Hwayugi *Possible Spoilers*

Be careful! This might contain spoilers!

I recently decided to try Hwayugi after hearing about it so many times, but I am confused. I’m only 3 episodes in, but every time one of my questions is answered in the story, it’s replaced by two more. I know it’s based off of a book, but are there a bunch of Chinese religious or cultural references that I’m not familiar with, or is it as erratically written as it seems? (When I watched Spirited Away I got the impression that the personification of inanimate things was part of Japanese culture-- rather than radishes randomly being ghosts.)

To boil it down to key questions:
–What is everyone? It was made clear that Son Oh Gong was kicked out of heaven, and is more powerful than Ma Wang, who is just a demon. Yet sometimes they refer to Oh Gong as a demon, and he does get tempted by Seon Mi’s blood, too… At first I thought, since he’s a monkey (zodiac animals?), that’s why he was special and a god. But it turns out everyone is an animal (Ma Wang is the bull, and his assistant is a dog). So is he a god, or a demon? Are they one and the same, with different origins (some sort of heaven and hell)?

–Why are some demons animals, while others are black shadows? Of the things that can smell her blood, some are in people form, while others are the floating bad ones that make people kill themselves. Is that a hierarchy too?

And if all of this gets answered within the show, then that’s all I need to know. I just feel like I’m missing a key piece of basic knowledge that would help me follow along better.

Thanks in advance for any insight people can offer!

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

His background

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.

  • Guan Yin
    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)

Zhu Bajie, (literally “Pig of the Eight Prohibitions”)

Once an immortal who was the Marshal of the Heavenly Canopy commanding 100,000 naval soldiers of the Milky Way, he drank too much during a celebration of gods and attempted to flirt with the moon goddess Chang’e, resulting in his banishment into the mortal world. He was supposed to be reborn as a human but ends up in the womb of a sow due to an error at the Reincarnation Wheel, which turns him into a half-man half-pig monster. Zhu Bajie was very greedy, and could not survive without eating ravenously. He was commissioned by Guan Yin to accompany Tang Sanzang to India. However, Zhu Bajie’s indulgence in women led him to the Gao Family Village, where he posed as a normal being and wedded a maiden. Tang Sanzang and Sun Wukong arrived at the Gao Family Village and helped defeat him. Renamed Zhu Bajie by Tang Sanzang, he consequently joined the pilgrimage to the West.
His weapon of choice is the jiuchidingpa (“nine-tooth iron rake”). He is also capable of 36 transformations (as compared to Sun Wukong’s 72), and can travel on clouds, but not as fast as Sun. However, Zhu is noted for his fighting skills in the water. He is the second strongest member of the team.
Being spiritually the lowest of the group, at the end of the journey, he remained on earth and was granted the title “Cleaner of the Altars”—that is, he was allowed to “clean” the offerings off the altars by eating and drinking them.

As you see, in the drama they kept very little of his original characteristics, except for his lust for food and women.

Princess Iron Fan and the Bull Demon King

Bull Demon King is a demon king based in Sky Scraping Cave on Accumulated Thunder Mountain . In the early chapters of the novel, he becomes sworn brothers with Sun Wukong and five other demon kings. He is ranked the most senior of the seven, and styles himself “Great Sage Who Pacifies Heaven”. He marries Princess Iron Fan.
Princess Iron Fan also known as Demonic Lady, is also a fictional character from the novel Journey to the West. She is the wife of the Bull King and mother of Red Boy. She is a beautiful female demon living in an underground cave awaiting her husband’s return. She refused to lend the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) her fan to subdue the flaming mountains.
The pilgrims encounter an extremely hostile range of volcanic mountains and can only pass if the volcanoes become inactive. Her fan, made from banana leaves, is extremely large and has magical properties, as it can create giant whirlwinds. Sun Wukong wants to borrow her fan, but she turns him down as the monkey has been on bad terms with her husband before. Sun Wukong, however, is crafty and has ever better tactics for subduing his enemies. He transforms into a fly and flies into her mouth, down her throat, and into her belly. Once inside, the monkey kicks and punches Princess Iron Fan’s guts until she is in so much pain that she gives him a fake fan which intensifies the flames instead of putting them out.
Having barely escaped from the fire, Sun Wukong returns, pretending to be her husband through shape shifting and obtains the fan. Soon afterwards, the real husband comes home, angry at what has happened, he pretends to be the Pig (Zhu Bajie) also through shape shifting and offers to carry the big fan. Lost in the moment of victory, Sun Wukong carelessly believes the Bull King and hands over the fan.
Later, the Jade Emperor (King of Heaven) sends his heavenly troops to help Sun Wukong defeat Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan for good, and she is forced to give them the real fan.
In the ensuing fight against Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie, Bull Demon King reveals his true form, a giant white bull, and attempts to charge towards his opponents. Nezha shows up, captures Bull Demon King, and brings him to Heaven to let the Jade Emperor decide his fate.

As you will see, the drama somehow departs from this story. The part about the flaming mountains and the fan is retained, though.

To come back to your question.
None of these people are gods. Some of them are good immortals and are called divinities in the drama (the ones who rule heavens), some of them are on the road of becoming divinities (Monkey, Bull), and some of them are bound to remain as demons. It’s a shifting universe, where one can change one’s status by one’s deeds and perseverance.

As for the smoky evil spirits we see, they are a very interesting concept born out of the imagination of the writers, the Hong sisters: these monsters are born out of humans’ evil thoughts, out of humans’ greed and lack of spirituality.
Other evil spirits are zombies who stayed too long and weren’t burned.
The ghosts, evil or just pitiful, are humans who died with an unresolved grudge.

Hope this helped.

thank you for clearing that up for me, I did watch the monkey king movies , and this drama, yes I aklso was confused. wondering the hows and whys of all these people! Thank you once again Irmar for lessons on this story! so this was a mixed kind of religion, Taoist & Buddha,

oh yeah if I have a question, I just seek Irmar and I do get an awesome answer,

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Wow. Yes, that helped a lot. Thank you so much!
I think this background is key to appreciating the story, rather than finding it erratic. Which makes me wonder if Journey to the West is something that all Koreans are familiar with.

Of course it’s a Chinese thing, but in Korea too, it seems they are familiar with it, at the very least as children’s adaptations, manhwas, animated films, TV series.

Probably similar to how ubiquitous Danish and German fairy tales are in the US. Early Disney movies were practically all from foreign stories.

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