The Monkey King’s Crescent-Style Headband

Various forms of media portray Sun Wukong wearing three types of golden headbands (jingu quan, 金箍圈). The first has blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like a pair of scowling eyebrows. The second has an upturned crescent moon shape in the center. And the third is just a thin fillet devoid of any adornment (fig. 1). This article will briefly discuss the origins of type two, what I call the “crescent-style” headband.

Fig. 1 – Type 1 (left): Curlicue. From the comedy A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (1995); Type 2 (center): Crescent. From the famous 1986 CCTV series; and Type 3 (right): Thin band. From the 2011 TV show (larger version).

I. Ties to the stage

The type two headband is heavily associated with Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s (六小齡童; a.k.a. Zhang Jinlai, 章金萊, b. 1959) portrayal of the Monkey King from the famed 1986 CCTV series. This actor comes from a long line of Chinese opera performers who specialize in playing Sun Wukong. It should be no surprise then that the type of circlet that he wears comes directly from Chinese opera. Known as a “precepts headband” (jiegu, 戒箍), this fillet is worn on stage by Military Monks (wuseng, 武僧) as a sign that they’ve taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328). Such clerics are depicted as wearing a jiegu in combination with a wild mane of hair (fig. 2), which contrasts with the bald heads of religious monks.

Fig. 2 – A detail of the literary hero and military monk Wu Song from a Chinese opera about his adventures (larger version). Full version available on Wikimedia Commons.

II. Appearance in zaju theater

To my knowledge, the oldest source associating Sun with the precepts headband is an early-Ming zaju play that predates the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. In act ten, the Bodhisattva Guanyin tells Monkey:

Great Sage Reaching Heaven [a previous title for Sun], you originally destroyed form and extinguished nature, but the honored monk saved you. This time, you will cease your desires. I give you the dharma name Sun Wukong, as well as an iron precepts headband [tie jiegu, 鐵戒箍], a black monk’s robe, and a precepts knife. [1] The iron headband will guard your nature, the robe will cover your beastly body, and the knife will cut your relations. If you want to go with your master, then you will be called Pilgrim Sun. Swiftly obtain the scriptures and seek the right fruit.

通天大聖,你本是毀形滅性的,老僧救了你,今次休起凡心。我與你一個法名,是孫悟空。與你個鐵戒箍、皂直裰、戒刀。鐵戒箍戒你凡性,皂直裰遮你獸身,戒刀豁你之恩愛,好生跟師父去,便喚作孫行者。疾便取經,著你也求正果

III. Origin

The precepts headband likely finds its origin in the triple-crescent crown of Central Asia. This crown was originally a fixture of Iranic Hephthalite royalty that was later adopted by Sogdian rulers. Zoroastrian gods were even portrayed wearing it. The motif is known to have entered China early as the stone tomb of the Sogdian leader Di Caoming (翟曹明, d. 579) features two foreign-looking, trident-wielding door guardians wearing the crown (fig. 3 & 4). Most importantly, a crown featuring the triple-crescent and wings (also of Hephthalite origin) appears in Chinese Buddhist art, particularly in the headdresses of Bodhisattvas (fig. 5), before, during, and after the Tang and Liang periods (Kageyama, 2007). Therefore, the association of the triple-crescent with guardians and Buddhist deities might then explain why it was later connected to military monks in Chinese opera.

Fig. 3 – Triple-crescent crown-wearing guardians on the door of Di Caoming’s stone tomb (larger version). Fig. 4 – A detail of one of the guardians (larger version). Images found on this tweet. Fig. 5 – A diagram showing the various Bodhisattva crowns featuring the triple-crescent and winged adornments in Chinese Buddhist art (larger version). From Kageyama, 2007, p. 22. [2]

I’m indebted to the art historian Jin Xu (徐津) for posting a tweet about Sino-Sogdian funerary art, which led to him explaining the origin of the precepts headband. [3] I’m also indebted to Eran ud Turan for directing me to a lovely paper on the triple-crescent and winged crowns.

IV. Many influences

This subject is fascinating as it shows how different cultures came to influence the Monkey King’s headband. The general concept of a circlet serving as a physical reminder of right speech and action comes from India, and it was associated with gods in Esoteric Buddhism. The curlicue-style fillet is likely based on Chinese representations of stylized lingzhi (靈芝) mushrooms, which were associated with Daoist deities. And lastly, the crescent-style band is based on the crown of two Iranic cultures, and it was associated with divine beings from Zoroastrianism.

V. Conclusion

Various forms of media portray the Monkey King wearing different kinds of headbands. The second type, which includes an upturned crescent moon shape in the middle of the forehead, is featured in Chinese opera depictions of Sun Wukong. This “precepts headband” (jiegu, 戒箍) is a symbol of military monks, thus linking Monkey to such martial clerics. To my knowledge, the oldest source associating our hero with the jiegu is an early-Ming zaju play in which Guanyin gives Sun an “iron precepts headband” (tie jiegu, 鐵戒箍) (among other items).

This style of circlet was likely influenced by the “triple-crescent crown” used by the Iranic Hephthalite and Sogdian cultures as a symbol of royalty. The motif appeared in China as early as the 6th-century as evidenced by the stone tomb of Di Caoming, which features foreign-looking door guardians wearing the triple-crescent crown. Most importantly, the motif also adorns the crowns of Bodhisattvas during China’s medieval period, which (combined with the aforementioned door guardians) might explain why the crescent came to be associated with military monks in Chinese opera. 

This Iranic crown is one of three cultural threads influencing the function and look of Monkey’s golden headband, the other two coming from India (Esoteric Buddhism) and China (Daoism).

Notes:

1) Precept knives (jiedao, 戒刀) were historically small, unadorned, curved, finger-length blades used for cutting robes, trimming fingernails, opening wounds, or slicing food (Yifa, 2009, p. 250, n. 37).

2) The diagram is labeled thusly in the original paper:

Winged crowns and triple-crescent crowns represented in the Buddhist art of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Sui. a, c, e-h: Wall paintings. Dunhuang (Gansu). a: Cave 254 (Northern Wei. Second half of the fifth century or first half of the sixth century), c: Cave 285 (Western Wei. 538-539 CE), e: Cave 276 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), f. Cave 380 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), g. Cave 389 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), h. Cave 407 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century). b: Stone sculpture from Wanfo-si 万仏寺. Liang. First half of the sixth century. Chengdu (Sichuan). d. Stone relief from Dazhusheng 大住聖 Cave, Baoshan Lingquan-si 宝山霊泉寺, Anyang. Sui. 589 CE (Kageyama, 2007, p. 22).

3) After asking him a question on the original tweet, Jin Xu replied:

This type of crown is the prototype of Jiegu. It was a headgear favored by Sogdians, as you can see in some pictures taken by @eranudturan. I’m not sure if it had a specific name at the time, but perhaps related to later Persian word “taj” (tweet).

Sources:

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Kageyama, E. (2007). The Winged Crown and the Triple-crescent Crown in the Sogdian Funerary Monuments from China: Their Relation to the Hephthalite Occupation of Central Asia. Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology, 2, 11-22. Retrieved from https://isaw.nyu.edu/publications/jiaaa/Kageyama.pdf.

Yifa. (2009). The Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China: An Annotated Translation and Study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i press.

 

A Survey of Sun Wukong’s Magic “Immortal Breath” and Its Abilities

I’ve previously written an article in which I detail the origins of the Monkey King’s magic hair. He first exhibits the ability to transform his hair in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592):

Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces and then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129).

拔一把毫毛,丟在口中嚼碎,望空噴去,叫一聲:「變!」即變做三、二百個小猴,週圍攢簇。 原來人得仙體,出神變化無方。不知這猴王自從了道之後,身上有八萬四千毛羽,根根能變,應物隨心。

This tactic of transforming chewed up hairs into dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of monkey clones also appears in chapters 3, 5, 21, 35, 44, 86, and 90 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 132, 165, 172, & 409; vol. 2, pp. 138 & 277; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, pp. 164-165, 168, 219, & 221). But these chewed up hairs can also be transformed into other objects, such as sleep-inducing bugs in chapters 5 and 86, as well as seven kinds of hawks in chapter 72 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 165; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, p. 168).

But the novel states that Sun sometimes changes his hair by first blowing on it with his magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣). This article will provide a brief survey of this skill and its abilities.

I. Hair

Explicit mentions of the immortal breath show that it can transform hair into:

  • Ink-soaked brush to write on the Buddha’s hand (ch. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 195).
  • Dagger to skin a tiger (ch. 14) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
  • Three-ply hemp rope to tie up Zhu Bajie (ch. 19) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 385).
  • Duplicates of the Monkey King (fig. 1) (ch. 25, 27, 45, 73, 77, 84, 85, & 94) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465; vol. 2, p. 27, 129, & 292; vol. 3, p. 340; vol. 4, pp. 20, 139, 151, & 293).
  • Copper coin to pay for paper (ch. 33) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 117-118).
  • Fake lesser demons (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 122).
  • Yellow-gold rope to replace a magical weapon of the same name (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 130).
  • Gold-plated, red lacquered box to hold a white jade token (ch. 37) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 169).
  • Wrapper to infiltrate a demon’s lair (ch. 41) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 235-236).
  • Yellow hound to carry away a bogus immortal’s decapitated head (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 308).
  • Hungry hawk to eat a bogus immortal’s entrails (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 310).
  • Group of 30 tigers to scare away monks (ch. 64) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 194).
  • Sleep-inducing insects and lice, fleas, and bedbugs (ch. 71 (A & B) & 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 303 & 304; vol. 4, p. 139).
  • Gold-headed fly to scare a demon king (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 366).
  • Bow drill (comprised of a diamond bit, a bamboo strip, and a cotton string) to drill out of a dangerous magic treasure (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369).
  • Very thin but long rope to climb out of a monster’s stomach (ch. 76) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 3).
  • Thirty ropes for tying up bandits (ch. 97) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 328).

It should be noted, however, that the novel is very inconsistent regarding this ability. The immortal breath is not always used; Sun often just commands the hair to transform or changes it without saying anything, such as in chapters 4, 33, 34 (A, B, & C), 42, 46, 49, 51, 59, 65, 68, 71, and 74 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156; vol. 2, p. 115, 124-125, 237, 301, 305, & 345-346; vol. 3, p. 13, 120, 216, 269, 305, & 358). The “chewing” and “spitting out” of the hair is another example (see above). But one might argue that spitting requires a build of air in the lungs, so by extension, the immortal breath is being used.

This inconsistency is probably due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, some story tellers likely employed the immortal breath, while others did not.

sc137582 - small

Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).

II. Staff

This immortal breath is also shown capable of transforming the magic iron staff (fig. 2).

  • Steel file to file through a magic golden ring pinning Monkey’s neck to a column (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 129).
  • Razor to mutilate two lesser demons (ch. 63) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 180).
  • Flag pole to make a pair of magic cymbals stand upright (ch. 65) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 216).
  • Seventy forked weapons to cut the threads of supernatural spider webs (ch. 73) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 340).
  • Nail to prop open a demon’s mouth while Monkey climbs out of their stomach (ch. 83) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 113).
  • Three-pointed drill to make a covert hole in a wardrobe (ch. 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 139).

As noted above, the novel is inconsistent in this regard. For instance, Monkey changes the staff into a steel drill without blowing on it in chapter 65 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218). Likewise, no breath is used in chapters 46 and 84 when Sun transforms the weapon into razors for shaving heads (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305; vol. 4, p. 139).

Fig. 2 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar that will become his iron staff (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).

III. Miscellaneous 

Monkey can also transform items not in contact with his body. For instance, in chapter 46, he changes a Daoist lad’s clothing from a spring onion white robe into a brown monk’s robe (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In chapter 78, Sun transforms Tripitaka into his likeness using a mask made from mud:

Pilgrim, too, had little alternative but to flatten the mud and press it on his own face and, after a little while, succeeded in making an apelike mask. Asking the Tang Monk to stand up but without uttering another word, Pilgrim pasted the mask on his master’s face and recited a magic spell. He then blew his immortal breath onto the mask, crying, “Change!” At once the elder took on the appearance of Pilgrim. He was told to take off his own garments and switch clothes with Pilgrim, who made the magic sign and then recited another spell to change into the form of the Tang Monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 47).

行者沒奈何,將泥撲作一片,往自家臉上一安,做下個猴像的臉子。叫唐僧站起休動,再莫言語。貼在唐僧臉上,念動真言,吹口仙氣,叫:「變!」那長老即變做個行者模樣。脫了他的衣服,以行者的衣服穿上。行者卻將師父的衣服穿了,捻著訣,念個咒語,搖身變作唐僧的嘴臉。

Again, the novel is inconsistent regarding external objects. Sometimes Monkey bights his tongue and spits blood out to change said item, such as in chapter 25 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 474-475 & 477; vol. 2, p. 303). [1-2] But, again, one could argue that the immortal breath is used as spitting requires a build-up of air in the lungs.

IV. Special abilities 

The immortal breath (fig. 3) is also shown to have other special abilities. For instance, in chapter 46, Monkey uses it to heal a gaping wound in his stomach:

With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).

行者搖搖擺擺,徑至殺場。將身靠著大樁,解開衣帶,露出肚腹。那劊子手將一條繩套在他膊項上,一條繩紮住他腿足,把一口牛耳短刀幌一幌,著肚皮下一割,搠個窟窿。這行者雙手爬開肚腹,拿出腸臟來,一條條理夠多時,依然安在裡面,照舊盤曲。捻著肚皮,吹口仙氣,叫:「長!」依然長合。

The novel implies that Sun’s immortal breath also has the ability to manipulate souls. For example, in chapter 88, Sun uses it in an arcane ritual designed to bestow three human disciples with super human strength. The pertinent section reads:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits [yuanshen, 元神] were thus restored to their original abodes …

行者才教三個王子都在暴紗亭後,靜室之間,畫了罡斗。教三人都俯伏在內,一個個瞑目寧神。這裡卻暗暗念動真言,誦動咒語,將仙氣吹入他三人心腹之中,把元神收歸本舍 。。。

The term “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神) is commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, it is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008). This suggests that Monkey’s immortal breath also grants the disciples some form of immortality. You can read about the entire ritual here.

Fig. 3 – A vapor blowing smoke (larger version). Image found here. Photographer unknown. I imagine this is what the immortal breath would look like.

And in chapter 97, Sun uses the immortal breath to transform an old man’s soul into “ether” for easy transport back to the world of the living:

Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether [qi, 氣] by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave [Hell] and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house. Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] was told to pry open the lid of the coffin, and the soul of the squire was pushed into his body. In a moment, he began to breathe once more and revived (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 339).

將他吹化為氣,掉於衣袖之間,同去幽府,復返陽間。駕雲頭,到了寇家,即喚八戒捎開材蓋,把他魂靈兒推付本身。須臾間,透出氣來活了。

The phrase “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) is missing in the original Chinese, but the ability’s use is understood as the passage mentions Monkey “blowing” (chui, 吹) on the soul.

V. Conclusion

Various chapters of Journey to the West show that Sun Wukong can use his immortal breath to transform his hair, his magic staff, and items not directly in contact with his body into anything he desires. These range from utilitarian items like files, blades, drills, and ropes to living creatures like insects, birds of prey, dogs, tigers, lesser demons, and even independent copies of himself. It can also change the color and appearance of clothing, as well as magically disguise someone when used in tandem with a mask. The skill’s special abilities include healing and soul manipulation. Evidence suggests that it can restore the “primordial spirit”, granting some form of immortality, as well as transform souls into “ether” for better ease of transport.

The immortal breath, however, is not used consistently throughout the novel. Monkey sometimes chews up and spits out the hair, commands it to change, or simply transforms it without saying anything at all. This inconsistency is likely due to the novel coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries.

Notes:

1) Thank you to Irwen Wong for reminding me of this.

2) The second instance of tongue-biting doesn’t mention the word for blood (xie, 血), but it can be understood to be present.

Sources:

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (pp. 883-884). London: Routledge].

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.