Archive #16 – Creation of the Gods Library of Chinese Classics Chinese-English Bilingual Edition (Vol. 1-4)

Here I present a PDF of the Library of Chinese Classics bilingual edition of Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), sometimes translated as Investiture of the Gods or Enfeoffment of the Gods. This 100 chapter Shenmo novel tells of the great struggle between the declining Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and ascending Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties. In the beginning, King Zhou of Shang offends the primordial goddess Nuwa by leaving a lewd poem in her temple, and in response, the devi summons a trio of spirits (a fox, a pheasant, and a lute) to bring about the dynasty’s downfall. The fox spirit takes the place of the king’s concubine Daji and, over the course of nearly 30 years, leads him down a path of imperial neglect, decadence, and sadism. This leads to many of the kingdom’s dukes, marquis, and generals rebelling in favor of King Wu of Zhou, the monarch destined by heaven to rule China. 

The majority of the story follows the countless battles between the forces of Shang and Zhou. Along the way, the latter are aided by immortals of the benevolent Chan (闡) sect (an analogy for Quanzhen Daoism), which favors spiritual cultivation, while the former are aided by the malevolent Jie (截) sect (an analogy for Zhengyi), which favors charms and incantations. [1] Each transcendent wields any number of swords, fans, hooks, staves, axes, halberds, scissors, hammers, rings, sashes, nails, dippers, pennants, pearls, gourds (etc.), each with not only the power to take the lives of thousands of humans but also immobilize other immortals and even kill them. These celestial battles escalate to the point that Laozi and the Buddha must fight side-by-side to defeat a trap designed to kill 10,000 immortals.

A story line present throughout the novel is the fate of Jiang Ziya, a Daoist adept and military strategist and the stalwart commander of the Zhou army. He is destined to deify the souls of the humans and immortals who die in battle using the “List of Creation” (Fengshen bang, 封神榜), an index of preordained names agreed upon at the beginning of time by the heads of the three religions. This list is housed in the “Terrace of Creation”, a reed pavilion in which the souls of the dead are gathered to await their apotheosis. In the end, after defeating the Shang forces, Jiang deifies a total of 365 major gods (with thousands of lesser gods) ranging from holy mountains, weather, and plagues to constellations, the time cycle, and the five elements.

Nezha from Fengshen zhen xing tu

Fig. 1 – An illustration of Nezha from The True Forms of Invested Gods (Fengshen zhenxing tu, 封神真形圖) (larger version).

Considering the story takes place a millennia prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China, the novel portrays the religion having no presence in the east. There are several times in the narrative when a Buddhist deity travels from the western paradise to halt the execution of a powerful immortal or demon as they are fated to submit to Buddhism. Furthermore, when the Buddha intervenes in the great battle towards the end, he does so to find talented disciples who will help him spread the religion in the east. In fact, Bodhisattvas like Guanyin and Manjusri are depicted as former Chan sect immortals who later become disciples of Buddhism.

For the purposes of this blog, several characters from Journey to the West appear in the novel, including Laozi, the Buddha, Nezha (fig. 1), Muzha, and Li Jing, Ao Guang, Erlang (called Yang Jian, 楊戩) and his hound, etc. Journey to the West also had a number of clear influences on the book, one being the ape spirit Yuan Hong (袁洪) from later chapters who wields a staff and 72 transformations in a fight with Yang Jian. Sound familiar?

This edition of the novel was originally translated by Gu Zhizhong (顾执中, 1898–1995) in 1992. Dr. Barbara Witt notes the translation has its pros and cons:

The positive: It is the only complete translation of Fengshen yanyi into a Western language that I am aware of. The edition I read (from 1992 I think), was also nicely done with interesting woodcut illustrations throughout the novel.

The negative: Firstly, it is not a very faithful translation. Poems are generally left untranslated and sentences often paraphrased. [2] I think, when ever the translator found something difficult, he just skipped it. Secondly, I think Gu Zhizhong was not an English native speaker and not very familiar with Western mythology and some of his translations are really off. For example Taiyi zhenren 太乙真人 (“True Man Primordial”), a powerful Daoist immortal, becomes “Fairy Primordial” in his translation, which conjures up a very different image.

While the translation may not be perfect, I think it is a must read as many of the gods mentioned therein are worshiped in modern temples throughout China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. It is a lens into modern folk religion.

Book link


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.


1) Prof. Shi Changyu notes in his preface to this translation that the friction between the fictional Chan and Jie sects serves as an analogy for that of Quanzhen and Zhengyi during the Ming, for the former was marginalized, while the latter was held in high esteem and fell prey to decadence, naturally hindering its ability to contribute anything of value to the development of Daoism at this time (Gu, 2000, pp. 50-53).

2) Those interested in reading some of the poetry from the novel should consult Koss (1979), which compares them with those from Journey to the West.


Gu, Z. (2000). Creation of the gods: Vol. 1-4. Beijing: New World Press.

Koss, N. (1979). The Relationship of Hsi-yu chi and Feng-shen yen-i: An Analysis of Poems Found in Both Novels. T’oung Pao,65(4/5), second series, 143-165. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from

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

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 12-28-19

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (larger version). Originally found here.

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.


Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.

Update: 12-28-19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the  108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.


Mair, V. H. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei:

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras In V. Mair (Ed.), 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: Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Connection Between Primates and Martial Arts in Ancient China

Look up the terms “monkey” or “ape” in the dictionary and you’ll find that they serve as verbs meaning to mimic the movements or actions of another. This is because monkeys and apes have a propensity for observation and mimicry. Being primates ourselves, humans are no different. But interestingly this mimicry sometimes mirrors our primate cousins. Chinese martial arts, for example, has developed several primate-based fighting arts, including White Ape Connected Arms boxing (Baiyuan tongbei quan, 白猿通背拳) and several flavors of Monkey boxing (Houquan, 猴拳), and other styles have even adopted primate techniques, such as the monkey footwork of Praying Mantis boxing (Tanglang quan, 螳螂拳). Humans have long marveled at the physical prowess and acrobatic mastery of apes and monkeys. So it’s only natural that boxers would want to incorporate the powerful arm movements and awe-inspiring leaps and flips of primates into various fighting arts. But how long have our cousins been associated with martial arts in Chinese culture, and when and how did primate-based martial arts develop?

Two approaches can be used in an attempt to answer both questions. The first method involves charting similarities in techniques shared between modern regional primate-based Chinese martial arts styles and relying on folk lineages, ethnographic data, and (when possible) historical manuals to discover the earliest vestiges of primate boxing in China. A second method is to search for references to primate-based martial arts in the historical record. A benefit of the first approach would be pinpointing the areas in China where these styles likely first emerged in recent history. The downside is that martial arts are passed from teacher to student via embodied practices (e.g. fist and weapons forms and sparring), often without the material being recorded in a manual. This means such styles can’t be reliably traced beyond a certain time period. A benefit of the second approach is that it provides a deeper view of history, giving the researcher license to record not only the odd mention of historical boxing styles but also associations between primates and weapons and other forms of physical exercise in ancient folklore, literature, medicine, and religion. Obviously, the best approach would be a combination of the two. However, I lack the necessary encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese martial arts techniques. Such a grand project will have to wait for a more qualified researcher. I have instead decided to adopt the second approach.

This article is divided into five sections. The first presents a folk history for Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern form of Monkey boxing, to serve as an example of how such styles can be created. The second provides three references to premodern Monkey boxing appearing in military and travel writings of the 16th-century during late Ming (1368-1644), pointing to the commonplace nature of the style. Here I suggest the lack of evidence for pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing points to the style emerging during this time. This section also gives examples of armed techniques associated with apes in military literature of the 16th and 17th-century. The third discusses the story of the noted literary monkey hero Sun Wukong (孫悟空), his portrayal as a master of armed and unarmed fighting, and how he bridges the gap between the aforementioned lack of pre-Ming boxing references and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. The fourth presents ancient stories pitting a magic white ape against the martial skills of legendary Chinese heroes, including the archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) and the swordswoman the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 5th-c. BCE). And the fifth discusses ancient animal mimicry and suggests primate-based boxing is tied to war-like shamanic totemic dances and yoga-like daoyin calisthenics (8th-c. to 2nd-c. BCE). [1]

I. Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey boxing

Matsuda (2013) explains there are three main styles of monkey boxing:

  • Shaolin Monkey – This combative style is said to have developed among various animal styles at the famed Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) in Henan province, China. He claims this particular style to be thousands of years old (p. 50); however, this has no basis in history, as will be explained below.
  • Wushu Monkey – This modern, non-combative style focuses on gymnastic leaps and flips for entertainment purposes. It is used in both Chinese opera and the floor routines of form competitions (video 1) (pp. 54-56).
  • Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey – This is the Cantonese variant of the Mandarin Dasheng Pigua men (大聖劈掛門), or the “Great Sage Ax School” of boxing. This combative style is said to be quite young, being a little over 100 years old (p. 56).

To this I add one more:

Video 1 – The first half of this video shows a youth performing Wushu Monkey for a form competition.

Tai Shing Pek Kwar is a combination of two different styles. The first, which I will only describe briefly, is Pek Kwar kyun (Pigua quan, 劈掛拳), a style that mimics the swinging of an ax, relying on the lively arm movements to generate power much like the Choy Li Fut style of southern China. It is said to have been created over two hundred years ago in Shandong (northern China) by a woodcutter named Ma Chi Ho (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 64-68). The weapons practiced by this style include the double-edged sword (jian, 劍), the single-edged saber (dao, 刀), and the staff (gun, 棍) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 70-75).

The Tai Shing kyun (Dasheng quan, 大聖拳) style is said to have been founded in northern China around the year 1911 (the end of the Qing dynasty) by a prisoner named Kou Si (寇四). [2] After being sent to jail for murder, Kou discovered his cell faced a forest where he could observe the day-to-day lives of a troupe of monkeys. He noted five distinct behaviors among them that, when combined with his knowledge of Great Earth boxing (Di tang quan, 地趟拳), a type of ground combat, could be adapted for fighting.

  1. Lost Monkey (Mi Hou, 迷猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a frightened monkey, comprising periods of attack and retreat, with lots of rolling, low kicks, and quick, frantic running low to the ground (video 2).
  2. Stone Monkey (Shi Hou, 石猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an enraged alpha male, comprising slower but drastically more powerful fist, elbow, and knee strikes, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  3. Tall Monkey (Qi Hou, 企猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a tall monkey, comprising longer, quicker swinging arm strikes and higher-level kicks.
  4. Drunken Monkey (Zui Hou, 醉猴) – This form mimics the behavior of intoxicated monkeys, comprising falls, swaying motions with broken footwork, and circular punches, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  5. Wooden Monkey (Mu Hou, 木猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an intelligent, deceptive monkey, comprising quick, low attacks and rolls similar to the Lost Monkey, but feigning retreat only to turn and unleash strikes upon the pursuing opponent.

After perfecting the style, Kou Si is said to have named it “Great Sage boxing” in honor of the monkey hero Sun Wukong (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-116). This is a reference to the title taken by the character during his rebellion against heaven (see section III below). The weapons practiced by this style include the staff and the metal ring (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 118-131).

Video 2 – The Lost Monkey form.

II. Primates and martial arts during the Ming

Textural evidence for Monkey boxing actually predates Kou Si’s lineage, appearing in late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) records. The first reference appears in the eighteen volume edition of famed general Qi Jiguang‘s (戚繼光, 1528-1588) (fig. 1) New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shiba juan ben, 紀效新書十八卷本), a military training manual completed in 1561 or 1562. The fourteenth chapter, titled “Chapter on the Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness” (Quanjing Jieyao Pian, 拳經捷要篇), reads:

Among the past and present fist specialists, the Song Great Founder had the Long Fist system with thirty-two positions. Moreover there are six pace and fist techniques, the Monkey Fist, and the Feinting Fist. The famous positions each have their own names, but in reality they are quite similar and scarcely differ from one another (Gyves, 1993, p. 34).

While Qi believed boxing had no place in armed conflict, he thought such training was useful as it strengthened soldiers’ bodies, coordinated their limbs, improved their weapons skills, and bolstered their courage (Gyves, 1993, pp. 33-37). Qi gathered what he considered the most efficient techniques to achieve this goal, meaning he consulted with many martial artists in the process. The fact that he mentions Monkey boxing suggests it was a common style among fighters of this time.

Qi Jiguang statue (Fuzhou) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern statue of General Qi Jiguang (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The second reference appears in Zheng Ruozeng’s (郑若曾, 1505-1580) Strategic Situation in Jiangnan (Jiangnan jinglue, 江南經略, 1564), which was written in response to the ever-present threat of the Woukou (倭寇), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits, invading China’s coastline. In the eighth volume, Zheng provides a long list of armed and unarmed martial arts, including the “thirty-six roads (forms) of Monkey boxing” (Houquan sanshiliu lu, 猴拳三十六路) (Zheng, 1564). Again, this suggests Monkey boxing was quite common.

The third appears in scholar Wang Shixing’s (王士性, 1547-1598) A Journey to Mt. Song (Song you ji, 嵩遊記), a travel log of the mountain on which the famed Shaolin monastery is located:

Martial monks again each came to present skills. With fists and staves contending, they struck as if flying. Their teacher with folded hands looked on. Among them was a monkey striker, spinning and leaping, just like a monkey… (Wells & Chang, 2004, p. 23).

This shows a single Shaolin warrior monk practiced Monkey boxing. But does this mean the style was part of the monastery’s official curriculum at this time? The answer is no. According to Shahar (2008), textual evidence suggests Shaolin officially took up boxing in the proceeding 17th-century, and the first styles practiced were Drunken Eight Immortals boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳) and Lost Track boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), possibly followed by Plum Flower boxing (Meihua quan, 梅花拳) in the 18th-century. The monks adopted pugilism as a form of calisthenic exercise, later combining it with Daoyin (導引) calisthenics and spirituality to create a new form of self-cultivation. [3] Prior to this, the Shaolin monks were only known for their proficiency with the staff. Therefore, given the seeming commonplace nature of Monkey boxing during the late Ming, the monk could have learned the style from an outside source.

Modern folklore associated with one primate-based style, White Ape Connected Arms Boxing (Baiyuan tongbei / bi quan, 白猿通背 / 臂拳), traces its origins to religious and military figures of the Song dynasty (960-1279), centuries prior to the Ming (Lu, 2006, pp. 103-105, for example). However, it should be said that having a Song-era foundation is a reoccurring theme in many martial arts legends. For instance, the famed Song general Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142) is commonly attributed Eagle Claw boxing (Yingzhao quan, 鷹爪拳) and Form-Intent boxing (Xingyi quan, 形意拳) (Liang & Yang, 2002, pp. 15-16, for example). But textual evidence for these styles don’t appear until the Ming and Qing, respectively. [4] Most importantly, the oldest source associated with White Ape Connected Arms Boxing, titled the Connected Arms Boxing Manual (Tongbi quan pu, 通臂拳谱), was written during the late Ming and finally published in 1665 during the early Qing (List of surviving Ming period martial arts, 2017). Likewise, concrete references to primate-based boxing do not predate the Ming. This might suggest such styles arose during this time when there was an explosion in the popularity of pugilism. But this tells us nothing about how primate-based boxing may have developed. The history of animal mimicry in Chinese martial arts can be traced to much older concepts based in medicine and religion. This is discussed in section V below.

Japanese and ape sword-fighting combination - small

Fig. 2 – A compilation of images of the sword-fighting apes from the Collection of Military Works (c. 1621) (larger version). By the author. Fig. 3 – A compilation of the original stick figures and Japanese calligraphy from the fourteen volume edition of the New Treatise on Military Efficiency (1584) (larger version). From Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. Note the similarities in stance and the position of the blades. 

As for the association between primates and armed combat during the Ming, the animals are occasionally referenced in the named fighting techniques of military literature. For example, the tenth volume of Qi Jiguang’s aforementioned manual includes a feinting lance technique titled “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance” (Baiyuan tuo dao shi, 白猿拖刀勢) (Yang & Xie, 1995, p. 336). The 35th volume of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques compiled by Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀, 1594-1640), includes “White ape exits cave” (Baiyuan chudong shi, 白猿出洞勢), a stance appearing in the sequence for an overhead sword guard. [5] (Incidentally, this is also the name of a fist set practiced in some lineages of Praying Mantis boxing). Additionally, the same volume includes a two-section sword manual, the first section of which portrays fanciful images of apes practicing with the “Sprout saber” (miaodao, 苗刀) (Mao, 1621), a long, two-handed blade similar to the Japanese Katana (fig. 2). These strange images differ from the human-based figures in the rest of the source. It’s important to note that the original sword manual, called Saber Techniques of the Xinyou-era (i.e. 1561) (Xinyou daofa, 辛酉刀法), is taken directly from the fourth volume of the revised fourteen volume edition of Qi’s New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shisi juan ben, 紀效新書十四卷本, 1584). The first of the aforementioned two sections reproduces a series of sword-wielding stick figures taken from a Shadow School (Kage-ryu, 影流 / 陰流) manual of Japanese sword fighting. The section is prefaced by lively Japanese calligraphy, and the few words recognizable to readers of Chinese include “ape flying” (yuanfei, 猿飛) and “ape returning” (yuanhui, 猿回) (fig. 3), both of which are Kenjutsu techniques still practiced today (video 3). [6] This then might explain why the stick figures were changed to apes when the material was reproduced in the Collection of Military Works decades later. But I would also like to suggest that the change (as well as the allusion to the sword-wielding white ape from the lance technique mentioned earlier) was influenced by a famous first-century Chinese story about a talented swordswoman who has her skills tested by a magic white ape. This is discussed in section IV below.

Video 3 – A modern demonstration of the “ape-flying” technique.

III. Sun Wukong the Monkey King

By far, the most famous weapon-bearing primate of the late Ming-period is Sun Wukong (a.k.a. “Monkey”), the simian protagonist of the highly popular Chinese novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). According to the tale, the stone-born monkey rules a mountain utopia before learning magic, martial arts, and the secret of immortality under a Buddho-Daoist sage. He soon thereafter acquires a magic, size-changing iron staff, which he uses to wage war against the celestial realm (fig. 4), proclaiming himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖, hence the name for Kou Si’s Monkey boxing). But his rebellion is eventually quelled by the Buddha, who imprisons the indestructible monkey demon beneath a mountain for his crimes. Five hundred years later, the repentant immortal is called upon to use his great strength, martial arts, and powers of transformation to protect the monk Tripitaka on a journey to procure scriptures from India.

Mr. Li's Criticism - Detail of Monkey fighting Heaven (small)

Fig. 4 – A woodblock print of Sun Wukong fighting the heavenly army with his magic staff (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhouwu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West, late 16th-century. 

The narrative portrays Sun as a well-rounded martial artist proficient in both weapons and boxing. For example, during his rebellion with heaven, he trains his monkey children as soldiers, teaching them troop movement and weapons, including swords, spears, axes, and bows and arrows. But he is best known for his skill with the staff (fig. 5). One episode sees Monkey give a display of his martial prowess while he and his master travel through a spooky mountain. His skill is so great that the story likens it to the strategy taught in two of the Seven Military Classics of China: 

“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat.” Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as he walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the [Six Secret Teachings and Three Strategies (Liu Tao San Lue, 六韜三略)]. [7] What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 5 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

Furthermore, Monkey displays a mastery of unarmed fighting (fig. 6) in two episodes. A poem in chapter 51, for example, is important because it describes a battle between Sun and a rhinoceros demon in which they use real boxing techniques, many of which are still known and practiced to this day:

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13).

While the techniques are not Monkey boxing, the narrative certainly helped solidify the connection between primates and martial arts during the late Ming when references to the style were recorded.


Fig. 6 – Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).

Sun Wukong’s image as a master of armed and unarmed combat led to his veneration among northern Chinese martial artists at the end of the Qing. As noted in this article, fighters of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) were known to channel the spirit of the Monkey King (among other deities) in order to gain his martial prowess. A German catholic missionary active in Shandong in the early 20th-century recorded how four boxer youths were chosen as possible vessels, and after a ritual enticed the deity to earth, the “possessed” individual performed a frightening saber dance, indicating the Great Sage had taken control. Additionally, Dudbridge (1970) cites one 17th-century source that describes Sun’s veneration in the southern Chinese province of Fujian for “appear[ing] in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates” (p. 158). This refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by the aforementioned Wokou pirates. Interestingly, Sun Wukong fighting pirates puts him in the same company as the Shaolin warrior monks, who used their martial arts skills to rout the same bandits during the 1550s (Shahar, 2008, pp. 68-70).

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 7 – The Monkey Pilgrim stone relief carving, 1237, from the Kaiyuan Temple Western Pagoda, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China (larger version).

Monkey is important to this study because he bridges the gap between the lack of pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. Sun first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. The narrative presents our hero wielding two staves, one a golden-ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron staff, in defense of his Buddhist master. These two staves would later be combined by storytellers to create his signature weapon.

Older still, the Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺) of Fujian is home to a nearly life-sized carving of the hero (fig. 7), who is presented as a saber-wielding guardian deity. He appears alongside other such wrathful gods, as well as bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, and eminent monks, on a stone pagoda that was erected in the year 1237. So Monkey was associated with various weapons as far back as the 13th-century.

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 8 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88.

Apart from possible Indian influences, Sun Wukong’s origins can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty tales in which a magical white ape or gibbon (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnaps human woman and spoils their innocence (fig. 8). For example, the unnamed primate antagonist of “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong baiyuan zhuang, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-c.) is described as a 1,000-year-old hermit who lives in a mountain utopia, practices longevity arts, wields the power to fly and change his shape, and has supernatural strength and an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm him. Most importantly, he is depicted as a master of armed combat, one displaying a fondness for sword dancing. His blade is said to “circl[e] his body as fast as lightning and as round as a full moon”. [8] As noted above, this is not the first story involving a magic white ape who is fond of swordplay. 

IV. Magic apes and ancient Chinese heroes

The Chinese classic the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) describes the literary heroes Hou Jian (侯健), Lin Chong (林沖), and Zhang Qing (張清) (fig. 9) each having ape-like arms, denoting their great strength and agility. This same nickname was applied to powerful archers of the past. Ma (2010) writes:

[I]t is said that the Xiongnu warrior Liu Chong ‘had arms like an ape, was skilled at archery (yuanbei shanshe 猿臂善射), and could pull a bow of three hundred jin’ 斤(Book of Wei《魏書》). Similarly, History of Ming describes General Chang Yuchun 常遇春 as ‘distinguished looking, with peerless courage and strength, had arms like those of an ape and was skilled at archery’; and in the same vein, Tang poet Cui Daorong 崔道融 wrote that ‘the ape-armed general runs as if on wings, sparing no one with his bow from a hundred paces’ (General Li’s Biography [Ti Li jianjun zhuan 題李將軍傳]) (p. 24).

Zhang Qing (Water Margin hero) with Sun Wukong tattoo - small

Fig. 9 – A woodblock print of the hero Zhang Qing by Kuniyoshi produced between 1827 and 1830 (larger version). It is part of the artist’s “One of the 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin” series (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, 通俗水滸傳濠傑百八人一個). Original image found here. Look closely and you’ll notice that the tattoo on Zhang’s back portrays Sun Wukong producing magical clones of himself from his mouth.

Oddly enough, the earliest tales mentioning archers and magic white apes do not liken one to the other. In fact, they are diametrically opposed. For example, a third-century BCE tale about the famed archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) portrays the creature as an elusive target for his arrow:

Once in the palace of Jing 荊 there was a supernatural white ape. Even the skillful archers of Jing could not hit it. Then the king of Jing asked … Yang Youji to shoot it. Yang straightened his bow and went to the palace with arrows in his hands. Before shooting he aimed at a place where the [moving] ape had not yet arrived. When he let the arrow fly, the ape fell immediately. Thus Yang Youji could be called the archer who could hit a target before it was there (Wu, 1987, p. 103; see also Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

A similar version of the tale states the ape recognizes Yang’s supernatural skill, anticipating the arrow and crying out in pain moments before actually being struck (Wu, 1987, p. 103; Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

Perhaps the most famous story associating the magic white ape with martial arts is the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 1st-c. BCE), named after its protagonist, a peerless swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE. The story describes how she participates in a sparring match with the shape-changing ape:

The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king [Goujian of Yue]. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was “Old Mr. Yuan” [Yuan Gong, 袁公].

He said to the young woman, “I hear you fight well with a [sword]. I’d like to see a demonstration.”

She replied, “I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.”

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but [she] parried straight back, thrust three times, and finally raised her end of bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan [fig. 10]. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape [baiyuan, 白猿, hence the surname]. Then each went their own way, and she went on to meet with the king. [9]

Upon meeting the king, the Maiden reveals the secret to her fighting ability is the application of yin and yang energy, which are metaphorically described as the opening and closing of large and small swinging doors. This is “[t]he earliest extant published exposition of [the] theory applied directly to the martial arts” (Henning, 2001, p. 746), predating the artificial categorization of Chinese boxing into “internal” (neijia, 内家) and “external” (waijia, 外家) styles during the 17th-century (Henning, 2007, p. 26). Therefore, the importance of the story in the annals of Chinese martial arts history can’t be overstated. Nor can the inclusion of the white ape. His supernatural challenge and subsequent defeat respectively tests and confirms the effectiveness of the theory.

This tale likely influenced the association between white apes and swordplay in later sources, such as the sword-dancing antagonist of the Tang-era “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (section III) and the sword-wielding primates of military literature (section II). For example, “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance”, the aforementioned feinting lance technique from New Treatise on Military Efficiency (c. 1561/1562), may refer to Old Mr. Yuan’s defeat.

Maiden of Yue vs Old Man Yuan (the white ape) - small

Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the Maiden of Yue fighting Old Mr. Yuan by martial historian Stan Henning (larger version). From Henning, 2007, p. 24.

Our heroes’ respective stories make no reference to animal mimicry, the cornerstone of primate-based boxing. In fact, it’s the reverse in the second narrative: an ape mimics man. [10] The tales instead promote the idea of trained human skill conquering the raw, often magical, power of nature. In the case of the Maiden of Yue, her mastery of yin and yang energy enabled her to best the magic white ape. Yang Youji is more of a mythic figure capable of miraculous feats, such as sinking an arrow into a boulder simply because he mistook it for a rhino (i.e. mind over matter) (Selby, 2000, p. 131). But he succeeded in falling a white ape when many archers failed. These tales are therefore the antithesis of primate-based boxing, representing what might have been considered more “civilized” or “noble” forms of martial arts, namely the armed disciplines of archery and swordplay.

V. Animal mimicry in Chinese medicine and religion

I suggested above that primate-based styles may have arisen during the Ming. But how the styles developed is likely tied to the long history of animal mimicry in China. For example, around the year 60 BCE (during the Han), the courtier Tan Changqing (檀長卿) is said to have been reprimanded for violating ritual norms by performing the dance of the “dog and macaque combat” (wu wei mu hou yu gou dou, 舞為沐猴與狗鬭) while at a drunken party (Harper, 2001, p. 18). This dance may have some connection to a funerary motif appearing in Han-era stone tombs in which dogs are shown intimidating apes, the motif representing the conquering of evil influences. [11] Tan’s display can’t be assigned a martial role, however, because it was likely a comical pantomime. [12] But this shows mimicking primates served a variety of purposes in Chinese culture.

Primate-based movements figure in a number of ancient therapeutic exercises. For instance, the monkey appears in the Five Animals’ Frolic (Wuqin xi, 五禽戲), a 3rd-century system of daoyin calisthenics, which mimics the movements or behaviors of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird (in that order), each animal set strengthening a particular area of the body (Kohn, 2008, pp. 163-169). Movements mimicking the bear, monkey, and bird actually predate this system, appearing among forty-four exercises listed in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (Daoyin tu, 導引圖, 168 BCE), the oldest known diagram of daoyin exercises, discovered in Mawangdui (馬王堆) (fig. 11 and 12). Primate-based exercises include the “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (muhou guan yinling zhong, 沐猴灌引靈中) (#35) and “Gibbon Shouting” (yuanhu, 猿謼) (#40) (fig. 13 and 14) (Harper, 1998, pp. 315 and 316). [13]

The Masters of Huainan (Huananzi, 淮南子, 139 BCE), a compendium of Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist thought, references another primate-based daoyin set in a section criticizing such exercises as inferior to spiritual cultivation:

If you huff and puff,
exhale and inhale,
blow out the old and pull in the new,
practice the Bear Hang [xiongjing, 熊經], the Bird Stretch [niaoshen, 鳥伸],
the Duck Splash [fuyu, 鳧浴], the Ape leap [yuanjue, 蝯躩],
the Owl Gaze [chishi, 鴟視], and the Tiger Stare [hugu, 虎顧]:

This is what is practiced by those who nurture the body. They are not the practices of those who polish the mind (Liu & Major, 2010, p. 236).

Daoyin tu - Original, reconstruction, monkey and gibbon - 35 and 40

Fig 11 – (Top left) The Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling, 2nd-c. BCE, paint on silk, 142 x 70 cm (55.9 x 27.5 in) (larger version). Image originally found here. Fig. 12 – (Top right) A modern reconstruction (larger version). Image originally found on Wikipedia. Harper (1998) warns such reconstructions “should be regarded as conjectural in many details” since the original is in such poor condition (p. 191). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) The reconstruction of “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (larger version). Fig. 14 – (Bottom right) The reconstruction of “Gibbon Shouting” (larger version).

These therapeutic exercises likely find their origin in ancient Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences (Harper, 1985, pp. 487-488). One such dance was the seasonal Da Nuo (大儺 / 難; Jp: Tsuina, 追儺) ritual in which a bearskin-clad exorcist (Ch: fangxiangshi; Jp: hōsōshi, 方相氏) and his army of fur, feather, and horn-clad youths, representing twelve animal deities, expelled evil spirits from human dwellings. Evidence suggests it may have been performed as early as the Shang (17th to 11th-c. BCE), but the earliest concrete references come from the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE) (Poo, 2009, p. 286). What’s interesting for our purposes is that the exorcism has a martial aspect; not only does the exorcist bear a lance and shield for ritual combat (fig. 15), but also the group travels throughout the given location dancing and shouting, with the youths beating drums and commanding twelve spirits by name to devour or eviscerate anthropomorphic representations of malevolent influences (Poo, 2009, pp. 287-288). So by wearing animal products, the exorcist and his ritual army gained the strength of animal deities to combat dark forces.

Nuo exorcist expelling demon (Hayaike Yu Okami and Oni Yarai) - small

Fig. 15 – A Japanese woodblock print portraying the Da Nuo exorcist expelling a “pestilence” spirit with his lance and shield (larger version). Originally found here. Note the four-eyed mask. This is based on the four golden-eyed bear skin worn by the exorcist in ancient Chinese records (Poo, 2009, p. 287).

It’s possible that the “twelve animals” of the Da Nuo exorcism refer to some precursor of the Chinese zodiacal animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig). If true, monkey fur could have been among the animal products worn by the ritual army. After all, monkeys have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. [14] A modern example of exorcists who don monkey fur are the shamans of the Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan. The Qiang worship monkeys as the source and savior of their sacred knowledge, as well as the progenitor of their people, the latter being a myth cycle common among ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China.

Henning (2001) highlights the connection between animal totemism and animal boxing:

Another view is that at least some animal forms may hark back to a distant totemic past that still occupies a place in the Chinese psyche. This totemic influence is difficult if not impossible to trace in majority Han Chinese boxing styles; however, it can be seen in the combination of martial arts and dance practiced by some of China’s many national minorities. Cheng Dali, in his Chinese Martial Arts: History and Culture, points to Frog Boxing, practiced by the Zhuang Nationality of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as an example, the frog being considered their protector against both natural and man-made disasters (p. 16).

Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming could descend from totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices. The development could have gone something like this:

  1. Early shamanic dances drawing on the totemic power of primate deities (via their fur) to exorcise evil influences through ritual combat, including the bearing of weapons, drumming, dancing, and the shouting of spells.
  2. The animal fur and martial dancing give way to calisthenics drawing on primate mimicry to expel sickness and strengthen the body.
  3. These calisthenic movements are adapted for fighting.

It’s even possible that the war-like shamanic dancing gave way directly to boxing. Martiality (wu, 武) and dance (wu, 舞) have long been associated in Chinese history, for drums and gongs were used to direct the movements of both troops and dancers (Lorge, 2012, p. 26-27). Musical accompaniment remains a staple of folk martial arts performances. A modern example of totemic mimicry, dancing, and martial arts is the Lion Dance (wushi, 舞獅) popular in Asian communities throughout the world (video 4).

Video 4 – Five lion dancing teams performing before a crowd. 

VI. Conclusion

Apes and monkeys have been associated with armed and unarmed martial arts in Chinese culture for over two thousand years. Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern combat style of Monkey boxing created in the early 20th-century, is predated by even older instances of Monkey boxing alluded to in military and travel writings of the 16th-century, suggesting it was a common form of pugilism. Additionally, military literature of the 16th and 17th-century associates white apes with swordplay. The lack of historical references to primate-based boxing prior to the Ming (1368-1644) suggests such styles developed during the explosion in popularity of pugilism at this time. The image of the highly popular late Ming literary monkey hero Sun Wukong as a master of armed and unarmed martial arts, as well as his association with staff and sword fighting in 13th-century oral literature and Buddhist art, respectively, helps bridge this gap between the lack of historical boxing references and older material associating primates with armed combat. He can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty stories about magic white apes who, due to their supernatural abilities, were portrayed as the ultimate test of a warrior’s martial skills. The most famous of these tells how the Maiden of Yue, a talented swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE, vets her yin-yang theory-based sword style by defeating a white ape-turned-old man in a sparring match. This story is important because it’s the first recorded association of yin-yang theory and martial arts in Chinese history. This tale and another involving the mythic archer Yang Youji are the antitheses of primate-based boxing because each touts the superiority of trained human skill over the raw, magical power of nature. Despite this, animal mimicry played a large role in early therapeutic yoga-like Daoyin calisthenics, such as the Five Animals Frolic (3rd-c. CE) and those appearing in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (168 BCE), which copied the movements of monkeys and apes (among other animals) to strengthen given areas of the body. These exercises likely find their origin in ancient war-like Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences, one example being the seasonal Da Nuo exorcism of the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE). The Da Nuo exorcist and his ritual army wore animal products (fur, horns, feathers, etc.) to invoke the power of animal deities capable of driving away malevolent forces. Monkey fur may have been worn by members of the ritual army because the animal and its products have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. Shamans among the modern Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan worship monkeys and draw on the power of their fur to perform exorcisms. Animal totemism plays a part in some animal-based martial arts, such as the Frog boxing of the Zhuang ethnic group. Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming may have been influenced by the ancient totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices, those that formed the basis of later animal-based therapeutic exercises. This is where the historical study would benefit from modern ethnographic field research. A followup study might bridge the gap between the historical data and modern practice.


1) A shorter paper with a similar focus is Ma (2010). The editor of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies was gracious enough to provide me with a PDF copy of the article when I was nearing completion of this paper.

2) Regarding the name of the creator of Monkey boxing, Kou Si (寇四), kou (寇) means “bandit, foe, or enemy.” I find this especially interesting given he was imprisoned for murder, the reasons for which range from accidentally killing a villager in a fight to purposely killing a military official to avoid service (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-87). It’s possibly this name is simply a folk title given to an unknown creator, or one known to have been active in crime.

3) See chapters three and four.

4) The earliest mention of Eagle Claw appears in Qi Jiguang’s training manual. It refers to “Eagle Claw Wang’s grappling methods” (Yingzhao Wang zhi na, 鷹爪王之拿) (Gyves, 1993, p. 35). Qing-era manuals and family histories suggest Xingyi was created by a certain Ji Jike (姬際可, fl. 1650) (Shahar, 2008, pp. 134-135).

5) For an English translation of the sword technique mentioning the stance, see Chen, 2018, pp. 73-75.

6) Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. I’m indebted to the operator of the Great Ming Military blog for explaining the connection between the ape images and the visible characters from the Japanese calligraphy, as well as providing me with a digital copy of the fourteen volume edition of Qi’s training manual.

7) The original English translation omits the two named books from the Chinese version. It reads, “…the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

8) Chen, 1998, p. 84. Some readers may have noticed the sword is a reoccurring theme in Sun Wukong’s history: 1) The Qing-era boxers are said to have performed a saber dance under his possession; 2) he is depicted with a saber on the Kaiyuan temple pagoda in Fujian; and 3) the magic white ape on whom he is likely based loves performing sword dances. In addition, two other sources mention Monkey’s association with the sword. First, a 15th-century Zaju play describes Guanyin giving Sun Wukong a Buddhist saber (jiedao, 戒刀) (apart from other magic items) to protect his master on the eve of their journey. Second, a 17th-century tale set in Fujian describes the Great Sage magically afflicting a merchant with painful leg sores using a “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

I don’t think these have any unifying significance, however. For example, the saber requires less training and is cheaper than other implements of war. So it was often the go to weapon for soldiers and bodyguards. Monkey’s association with the saber on the pagoda is likely tied to this same concept. As a guardian deity, he is portrayed with the same weapon used by mortals to protect others in times of need. The magic white ape is portrayed as a Daoist gentleman, one in possession of a pair of treasure swords (baojian, 寶劍), the kind used in Daoist ritual. His fancy for the sword may be based on Old Mr. Yuan from the Maiden of Yue (see section IV). Another literary character with Buddhist sabers is Wu Song from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). I explain in this article (footnote #2) that his sabers are based on real world Buddhist knives issued to monks. The same concept is no doubt tied to Monkey’s weapon from the play. Having said that, I will admit, though, that the saber from the pagoda may have had some influence on that mentioned in the 17th-century story. After all, the pagoda example is portrayed with a lick of heavenly flame, just like one would expect from a celestial sword. Also, both the story and the pagoda take place/are located in Fujian, home to the Great Sage’s cult.

9) Selby, 2000, pp. 155-156. The famous Tang poet Li Bai (李白) referenced Mr. Yuan’s defeat in one of his poems. A line reads “The White Ape was ashamed of his fencing” (Ma, 2010, p. 24). This is fascinating as Li Bai was also known to have been a proficient swordsmen in his youth (Liu, 1967, pp. 46-47).

10) This is based on an old concept in which primates were thought to progress through a type of magical evolution, similar to modern day Pokémon. The Baopuzi (抱朴子, 2nd-c. CE) states a monkey will transform into a gibbon after 800 years of life. It will then change into several legendary apes over some 3,500 years, before evolving into an old man (Ball, 1927, p. 117). Gulik (1967) cites a tale in which the soothsayer Zhou Qun (周羣 / 周群) learns the secrets of divination from a gibbon-turned-old man (p. 50).

11) As noted in this article, Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s hound is tied to the Han-era tomb motif of dogs intimidating apes.

12) Ma (2010) translates the historical passage, noting those at the party were “drinking wine and making merry, then Tan Changqing, the high official of Changxin Palace, starts to dance, to imitate a monkey fighting with a dog, bringing laughter to all present” (p. 25).

13) Harper (1998) suggests an alternate reading for “Gibbon shout” (yuanhu謼) is “Gibbon Jump” (yuanjue, 蝯躩) based on graphical similarities to an exercise from the Huainanzi. (淮南子, 139 BCE) (p. 316, n. 1).

14) This is tied to a Song-era (and likely older) superstition from Sichuan where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness (Eberhard, 1969, p. 52). This is why heaven appoints Sun Wukong the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “Keeper of the (Heavenly) Horses”), which is a pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, “Avoid the horse plague”). Due to his former exalted position, earthly horses are shown to fear the Monkey King throughout the narrative (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309, for example).

In Japan, monkeys were also associated with horses and healing via the warding of evil. Apart from monkeys being kept in stables like their Chinese counterparts, their fur was applied to the harnesses and quivers of Samurai because the warriors believed it gave them more control over their mounts. Furthermore, monkey body parts have been consumed for centuries as curative medicines, and their hides have even been stuffed to make protective amulets (kukurizaru) to ward off illness. Likewise, a genre of painting depicts divine monkeys (saru gami), messengers of the mountain deity, performing Da Nuo-like dances to ensure a good rice harvest (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1987, pp. 43-50)


Ball, K. M. (1927). Decorative motives of oriental art. London, John Lane; New York, Dodd, Mead and Co.

Chen, J. (1998). A supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape. Renditions 49, pp. 76-85.

Chen, J. (2018). Ancient art of Chinese long straight sword. (n.p.): Chen Jiayi.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Eberhard, W. (1969). The local cultures of south and east China. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gyves, C. M. (1993). An English Translation of General Qi Jiguang’s “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” (Master’s thesis). The University of Arizona, Arizona, USA.

Harper, D. (1985). A Chinese demonography of the Third Century B.C. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 45 (2), pp. 459-498.

Harper, D. (1998). Early Chinese medical literature: The Mawangdui medical manuscripts. London: Wellcome Asian Medical Monographs.

Harper, D. (2001). Poets and Primates: Wang Yanshou’s Poem on the Macaque, Asia Major 14(2), pp. 1-25.

Henning, S. (2001). Written Texts: China In T. A. Green (Ed.), Martial arts of the world: An encyclopedia, volume two: r–z (pp. 745-748). Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

Henning, S. (2007). The maiden of Yue: Fount of Chinese martial arts theory. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 16(3), pp. 24-27.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese healing exercises: The tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Liang, S. Y., and Yang, J. M. (2002). Xingyiquan: Theory, applications, fighting tactics and spirit. Boston: YMAA Publication Center.

List of surviving Ming period martial arts. (2017, December 3). Retrieved from

Liu, J. Y. (1967). The Chinese knight-errant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Liu, A., and Major, J. S. (2010). The Huainanzi: A guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lu, S. (2006). Combat techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua: Principles and practices of internal martial arts. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books.

Ma, L. (2010). From ape worship in ancient China to monkey imitation in modern competition wu shu. Journal of Chinese Martial Studies 2, pp. 20-28.

Mao, Y. (1621). Wubei zhi: juan sanshiwu  [Collection of Military Works: Volume 35]. Retrieved from

Matsuda, M. (2013). Monkey kung fu: History & tradition. (n.p.): Michael Matsuda.

Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1987). The monkey as mirror: Symbolic transformations in Japanese history and ritual. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Poo, M. (2009). Ritual and ritual texts in early China In J. Lagerwey and M. Kalinowski (Ed.). Early Chinese religion, part one: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (pp. 281-313). Leiden: Brill.

Qi, J. (2001). Jixiao xinshu shisi juan ben [New Treatise on Military Efficiency: Fourteen volume edition]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1584)

Selby, S. (2000). Chinese archery. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wu, C., and Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yang, J., and Xie, G. (Ed.) (1995). Zhongguo bingshu jicheng [Collection of Chinese Military Literature]. Beijing: Liaoshen shushe.

Zheng, R. Z. (1564). Jiangnan jinglue: juan ba shang [Strategic Situation in Jiangnan: vol. 8]. Retrieved from江南經畧_(四庫全書本)/卷8上

Archive #10 – Journey to the West 2012 Revised Edition

Here I present four PDFs comprising the complete four volume 2012 revised edition of Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu. Each has been converted from an EPUB into a PDF. The resulting PDF files do not match the exact page count for the published editions. This means they are not suitable for citing in research. However, they are still perfect for those looking to read THE most accurate translation of the tale available. I hope those who read and enjoy the digital version will support the official release.

Anthon C. Yu (October 6, 1938 – May 12, 2015) was Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature in the Chicago Divinity School. I shared a long email correspondence with Prof. Yu, during which we became friends. He was always quick to answer my many questions. His translation remains a treasure trove of explanatory notes and sources.

Information about the translation

Anthony C. Yu’s translation of The Journey to the West,initially published in 1983, introduced English-speaking audiences to the classic Chinese novel in its entirety for the first time […] With over a hundred chapters written in both prose and poetry, The Journey to the West has always been a complicated and difficult text to render in English while preserving the lyricism of its language and the content of its plot. But Yu has successfully taken on the task, and in this new edition he has made his translations even more accurate and accessible. The explanatory notes are updated and augmented, and Yu has added new material to his introduction, based on his original research as well as on the newest literary criticism and scholarship on Chinese religious traditions. He has also modernized the transliterations included in each volume, using the now-standard Hanyu Pinyin romanization system. Perhaps most important, Yu has made changes to the translation itself in order to make it as precise as possible (source).

2012 Vol. 1 book cover - small

The cover of volume one (larger version).

PDF Files

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4


These books have been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.

Parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song

It recently occurred to me that Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (hereafter, JTTW) and Wu Song (武松) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (hereafter, WM) share a number of similarities. Each is a reformed supernatural spirit, a tiger-slayer, a Buddhist monk nicknamed “Pilgrim”, and a monastic martial artist, and each wears a moralistic headband and wields a weapon made from the same fanciful metal. Since the WM predates the publication of JTTW by nearly two hundred years, one might be tempted to speculate that the latter influenced the former. However, both story cycles first appeared during the Song dynasty, with various iterations from the Yuan to the Ming (see Ge, 2001). In this article I show the parallels are due to the respective narratives drawing on similar religious, folkloric, and historical source material. I feel such a comparison is important as it presents a fuller picture of the cultural landscape in which the Monkey King developed. 

I. Reformed supernatural spirits

Chapters one through seven of JTTW present Sun Wukong as a celestial stone-born monkey who studies under a Buddho-Daoist master and achieves great magic powers, which he uses to rebel against heaven. After being defeated by the Buddha, Monkey is imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain for five hundred years. In chapter fourteen, the repentant immortal is later released to protect the monk Tripitaka on his journey to retrieve scriptures from India.

Sun Wukong trapped under mountain - In Flames toy - small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong’s imprisonment under a section of Five Elements Mountain (larger version).

Chapter one of the WM tells how one hundred and eight spirits were quelled by a Daoist sage during the Tang dynasty and imprisoned in a bottomless pit under a great stone slab. Four or five hundred years later during the Song dynasty, a haughty government official orders the slab dug up and removed to sate his curiosity, allowing the spirits to escape in a plume of miasmic black fumes and later be reborn on earth. Wu Song, whose main story appears in chapters 23 to 32, is one of these extraordinary men and women who come to use their martial, intellectual, or magical skills to rebel against the corrupt Song government. A heaven-sent stone slab in chapter 71 is later discovered to list the names of each bandit with the corresponding name of their previous incarnation, which make up the “Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars” (Tiangang sanshiliu xing, 天罡三十六星) and the “Seventy-Two Earthly Fiend Stars” (Disha qishier xing, 地煞七十二星). Wu Song is listed as the “Heavenly Harm Star” (Tianshang xing, 天傷星), the fourteenth of the Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars.

So we see both are formerly evil spirits who were conquered by a religious figure and imprisoned under stone for centuries. After being released, each rebellious figure becomes a force for good.

Monkey’s punishment can be traced to Tang and Song dynasty tales about the sage king Yu the Great imprisoning a simian water demon under a mountain. To my knowledge, the first recorded mention of this punishment appears in an early Ming zaju play in which Guanyin traps Sun Wukong under Flower Fruit Mountain. Wang (1992) suggests the stone slab from the WM was likely influenced by the Taishan stone (taishan shi, 泰山石) (fig. 2), a class of “evil-warding stones” (shigandang, 石敢當) often placed outside of homes and temples or at the intersection of roads as protection from malevolent forces (pp. 71-72 and 254). The Taishan stone represents Mount Tai and its deity. The landmass is considered the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. This means the evil would be completely immobilized by the great weight.

Taishan stone example - small

Fig. 2 – A modern Japanese example of a Taishan stone (larger version). They often read “Taishan stone takes upon itself” (Taishan shi gandang, 泰山石敢當), denoting its duty of protection (Wang, 1992, p. 71). Original image from Wikipedia

Additionally, the pit containing the spirits can be traced to a Song-era Daoist ritual in which an exorcist draws the character for “well” (jing, 井/丼) on the ground, thereby dividing the ritual space into nine sections, representing the Nine Palaces (jiugong, 九宮), [1] and creating an earth prison. The Compilation of Rituals of the Way (Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元) reads:

[U]se the Sword mudrā to draw the character for “well” on the ground. Transform it into a black prison, ten-thousand zhang deep, and ten thousand li wide. [2] Black vapors burst out of it. Inside the prison, visualize how cangues and locks, as well as tools and machinery are laid out. Then recite the Spell for Fast Arrest [cu zhuo zhou, 促捉咒] (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 142).

The black vapors should remind readers of that released upon the spirits’ escape from their centuries-long imprisonment.

Mountain mudra with Chinese character

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for mountain (shan, 山) (larger version). Fig. 4 – The Mountain mudra (shanzi jue, 山字訣) (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 5 – The double-handed Mount Tai mudra (Taishan jue, 泰山訣) (larger version). Original picture from here.

Another version of the ritual sees the spirits being coaxed or forced inside of a liquid-filled jar placed in the center of the well diagram. Afterwards, the opening is sealed with paper and the exorcist performs a mudra representing the immense pressing weight of a mountain (just like the aforementioned Taishan stone). [3] Meulenbeld (2007) writes:

The spirits captured within the grid of the Nine Palaces were kept inside their prison by symbolically pressing them down underneath a mountain. The symbolism here lies in the fact that the mountain was represented by a posture of the hand forming the character for mountain (“Mountain Mudrā” 山字訣 with the thumb, index-finger, and little finger all pointing upward [fig. 3 and 4]. Oftentimes the specific “mudrā of Mt. Tai” 泰山訣 [fig. 5], was used, representing the heaviest of all mountains. Moreover, many present-day exorcist talismans contain a character composed of a “demon” 鬼 underneath a “mountain” 山, namely the character wei 嵬 (p. 145, n. 92).

This means the respective punishments of Sun Wukong and Wu Song (and his brethren) are for all intents and purposes the same: they are imprisoned under mountains. The Taishan stone and the Mountain mudra are no doubt based on the same belief that mountains can immobilize evil spirits. Most importantly, the mudra likely influenced the concept of the Buddha transforming his hand into Five Elements Mountain in chapter 7 of JTTW. The fictional mountain is then a cognate of Mount Tai. 

Five Thunders talisman - small

Fig. 6 – A paper fu talisman marked with an image of the Five Thunders (Wu Lei, 五雷) (larger version).

Lastly, the idea that evil spirits can be reformed and their powers put to good use—i.e. Sun Wukong protecting Tripitaka and Wu Song standing against a corrupt government—is tied to the Song-era “Thunder Ritual” (Leifa, 雷法). Meulenbeld (2007) explains stories from the Tang to the Song present the characteristics of the thunder god, Sire Thunder (Lei Gong, 雷公), becoming increasingly demonic, changing from a muscular deity to a number of animals and finally a Garuda-like bird monster. Likewise, while he was a respected force of nature in the past, Sire Thunder becomes an impulsive agent of heaven, one capable of being challenged and even captured by a brave individual or ritual master. The subjugation of this demonic god allows his captors to appropriate his heavenly power for their own purposes. The deity and his four brothers, comprising the “Five Thunders” (Wu Lei, 五雷) (fig. 6), can be summoned on command via talismans and charms and made to bring rain, heal sicknesses, or conquer demons. [4] Such ritual accouterments are just a small part of a much larger subsequent Thunder Ritual liturgy that is, according to one Song dynasty source, capable of “control[ing] the demons and spirits of the Sixfold Heavens, [expelling] evil and avert[ing] disaster” (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 67). 

II. Tiger-Slayers

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong’s first act of protecting Tripitaka upon his release is effortlessly killing a tiger with a single stroke of his staff. This happens the day after a huntsman had come to the monk’s defense by fighting a tiger for hours before dispatching it with a trident. The difference in power between the immortal and human heroes leads the monk to exclaim, “For the strong, there’s always someone stronger!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

WM, ch. 23 – Wu Song gets drunk on a trip home to see his elder brother, and after ignoring warnings not to take a mountain shortcut, the hero is set upon by a ferocious man-eating tiger. In the process of initially defending himself, Wu snaps his walking staff on a nearby tree, forcing him to resort to brute strength. He manages to wrestle the big cat’s face into the dirt and rains down sixty or seventy fist blows before it stops moving (fig. 7). He then finishes off the beast with the remains of his staff.

Wu Song kills tiger - small

Fig. 7 – “Wu Song Beats the Tiger” (Wu Song da hu, 武松打虎) by Wang Kewei (王可偉) (larger version).

I can’t help but imagine the episode from JTTW is a sly nod to that from the WM. Tripitaka’s statement could be a way of propping up the Monkey King as the most powerful hero, one who can dispatch tigers with no effort at all.

The ability to kill a tiger was considered the sign of a powerful warrior in Chinese folklore. For example, A New Account of the Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu, 世說新語, 5th-century), a collection of historical and fictional anecdotes, tells the story of how the Western Jin general Zhou Chu (周處, 236–297) was originally a wayward youth considered the worst of Yixing‘s “Three Scourges”—a tiger, a dragon, and himself. Wanting to prove his strength, Zhou is said to have easily killed the tiger but disappeared for three days and nights fighting the dragon. The youth later returned to find the people celebrating his apparent death. This caused Zhou to mend his ways and eventually become a great general (Knechtges & Chang, 2010, pp. 2274-2275).

III. Buddhist monks with matching religious nicknames 

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk upon his release. [5] His master Tripitaka then gives him the religious nickname “Pilgrim Sun” (Sun xingzhe, 孫行者), and the character is often simply referred to as “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者; literally: “traveler”) throughout the narrative.

WM, ch. 31 – Wu Song kills a thug and his Song government official friend for framing the hero for theft and attempting to have him murdered en route to a prison camp. As a result, he is forced to dress as a Buddhist monk, taking a slain priest’s religious garb and ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) and calling himself “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者).

The term Pilgrim refers to a “postulant”, a lay Buddhist acolyte who has yet to be ordained but lives as an untonsured monk, one expected to follow the Five Precepts (Pali: Pañcasīla; Ch: Wujie, 五戒) against killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and drinking alcohol (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1011-1012). Ch’en (1956) writes that such trainees were historically required to complete a long period of intense religious study and pass a rigorous examination before being awarded the aforementioned ordination certificate (fig. 8), thereby becoming a full-fledged monk. This certification system was originally initiated during the Tang to weed out those wanting to evade the draft and taxes, as well as bandits like Wu Song who sought refuge from the law. However, during the Song, the government sold these documents like war bonds in order to help pay for their ongoing struggle against the barbarians of northern China. Therefore, ordination certificates were often exuberantly expensive, [6] meaning those who had the training but could not afford the document were doomed to live as a postulant. This contrasts with the thousands upon thousands of people who bought their way into the Buddha’s fold simply for the draft and tax exemption. They forwent the training altogether and were monks only on paper. This continued practice naturally resulted in a major decline in the quality of monks during the Song.

Monk with ordination certificate - small

Fig. 8 – A present day monk showing his ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) (larger version). Original image found here.

Having read the above, we can say Sun Wukong is called Pilgrim because he assists a Buddhist priest but lacks the religious education and ordination certificate. While Wu Song has the document (taken from a dead priest), he lacks the required education. It should be remembered that Wu is a bandit-turned-monk. At the same time, both characters typify the “itinerant monk”, the second meaning of Pilgrim (xingzhe, 行者), as both are on a journey: Sun is traveling to India and Wu is traveling the road—albeit secretly to meet with fellow outlaws. But I would like to suggest that the titles may have also been meant as a jab at the violent, untrained riffraff passing for monks during the Song (more on this below). After all, the earliest references to our characters with these titles come from this period.

“Pilgrim Wu” appears in scholar-painter Gong Shengyu‘s (龔聖予, 1222–1307) In Praise of the Thirty-Six [men] of Song Jiang (Song Jiang sanshiliu zan, 宋江三十六贊), a collection of poems eulogizing each of the thirty-six bandits then associated with the early WM story cycle.

Pilgrim Wu Song: You resisted women, obeyed the Five Precepts, among Wine, Women, Wealth and Force, you were inclined to kill people (Børdahl, 2013, p. 29).

Gong claims the poems were based on “stories of the streets and tales of the lanes” (jie tan xiang yu, 街談巷語), popular narratives performed by storytellers at local venues.  Given that such early tales no longer exist, its impossible to say whether or not Wu Song was always a monk or a bandit-turned-impostor monk like his counterpart from the published edition of the WM (Børdahl, 2013, pp. 28-29). Either way, this suggests Wu’s predilection for murder was a prominent aspect of his story cycle by at least the 13-century.

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Like Wu Song, Monkey is also depicted as comfortable with killing. For example, in chapter five, he turns an evil sorcerer’s wife into grass so that she will be eaten by a young monk who had been transformed by her husband into a donkey. After both parties are changed back to normal, Monkey threatens to “mow down all the grass of [his] house” (i.e. kill his wife and anyone else he loves) if the man ever misuses his magic again. [7] Later in chapter six, Monkey brutally tortures and then kills a white tiger demon who tries to eat his master (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1181-1207)

Wu Song and Lu Zhishen - Small

Fig. 9 – The “Pilgrim” Wu Song (right) and the “Flower Monk” Lu Zhishen (left) from a recent WM television series (larger version).

Additionally, two early WM-related tales titled “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者) and the “Flower [Tattooed] Monk” (Hua heshang, 花和尚) are listed under the “staff” (ganbang, 桿棒) category of popular stories in The Drunken Man’s Talk (Zuiweng tanlu, 醉翁談錄), a circa 13th-century collection of short stories, anecdotes, and poetry. [8] So-called staff tales were character-driven narratives about heroes, in this case Wu Song and his fellow outlaw-turned-monk Lu Zhishen (fig. 9), righting injustices using staves. [9] I should note that The Story describes the Monkey Pilgrim wielding two such weapons in his adventures.

Sun and Wu’s association with killing and staff fighting were likely influenced by historical warrior monks and bandit monks. Shahar (2008) explains warrior monks were seasoned fighters who lived in subsidiary shrines away from the devout community and protected monasteries in times of trouble. These “monks” regularly drank wine and ate meat, associating the latter with physical strength and fighting ability, and even worshiped wrathful deities like Vajrapani, who is described in scripture as killing in the name of Buddha. Their weapon of choice was a wooden staff, which was originally chosen for being non-lethal. However, a metal staff like the one wielded by Sun Wukong in JTTW was sometimes used by warrior monks for its killing capacity in times of war. The most famous monastic staff method belongs to the Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) (video 1). After the Shaolin warrior monks helped the Ming dynasty government repel Japanese pirate incursions from the Chinese coast during the 1550s, their staff method was touted in military encyclopedias and civilian weapons manuals. [10]


Video 1 – A demonstration of Shaolin Wind Devil Staff (Fengmo gun, 風魔棍).

Bandit monks are outlaws like Wu Song who dressed as monks to avoid problems with the law. [11] Lorge (2012) comments that the characteristics of bandit monks were nearly indistinguishable from that of warrior monks.

[I]t is easy to see how bandit-monks are virtually the same as warrior-monks. These men drank wine, at meat, and had sex with women—practices alien to true Buddhist monks. A number of Buddhist authorities were deeply troubled by the presence of monks who directly violated Buddhist precepts. We do not know whether there was a sharp break between ordained and trained monks who carefully followed monastic rules in their search for enlightenment and men who simply claimed to be monks, wore monastic robes, shaved their heads, but otherwise did not follow monastic rules (p. 174).

He goes on to explain that the Shaolin monastery, for example, became heavily militarized after a nasty defeat in 1356 during the Red Turban Rebellion and so may have replenished its ranks using formerly deactivated soldiers at the turn of the Ming dynasty. Such violence-prone men would naturally turn towards a life of crime. Therefore, these bandits “would have been easy enough to recruit and send out as warrior-monks to fight against [other] bandits” (Lorge, 2012, p. 175).

So we see there existed a class of staff-bearing pseudo-monks who regularly took life and drank alcohol. Serving as mainly monastic bodyguards, these fighters lacked the devotion to the precepts and, especially, the religious education to be considered real monks. Therefore, Sun and Wu’s characterization as such warriors may further explain why they are called Pilgrim.

IV. Monastic martial artists

I want to preface this section by stating upfront that it overlaps to some degree with the previous one. But while the former explored Sun and Wu’s connection to staff-wielding warrior monks by way of their characterization in late Song oral literature, this one will discuss the connection between their images as monastic martial artists and the historical practice of boxing by warrior monks.

While the Great Sage is primarily known for his skill with the staff, he displays a mastery of unarmed combat twice in JTTW. Chapter 51, for example, describes Sun and a demonic opponent fighting with a long list of punches, kicks, grapples, and throws.

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13)

I show in this article that many of the named techniques are real and are still practiced to this day. Furthermore, the poem’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range “is typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature”, as noted by Shahar (2008). He continues, “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century military experts allude to various short-range styles including ‘Cotton Zhang’s Close-Range Fist’ (Mian Zhang duanda [綿張短打]), ‘Ren Family Close-Range Fist’ (Renjia duanda [任家短打]), and ‘Liu [Family] Close-Range Fist’ (Liu duanda [劉短打])” (p. 117). This shows the author-compiler of JTTW consulted real martial arts material to make this fight more authentic.

Having donned the monk persona, Pilgrim Wu stops by an inn while on a journey to meet with fellow outlaws in chapter 32. The monk’s great tolerance for wine (fig. 13) and request for meat surprises the inn keeper, whom Wu slaps to the ground upon seeing the man serve better wine and even chicken to a different patron. The patron and his friends attack the monk but are soundly beaten by his superior strength and fighting ability. [12]

Wu’s characterization as a meat-eating, alcohol-drinking monk with a thirst for combat is obviously tied to the warrior and bandit monks discussed earlier.

Wu Song with jug of wine and sword - small

Fig. 15 – A modern depiction of Pilgrim Wu holding a jar of wine and brandishing a saber (larger version). By Leewiart user Du_YH. Original image found here

While it precedes Wu becoming a monk, the best example of his martial prowess appears in chapter 29:

But Jiang was scornful of his foe [Wu Song], thinking that he was drunk, and he closed in rapidly. Quicker than it takes to tell, Wu Song flourished his two fists at Jiang’s face, then turned and started away. Enraged, Jiang raced after him. Wu Song lashed out backwards with his left foot and kicked him in the groin. As Jiang clasped his injured section and doubled over in pain, Wu Song whirled around and swung his right foot in a flying kick to the forehead that slammed the big man over on his back. Wu Song planted one foot on his chest and, with keg-like fists, began pommeling Jiang’s head.

This maneuver we just described—the flourish of fists and turning away, the backward left kick, the whirling around and the forward right kick—is called “the Jade-Circle Steps with Duck and Drake Feet” [Yuhuan bu, yuanyang jiao, 玉環步, 鴛鴦腳]. It was one of Wu Song’s most skillful moves. A remarkable trick! (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 332).

Wu’s style is possibly another name for “Piercing Foot” (Chuojiao, 戳腳), a northern Chinese martial art known for its dynamic kicking skills. Modern folklore traces the style to the Song dynasty due to its association with WM heroes. [13]

While JTTW never openly describes Sun Wukong training in martial arts, it does imply that he learns armed and unarmed combat as a young monk studying under the Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti. Monkey learning boxing in a religious institution is actually a faithful depiction of one aspect of monastic life during the Ming. Shahar (2008) shows Shaolin warrior monks took up unarmed combat during the late Ming-period, when boxing saw an explosion in popularity in Chinese culture (as demonstrated by the named techniques recorded in JTTW and the WM). Textual evidence suggests the first styles practiced by Shaolin were Drunken Eight Immortals Boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳), popularized by Jackie Chan in The Drunken Master (1978), and Lost Track Boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), the fighting style of the national hero Huo Yuanjia popularized by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972). The monks may have adopted boxing as a form of calisthenic exercise. To this they later added Daoyin (導引), a regimen of yoga-like Daoist breathing and stretching exercises designed to absorb qi (氣) energy and circulate it throughout the body. Therefore, the monks elevated their boxing practice from mere fighting to a form of spiritual cultivation. This synthesis of martial and spiritual practices simultaneously took place in wider Ming culture, leading to the creation of so-called “internal” (Neijia, 内家) martial arts like Taiji and Xingyi boxing. [14]


Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the monk Sengchou showing off his newfound powers by jumping above the rafters of the Shaolin monastery (larger version). Original image found here.

That’s not to say Shaolin monks did not practice unarmed martial arts prior to the 17th-century. It’s just boxing was only a form of entertainment practiced by a few and not part of the official training regimen. For example, the Tang-era anthology Complete Records from Court and Commonality (Chaoye qian zai, 朝野僉載, c. 8th-century), contains the story of the famed dhyana master and Shaolin monk Sengchou (僧稠, 480–560) beseeching a religious statue of Vajrapani to bless him with martial strength so that the other monks, who enjoy sparring in their free time, will stop bullying him. After six straight days of prayer, the deity appears before him and offers the young novice a bowl of sinews to eat. Sengchou initially refuses due to the prohibition against eating meat, but he ultimately finishes the meal for fear Vajrapani will smite him with his vajra club. Like the radioactive spider bite that changes Peter Parker into Spider-Man, the sinews transform the monk, blessing him with a god-like physique and miraculous powers, such as the ability to walk on walls, leap great heights (fig. 10), and lift thousands of pounds. Most importantly, it drastically improves his fighting skills, so much so, in fact, that his former tormentors come to grovel in his presence (Shahar, 2008, pp. 35-37).

From whom might have Sengchou’s religious brothers learned their unarmed martial arts centuries prior to it becoming an official part of Shaolin’s training regimen? The simplest answer is someone like Wu Song who learned boxing as a bandit or soldier and later joined the sangha. Readers may recall such violence-prone men may have been tapped as warrior monks to protect the monastery in times of trouble. They could have easily passed their fighting skills to the next generation of warrior monks.

A good example of a soldier-turned-monk is the brutish former general Huiming (惠明) from the Platform Sutra (Liuzu tanjing, 六祖壇經, written from the 8th to 13th-c.). The text tells how the disciples of Hongren (弘忍, 601–674), the fifth Chan patriarch, were enraged when their master passed the mantle onto the illiterate postulant laborer Huineng (惠能, 638–713). Hundreds of monks are said to have pursued the fleeing Pilgrim south intent on forcefully taking the patriarchal symbols of the begging bowl and robe for themselves. Huiming persevered and managed to corner Huineng on a mountain. He attempted to wrestle the treasures away, but, by a miracle, he could not lift them. Realizing Huineng was the rightful heir, the monk became his disciple (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 11-12). Jealousy and anger are obviously qualities unbecoming of a real monk. In fact, the only thing that separates Huiming’s actions of hounding and attempted strong arm robbery from a bandit is his monkhood.

So we see Sun Wukong typifies a next generation warrior monk who learns boxing inside a religious institution. Wu Song typifies the soldier or bandit who learns boxing outside the monastery and later becomes a monastic fighter, one who passes on their skills to younger monks.

V. Moralistic headbands

JTTW, ch. 14 – The Monkey King is tricked into wearing a brocade hat under the pretense of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. However, the hat houses a golden fillet (jinguquan, 金箍圈) that soon takes root and painfully tightens around the immortal’s head when the correct spell is chanted (fig. 11). This allows the feeble monk Tripitaka to control the celestial monkey’s unruly nature.

WM, ch. 31 – When Wu Song disguises himself as a monk, he wears the garments of a priest who had previously been killed by bandits. The habit includes a metal “Precepts fillet” (jiegu, 戒箍) that he wears over his long hair (fig. 12).

Fillet examples - small

Fig. 11 – (Top left) Sun Wukong’s golden fillet from the 1986 JTTW television series (larger version). Fig. 12 – (Top right) Wu Song’s Precepts fillet from a recent WM television series (larger version). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) A late 11th to early 12th-century copper alloy statue of the wrathful deity Hevajra (larger version). He is portrayed with the same Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire as his followers, including the headband, arm cuffs, a bone (skull) rosary, bracelets, a girdle, anklets, and a tiger skin sarong. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of ArtFig. 14 – (Bottom center) A detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet featured in an 11th-century mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China (larger version). It has been slightly enhanced for clarity. A fuller version of the image can be seen here. Fig. 15 – (Bottom right) A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (larger version). From Bonds, 2008, p. 178.

I explain in this article that the heroes’ fillets share a common origin in an ancient Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband, one representing the Buddha Akshobhya and thereby moral self-restraint. It was one of several ritual items worn while worshiping wrathful protector deities like Heruka. Such deities were often depicted wearing the same attire as their followers, leading to the band becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits (fig. 13). The Hevajra Tantra (Ch: Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經), the original 8th-century Indian Buddhist text mentioning the ritual items, was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century. Interestingly, the earliest example of Monkey wearing the circlet (likely symbolizing the taming of the monkey of the mind) hails from this time (fig. 14). But Wu’s association with the headband was likely influenced by the Precepts fillet worn by the warrior monks of Chinese Opera (fig. 15). These heroes wear the band to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328).

VI. Bin steel weapons

JTTW, ch. 3 – Sun Wukong comes into possession of a magic staff (fig. 16) taken from the Dragon King’s underwater treasury. A poem in chapter 75 describes the weapon being hand-forged from Bin steel (bintie, 鑌鐵) by the high Daoist god Laozi.

WM, ch. 31 – Apart from wearing the fallen monk’s religious clothing, Wu Song also takes possession of his Buddhist sabers made from “snowflake pattern” Bin steel (huaxue bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) (fig. 17). [15]

Sun Wukong and Wu Song weapons - small

Fig. 16 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong holding his magic Bin steel staff (larger version). Fig. 17 – A modern painting of Wu Song wielding his Bin steel sabers (larger version). Artist unknown. 

Sun’s staff and Wu’s sabers are not the first bin steel weapons to appear in Chinese literature. A bladed pole arm example is the Bin steel great sword (bintie da podao, 鑌鐵刀) wielded by a bandit from the Old incidents in Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事, mid-13th-century), a storytelling prompt containing WM material predating the published novel. [16] Another pole arm is the Bin steel spear (bintie qiang鑌鐵槍) wielded by a general from The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt (San sui pingyao zhuan, 三遂平妖傳, c. late 16th-century), which also takes place in the Song-era (Luo, n.d.). 

I explain in this article that Bin steel is a real world metal akin to Damascus that was imported to China from Persia starting from the 6th-century, and the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom by the 12th-century. The metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel and was often used to make strong, durable, and sharp knives and swords, some worth more than silver. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). This is a simultaneous declaration of his unbreakable resolve and a statement praising the seemingly indestructible metal. Therefore, JTTW and the WM portray the finest of heroes wielding the finest of steel weapons.

VII. Conclusion

As shown, the parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song are the result of JTTW and the WM borrowing from the same cultural source material. Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements mountain and Wu’s time as an evil spirit trapped in a well beneath stone was influenced by the Daoist belief that mountains—be they sympathetically represented by stone or hand mudras—could immobilize malevolent forces. Likewise, our heroes’ portrayal as reformed demons can be tied to the Daoist “Thunder Ritual”, which aims to conquer evil and repurpose its power for good. Sun and Wu’s image as tiger-slayers was influenced by stories of tiger-killing strongmen from Chinese folklore. Their religious nickname “Pilgrim” and characterization as monastic martial artists can be tied to uneducated pseudo-monks and holy warriors skilled in both staff fighting and boxing from Chinese history. Their religious fillets were inspired by an Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband worn as a reminder of moral self-restraint. And the metal comprising Sun and Wu’s weapons can be traced to a real world steel prized in ancient China for its durability. 

This was a fun piece to write because it shows the Great Sage obviously didn’t develop in a vacuum. It’s interesting to me that much of Sun and Wu’s influences hail from the Song dynasty. These include the Daoist rituals for trapping and reforming spirits, the Pilgrim nickname and characterization as staff-wielding warrior monks, and the translation of the tantric text mentioning the moralistic headband and Monkey’s earliest known depiction wearing it.


1) The nine palaces are a cosmic geographical concept in which stars are mapped according to the five Chinese cardinal directions (N, S, E, W, and center) and the four intermediate directions. Thus, they represent the universe as a whole.

2) A zhang (丈) is ten Chinese feet, so 10,000 zhang would be 100,000 feet. A li (里) is one-third of a Western mile. More importantly, in Chinese culture, the number 10,000 represents an infinitely large concept. Therefore, by squaring the number, the well prison is described as an unfathomably large and inescapable place. I would like to thank the Dragon Ball scholar Derek Padula (his website) for suggesting this note as it helps better visualize the prison. He was kind enough to read an earlier draft of this article.

3) See Meulenbeld, 2007, pp. 143-145 for more information about the jar ritual. It likely influenced media that influenced Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame to create the Mafuba (魔封波; Ch: mofengbo), or “Demon Containment Wave” ritual. Padula (2016) describes the etymology and background of the Mafuba (pp. 122 to 126). He graciously provided me with a digital copy of his book.

4) See chapter two.

5) This is not openly stated in chapter 14 but is implied in chapter 27. See this article for more information.

6) Ch’en (1956) gives examples. During the Song, the official selling prices for the certificates ranged from one hundred thirty to eight hundred strings of cash. To put these prices in perspective, he notes the lowest cost would pay for the equivalent of seventy-five bolts of silk or one hundred twenty-five bushels of rice (pp. 316-317). 

7) Wivell, 1994, p. 1187. The full episode appears on pages 1186-1187.

8) Ge, 2001, p. 38. The eight types of stories appearing in The Drunken Man’s Talk are: “lingguai [靈怪] (spirits and demons), yanfen [煙粉] (rouge and powder), chuanqi [傳奇] (marvels), gong’an [公案] (court cases), podao [朴刀] (broadsword), ganbang [桿棒] (staff), shenxian [神仙] (immortals), and yaoshu [妖術] (sorcery)” (Ge, 2001, p. 209, n. 6).

9) Huang, 2018, p. 61 and n. 8. It’s interesting to note that the monk Lu Zhishen is said to wield an impossibly heavy metal staff like Sun Wukong. See this article for more details.

10) See chapters three and four.

11) Lorge (2012) cites a Tang-era story about an 8th-century prince who discovers an abandoned wardrobe while hunting in the forest. It is found to contain a young woman who had been kidnapped the previous night by bandits but was subsequently whisked away by two monks among the group. The prince replaces her with a wild bear that later mauls the bandit monks to death when the wardrobe is reopened (pp. 106-107). The monks were likely impostors like Wu Song.

12) Wu Song is famed in Chinese folklore for his martial arts ability. This led to the creation of a wushu form known as “Wu Song Breaks Manacles” (Wu Song tuo kao, 武松脫拷), which mimics a person fighting with their hands clasped as if shackled, forcing them to rely on doubled fist and elbow strikes and lots of kicking. The form is based on an episode from chapter 30 of the WM when the hero is attacked by assassins while being led in shackles to a prison camp. Wu Song is forced to defend himself in such a manner before breaking his restraints.

13) See, for example, Chlumsky, 2005, p. 72. The author also repeats folklore further tying the style to the Song dynasty heroes Yue Fei and his teacher Zhou Tong.

14) See chapters five and six.

15) I think it’s interesting that each weapon is presented as having some level of sentienceCalled the “As-you-wish” Gold-Banded Cudgel (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), Sun’s staff grows or shrinks according to his whim. Wu’s peerless blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magic longing for combat. The sentience of each weapon is based on different sources, however. I note in this article that the compliance of Monkey’s weapon is based on the Ruyi (如意) scepter, a symbol of religious and secular authority that was at some point associated with the similarly named wish-fulfilling cintamani jewel (ruyi zhu, 如意珠) from Buddhist mythology. The vocal ability of Wu Song’s blades may be based on the Chinese belief that swords have a soul. Two prime examples are the famed treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) made by the legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi (歐冶子) during the Spring and Autumn period. Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-ccentury) described them as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).

16) See Luo (n.d.). The original source says “po bintie dadao” (潑鑌鐵大刀). This is likely a transcription error. I have corrected it above. 


Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Børdahl, V. (2013). Wu Song fights the tiger: The interaction of oral and written traditions in the Chinese novel, drama and storytelling. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.

Ch’en, K. (1956). The sale of monk certificates during the Sung dynasty: A factor in the decline of Buddhism in China. The Harvard Theological Review 49(4), pp. 307-327.

Chen, P., & Petersen, V. (2016). The development of Chinese martial arts fiction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Chlumsky, N. (2015). Inside kungfu: Chinese martial arts encyclopedia. [n.p.]:

Da song xuanhe yishi [Old incidents in xuanhe period of the great Song dynasty] (n.d.). [archived document]. Retrieved from

Huang, Y. (2018). Narrative of Chinese and western popular fiction: Comparison and interpretation. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Ge, L. (2001). Out of the margins: The rise of Chinese vernacular fiction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Knechtges, D. R., & Chang, T. (2010). Ancient and early medieval Chinese literature: A reference guide. Leiden: Brill.

Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical dictionary of Chinese women: Tang through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Luo, G. (n.d.). San sui pingyao zhuan [The three sui quash the demons’ revolt] [archived document]. Retrieved from

Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

Padula, D. (2016). Dragon ball culture: Volume 5. (n.p.): Derek Padula.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Wang, J. (1992). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin, and the journey to the west. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.). 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: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Bin Steel: The Magic Metal of Journey to the West

Different mythologies and fictional universes have their own magical metals. For example, Marvel’s Asgardians have Uru and the elves of Middle-earth have Mithril. The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE) hosts a long list of magical weapons, armor, and objects made from all kinds of metal (steel, iron, brass, gold, silver, etc.). A specific type is called Bin iron or Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) and it is mentioned several times in the narrative.

Chapter 19

When Zhu Bajie first faces Sun Wukong in combat, he recites a poem praising the celestial origin of his weapon (fig. 1).

This is divine ice steel greatly refined,
Polished so highly that it glows and shines.
Laozi wielded the large hammer and tong;
Mars himself added charcoals piece by piece.
Five Kings of Five Quarters applied their schemes;
Twelve Gods of Time expended all their skills.
They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade,
And brass rings were cast with dropping gold leaves.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382)

The “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) is likely an error for “divine Bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. This may also have something to do with the snowflake-like grain pattern of Bin steel (see sections one and two below). Take note that the metal is associated with Laozi and his furnace. We will see this association again.

Zhu Bajie In-Flames Action Figure- small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie with his battle rake (larger version).

Chapter 34

On the cusp of his battle with the Monkey King, the demon King Silverhorn (Yinjiao wang, 銀角王) is described as wearing polished armor made from the material.

He wears a phoenix helmet white than snow
And armor made of bright [Bin] steel. [1]
The belt on his waist is dragon’s tendon.
Plum-flower shaped gaiters top his goat-skin boots.
He seems the living Lord of Libation Stream;
He looks no different from Mighty Spirit.
He holds in his hands the sword of seven stars,
Stern and imposing in a towering rage (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 127).

The monster is later revealed to be one of two young attendants of Laozi’s furnace sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145).

Chapter 75

The Monkey King recites a poem about his divine staff (fig. 2) prior to battling a lion demon.

The rod of [Bin] steel nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,”
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men.
Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly,
Emitting bright strands of five-colored most.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)

Here again we see Laozi is associated with the material.

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 2 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

I. The metal of heroes

I want to reiterate the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sun Wukong, two of Tripitaka’s three main disciples and bodyguards, have weapons made from Bin steel (Sha Wujing’s staff is made from a heavenly tree). Each is the product of Laozi refining Bin steel in his magic furnace and smelting the polearms by hand. Just like dwarves imbued Thor’s uru-metal hammer with magical abilities, so too did the high god of Daoism for Zhu and Sun’s weapons. Each has supernatural durability and the power of transformation. In fact, the Monkey King’s staff is one of the strongest weapons in the entire novel, making its association with Bin steel very important. After all, a great hero requires a great weapon.

Another example of a hero wielding a Bin steel weapon is Wu Song (武松) from the classic Chinese novel the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). The former constable-turned-outlaw comes into possession of a pair of Buddhist sabers (fig. 3) made from “snowflake [pattern] Bin steel” (xuehua bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) and housed in a sharkskin sheath. [2] They are described as being made from the “finest steel, and obviously hadn’t been made in a day” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 317). In addition, the blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magical, sentient longing for combat. Wu later sates this desire by using the sabers in a prolonged skirmish with an evil Daoist priest, eventually beheading the brigand with a single strike (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, pp. 352-353).

Wu Song with knives

Fig. 3 – A modern drawing of Wu Song with his Buddhist sabers (larger version).

II. Real world history

Wagner (2008) suggests the name Bin (鑌) is a transliteration of a foreign term, possibly the Sanskrit word Piṇḍa, meaning “steel” or “lump” (p. 270). The material is mentioned in Chinese records of the 6th and 7th-centuries as being imported from Persia (Bosi, 波斯) and Jaguda (Cao, 漕, modern day Ghazni) in Afghanistan. Mentions of the metal strangely disappear for centuries, only to reappear in early 10th-century records. This is possibly due to the disruption of Persian trade wrought by the Islamic conquest of Persia and the subsequent rise of Muslim trade with the east. Bin steel is believed to have originally been transported in a raw “lump” state prior to smelting in China. But the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom, for a 12th-century report shows the metal was produced in Inner Mongolia. The early Yuan government is known in 1275 to have established the “Office for Bin iron” (Bintie ju, 鑌鐵局), which possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Wagner, 2008, pp. 268-272).

13th-century Persian Damascus blades (detail) - small

Fig. 4 – Persian-made Damascus steel blades of the 13th-century (larger version). Take note of the intricate grain pattern. Bin steel was known to have various patterns (see below).

The best description of the material comes from Cao Zhao’s (曹昭) The Essential Criteria of Antiquities (Ge gu yao lun, 格古要論, 1368), an early guide for connoisseurs.

Bin iron: It is produced by the Western Barbarians. Some [types] have a spiral self-patterning, while others have a sesame-seed or snowflake patterning. When a knife or sword is wiped clean and treated with ‘gold thread’ alum, [the pattern] appears. Its value is greater than silver.

An ancient saying holds that “knowing the strength of iron is like knowing gold” [i.e., the ability to judge the properties of steel is as valuable as the ability to assay the purity of gold]. Forgeries have a black patterning. One should examine [a steel object] very carefully.

There are three rules for knives. The first is that in the blade there should be perfect control of fire, metal, and water [i.e., the blade should be correctly quench-hardened and tempered]. The second is that the haft should be of xichi wood from the Western Barbarians, and the third is that the sheath should be of Tatar birchbark.

I once had a pair of scissors of bin iron, of exquisite workmanship. It had a raised gilt pattern on the inside, and on the outside a silver-inlaid inscription in Islamic characters (Wagner, 2008, p. 271).

So we see Bin steel is comparable to Damascus steel (fig. 4), as both require quench-hardening and produce a number of intricate grain patterns visible after an acid treatment. One such pattern is the snowflake pattern associated with Wu Song’s sabers (and possibly Zhu Bajie’s rake). Most importantly, the metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). [3] I take this statement to be symbolic of his unbreakable resolve. At the same time, it shows Bin steel was considered exceptionally durable.

Highly durable Bin steel weapons could have seemed like magic in comparison to those made from lesser quality metal. Therefore, it’s interesting that Journey to the West presents the metal being smelted by a god in his magic furnace. It seems only natural that a magical forge would produce the finest steel. In fact, after the 10th-century, the very name Bin steel came to be used as a term for any type of exquisite steel (Wagner, 2008, p. 271). So the author-compiler of Journey to the West may have been using it in that sense instead of referring to imported Persian steel.


1) Anthony Yu’s original translation says “…bright Persian steel.” The historical origin is discussed in the second section of the article.

2) While the Water Margin presents them as sabers, Buddhist knives (jiedao, 戒刀, lit: “precept knife”) 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).

3) Wagner (2008) states the story is listed as coming from the 9th-century but the housing source is from the 11th-century (p. 269, n. 103). Therefore, it likely originates after the reappearance of Bin steel in Chinese records during the early 10th-century.


Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: vol. 1-4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

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.

Sun Wukong and Miao Folklore

Sun Wukong appears in a body of Buddhist folklore passed on by the Miao ethnic group of Sichuan, also known as the “River Miao” (Chuan Miao, 川苗) or “Old Miao” (Miao: Hmong Bo) (fig. 1). The particular tale is quite different from the popular narrative appearing in Journey to the West (1592). For example, the unnamed monkey tends to a dragon king’s injury and later escorts a Tang dynasty emperor to India.

A Monkey Went Fishing, or Securing Buddhist Sacred Books (97)

The monkey changed into a fisherman and daily went fishing (with a line and hook). He hooked the dragon’s upper lip. When he pulled, the fishhook broke off in the dragon’s upper lip. The dragon’s lip therefore pained him every day. Then every day the dragon king called on his soldiers to go and get a doctor and heal it, but they could not find a doctor.

The monkey daily went to the sand bank to look for his fishhook. One day when he was looking for it two of the dragon king’s soldiers came and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for medicine.” The two soldiers then said, “Old scholar, our old man’s upper lip pains him and he sent us to help him find a doctor. Can you heal him?” The monkey thought, “Probably he has been caught by my fishhook.” He then said, “I can heal it, but I must first look at the injury, then I will give the medicine.” Then the two soldiers invited him to come.

He said, “How can I go since there is so much water?” He had to go down into the water of the stream. The two men then said, “You may get under our fins and close your eyes, and do not open your eyes until we call you.” The monkey wanted to see the dragon, so he closed his two eyes. The two soldiers held him under their fins, and in a short time one of them called him, and he opened his eyes and looked.

When he opened his eyes he had already entered a fine palace. In a little while he heard the soldiers of the dragon king from both sides calling to the dragon king to come and have his wound looked at.

The monkey heard the inside gate resound, “Gu, ga.” He then saw the hands of a big man carrying the dragon king so that he could sit in the chair. Then they requested him to look at the wound. The monkey kowtowed just once to the dragon king and then looked. Then he took a pair of chop sticks and pushed aside the dragon king’s lips, and saw that the fishhook was hooked in the dragon king’s upper lip. Then he took the chopsticks and loosened the fishhook a little. He then asked the dragon king, “Is it any better?” The dragon king answered, “It is a little better.” Then the monkey sat down and rested a little. The dragon king said, “I am afraid that I will die from this illness.”

The monkey said, “You will not die from this sickness. You will certainly recover.” The dragon said, “If you are willing to heal me, I will give you whatever you want.” The monkey then used the chopsticks to push open the lips. Then he seized the fishhook with his chopsticks and with one jerk pulled out the fish book. The lip of the dragon king hurt no longer.

Then the dragon king called to his daughters to entertain the monkey fisherman. The monkey remained there several days. The dragon king was afraid that he [the monkey] was in a hurry and told his soldiers to give him some gold and silver. The monkey said, “I do not want gold and silver. I only want you to permit me to stay here a few days longer.” When the soldiers had reported this to the dragon king, he was glad to have him remain longer. He stayed several months.

One day he was visiting with the women in the palace. The monkey saw a yellow golden club. He then picked it up to play with. He struck with the golden club outside, and the club flew with him to the sea. Then he knew that this club was an ancient golden club. The dragon king did not pursue him.

The monkey lived until the Tang Dynasty, and the Tang Dynasty king wanted to go and get sacred books. But the king could not go himself because the demons and spooks were very numerous along the road. The Tang emperor then sent a messenger to call the monkey to him. The monkey said, “I cannot go. If anybody wants me to go, he must change likenesses with me, and then I will go.”

The Tang emperor himself returned, and for three years sought for a method. One day he came and said to the monkey, “Now I am able to change.” The monkey then requested the Tang emperor to change. The Tang emperor then changed into a big mountain, and the monkey went into the mountain. Then he was unable to come out again. The Tang emperor then said, “Now will you go with me?” The monkey then promised to go with him. Then the Tang emperor lifted aside the written character that had imprisoned him, and then the monkey came out. The monkey then went with the Tang emperor to the western horizon and brought back the sacred books. [79]


79) The Ch’uan Miao said that this is a story about a monkey of some repute, but they did not know his name. It is evidently the monkey god Sen Hou Tzu [Sun houzi, “the monkey Sun”] 孫猴子 or Sen Wu K’ung [Sun Wukong孫悟空 (Graham, 1954, p. 211).

I. Story influences

I suggest the first three-quarters of the Miao tale draws on the Asian variant of a widely known story cycle in which a fisherman is rewarded for releasing a magic fish (B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful, n.d.). This version sees the fisherman release a carp to later discover it was actually the transformed son of a dragon king. He is then rewarded with a magic treasure for his kindness. [1] This cycle is partially played out in another Miao legend in which a fisherman catches a fish, who turns out to be the daughter of the dragon king Ryuang Lan, and later marries her in human form (Graham, 1954, pp. 226-227). In our story, the monkey-turned-fisherman catches the dragon king and then frees him of the hook. He is subsequently rewarded with a prolonged stay in the dragon kingdom and thereafter retrieves the golden club, which is itself a magic treasure.

Miao couple (for Sun Wukong article) - small

Fig. 1 – A Miao couple (larger version). She is wearing traditional dress, while he wears that of the Chinese. From Graham, 1954, p. 125. Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong meets the dragon king Ao Guang (larger version). A screenshot from the classic Chinese animation Uproar in Heaven (1965).

Elements of the first three-quarters and all of the last quarter clearly borrow from Journey to the West. The monkey is presented as a shape-shifting immortal, for he changes into a fisherman and lives until the Tang dynasty. His aversion to water in the tale is a common trope throughout the novel, such as when Sun Wukong uses water-propelling magic or relies on others to fight water-based monsters. [2] The golden club is the Monkey King’s “As-you-will” gold-banded cudgel retrieved from the undersea dragon kingdom. This in turn identifies the dragon king as Ao Guang, the ruler of the Eastern Sea (fig. 2). The unnamed “Tang dynasty emperor”, Tang Taizong in Journey to the West, replaces the monk Tripitaka originally sent to retrieve holy scriptures. The monkey’s imprisonment inside the emperor-turned-mountain is based on Sun’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain in the novel, complete with a written amulet weighing the landmass down.

The monarch’s transformation into a mountain is particularly interesting to me, for I don’t recall ever reading any Asian folklore featuring such an event. I know of at least one instance of a hero in ancient European folklore being changed into a mountain as punishment (see fig. 5 in my article here). However, our tale presents the ruler’s transformation as a willing metamorphosis. The Miao consider mountains to be living beings, [3] having “heads, feet, hands, eyes, ears, hearts, breasts, veins, and arteries” (Graham, 1954, p. 9). Therefore, the mountain is a macrocosm of the human body, making the transformation one of degree and not kind. But this portion of the narrative remains a mystery to me as the original intended outcome was “switch[ing] likenesses.” I take this to mean that the monkey would look like the emperor and visa versa. Does this imply the primate was keen on usurping the throne and the monarch then used his transformation as a deterrent?

II. Monkey progenitors

The Monkey King’s inclusion in Miao folklore should come as no surprise since monkeys play an important role in their mythology. They believe humans are descended from a pair of monkeys who broke off their tails by accident and eventually evolved human features (Graham, 1954, p. 204). As explained in this article, having a monkey ancestor is a common belief among the various ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China. Sun Wukong also appears in the legends of the neighboring (and related) Qiang people of Sichuan.


1) One version appears in the Complete Tale of Guanyin of the Southern Seas (Nanhai Guanyin quanzhuan, 南海觀音全傳), a 16th-century pious novelette detailing Guanyin’s former life as the Princess Miaoshan. After achieving enlightenment, Miaoshan/Guanyin looks to take on disciples. One is a dragon princess (longnu, 龍女) who bestows the Bodhisattva with a magic jewel for saving her brother, a dragon prince who had been caught by a fisherman while transformed into a carp (Idema, 2008, p. 31).

2) The water-propelling magic is first displayed in chapter three when Sun seeks a magic weapon from the underwater dragon kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). An example of Monkey relying on others to fight a water-based monster happens in chapter 22 when he asks Zhu Bajie to battle Sha Wujing (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 423).

3) According to Graham (1954), “The Ch’uan Miao regard all things as alive and sentient. The sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, thunder, the echo, the rainbow, homes, fields, plains, recompense or karma, beds, marriage, swords, the harvest, the year…the ceremonial drum, and even the sound of the ceremonial drum are considered to be living things” (p. 9).


B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful (n.d.). S. Thompson. Motif-index of folk-literature. Retrieved from

Graham, D. C. (1954). Songs and stories of the Chʻuan Miao. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from;view=1up;seq=7

Idema, W. L. (2008). Personal salvation and filial piety: Two precious scroll narratives of Guanyin and her acolytes. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Vol. 1. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.


The Monkey King’s Cosmic Body

Sun Wukong is known for his limitless shape-changing powers, capable of taking the form of anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. But his most powerful transformation, that of a cosmic giant, is displayed only three times in the novel. It is used mostly in defense against other powerful characters, namely the god Erlang and the Bull Demon King. In this paper I will introduce the ancient astral-geographical term used to describe this phenomenon, associate the transformation with a divine giant from Chinese mythology, and explore possible ties to Hindu mythology.

I. Episodes from the Novel

The first instance takes place in chapter three after Monkey returns from the Dragon King’s undersea palace with his new weapon. The form is used to show off his magical abilities for his children (fig. 1).

Grasping the treasure [iron staff] in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be [one hundred] thousand feet tall, [1] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). (emphasis mine)

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey performs the cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

The second takes place in chapter six during his battle with Erlang Shen. The form is used this time in response to the god’s own cosmic transformation.

The Immortal Master [Erlang] fought the Great Sage for more than three hundred rounds, but the result could still not be determined. The Immortal Master, therefore, summoned all of his magic powers; with a shake he made his body a hundred thousand feet tall. Holding with both hands the divine lance of three points and two blades like the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain, this green-faced, sabre-toothed figure with scarlet hair aimed a violent blow at the head of the Great Sage. But the Great Sage also exerted his magical power and changed himself into a figure having the features and height of Erlang. He wielded a compliant golden-hooped rod that resembled the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun to oppose the god Erlang (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 181).


Now we were telling you about the Immortal Master and the Great Sage, who had changed themselves into forms which imitated Heaven and Earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 182). (emphasis mine)

The third takes place in chapter sixty-one during Sun’s battle with the Bull Demon King (fig. 2). Again, the form is used in response to another powerful character’s transformation.

With a loud guffaw, the Bull King then revealed his original form of a gigantic white bull, with a head like a rugged mountain and eyes like bolts of lightning. The two horns were like two iron pagodas, and his teeth were like rows of sharp daggers. From head to toe, he measured more than ten thousand feet, while his height from hoof to neck was about eight [thousand]. [2]

“Wretched ape!” he roared at Pilgrim [Monkey]. “What will you do with me now?” Pilgrim also changed back to his true form; yanking out his golden-hooped rod, he bent his back and then straightened out, crying, “Grow!” At once he grew to a height of one hundred thousand feet, with a head like Mount Tai, eyes like the sun and moon, a mouth like a bloody pound, and teeth like doors (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157).


[After Zhu Bajie returns from exterminating all of the demons in the Bull King’s cave] “You have achieved great merit, Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim. “Congratulations! Old Monkey has waged in vain a contest of transformation with him [the Bull King], for I have not yet achieved victory. He finally changed into the biggest possible white bull, and I therefore assumed the appearance that imitated Heaven and Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 158). (emphasis mine)

monkey vs bull king (cosmic transformations) - 1833

Fig. 2 – Monkey vs the Bull King, both in their cosmic transformations (larger version). An 1833 woodblock print by Yashima Gakutei. Photo by Prof. Vincent Durand-Dastès of the ‏National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. With permission. 

II. Ties to Ancient Chinese Astral-Geography and Mythology

The exact word used each time to describe Sun’s modus for attaining his cosmic form is Fatian Xiangdi (法天像地), or the “method of modeling Heaven on Earth”. This is actually related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The ancient Chinese viewed the heavens as a complex system of seven star units set in four cardinal sections, making up the Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions, all of which enclosed and revolved around a central star ruled by one of two supreme gods, Shangdi or Taiyi. Known as the “Purple Palace Enclosure” (Ziweiyuan, 紫微垣), this bound star system was the heavenly abode from which the supreme god oversaw reality, while the surrounding stars represented his civil and military officials and even outlying areas, such as dwellings and a marketplace. The Chinese emperor, commonly called the Son of Heaven, was considered the earthly counterpart of the great god, serving as the mediator between the will of heaven and the needs of man. Therefore, architects often modeled imperial cities on these celestial patterns, placing the emperor at the center surrounded by outer layers of courts, residential quarters, markets, and streets (Chan, 2008, pp. 8-19).

The arcane-sounding Fatian Xiangdi term was no doubt chosen simply because Monkey’s magic body mirrors the vastness of the cosmos (both heaven and earth), not that it borrowed particular celestial patterns like earthly architects. Interestingly, though, legend states the ancient Yuan capital of Dadu was modeled on the magic body of the child god Prince Nezha, who also appears in Journey to the West. [3]

The novel likens aspects of Sun’s cosmic form to earthly features and celestial bodies. This resembles stories of the ancient god Pangu (盤古) (fig. 3), the first being born into primordial chaos who slaved to separate heaven from earth, cleaving one from the other and forcing them apart. Stevens (1997) writes this monumental task took its toll on the titan:

He died as the task was reaching a climax and his body became features of the Earth. His head became the mountains, his breath the wind and clouds; his voice became thunder, his left eye the sun and his right eye the moon, and his four limbs became the four quarters of the Earth. His blood ran as rivers, his veins and muscles were the strata of the rocks, and his flesh the soil. His skin sprouted and became vegetable patches, forests and paddy fields, while his bones and teeth became the minerals. His sweat became the rain and to complete creation humanity sprang from the parasites on his body (p. 54).

Monkey in a way becomes a living embodiment of the divine giant because he too is described as having a head like a mountain, eyes like the sun and moon, and a mouth like a large body of liquid, which also happens to be blood.

pangu cleaves heaven and earth - 2

Fig. 3 – A modern (metal?) relief simultaneously symbolizing Pangu’s separation of heaven and earth and the decay of his body into earthly features and celestial bodies (larger version). Take note of the eye-like sun. Found on this news article about the god.

Giant characters were obviously not a new concept to Chinese literature by the Ming. An earlier example comes to us from The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Chapter six sees Monkey transform his golden-ringed monk’s staff “into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189) (fig. 4). This line simultaneously predicts Sun’s goliath form and blunt weapon (that touches heaven and earth like the head and feet of the yaksha) and Erlang’s monstrous appearance (i.e. his green skin and red hair).

yaksha guardian, bangkok, thailand

Fig. 4 – A guardian yaksha statue, Bangkok, Thailand (larger version). Take note of the large stature, blue skin, and club. Found on this article.

III. Possible ties to Hindu Mythology

Yakşas or Yakshas (Ch: Yecha, 夜叉) appear in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures as the assistants or protectors of divine beings. They are possessed of great magical powers and can do anything from flying to shape-changing (Dalal, 2014, p. 470; Robert & David, 2013, p. 1018). These nature spirits are often depicted in early religious art as portly dwarves (fig. 5), an element of iconography that they share with Vamana, the fifth avatar of the supreme deva Vishnu. This connection is important because the avatar is celebrated for his ability to eclipse the universe. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu takes the form of the dwarf Brahmin when a benevolent asura named Mahabali wrestles control of the cosmos from the gods. Vamana visits the king during a great sacrifice, during which the asura grants gifts, and humbly requests only as much land as he can cover in three strides. But when his wish is granted, the deceptively small priest grows to cosmic proportions, “mightily waxing, swelling in every limb, with his first stride stepp[ing] beyond the sun and moon, with his second reach[ing] the limits of the universe, and with his third return[ing] to set his foot on the head of the conquered foe” (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132). With his feat (pun intended), Vishnu regains control of heaven (step one) and earth (step two), while simultaneously banishing the asura to the underworld (step three) (Dalal, 2014, p. 442).

yakshas - sanchi stupa, western gateway, 1st c.

Fig. 5 – A detail of chubby Yakshas from the western gateway of Stupa 1 at Sanchi (1st-cent.) (larger version). Found on this article.

The noted art historian Heinrich Zimmer comments sculptures based on this story fall under a category of representationally kinetic art that he calls the “Phenomenon of Expanding Form”. One cited example is the Trivikrama Vishnu (lit: “three steps” Vishnu), a 6th-century Badami cave no. 2 relief (fig. 6) which presents a continuous narrative of the dwarf (fig. 7) growing to become the cosmic giant, the latter’s leg kicking high above his waist (fig. 8), symbolizing his mighty universe-spanning strides. Though the piece is carved in stone, the dynamic nature of the composition gives it a feeling of swelling energy (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132).

The carving portrays the cosmic giant holding all manner of weapons, including a club, a sword, a bow, and a chakram, all of which are attributes of Vishnu (Dalal, 2014, p. 460).

badami vamana carving (total for blog)

Fig. 6 – The Trivikrama Vishnu relief carving of Vamana’s story, Badami cave no. 2 (6th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of the dwarf Brahmin holding a parasol (larger version). Fig. 8 – A detail of the cosmic giant holding celestial weapons and taking a supernaturally large stride (larger version). Adapted from this wikipedia image.

The close association of the Yaksha and Vamana with a short, chubby body and shape-changing powers no doubt influenced the former to take on the latter’s ability to grow to huge proportions. In addition, after being absorbed into Buddhism, Yakshas are portrayed in scripture as divine warriors wielding clubs in defense of the dharma. Two prominent examples are Kubera (a.k.a. Vaisravana) and Vajrapani, both of whom are touted as the yaksha commander (Lutgendorf, 2007, p. 42; Robert & David, 2013, pp. 449 and 955). This surely influenced the later Chinese image of yakshas as club-wielding titans, such as the cited example from The Story. In turn, this and related material could have easily influenced the cosmic transformations of Monkey and other characters and their weapons from Journey to the West.

IV. Conclusion

The novel describes Monkey taking on a giant cosmic form in chapters three, six, and sixty-one, the first time showing off his magic powers to his children and the second and third in response to the respective titanic transformations of Erlang and the Bull King. The magical spell used to achieve this form, titled Fatian Xiangdi (the “Method of modeling Heaven on Earth”), is based on ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The idea of Sun’s body parts mirroring aspects of heaven and earth recalls the myth of the primordial god Pangu, whose body parts became the very building blocks of the cosmos after his death.

The cited episodes demonstrate that the characters involved transform both their bodies and weapons. Apart from being described as a 100,000-foot-tall juggernaut with a head like Mt. Tai, Monkey’s staff is said to inhabit the upper and lowermost reaches of the universe (“its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell”) or that it resembles “the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun”. Likewise, Erlang’s three-pointed polearm is said to resemble “the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain”. Such transformations are predicted, for example, by an episode in the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West in which Sun changes a monk’s staff into a gigantic Yaksha wielding a club.

While Yakshas are portrayed in early South Asian religious art as chubby dwarves, they most likely gained the ability to grow to enormous sizes thanks to iconographic similarities to Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu famed for traversing the cosmos in three mighty steps. One 6th-century stone carving of the story portrays the dwarf-turned-cosmic giant wielding all sorts of celestial weapons. Additionally, Buddhist scriptures would come to portray yakshas as club-wielding warriors. Therefore, we can see how Monkey’s cosmic transformation could have ultimately been influenced by Hindu and Buddhist religious material.


1) Here, Anthony C. Yu’s English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating ten Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu translates it in chapters six and sixty-one (see above).

2) Yu’s translation reads “eight hundred”. But, again, the original source is different. It reads “八百丈” (ba bai zhang), or 800 x 10 Chinese feet = 8,000. This makes more sense as he is said to be 10,000 feet long.

3) While the city is square, it has eleven gates, which legend states correspond to the three heads, six arms, and two legs of the god. For more information, see Chan, 2008.


Chan, H. (2008). Legends of the building of old Peking. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dalal, R. (2014). Hinduism: An alphabetical guide. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s tale: The messages of a divine monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

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: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1992). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)

Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

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 were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of [ten] thousand arms. [1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

There is a lot of information to unpack, so I’ll go through the important parts line by line.

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this pattern to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the Big Dipper pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping, three pace-style walking pattern. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.

(Note 06-15-19: Feng Dajian of Nankai University notified me via Twitter that he disagrees with Anthony C. Yu’s 2012 revised translation (cited above) associating the “True Sayings” with the Buddhist Dharani. This is because he feels the ritual is overtly Daoist, noting that the religion also has its own True Sayings.)


Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hardwon “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of hours or minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008).

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few hours or minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.


This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few hours or minutes.

Despite the ritual’s relationship to internal cultivation and the attainment of immortality, the process only bestows the princes with new, adamantine bodies capable of superhuman strength. They in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. The princes gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods and sages through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known colloquially as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.


1) The original English translation says “a thousand arms”, but the Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation has been corrected

2) Andersen (2008) notes the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Master Subhuti’s Curriculum II: Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some fun Fanfiction Speculation

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Shaolin map

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).


Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.


Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Volumes 1-4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.