Songoku, the Monkey King, or Sun Wukong in Chinese, is the hero of the 16th century Chinese novel The Journey to the West. He was a mischievous deity whose pranks wreaked havoc in Heaven. Songoku possessed the gift of immortality, achieved by eating the peaches of longevity in the Garden of Heaven. The immortals didn’t quite know what to do with a monkey among them, so they sent him to atone for his misdeed. He was assigned to serve as a bodyguard for a pious monk travelling between China and India carrying the Buddhist scriptures.
Yoshitoshi, Jade Rabbit: Sun Wukong from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon, 1889. Ronin Gallery.
Attributed to Wu Cheng'en, Journey to the West is considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese Literature. This story of grand adventure follows the pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang to Central Asia and India. The tale draws heavily from Chinese mythology, folk religion, and Taoist thought in addition to Buddhist philosophy.
So where does the rabbit enter the story? In this print, Songoku holds his iron spear, cavorting with another legendary animal, the Jade Rabbit. The association between a white rabbit and the moon can be traced back deep into Japanese folklore. For example, in the story Kojiki, the waning and waxing of the moon is tied to a mythical rabbit losing and finding its skin. The character of the Jade Rabbit bears Chinese and Indian origins. According to Chinese tradition, this immortal rabbit can be seen silhouetted against the full moon, where it works preparing ingredients for the elixir of life. While these myths may seem unfamiliar to the viewer today, Yoshitoshi’s audience would have naturally drawn the connection between these two fantastic characters.
Yoshitoshi presents this legendary monkey and his mythic companion through familiar iconography. Songoku grasps the gold-tipped staff that he used to flatten out the Milky Way and protect the monk on his journey to India. His appearance is lavish, donning gold bracelets and gold-lined robes. The rabbit’s characteristic red eyes stare out at the viewer as it hops across its lunar home. The full moon blushes a rosy pink, dramatically illuminating the pair against the dark background, creating a near spotlight effect. Yoshitoshi furthers this drama as the staff crosses the pictorial frame and emerges in the margin. This dynamic effect can be seen in several other prints in this series.