Last updated: 08-18-2023
Fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE; hereafter JTTW) sometimes debate whether Sun Wukong’s 72 “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數; a.k.a. “… Earthly Fiends”) and Zhu Bajie’s 36 “Multitude of Heavenly Rectifiers” (Tiangang shu, 天罡數; a.k.a. “… the Heavenly Ladle or Northern Dipper”)  are just transformations or actual lists of individual magical skills. For example, in March of 2023, a reddit user claimed in one post that “72 transformations” was a mistranslation for “72 different spells.” And then they asked if there existed a list of the 36 spells. I responded by saying:
There is no official list of the 72 or 36 transformations. This is because they are never mentioned in the novel. Any attempt at making a list is a guesstimate at best or completely made up at worst.
But I was recently contacted by a different reddit user who linked me to a dynastic source, The Comprehensive Mirror of Successive Divine Immortals (Lidai shenxian tongjian, 歷代神仙通鑑, c. 1700; hereafter The Comprehensive Mirror),  which does include respective lists for the “Thirty-Six Methods of the Heavenly Rectifiers” (Tiangang sanshiliu fa, 天罡三十六法) and the “Seventy-Two Arts of the Terrestrial Killers” (Disha qishier shu, 地煞七十二術) (said redditor translates the list of 72 abilities in video game terms here). The skills range from creating earthquakes to resurrecting the dead.
However, there are three reasons why these lists should not be associated with Sun and Zhu: 1) They do not appear in JTTW; 2) They postdate the novel by nearly a century; and 3) The JTTW narrative firmly establishes that the numbers of the 72 Terrestrial Killers and 36 Heavenly rectifiers are symbolic of the many ways that Monkey and Pigsy can change their shape. I will discuss this in more detail in section I.
But for the sake of posterity, I would like to translate both lists so that anyone interested can see them for themselves. The info might serve as good fodder for fanfiction or D&D character development. Having said that, I don’t consider myself a translator or an expert on esoteric Taoist jargon. So, if you know of a better rendering for a given phrase, please let me know in the comments below or by email (see the “contact” button).
Also, I will be archiving the section of The Comprehensive Mirror containing the lists of the 72 and 36 skills. See section IV below for the PDF link. It was downloaded from Google Books.
The title page of The Comprehensive Mirror (larger version) (PDF p. 6).
I. Arguments Against the Lists
First, they are not canonical as they don’t appear in JTTW. I’m sure someone could comb through the novel and find parallels, but this wouldn’t necessarily constitute proof of direct influence. This is because immortals have displayed similar powers in Taoist hagiography since at least Ge Hong‘s Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi, 抱樸子, 4th-century CE). For example, just like Sun Wukong, the late-Han alchemist Zuo Ci (左慈) was known for enraging enemies, in this case the warlord Cao Cao (曹操), by using magic clones of himself in hilarious ways to escape trouble (see the 11-24-19 update here for a full translation of his shenanigans). Campany & Ge (2002), especially part II, is a treasure trove of such hagiographic tales.
Second, the lists postdate JTTW by almost a century. Whose to say that the popularity of the novel didn’t influence the creation of said lists? Even The Comprehensive Mirror refers at one point to the skills as the “thirty-six changes and seventy-two transformations” (sanshiliu bian, qishier hua, 三十六變，七十二化) (PDF p. 295). This mimics the metamorphic abilities of Monkey and Zhu discussed below. All one would need to do to create the lists is gather skills from Taoist hagiography and then assign them a place and number among the 72 Terrestrial Killers (Disha, 地煞) or 36 Heavenly Rectifiers (Tiangang, 天罡).
(I should note that the names of these numbered groups are based on malevolent and benevolent stellar deities that appear throughout Chinese culture and literature. See, for instance, the 108 stars of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 14th-century CE) (Meulenbeld, 2019).) 
And third, most importantly, JTTW specifically states that Monkey has “seventy-two kinds of transformations” (qishier ban bianhua, 七十二般變化) and Zhu “thirty-six kinds of transformations” (sanshiliu ban bianhua, 三十六般變化). Therefore, the numbers of the 72 Terrestrial Killers and 36 Heavenly rectifiers are symbolic of the many ways that our heroes can change their shape. This is made clear in several places throughout the novel. Here, I will list a few examples.
In chapter 2, the Patriarch Subodhi teaches the 72 changes to Sun Wukong with the expressed purpose of helping him “hide” (duobi, 躲避) from the Three Calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) of cosmic lightning, fire, and wind sent by heaven every 500 respective years to destroy immortals for defying fate and achieving eternal life:
“Very well, then,” said the Patriarch, “what method of hiding would you like to learn? There is the “Multitude of the Heavenly Rectifiers,” which numbers thirty-six transformations, and there is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers,” which numbers seventy-two transformations.” Wukong said, “Your pupil is always eager to catch more fishes, so I’ll learn the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers.” “In that case,” said the Patriarch, “come up here, and I’ll pass on the oral formulas to you.” He then whispered something into his ear, though we do not know what sort of wondrous secrets he spoke of. But this Monkey King was someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred! He immediately learned the oral formulas and, after working at them and practicing them himself, he mastered all seventy-two transformations (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, 122).
In chapter 18, Zhu states, “I have the transformations of the Heavenly Rectifiers” (我有天罡數的變化).  And later in chapter 67, he reveals that the 36 changes have their shortcomings:
I, old Hog, after all, am capable of thirty-six kinds of transformation. If you want me to change into something delicate, elegant, and agile, I simply can’t do it. But if it’s a mountain, a tree, a boulder, an earth mound, a scabby elephant, a graded hog, a water buffalo, or a camel, I can change into all these things (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 253).
II. The 36 Methods of the Heavenly Rectifiers
I have included reference numbers when certain skills are similar or related.
Take note that several of these skills appear in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), a famous vernacular novel containing the mythos of many gods still worshiped today in Chinese folk religion.
- Woxuan zaohua (斡旋造化, lit: “mediate good luck”) – Creating good fortune.
- Diandao yinyang (顛倒陰陽, lit: “reverse yin and yang”) – Disturbing the natural flow of the cosmos (switching the sun and moon, reversing right and wrong, confusing black and white, etc.).
- Yixing huandou (移星換斗, lit: “shift the stars and switch the Big Dipper) – Altering the position of the stars. Perhaps this is a metaphor for changing someone’s fate.
- Huitian fanri (迴天返日, lit: “turn around heaven to bring back the sun) – Rewinding the day to raise the setting sun into the sky.
- Huanyu hufeng (喚雨呼風, Lit: “call the rain and summon the wind) – Summoning storms (see sec. II, nos. 5-8 & 28).
- Zhenshan handi (振山撼地, lit: “shake mountains and earth”) – Making earthquakes.
- Jiawu tengyun (駕霧騰雲) – Flying on the mist and clouds (see sec. II, no. 12).
- Huajiang chenglu (劃江成陸) – Parting water to make new land.
- Zongde jinguang (縱地金光, lit: “releasing golden light”) – Transforming into light, thus allowing one to travel thousands of Chinese miles in a single day (see sec. II, no. 55).
- Fanjiang jiaohai (翻江攪海, lit: “overturn rivers and disturb oceans) – Creating turbulent rapids and violent tsunamis.
- Zhidi chenggang (指地成鋼) – Transforming earth into steel with just a point of the finger (see no. 23).
- Wuxing dadun (五行大遁, lit: “five elements great escape”) – Escaping a place or situation through any of the five Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) (see no. 32 and sec. II, nos. 40, 54, & 59).
- Liujia jimen (六甲奇門, lit: “Strang Door of the Six Jia Spirits) – A computational divination system used to foretell fate.
- Nizhi weilai (逆知未來) – Foreknowledge of the future.
- Bianshan yishi (鞭山移石, lit: “whipping mountains and shifting stones”) – A kind of earth bending where one can change the landscape at will (see sec. II, no. 47).
- Qisi huisheng (起死回生) – Bringing the dead back to life.
- Feishen tuoji (飛身托跡, lit: “flying body trace”) – Traveling heaven and earth without leaving a trace.
- Jiuqi fuqi (九息服炁, lit: “nine breaths air swallowing) – A kind of Taoist “embryonic breathing” thought to bring about immortality.
- Daochu yuanyang (導出元陽) – Extracting someone’s primal yang energy (see no. 36).
- Xianglong fuhu (降龍伏虎) – Subduing dragons and tigers. Apart from the literal reading, this could also be a metaphor for mastery of yin and yang energy.
- Butian yuri (補天浴日) – Mending the heavens and bathing in the sun. Is this perhaps some kind of power of purification?
- Tuishan tianhai (推山填海) – Pushing mountains and filling oceans.
- Zhishi chengjin (指石成金) – Turning stone into gold with just a point of the finger (see no. 11).
- Zhengli wuying (正立無影) – Standing in broad daylight without casting a shadow.
- Taihua yixing (胎化易形, lit: “changing form into a fetus”) – Regressing one’s form to a youthful appearance (see sec. II, no. 43). Could this be a reference to the “spirit embryo” from Taoist internal alchemy?
- Daxiao ruyi (大小如意) – Enlarging or shrinking things to meet one’s desires (see sec. II, no. 16).
- Huakai qingke (花開頃刻) – Making flowers bloom and plants grow instantly.
- Youshen yuqi (遊神御氣) – Traveling in spirit and riding the wind (see sec. 1, no. 17).
- Geyuan dongjian (隔垣洞見) – Seeing through walls and partitions.
- Huifeng fanhuo (迴風返火) – Repelling wind and fire (see sec. II, no. 4).
- Zhangwo wulei (掌握五雷, lit: “controlling the five thunders”) – Controlling divine, often wrathful beings to expel evil.
- Qianyuan suodi (潛淵縮地, lit: “diving into the abyss and contracting earth”) – Traveling deep within the water and earth unimpeded (see no. 12 and sec. II, nos. 40, 54, & 59). This likely also refers to immortals contracting the landscape in order to travel quickly or stay out of reach of those pursuing them.
- Feisha zoushi (飛砂走石, lit: “flying sand and moving rocks”) – Calling forth a mighty wind (see no. 5 and sec. II, nos. 5 & 12).
- Jiashan chaohai (挾山超海) – Carrying mountains under arm while crossing oceans (see sec. II, no. 3). This could also just mean the ability to do impossible things.
- Sadou chengbing (撒豆成兵) – Transforming scattered beans into an army of soldiers.
- Ding touqi jian (釘頭七箭, lit: “fixing the seventh posthumous day arrow”) – An arcane ritual involving killing someone from afar by stealing their spirit, attaching it to a straw effigy, and shooting it with an arrow (see no. 19).
The 36 Methods of the Heavenly Rectifiers (larger version) (PDF pp. 297-298).
III. The 72 Arts of the Terrestrial Killers
I have again included reference numbers.
- Tongyou (通幽) – Traveling through the underworld.
- Qushen (驅神) – Expelling spirits.
- Danshan (擔山) – Carrying mountains (see sec. I, no. 34).
- Jinshui (禁水) – Repelling water (see sec. II, no. 30).
- Jiefeng (借風) – Controlling wind (see sec. 1, no. 5)
- Buwu (佈霧) – Spreading fog (see sec. 1, no. 5).
- Qiqing (祈晴) – Summoning good weather (see sec. 1, no. 5).
- Daoyu (禱雨) – Summoning rain (see sec. 1, no. 5).
- Zuohuo (坐火, lit: “sit in fire”) – Resisting flame.
- Rushui (入水, lit: “entering water”) – Parting water.
- Yanri (掩日) – Eclipsing the sun (see no. 65).
- Yufeng (御風) – Riding the wind (see sec. I, no. 7).
- Zhushi (煮石, Lit: “cooking stones”) – Cooking immortality elixir (see no. 37).
- Tuyan (吐焰) – Breathing fire.
- Tundao (吞刀) – Swallowing swords.
- Hutian (壺天, lit: “pot heaven”) – Creating one’s own immortal land (pocket universe) within a pot or gourd (see sec. 1, no. 26).
- Shenxing (神行) – Traveling in spirit (see sec. I, no. 28).
- Lushui (履水) – Treading on water.
- Zhangjie (杖解, lit: “staff liberation”) – Magically turning an object into a fake corpse in order to escape and take on a new identity (see no. 46).
- Fenshen (分身) – Dividing the body into clones.
- Yinxing (隱形) – Invisibility (see no. 56).
- Xutou (續頭, lit: “continue head”) – Living without a head after decapitation (see no. 61).
- Dingshen (定身) – Fixing someone or something in place.
- Zhanyao (斬妖) – Beheading (or slaying) monsters.
- Qingxian (請仙) – Summoning divine beings.
- Zhuihun (追魂, lit: “chase a soul”) – Reaping a soul.
- Shehun (攝魂, lit: “take in a soul”) – Summoning or resurrecting a soul.
- Zhaoyun (招雲) – Summoning clouds (see nos. 5-8 and sec. 1, no. 5).
- Quyue (取月) – Fetching the moon.
- Banyun (搬運) – Transporting people or things to or away from you.
- Jiameng (嫁夢) – Manipulating dreams (see no. 72).
- Zhili (支離) – Fragmenting or destroying objects.
- Jizhang (寄杖, lit: “transmit the rod”) – Sending the pain of a beating to another person or thing.
- Duanliu (斷流) – Halting the flow of water.
- Rangzai (禳災) – Averting calamity.
- Jie’e (解厄) – Liberating someone from calamity.
- Huangbai (黃白, lit: “The (Art of) Yellow and White”) – Producing immortal elixirs via external alchemy (see no. 13).
- Jianshu (劍術, lit: “sword art”) – Mastery of swordplay and possibly the ability to direct the weapon like a drone.
- Shefu (射覆) – Divining hidden objects.
- Tuxing (土行) – Traveling through earth (see no. 54 & 59 and sec. I, nos. 12 & 32).
- Xingshu (星數, “star enumeration”) – Divining fate.
- Buzhen (布陣, lit: “spread troops”) – Knowledge of military battle arrays.
- Jiaxing (假形, lit: “artificial shape”) – Changing shape (see sec. I, no. 25).
- Penhua (噴化, “spray transformation”) – Changing the shape of a person or thing by spitting magic water or blood on them.
- Zhihua (指化, lit: “finger transformation”) – Changing something’s shape by pointing at it.
- Shijie (屍解) – Corpse liberation (see no. 19).
- Yijing (移景) – Magically shifting the landscape (see sec. I, no. 15).
- Zhaolai (招來) – Beckoning a person or thing to you.
- Zhuqu (逐去) – Sending said person or thing back.
- Jushou (聚獸, lit: “assemble beasts”) – Controlling animals.
- Diaoqin (調禽, lit: “move birds”) – Controlling birds.
- Qijin (炁禁, lit: “qi restraint”) – A method to affect reality with one’s internal energy (e.g. heal disease, restrain ghosts or animals, reverse the flow of rivers, etc.).
- Dali (大力) – Increasing strength.
- Toushi (透石) – Passing through solid rock (see no. 40 & 59 and sec. I, nos. 12 & 32).
- Shengguang (生光) – Producing a splendid light (see sec. 1, no. 9).
- Zhangyan (障眼, lit: “Obstruct vision”) – Creating a blind spot in someone or something’s eyesight (see no. 21).
- Daoyin (導引) – Taoist breathing and stretching exercises.
- Fushi (服食) – Consuming alchemical medicine (see no. 68).
- Kaibi (開壁, lit: “open ramparts”) – Walking through walls (see nos. 40 & 54 and sec. I, nos. 12 & 32).
- Yueyan (躍岩, lit: “jump cliffs”) – Supernatural jumping?
- Mengtou (萌頭) – Sprouting a new head after decapitation (see no. 22).
- Dengchao (登抄) – I’m not sure what this is. A few online sources point to this skill increasing the course of something, such as making a fire burn faster and hotter. But someone has also suggested to me that it involves theft. I’m open to other suggestions
- Heshui (喝水) – Imbibing supernatural amounts of water.
- Woxue (臥雪, lit: “lie in snow”) – Warding off the cold of snow and ice.
- Baori (暴日) – Exposing the sun (see no. 11).
- Nongwan (弄丸, lit: “manage pellets”) – Skill with projectiles, like pellets and rocks.
- Fushui (符水, lit: “talisman water”) – Creating disease-curing talismans meant to be burnt and swallowed with water.
- Yiyao (醫藥) – Making medicinal remedies.
- Zhishi (知時) – Knowledge of time and the seasons.
- Shidi (識地) – Knowledge of the earth and all places.
- Pigu (辟穀, lit: “grain law”) – Abstaining from the five grains in order to attain immortality. This may also refer to the common trope of immortals subsisting on wind and dew. 
- Yandao (魘禱, lit: “nightmare prayer”) – Assuaging nightmares (see no. 32).
The 72 Arts of the Terrestrial Killers (larger version) (PDF pp. 298-299).
IV. Lidai Shenxian Tongjiang PDF File
The Saṃyutta Nikāya (Sk: संयुक्त निकाया; Ch: Xiang ying bu, 相應部, c. 250 BCE) notes that Buddhist cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda). Notice how similar they are to those discussed above:
- Multiplying the body
- Vanishing and reappearing
- Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
- Diving into the earth like water
- Walking on water like earth
- Traveling through space
- Touching the sun and moon
- Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
- Knowing the minds of others
- Having memories of all of one’s past lives
- Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
- Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)
1) Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates these as the “Art of the Heavenly Ladle” and the “Art of the Earthly Multitude” (vol. 1, p. 122). I instead follow the translation used by Meulenbeld (2019). In regards to Tiangang (天罡), he explains: “In its exorcist manifestation, the Northern Dipper is known as gang 罡, which I translate here as ‘rectifier’ due to the ritual function it has in righting wrong” (Meulenbeld, p. 7). “Terrestrial Killers” is a direct translation of Disha (地煞).
2) This work is a collection of Taoist hagiographic material from ancient times to the Ming.
3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this sentence as, “I know as many transformations as the number of stars in the Heavenly Ladle” (vol. 1, p. 376).
4) For religious views on the 72 Terrestrial Killers (Disha, 地煞), see the cited quotes here.
Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Vols. 1-2). Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Meulenbeld, M. (2019). Vernacular “Fiction” and Celestial Script: A Daoist Manual for the Use of Water Margin. Religions, 10(9), 518. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/rel10090518.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.