WARNING: The following contains spoilers for New Gods: Nezha Reborn, now streaming on Netflix.
Chinese film New Gods: Nezha Reborn is full of characters important in Chinese mythology. While some Westerners may have some knowledge about Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, thanks to Dragon Ball and Goku, most aren't as familiar with the importance of the character. The protagonist of the movie, Li Yunxiang, is the reincarnation of the legendary Nezha, and soon becomes a target for Nezha's mythical enemies.
While the legendary characters Nezha, Ao Guang and Sun WuKong all appear in the Chinese epic Journey to the West, Nezha Reborn is actually based on the Fengshen Yanyi, or Investiture of the Gods. The movie takes place 3,000 years after Nezha's battle with Ao Guang, who is out for revenge. Let's explore each of the characters and their role in Chinese lore.
Nezha In Chinese Mythology
Nezha is a Chinese protection deity who is said to be based on two figures from Hinduism. The first is named Nalakubar, a yaksha (nature spirit), who is the son of the Yaksha King Kubera. Nalakubar makes an appearance in the Ramayana, one of two Sanskrit epics explaining the ancient history of India.
Nalakubar's names appear in Buddhist sutras, though in a Chinese variant. It began as Naluojiupoluo, then became Naluojubaluo, then Nazhajuwaluo and finally Nazha. The difference between Nazha and Nezha's spelling is one radical: 口. By adding this radical to the Na 那, it becomes Ne 哪, thus Nazha becomes Nezha.
Nezha was born during the Shang Dynasty to a deity and military commander father named Li Jing and a woman named Lady Yin. His mother carried him in her stomach for three years and six months, and when she finally gave birth to him, he was a ball of flesh rather than a child. Li Jing thought he was a demon, and attacked the ball with his sword, but it split open and Nezha popped out as a young boy instead of a baby and could speak and walk on his own.
While the story of Nezha fighting the East Sea Dragon King Ao Guang is the most well-known legend, he also appears in Journey to the West. In the 16th Century novel, Nezha fights Sun Wukong after he rebels against the Jade Emperor, the first god. He then assists Sun Wukong and the protagonists on their journey after befriending the Monkey King.
Sun Wukong (The Monkey King)
The Monkey King is best known for his role in Journey to the West. In the story, Sun Wukong is born from a stone that sits at the top of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit as a monkey. Through Taoist practices, he then gains supernatural powers. His powers were numerous, including the ability to transform into 72 Earthly forms and being able to carry two celestial mountains. He rebels against the Heavens and is then sealed beneath a mountain by the Buddha.
It's thought that he is based on the Ramayana Hindu deity Hanuman. Hanuman was the son of the God of Wind. It's also believed that Sun Wukong is derived from Shi Banto, a disciple of the Chinese Buddhist Xuanzang. Another influence on the Sun Wukong legend could be the stories of the White Monkey from the Chu Kingdom. This kingdom revered gibbons, a type of ape. Fuzhou Province legends also most likely played a role due to the people of the area worshipping monkey gods before Journey to the West.
In legends, Sun Wukong had met with the Dragon King Ao Guang while searching for a new weapon and hearing that Dragon Kings tended to have great treasures. Ao Guang realized how powerful Sun Wukong was, and had his guards present him with weapons to try out. The only weapon that he liked was the staff Ruyi Jingu Bang, also known as Ding Hai Shen Zhen. The staff was able to extend, shorten, fly, attack opponents and it weighed 7960 kg (about 17548 lbs). He also acquires clothes fit for a king from Ao Guang and another Dragon King.
After he returns home, Sun Wukong fights off Hell's attempts to collect his soul for the crime of extorting the Dragon Kings and is able to take his name out of the Book of Life and Death, a collection of books with the name of every mortal alive. After this, the Dragon Kings and the Kings of Hell report their actions to the Jade Emperor.
Ao Guang (The Dragon God)
Ao Guang is the Chinese Dragon King of the East Sea. In the story Fengshen Yanyi, Ao Guang created droughts, storms and other natural disasters, creating fear among the people of the world. Because of their fear, they made numerous offerings to the Dragon King. However, he decided one day that he wanted children.
Nezha and two of his friends were playing by the sea when one of them was snatched up by Ye Sha, a yaksha. Nezha fought the nature spirit and was able to injure him before he fled back to the Dragon King's palace. Ao Guang sent his third son Ao Bing, who was killed in his fight with Nezha. This prompted Ao Guang to confront Nezha's family and demand that Li Jing sacrifice himself as an offering of atonement. Li Jing refused, and Ao Guang threatened to flood the area and report Nezha to the Jade Emperor.
As Ao Guang flew to the heavens to speak to the Jade Emperor, Nezha committed suicide to protect everyone from the Dragon King's wrath. His spirit then ascended to Heaven, where he met Ao Guang and proceeded to beat him. Later, Ao Guang took Nezha's parents, and Nezha offered his internal organs to the Dragon for their release. This pleased Ao Guang, who then presented the organs to the Jade Emperor.
Nezha presented his bones to his parents and then appeared to his mother in a dream to request a shrine be built to house his spirit. She does so, but his father finds out and burns it. Nezha reincarnates and sets out to kill his father, but after several fights, another deity forces Nezha to submit to him.