Decoding the Human Canvas is our series where we analyze the meaning behind profound pieces of large-scale body art. This time we're looking at one of China’s most famous fictional characters — the Monkey King. Be sure to check out some of our previous installments about Saint George and the Dragon, Raijin and Fujin, The Fall of the Angels, Leda and the Swan, some maritime symbolism, and Christ’s crucifixion.
You’ve probably seen the Monkey King aping around in films, video games, and other forms of popular culture, like Tristen Zhang’s neo-Japanese back-piece, but did you know that this iconic mythological character actually comes from one of China’s most seminal texts, Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. Sun Wukong, better know as the Monkey King, is the 16th century novel’s main character, and the heroic and dastardly deeds that he commits throughout the book have earned him the place as one of the country’s most beloved figures.
In Journey to the West, Sun Wukong is a monkey born from a stone egg, who attains godlike powers through practicing Taoism. With his newfound abilities, like superhuman strength and shapeshifting, he rebels against the Jade Emperor, stealing one of Xi Wangmu’s peaches of immortality and singlehandedly defeating the heavens’ armies. Because of all of the mayhem he causes, he is imprisoned under a mountain by Buddha himself.
After 100 years, the clever Monkey King devises a way to escape. In order to ensure his freedom, he then agrees to serve as Xuanzang’s disciple on his quest to the West in search of the Buddhist sutras for the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin. Along the way, he battles bandits, demons, and other fearsome creatures to ensure the monk’s safety, redeeming himself along the way.
The Monkey King’s appearance is unmistakable. He is traditionally depicted as having the face like a tamarind and the body of a man, dressed in a regal coat of armor. He also is commonly illustrated with his famous legendary weapon in hand — the magical golden-banded staff know as Ruyi Jingu Bang.
The image of the Monkey King as we know it today was actually a long time in the making. In the wake of Journey to the West, his character took more definitive shape. He started appearing in Chinese and other traditions of Eastern visual art, where his iconic image became the anthropomorphized simian seen in Zhang’s large-scale composition that most of us are familiar with today. His back-piece brings the legend of Sun Wukong’s fight with the “White-Boned Demon" to life by reimagining it in bone-crushing detail.