Last updated: 07-02-2023
Sha Wujing (沙悟淨), or “Sandy” for short, is commonly portrayed in modern media wielding a Crescent Moon Spade (Yueya chan, 月牙鏟, a.k.a. “Monk’s Spade“), a wooden polearm capped with a sharpened spade on one end and a crescent-shaped blade on the other (fig. 1). But did you know that Sandy never wields this kind of weapon in the novel? Chapter 22 contains a poem that describes the actual weapon and its pedigree. A section of it reads:
For years my treasure staff has enjoyed great fame,
Originally a tree of the sala variety in the moon, 
Wu Gang cut down from it one limb.
Lu Ban then made it, using all his skills.
Within the hub is “as-you-will” metal. 
Outside it’s wrapped by countless pearly threads.
It’s called the Treasure Staff Perfect for Subduing Monsters, 
[…] (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428)
As you can see, it is described as a wooden staff devoid of any metal blades. So how did Sandy become associated with the Monk’s spade? It can be traced to a common motif appearing in late-Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) woodblock prints. Sandy is just one of a number of famous literary staff-wielding monks to be portrayed brandishing a polearm topped with a small crescent shape (fig. 2). Others include Huiming (惠明) from the Story of the Western Wing (Xixiangji, 西廂記, c. 1300) (fig. 3) and Lu Zhishen (魯智深) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (fig. 4) (Shahar, 2008, p. 97).
Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sandy wielding a Monk’s Spade (larger version). Fig. 2 – A late-Ming Dynasty print of Sha Wujing with the crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 3 – A 1614 woodblock print of Monk Huiming with a crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 4 – A late-Ming woodblock of Lu Zhishen with a crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 5 – Sandy from Ehon Saiyuki (circa 1806) (larger version). Fig. 6 – Sandy from Xiyou yuanzhi (1819) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail from a Long Corridor painting (circa 1890) (larger version).
The exact origin or purpose of the blade is unknown, however. Martial historian Meir Shahar (2008) comments:
Future research may determine the origins of the crescent shape, which is visible in some Ming period illustrations of the staff. Here I will mention only that an identical design is common in a wide variety of twentieth-century martial arts weapons, whether or not they are wielded by Buddhist clerics. The crescent’s significance in contemporary weaponry can be gauged by its appearance in the names of such instruments as the “Crescent-Shaped (Yueya) [Monk’s] Spade,” “Crescent-Shaped Spear,” “Crescent-Shaped Battle-ax,” and “Crescent-Shaped Rake” (pp. 97-98).
A woodblock print appearing in the first section of The Illustrated Journey to the West (Ehon Saiyuki, 画本西遊記), published in 1806, depicts Sandy holding a staff with a large crescent blade (fig. 5), showing how the once small accent had been enlarged by this time to become a more prominent feature of the polearm. This same weapon is echoed in a print from The Original Intent of The Journey to the West (Xiyou yuanzhi, 西遊原旨, 1819) (fig. 6), as well as in multiple circa 1890 JTTW-related paintings from the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace in Beijing (fig. 7, for example). So Ming depictions of Sandy wielding a crescent-tipped staff were most likely associated with the Monk’s Spade due to their physical similarities, and this probably took place no earlier than the early 20th-century.
Unlike Sha Wujing, there is a monster in the novel who wields a Crescent Moon spade. Chapter 63 describes the Nine-Headed Beast (Jiutou chong, 九頭蟲),  the son-in-law of a dragon king, using this bladed polearm in a battle against Monkey:
Enraged, Pilgrim shouted, “You brazen thievish fiend! What power do you have that you dare mouth such big words? Come up here and have a taste of your father’s rod!” Not in the least intimidated, the son-in-law parried the blow with his crescent-tooth spade; a marvelous battle thus broke out on top of that Scattered-Rock Mountain (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 183).
There existed during the Ming Dynasty a military spade with a crescent blade on the top and a dagger-like blade on the bottom (武備志 (四十三) , n.d.) (fig. 8). This is likely the weapon used by the monster. Notice the similarities with figures five to seven. It’s easy to see how the crescent-tipped staff from the Ming woodblock prints could have later been associated with this military weapon. The difference is one of degree and not kind. This polearm was later modified into the modern Monk’s Spade, leading to depictions of Sandy wielding the weapon.
Feng Dajian of Nankai University was kind enough to direct me to this woodblock print (fig. 9) from the original 1592 publishing of Journey to the West. Sandy’s staff is more evident in this piece. It even lacks the aforementioned crescent shape.
Fig. 9 – The 1592 JTTW print of Sandy vs Pigsy (larger version).
The woodblock prints from the original 1592 JTTW are extremely inconsistent. For example, figure nine shows Sha’s staff as a straight, black line. However, another print (fig. 10 & 11) depicts it with the crescent finial, and yet another (fig. 12 & 13) shows it as a twisting tree branch. The latter is my favorite because it aligns more with the weapon’s origin as presented above in the introduction.
Fig. 10 (top left) – A detail of the crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 11 (top right) – The full print (larger version). Fig. 12 (bottom left) – A detail of the tree branch staff (larger version). Fig. 13 (bottom right) – The full print (larger version).
1) The original translation reads: “At first an evergreen tree in the moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428). But the Chinese identifies the tree as suoluo pai (梭羅派), which literally means a “(family) branch of the sala tree.” I chose “a variety of” to avoid confusion with “tree branch.” And while the sala is technically a kind of evergreen in wet environments, it has deciduous-looking leaves. I chose to use the actual name of the tree to avoid confusion with pine evergreens. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) incorrectly identifies the suoluo tree as “Cunninghamia [l]anceolata,” a type of Chinese pine evergreen (vol. 4, p. 391 n. 7).
2) The original translation reads: “Within the hub one solid piece of gold” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428). But the Chinese states that the inside is jin chenxin (金趁心), or “satisfactory metal/gold.” This is likely referring to the Chinese idiom chenxin ruyi (趁心如意), or “as one desires.” This important as the novel reveals that Sha’s weapon is capable of growing or shrinking on command just like Monkey’s cudgel, the “As-You-Will Gold-Banded Staff” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 429). Thank you to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for reminding me of this fact.
3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) skipped over shan (善), or “good at, apt, perfect,” in his translation (vol. 1, p. 428).
4) The creature’s name is originally translated as the “Nine-Headed Insect,” but its true form is that of a monstrous reptilian bird (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 184). While chong (蟲) usually means “insect, worm, or pest,” it can also mean “tiger.” For instance, Da chong (大蟲, “great beast”) is the name of the tiger killed by the hero Wu Song in the Water Margin (c. 1400) (Børdahl, 2007). So a better name for our villain would be “Nine-Headed Beast.”
Børdahl, V. (2007). The Man-Hunting Tiger: From “Wu Song Fights the Tiger” in Chinese Traditions. Asian Folklore Studies, 66(1/2), 141-163. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30030454
Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
武備志 (四十三) . (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2018, from https://archive.org/details/02092301.cn