Birth and early life
Depiction of the Forbidden Temple's Sun Wukong as depicted in a scene in a Beijing opera
According to the legend, Sun Wukong is born from a magic stone that sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The stone develops a magic womb, which bursts open one day to produce a stone egg about the size of a ball.
When wind blows on the egg, it turns into a stone monkey that can already crawl and walk. He bows to each of the four-quarters. As his eyes move, two beams of golden light shoot toward the Jade palace and startle the Jade Emperor. When he sees the light he orders two of his officers to investigate. They report the stone monkey, and that the light is dying down as the monkey eats and drinks. The Jade Emperor believes him to be nothing special.
On the mountain, the monkey befriends various animals, and joins a group of other monkeys. After playing, the monkeys regularly bathe in a stream.
One day, they decide to seek the stream's source, and climb the mountain to a waterfall. They declare that whoever goes through the waterfall, finds the stream's source, and comes out again will become their king. The stone monkey volunteers and jumps into the waterfall.
He finds a large iron bridge over rushing water, across which is a cave. He persuades the other monkeys to jump in also, and they make it into their home, it wasn't until Sun Wukong reminds them of their declaration that whoever goes through the waterfall, finds the stream's source and comes out again will become their king that they declare him their king. He takes the throne and calls himself Handsome Monkey King.
Sun Wukong establishes himself as a powerful and influential demon. In search of a weapon, he travels to the oceans and acquires the Golden-banded staff Ruyi Jingu Bang (如意金箍棒), a treasure of Ao Kuang, the dragon-king of the Eastern Seas. Upon Sun Wukong's approach, the staff glows to signify it has found its true master. It can change its size, multiply, and fight according to its master's whim. It weighs 13,500 jin (8.1 tons). When not wielding the weapon, Sun Wukong shrinks it down to the size of a sewing needle and tucks it behind his ear.
In addition to taking the magical staff, Wukong defeats the dragons of the four seas in battle and forces them to give him a golden chain mail shirt (鎖子黃金甲), a phoenix-feather cap (鳳翅紫金冠 Fèngchìzǐjinguān), and cloud-walking boots (藕絲步雲履 Ǒusībùyúnlǚ). The phoenix-feather cap was one of the treasures of the dragon kings, a circlet of red gold adorned with phoenix feathers. Traditionally it is depicted as a metal circlet with two striped feathers attached to the front, presumably the signature plumage of the fenghuang or Chinese phoenix.
Upon his return to the mountain, he demonstrates the new weapon to his followers and draws the attention of other beastly powers, who seek to ally with him. He forms a fraternity with the Bull Demon King (牛魔王), the Saurian Demon King (蛟魔王), the Single-horned Demon King (单角魔王), the Roc Demon King (鵬魔王), the Lion Spirit King (獅狔王), the Macaque Spirit King (獼猴王) and the Snub-nosed monkey Spirit King (禺狨王).[Note 1]
Sun Wukong then defies Hell's attempt to collect his soul. Instead of reincarnating, he wipes his name out of the Book of Life and Death along with the names of all monkeys known to him. The Dragon Kings and the Kings of Hell report him to the Jade Emperor.
Havoc in Heaven
Hoping that a promotion and a rank amongst the gods will make him more manageable, the Jade Emperor invites Sun Wukong to Heaven. The monkey believes he will receive an honorable place as one of the gods but is instead made the Protector of the Horses to watch over the stables, the lowest job in heaven. He rebels and proclaims himself the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven and sets the Cloud Horses free in vengeance.
The Heavens are forced to recognize his title; however, they again try to put him off as the guardian of the Heavenly Peach Garden. When he finds that he is excluded from a royal banquet that includes every other important god and goddess, his indignation turns to open defiance. He steals and consumes Xi Wangmu's Peaches of immortality, Laozi's pills of longevity, and the Jade Emperor's royal wine, then escapes back to his kingdom in preparation for his rebellion.
Sun Wukong later single-handedly defeats the Army of Heaven's 100,000 celestial warriors, all 28 constellations, four heavenly kings, and Nezha, and proves himself equal to the best of Heaven's generals, Erlang Shen. Eventually, through the teamwork of Taoist and Buddhist forces, including the efforts from some of the greatest deities, and then finally by the Bodhisattva of mercy, Guanyin, Sun Wukong is captured. After several failed attempts at execution, Sun Wukong is locked into Laozi's eight-way trigram Crucible to be distilled into an elixir (so that Laozi could regain his pills of longevity) by samadhi fires. After 49 days, however, when the cauldron is opened, Sun Wukong jumps out, having survived by hiding in a corner in which there was no fire and is now able to recognize evil with huǒyǎn-jīnjīng (火眼金睛) (lit. "golden-gaze fiery-eyes"), an eye condition that also gives him a weakness to smoke, and proceeds to destroy the crucible, following Heaven's remaining forces.
The Jade Emperor and the authorities of Heaven appeal to the Buddha, who arrives from his temple in the West. Buddha bets that Sun Wukong cannot escape from Buddha's palm. Sun Wukong smugly accepts the bet. He leaps and flies to the end of the world. Seeing nothing but five pillars, Wukong believes he has reached the ends of Heaven. To prove his trail, he marks the pillars with a phrase declaring himself the great sage equal to heaven (and in some versions, urinates on the pillar he signed on). He leaps back and lands in the Buddha's palm. He is surprised to find that the five "pillars" he found are in fact the fingers of the Buddha's hand. When Wukong tries to escape, the Buddha turns his hand into a mountain. Before Wukong can lift it off, the Buddha seals him there using a paper talisman bearing the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum in gold letters. Sun Wukong remains imprisoned for five hundred years.
Disciple to Tang Sanzang
Sun Wukong with Tang Sanzang
Sun Wukong fighting a wind demon
Five hundred years later, the Bodhisattva Guanyin searches for disciples to protect a pilgrim on a journey to the West to retrieve the Buddhist sutras. In hearing of this, Sun Wukong offers to serve the pilgrim, Tang Sanzang, a monk of the Tang dynasty, in exchange for his freedom after the pilgrimage is complete. Understanding that the monkey will be difficult to control, Guanyin gives Tang Sanzang a gift from the Buddha: a magical circlet which, once Sun Wukong is tricked into putting it on, can never be removed. When Tang Sanzang chants a certain sutra, the band will tighten and cause an unbearable headache. To be fair, Guanyin gives Sun Wukong three special hairs, to be used in dire emergencies. Under Tang Sanzang's supervision, Sun Wukong is allowed to journey to the West.
Throughout the epic novel Journey to the West, Sun Wukong faithfully helps Tang Sanzang on his journey to India. They are joined by "Pigsy" (猪八戒 Zhu Bajie) and "Sandy" (沙悟浄 Sha Wujing), both of whom accompany the priest in order to atone for their previous crimes. Tang Sanzang's safety is constantly under threat from demons and other supernatural beings, as well as bandits. It is believed that by eating Tang Sanzang's flesh, one will obtain immortality and great power. Sun Wukong often acts as his bodyguard to combat these threats. The group encounters a series of eighty-one tribulations before accomplishing their mission and returning safely to China. During the journey Sun WuKong learns about virtues and learns the teachings of Buddhism. There, Sun Wukong is granted Buddhahood, becoming the "Victorious Fighting Buddha" (Dòu-zhànshèng-fó (鬥戰勝佛)), for his service and strength.