depicts the Monkey King on the front – including gold foil lettering for Sun Wukong’s name and the outline of characters on the box (we think the Monkey King would greatly approve of this extravagance). Some of the demons he battles during his journey make up the rest of the panels of this cover, while the other side of the removable panel shows the Monkey King’s home on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The back of this panel contains a summary of Sun Wukong’s epic adventures, especially helpful for those who may not be familiar with the exploits of the Great Sage Equal to Heaven.
Removing the front panel, the box shows off the Monkey King figure while his traveling companions make up the rest of the main box’s artwork. Behind the figure itself is another scene, this time showing a tree in the Heavenly Peach Garden. That tree is still covered with fruit, which means Monkey has yet to devour them!
The Journey Continues
With the release of this latest figure, the ranks of the Figura Obscura continue to grow. Characters from legends and literature, myths and mysteries and more stand waiting for their turn to be called. Who will receive an invitation to join the Figura Obscura next? More surprises await…