How and Why the Monkey King Invaded Heaven

Also known as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King is a trickster god and a hero from the classic Chinese epic “Journey to the West” as well as Chinese mythology. His shenanigans are often aided by his immense strength and his possession of 72 transformations. And of all the stories about the Monkey King, perhaps the most famous is his rebellion against the celestial heavens.

Here’s how and why it happened:

The Invitation to Heaven

After Sun Wukong established himself as the King of the Monkeys and acquired his powers and immortality through Taoist practices, his fame started to spread. His exploits and power became known in Heaven. To keep an eye on him, the Jade Emperor, the creator god, invited Sun Wukong to Heaven and gave him a minor job – to manage the stables.

In Chinese mythology, Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King, is a skilled fighter capable of taking on the gods. A known trickster, this deity often uses his wit and powers (including the ability to transform into various animals and objects) to outsmart opponents. Image: A 19th-century illustration of the character Sun Wukong, or “the Wanderer Sun”.

The Insult and Rebellion

Sun Wukong felt insulted by what he perceived as a menial job, considering it beneath his abilities and status. He saw this as a grave disrespect and decided to rebel. He returned to his kingdom, announced himself as the “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven,” and started causing chaos in Heaven.

The Battle in Heaven

Sun Wukong’s power and cunning made him a formidable force. He managed to defeat the Heavenly King’s army and even some powerful deities. The havoc he wreaked was so great that the Jade Emperor had to ask Buddha for help.

The Monkey King versus Buddha

Buddha made a bet with Sun Wukong that he couldn’t jump out of his palm. Sun Wukong, confident in his speed and agility, accepted the challenge. He leaped and flew to the ends of the world, where he saw five pillars. Thinking he reached the end of the universe, he marked the pillars (which were actually Buddha’s fingers) and returned, claiming victory.

However, Buddha showed Sun Wukong that the mark was still in his hand, proving that he never left Buddha’s palm. In response to Sun Wukong’s disbelief and anger, Buddha trapped him under a mountain, where the trickster god remained imprisoned until the beginning of “Journey to the West.”

Symbolic meanings behind Sun Wukong’s character

Some interpretations liken Sun Wukong to the untamed mind, as per Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. His restlessness, rebelliousness, and defiance of authority can be seen as symbolizing the human mind’s tendencies to resist control and succumb to distractions and desires.

This rebelliousness is often seen as a symbol of freedom and individuality. He doesn’t easily submit to any authority, whether it’s Heaven, Hell, or Buddha himself.

Sun Wukong’s journey is also one of personal growth and transformation. While he starts off as a rebel causing chaos in heaven, his journey with Tang Sanzang in “Journey to the West” leads him to use his abilities for a greater cause. It symbolizes the transformation one can undergo through discipline, self-cultivation, and following a righteous path.

Despite his initial defiance of the gods, Sun Wukong can also be seen as embodying principles of Taoism. His incredible physical abilities and powers reflect the Taoist pursuit of physical immortality and supernatural powers through inner cultivation and harmony with the Tao, or the natural order of the universe.

The four heroes and the White Dragon Horse of Journey to the West, Sun Wukong on the second from the left, while the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang rides on Yu Long (the White Dragon Horse). Painted decoration in the Long Corridor at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China


The story of Sun Wukong’s rebellion serves as a cautionary tale about arrogance and the consequences of defying the cosmic order. Despite his formidable powers, his pride led to his downfall.

Nevertheless, his spirit of resistance and irreverence made him an enduring and popular figure in Chinese mythology.

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