Last updated: 02/06/21
Have you ever wondered why Monkey’s staff was stored in the underwater palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, or why it was associated with Yu the Great? The weapon is most likely based on a number of native Chinese mythic and historical iron objects.
First and foremost is a famous Chinese story concerning the immortal Xu Xun (a.k.a. Xu Jingyang, 239-374) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Xu was a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province considered a paragon of filial piety. Popular stories describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century story titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace” describes how the immortal chained the patriarch of the flood dragons to an iron tree that he had constructed and submerged it into a well, thus blocking the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm (Feng, 2005, pp. 673-744). Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 1) (Little, Eichman, & Ebrey, 2000, pp. 314-317). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.
There are numerous historical examples of iron objects from the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-13th cent.) being used to control water. Tang official Li Deyu (787-848) erected the great Iron Pagoda on Mt. Beigu in Jiangsu “in order to subdue the tidal waves of the [Yangzi] river” (Andersen, 2001, p. 72). Iron oxen, such as the one by Pujin Bridge in southern Shanxi, were cast during the Tang and Song dynasties and placed along river banks, some serving as bridge anchors or possibly Daoist altar pieces. The thought was that the oxen would ward off flood waters. The first iron oxen is said, according to legend, to have been created by Yu the Great to ward off future floods. Yu is connected to other iron figures placed in or near flowing bodies of water (Andersen, 2001, pp. 73-75; Cast Iron Recumbent Ox, n.d.). Small statues of the monkey-like river spirit Wuzhiqi (無支祁) were submerged in rivers in southern China during the Song (fig. 2). The spirit is mentioned in Tang-Song records as being a fiery-eyed beast known to cause devastating floods, so Yu trapped the creature under Turtle Mountain (Andersen, 2001). This story has obvious parallels with Monkey’s fiery eyes and imprisonment under the Five Elements mountain.
Fig. 1 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting Xu the immortal overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement in a well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version). Fig. 2 – A Song Dynasty iron figurine of the monkey river spirit Wuzhiqi (larger version).
The 88th chapter of JTTW notes that the staff was created by Yu the Great to aid in his legendary quest to quell the fabled world flood:
An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 201)
As previously noted, Five Elements Theory dictates that metal has dominion over water. Therefore, an iron pillar would have been the best tool for controlling vast bodies of water, including the Eastern Ocean. This explains why the pillar was in the dragon treasury. The connection between Yu and Monkey comes in the form of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi tale.
The pillar has ties to two literary precursors of Sun’s staff appearing in the earliest known edition of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 13th-century). Our hero uses an iron staff borrowed from the Queen Mother of the West and a Golden Ringed Monk’s staff given to him by the Mahabramha Deva, king of the gods. One chapter sees the latter being changed into a “gigantic yaksha whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth” in order to fight a demon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). The transformative powers of the monk’s staff was eventually grafted onto the iron staff to create the current incarnation of Monkey’s staff. These powers were, in effect, transferred to the pillar, giving it the ability to grow or shrink to any size. This is why the novel states Yu used the pillar as a ruler to set the depths of the rivers and oceans.
I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.
Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.
Cast Iron Recumbent Ox – X.0518. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2016, from http://www.artfromancientlands.com/C…ntOxX0518.html
Feng, M. (2005). Stories to caution the world: A Ming dynasty collection. (S. Yang & Y. Yang Trans.). University of Washington Press (Original work published 1624)
Little, S., Eichman, S., & Ebrey, P. B. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.