Monkey King and Chinese Animation

By Hongmei Sun

It is no surprise that the character of Sun Wukong, better known as Monkey or the Monkey King in the West, has made so many appearances in the history of Chinese animation, given his longstanding popularity in China among children and adults alike. As the protagonist of the sixteenth century classic novel Journey to the West, Sun Wukong is a disciple of the monk Tripitaka, who leads a group of people on a pilgrimage from China to the Western Heaven (today’s India) to acquire Buddhist sutras. Along the way, they come across various demons and obstacles, and Monkey is the main source of help that Tripitaka relies on to conquer them. With his famous golden cudgel, his 72 transformations, and the somersault cloud, Sun Wukong is a celebrated fighter and trickster.      

In traditional opera, Sun Wukong is not only a character but also a genre in himself. In Peking Opera, a monkey drama (houxi) is a kind of drama that features Monkey King as an active character, brandishing his flip jumps, his cudgel-spinning skills, and monkey-faced tricks on stage. Although Monkey’s role was previously performed as a clown, as indicated in the Yuan dynasty zaju version of Journey to the West (zaju Xiyou ji) and the Qing dynasty imperial opera Precious Raft to a Peaceful World (Shengping baofa), this performance in Peking Opera focuses on martial arts. Monkey operas are known as the specialties of famous martial sheng actors such as Yang Yuelou, Yang Xiaolou, Li Wanchun, and Li Shaochun.[1] This theatrical tradition has influenced the image of Monkey in animation. Animated film serves as an ideal field where the protean figure of Sun Wukong can play his game of form-changing. In fact, Sun Wukong appears so frequently, and often at crucial and transitional moments, that the state of Sun Wukong in Chinese animation can serve as a reflection of the transformations in Chinese animation itself.

Animation of a Chinese Style: From Princess Iron Fan to Havoc in Heaven[2]

From the very first feature-length animated film in China, Princess Iron Fan (1941), the task of representing Monkey King has been intertwined with the task of finding a path for Chinese animation. These tasks continued to be crucial to Havoc in Heaven (1961, 1964) twenty years later.

Princess Iron Fan is among the earliest representations of Monkey King on screen. Under the influence of the American animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the characters of Journey to the West were caricatured as child-friendly figures, with Monkey bearing a remarkable resemblance to Mickey Mouse (Figure 1). Made during the time of the Japanese invasion, Princess Iron Fan also has a strong didactic purpose.

Figure 1: The Monkey King fleeing from the Flaming Mountains, Princess Iron Fan, 1941.

Princess Iron Fan portrays the episode of the Flaming Mountains from Journey to the West, which features the conflict between the pilgrims and the Bull Demon King and his wife Princess Iron Fan. Arriving at the Flaming Mountains on their way to the Western Heaven, the pilgrims find out that they have to borrow a magic fan from Princess Iron Fan in order to put out the fire in the mountain and move on. The story then evolves around Monkey’s repeated yet frustrated efforts to borrow the fan, before he eventually defeats the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan with the help of the other pilgrims and the local villagers. The choice of this episode enables the Wan brothers to produce an animated film with a Chinese theme in a Chinese style—a Chinese princess as a response to the American princess Snow White. This story also serves well as a metaphor for the war between China and Japan. The two conflicting factions of the story, Sun Wukong versus the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan, represent the two sides of the war. The film made it quite obvious that the Monkey King’s victory over the Bull Demon King, a collective victory in collaboration with Pigsy (Zhu Bajie) and Sandy (Sha Seng) as well as the villagers, is the victory of the Chinese people against the Japanese invasion, thus making the theme of the film “all Chinese people must unite for victory against the Japanese invasion.”[3]

The film revised the original story to better reflect its message about the Japanese invasion and the filmmaker’s political stance. First, the reason for Monkey’s failure to borrow the fan is attributed to divisions among Sun Wukong, Pigsy, and Sandy; second, the celestial help that Sun Wukong receives in his duel with the Bull Demon King is replaced with help from the villagers.[4] Unlike Xiyou ji, Tripitaka also plays a quite central role here, being the teacher of both his disciples and the villagers, and making sure everyone gets on the right collaborative track. Through collaboration, as a clear allegory for the Chinese anti-Japanese battlefront, the Monkey King finally defeats the Bull Demon King with the help of the villagers. When fighting the Bull Demon King, the monkey figure is portrayed as small as the villagers, in stark contrast their common enemy. Such representation emphasizes that it is their teamwork instead of the individual abilities of the Monkey King that leads to the victory (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Sun Wukong fighting the Bull Demon King, with the help of the villagers (not shown in the picture), Princess Iron Fan, 1941.

What is interesting about this first animated representation of the Monkey King is that this monkey figure is not only young, but also small. There could be multiple explanations for such representation. First, the filmmakers see the Journey to the West as “an excellent fairytale for children,” and use the story to encourage “a healthy mentality for children,” as stated in the textual prologue of the film—hence the young age of the monkey. The film is also in favor of collective heroism in comparison to individualistic heroism, and thus the tiny Monkey King. On a different note, however, such a young and unimposing figure of the Monkey King is also a metaphor for the status of animated film in China at the time. This correspondence persists in later animated films of Sun Wukong, as his image gradually matures along with the growth of Chinese animation.    

By the time of Havoc in Heaven (1961), Sun Wukong has grown from the child in Princess Iron Fan to an adolescent in his early youth.[5] The Journey to the West story of Monkey making trouble in Heaven is reshaped, so that the retelling represents the victories of Socialist China over the feudalist past, and Monkey King becomes a revolutionary hero. In the original Journey to the West and in traditional dramas, the episode of Havoc in Heaven ends with Sun Wukong being captured by the celestial forces of Heaven and imprisoned under a mountain by Buddha. In the animation Havoc in Heaven, a victorious ending is emphasized, and Monkey King is portrayed as a glorious and invincible hero. The film also frequently portrays Monkey as a gigantic figure, using size to emphasize his importance in the narrative situation (Figure 3 & 4). At the victorious ending, for instance, Sun Wukong rushes into the Lingxiao Hall and chases the Jade Emperor out of his own palace, an incident that did not occur in Journey to the West (Figure 3). The power contrast between Monkey and the Jade Emperor is the opposite of that between Monkey and the Bull Demon King in Princess Iron Fan, as Havoc in Heaven was made after the Chinese Socialist victory, at a time of celebration. In correspondence with the image of a young China, Sun Wukong is a jubilant character dubbed with a juvenile voice, quite out of sync with his self-reference as “Old Monkey” (Laosun).   

Figure 3: Monkey King facing the Jade Emperor at the Hall of Lingxiao, Havoc in Heaven, 1964.             

It was also the Wan brothers who made Havoc in Heaven, this time with a team from the recently founded Shanghai Animation Film Studio. This animated image of Sun Wukong differs from the first one in Princess Iron Fan, quite strikingly, in that it is more Sinicized, taken from traditional opera, fresco paintings, and traditional new year paintings. It becomes a representative work of the Chinese animations made in the 1950s and 1960s that sought to define a national style, together with other renowned examples such as The Magic Paintbrush (1955) and Little Tadpoles Look for Momma (1960).

Figure 4: Monkey victorious in Heaven, Havoc in Heaven, 1964.

The continuation of the national style in Chinese animation in the 1980s, after the interruption of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), is exemplified in another Monkey King film: Monkey King Conquers the Demon (Jinhou xiangyao, 1985). Based on the episode of “Subduing the White Bone Demon,” this animated adaptation corresponds to the spirit of the time: the eventual victory over the “demons” of the Cultural Revolution and exoneration of so many, including the intellectuals who had been wronged during those years.

From “Monkey Brother” to “Hero Is Back”

Rather than another success story, the 1999 animated TV series of Journey to the West showcases the challenges that Chinese animation faces with the development of the market economy and the entrance of Japanese and American animation into the Chinese market. As one of the few animated TV shows that tried to hold its ground against its Japanese and American competitors, it remained popular with its young audience owing more to the popularity of the classic novel and the superstar status of the Monkey King than any breakthrough in the making of the show. Monkey here is designed particularly for a young audience, appearing as a schoolboy, being addressed as the “Monkey Brother” by its popular theme song. Both the age of Sun Wukong and the production quality of this version is a regression from the Sun Wukong of the 60s and 80s.   

The reappearance of Sun Wukong in Monkey King: Hero Is Back (Tian Xiaopeng, 2015) marks another breakthrough in domestic Chinese animation. At a time when the market was occupied by foreign animation, Hero is Back was a box office hit, becoming the highest grossing animated film in China before the record was broken by Zootopia (2016) and Kungfu Panda 3 (2016).  It received many awards and much critical praise in China. The title “Hero Is Back” is significant in multiple senses: the heroic return of Chinese animation, the response of a Chinese hero to the “invasion” of Western superheroes to the Chinese cultural territory, and a new and different type of Monkey King. While these aspects intermingle, the new image of Sun Wukong probably attracts the Chinese audience most.

This Chinese-made 3D animation of the Monkey King story was conceived when its director Tian Xiaopeng participated in the making of the 1999 Journey to the West TV series, and was not satisfied with the fact that Sun Wukong was portrayed as a boy for the young audience. In many ways differing from the previous adaptations, the new Monkey King in Hero is Back appears as a grown up for the first time: a middle-aged figure with a lanky body and a not-so-handsome elongated face (Figure 5). Clearly under the influence of A Chinese Odyssey (Jeffrey Lau, 1995), in which the Monkey King (Stephen Chow), sentimental and hesitant, is quite the opposite of the heroic monkey in previous examples, Hero Is Back presents Sun Wukong as the Monkey that has failed to live up to his fame as a glorious fighter, until he proves himself at the very end of the film.    

Figure 5: Monkey King in Monkey King: Hero is Back, 2015.

There are several subversions in this story compared to the previous examples. First, the film emphasizes Monkey’s frustrations and his inability to become the hero he is supposed to be. While the previous animated versions of Monkey had him as the trademark demon conqueror, in Hero Is Back he is not able to live up to that name because of the seal that Buddha laid upon him, until literally the last two minutes of the film. Second, Sun Wukong’s battle has become internal. The film is basically a prolonged portrayal of his struggle in relieving himself of the seal, and the ending proves that salvation comes from within, when he finally finds the strength to break it through his interactions with Tripitaka, appearing in this movie as a boy. Third, the Monk-Monkey relationship is reversed. Instead of being the much-admired Tripitaka and Monkey’s master, the boy monk is a die-hard fan of the Monkey he knows through storytellers, and he follows Sun Wukong quite to his annoyance, although in the end it is the inspiration from the little monk that helps Monkey King to win his personal battle.

Despite the variations, there is undoubtedly a line running through the animated adaptations of the Monkey King in China. As we observe how Chinese animation has changed over the years, we can also see how China is consistently represented through the image of the Monkey King.[6] Lastly, Sun Wukong was established as a hero, and this hero has transformed into one concerned with individual and personal struggles in the most recent adaptation, rather than the collective socialist heroes of earlier versions.

[1] For zaju Xiyou ji, see Yang Jingxian, Yang Donglai xiansheng piping Xiyou ji (Xiyou ji: Annotated by Yang Donglai) (Japan: Shibun, 1928). For Shengping baofa, see Guben xiqu congkan (Ancient drama script reprint), vol. 9. Beijing: Guojia tushuguan chubanshe, 2016.

[2] For a more detailed discussion of the changes of Sun Wukong’s image from Princess Iron Fan to Havoc in Heaven, see Hongmei Sun, chapter 3, “From Trickster to Hero: National Mythmaking in Wartime and Maoist China,” in Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018), forthcoming.  

[3] Wan Laiming and Wan Guohun, Wo Yu Sun Wukong (Taiyuan: Beiyue wenyi, 1986), 90. 

[4] For more about Princess Iron Fan’s revisions of Journey to the West story, see Hongmei Sun, Transforming Monkey, 61-63. 

[5] Bai Huiyuan discusses the growth of Sun Wukong from a child to a middle-aged man in Chinese animations in his book Yingxiong biange: Sun Wukong yu xiandai Zhongguo de ziwo chaoyue (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing, 2017), chapter 6. See <> for a brief account of this chapter.

[6] Many have argued that the image of Monkey King is closely related to Chineseness: in the past years it has been repeatedly used to represent China and Chinese subjectivity. See Carlos Rojas, “Western Journeys of Journey to the West,” in Sinographies: Writing China, eds. Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, and Steven G. Yao (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 333-354; Bai Huiyuan, Yingxiong biange; and Hongmei Sun, Transforming Monkey


Hongmei Sun is Assistant Professor of Chinese in the department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University. Her research interests include modern Chinese literature and culture, translation and adaptation studies, and traditional Chinese medicine in a cross-cultural context. Her manuscript on the adaptations of Journey to the West, titled Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic, is forthcoming with the University of Washington Press in 2018.

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One thought on “Monkey King and Chinese Animation

  1. Dear Sun Laoshi,

    thank you very much for the article! For the sake of completeness, I think there are some other SAFS films that could be mentioned (of course all of them not feature-length, and two of them also to be found in the database on this site) that have an appearance of Sun Wukong or the other group of pilgrims. These are two shorter productions from 1958 (incidentally from the two other main meishu pian genres apart from cel animation); the puppet film Huoyan Shan (dirs. Jin Xi and You Lei) with input by Wan Chaochen (! – it is interesting to compare that with Tieshan gongzhu because it deals with the same episodes from the novel), the papercut Zhu Bajie chi xigua (dir. Wan Guchan, script by Bao Lei). Furthermore, apart from Jinhou xiang yao there were three Xiyou ji-themed films made in the 1980s, but only one being a straight adaptation. These are Ding Ding zhan Meihouwang (papercut 1980, dir. Hu Jinqing; also discussed in Hua Li’s article on this site), Renshen guo (cel, 1981, dir. Yan Dingxian, uses a modified version of the theme from Danao Tiangong) and Xiao Bajie (papercut, 1983, dir. Hu Xuelin) [all of which I am sure you could have seen yourself as a child – it is not my intention to presume ignorance or anything of the kind]. Also it seems that there is a cameo of Sun in 1999’s Baoliandeng, which I have not seen however.
    I wonder if the use of the Ginseng Fruit episode might also be something of a repudiation of the more rebellious, violent or Maoistic readings of Sun Wukong and the Journey, as this is one of the few episodes that does not end with the defeat of the antagonists of the pilgrims but with reconciliation thanks to Guanyin’s mediation. If their health and time allows for it (and if it would not cause them any inconvenience otherwise), maybe Lin Wenxiao and Yan Dingxian could give some answers, at least for the cel films? Or have these questions been covered in recent literature?

    With best regards,

    Stanley Setiawan

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