So fist of all, Journey to the West incorporates Taoist and Buddhist religious notions.
What do we mean by “gods” and “divinities” in a Taoist context?
In Taoism there are no “gods” as we think of them when we think of Ancient Roman, Hindu, Greek or Norse gods, but the Eight Immortals, which were human beings who gained immortality and became divinities by good practices. Each one has a special superpower. The Eight Immortals of Taoism can be interpreted in a psychological, archetypal manner, much the way the characters of other ancient mythologies have come to symbolize human needs and wishes at a collective, universal level.
Here is some info on the Eight Immortals.
Even better is this article.
In Buddhism there is no god either, only enlightened ones, Buddhas, so that much is clear.
Journey to the West, the original novel
Journey to the West, the original novel from which Hwayugi is inspired, was written by someone, but much of the material came from existing folk tales. The trip of a monk to India was historically true. Popular and story-teller versions of Xuanzang’s journey dating as far back as the Southern Song Dynasty include a monkey character as a protagonist.
In the novel, while the monsters who attack are vast in power and many in number, no real harm ever comes to the four travelers. Some of the monsters turn out to be escaped celestial beasts belonging to bodhisattvas or Taoist sages and deities. Towards the end of the book there is a scene where the Buddha literally commands the fulfillment of the last disaster, because Tang Sanzang is one short of the 81 tribulations he needs to face before attaining Buddhahood.
The Monkey King, Son Oh Gong
Now, let’s focus on the Monkey King or Sun Wukong in the original novel. He is a wholly fictional character. He is not god he is not daemon.
Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King, is a figure who features in a body of legends, which can be traced back to the period of the Song dynasty. He appears as a main character in the 16th century Chinese classical novel Journey to the West (西游记) and in many later stories and adaptations. In the novel, he is a monkey born from a stone who acquires supernatural powers through Taoist practices. After rebelling against heaven and being imprisoned under a mountain by the Buddha, he later accompanies the monk Tang Sanzang on a journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from “the West”.
Sun Wukong possesses immense strength; he is able to lift his 13,500 jīn (7,960 kilograms (17,550 lb)) staff with ease. He is also extremely fast, able to travel 108,000 li (21,675 kilometres (13,468 mi)) in one somersault. (Note that this is more than halfway around the world). Sun knows 72 transformations, which allow him to transform into various animals and objects; however, he has trouble transforming into other forms, due to the accompanying incomplete transformation of his tail. Sun Wukong is a skilled fighter, capable of defeating the best warriors of heaven. Each of his hairs possesses magical properties, capable of being transformed into clones of the Monkey King himself, and/or into various weapons, animals, and other objects. He knows spells to command wind, part water, conjure protective circles against demons, and freeze humans, demons, and gods alike.
One of the most enduring Chinese literary characters, Sun Wukong has a varied background and colorful cultural history. Sun Wukong’s origin is from the White Monkey legends from the Chinese Chu kingdom (700–223 BC), Sun Wukong was initially developed as a Taoist immortal before being incorporated into Buddhist legends. He is also considered by some scholars to be influenced by elements of both Chinese folk tales and the Hindu deity Hanuman from the Ramayana
Here is his full story, background and development in the original novel. It will help you immensely while watching the drama, because there are many hints which would be incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the story.
He is born on Flower Fruit Mountain from a stone egg that forms from an ancient rock created by the coupling of Heaven and Earth. He first distinguishes himself by bravely entering the Water Curtain Cave on the mountain; for this feat, his monkey tribe gives him the title of “Handsome Monkey King”.
After angering several gods and coming to the attention of the Jade Emperor, he is given a minor position in heaven as the Keeper of Horses (弼马温) so they can keep an eye on him. This job is a very low position, and when he realises that he was given a low position and not considered a full-fledged god, he becomes very angry.
Upon returning to his mountain, he puts up a flag and declares himself the “Great Sage Equal to Heaven”. Then the Jade Emperor dispatches celestial soldiers to arrest Sun Wukong, but no one succeeds.
The Jade Emperor has no choice but to appoint him to be the guardian of the heavenly peach garden. The peach trees in the garden bear fruit every 3,000 years, and eating its flesh will bestow immortality, so Sun Wukong eats nearly all of the ripe peaches. Later, after fairies who come to collect peaches for Xi Wangmu’s heavenly peach banquet inform Sun Wukong he is not invited and make fun of him, he starts causing trouble in Heaven and defeats an army of 100,000 celestial troops, led by the Four Heavenly Kings, Erlang Shen, and Nezha. Eventually, the Jade Emperor appeals to the Buddha, who seals Wukong under a mountain called Five Elements Mountain. Sun Wukong is kept under the mountain for 500 years, and cannot escape because of a seal that was placed on the mountain. He is later set free when Tang Sanzang comes upon him during his pilgrimage and accepts him as a disciple.
His primary weapon is his staff, the “Ruyi Jingu Bang”, which he can shrink down to the size of a needle and keep in his ear, as well as expand it to gigantic proportions. The rod, which weighs 17,550 pounds, was originally a pillar supporting the undersea palace of the Dragon King of the East Sea, but he was able to pull it out of its support and can swing it with ease. The Dragon King had told Sun Wukong he could have the staff if he could lift it, but was angry when the monkey was actually able to pull it out and accused him of being a thief; hence Sun Wukong was insulted, so he demanded a suit of armour and refused to leave until he received one. The Dragon King, unwilling to see a monkey making trouble in his favourite place, also gave him a suit of golden armour.
These gifts, combined with his devouring of the peaches of immortality, three jars of elixir, and his time being tempered in Laozi’s Eight-Trigram Furnace (he gained a steel-hard body and fiery golden eyes that could see very far into the distance and through any disguise. He is therefore always able to recognise a demon in disguise while the rest of the pilgrimage cannot. However, his eyes become weak to smoke), makes Sun Wukong the strongest member of the pilgrimage by far.
Besides these abilities, he can also pluck hairs from his body and blow on them to convert them into whatever he wishes (usually clones of himself to gain a numerical advantage in battle). Although he is a master of the 72 methods of transformation (七十二变), and can transform into anything that exists(animate and inanimate), he can use his “somersault cloud” enabling him to travel 18,000 meters in a single leap(he is also able to fly without use of the cloud).
The monkey, nimble and quick-witted, uses these skills to defeat all but the most powerful of demons on the journey.
Sun’s behavior is checked by a band placed around his head by Guanyin*, which cannot be removed by Sun Wukong himself until the journey’s end. Tang Sanzang can tighten this band by chanting the “Ring Tightening Mantra” (taught to him by Guanyin) whenever he needs to chastise him. The spell is referred to by Tang Sanzang’s disciples as the “Headache Sutra”, which is the Buddhist mantra “oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ”. Tang Sanzang speaks this mantra quickly in repetition.
Sun Wukong’s childlike playfulness is a huge contrast to his cunning mind. This, coupled with his great power, makes him a trickster hero. His antics present a lighter side in what proposes to be a long and dangerous trip into the unknown.
After completion of the journey he is granted the title of Dòu-zhànshèng-fó(Victorious Fighting Buddha) and ascends to buddahood.
I include some info since she is mentioned often in these notes
Guanyin or Guan Yin is an East Asian bodhisattva associated with compassion and venerated by Mahayana Buddhists and followers of Chinese folk religions, also known as the “Goddess of Mercy” in English. The Chinese name Guanyin, short for Guanshiyin, means “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World”. Some Buddhists believe that when one of their adherents departs from this world, they are placed by Guanyin in the heart of a lotus, and then sent to the western Pure Land of Sukhāvatī.Guanyin is often referred to as the “most widely beloved Buddhist Divinity” with miraculous powers to assist all those who pray to her, as is said in the Lotus Sutra and Karandavyuha Sutra.
Several large temples in East Asia are dedicated to Guan Yin including Shiten
(to be continued)