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.
I. Mentions in the novel
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.
Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie with his battle rake (larger version).
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.  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).
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.
Fig. 2 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).
II. 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.  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).
Fig. 3 – A modern drawing of Wu Song with his Buddhist sabers (larger version).
III. 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 theIslamic conquest of Persiaand 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).
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).  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.
I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.
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.
Fig. 1 – The Cizhou ware pillow featuring Pigsy and the other pilgrims (larger version); Fig. 2 – A fragment of the blue and white incense burner showing Pigsy leading the White Dragon Horse (larger version). Fragments with the other characters can be found here; Fig. 3 – The Gyeongcheonsa pagoda is now housed inside of the National Museum of Korea (larger version).
I. Why Korea?
The Pak t’ongsaŏnhae (Ch: 朴通事諺解, Pu tongshi yanjie), a circa 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese, presents the Journey to the West story cycle as a highly popular tale among Koreans. This fact is revealed during a conversation between two Buddhist monks, one of which states: “The Xiyouji is lively. It is good reading when you are feeling gloomy” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 180). The same monk then recounts an episode where Monkey competes with three animal spirits-cum-Daoist priests in a test of magic skill. This episode comprises chapters 44 to 46 in the final Ming version of the novel.  The popularity of the Chinese story cycle in Korea then explains why scenes from it appear on the pagoda.
II. Pagoda Background
The National Museum of Korea explains the 13.5 meter (44.3 ft) tower has a long and tumultuous history:
Made of marble, this ten-story stone pagoda was erected at Gyeongcheonsa Temple in Gaeseong in 1348, the fourth year of the reign of Goryeo’s King Chungmok. The first tier of the pagoda bears an inscription that records various details about the pagoda’s production, including the production date and the patrons. According to the inscription, the pagoda was sponsored by Goryeo people who were associated with China’s Yuan Dynasty. Notably, this stone pagoda was closely modeled after wooden architecture, and each story is expertly carved with Buddhist images. The platform is sculpted with scenes of Xiyouji (Journey to the West), as well as lions, dragons, and lotus flowers. The lower four stories are sculpted with scenes of Buddha’s Assembly, while the upper six stories are sculpted with images of Buddha with both hands clasped. The four sides of the platform and those of the lower three tiers are protruding, recalling the shape of Tibetan-Mongolian pagodas that were prevalent in the Yuan period. However, the upper seven tiers have a more standard rectangular shape that corresponds with the conventional form of stone pagodas. Notably, about 120 years after this pagoda was built, the Joseon royal court erected a stone pagoda with a similar material and shape at Wongaksa Temple in Gwangju. In 1907, this pagoda was illegally dismantled and smuggled to Japan by Tanaka Mitsuyaki, the Japanese Minister of the Imperial Household. However, thanks in part to the efforts of a British journalist named Ernest Thomas Bethel and an American journalist named Homer Hulbert, it was returned to Korea in 1918. The pagoda was partially restored in 1960, while it was being kept at Gyeongbokgung Palace, but after having been kept outside for so long, suffering the effects of weather and acid rain, it could not be properly preserved. Thus, in 1995, it was dismantled for a more extensive restoration project. Ten years later, it was reassembled inside the new building of the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, being unveiled as part of the museum’s grand opening in 2005 (“Ten-story Stone Pagoda”, n.d.).
The pagoda’s political and architectural connections to Yuan China further explain why scenes from the story cycle grace the platform.
III. The Images
Twenty Journey to the West-related scenes appear on the second level of the pagoda’s multifaceted three-tiered base. The following line drawings, which are based on ink rubbings of the original carvings, come from an in-depth field report by the Yegŭrin Architectural Firm (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993). (Note: I have recently learned that the line drawings from Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso (1993) are all but useless. See the update below for more info.) The images are presented below starting from the southernmost face (the six o’clock position) of the pagoda’s diamond-shaped cross section, proceeding in a clockwise fashion. Each is accompanied with commentary from the original report. You will notice the report is generally vague as the exact meaning of the scenes are often unclear. I will therefore present my own commentary or questions below in the hopes of furthering the discussion.
On the left, a figure of a Buddhist monk stands at the front, and behind him a horse and figures in the shape of a pig’s head, a monkey, and more are depicted. The figure of the Buddhist monk appears to be Monk Xuanzang, the figure of the monkey, Sun Wukong, the figure with the pig’s head, Zhu Bajie, and the last figure appears to be Sha Wujing. In other words, it is Monk Xuanzang’s travel companions. On the right, pictured symmetrically with Xuanzang’s travel party is the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown, and behind him stands a figure of a young boy holding an umbrella over his head and the figures of three noblemen.
And to the right of this a building structure is depicted. The nobleman who is at the very front wearing a crown seems to be a king and the building structure appears to represent a palace. Therefore, the content of the carving above seems to be the scene of a king sending off Monk Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 5] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).
Could this scene be a telescopic version of the narrative, one in which the already assembled group is being sent off by Tang Taizong? After all, the authors suggest in panel number ten that the first ten images likely show the journey to India, while the latter half shows the return (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124). Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the king as the largest and therefore the most important, with Tripitaka being the second tallest/important, and the three disciples even shorter. Pigsy’s porcine head really stands out as Sandy is depicted as a human monk.
As above, the horse and the travel party of Monk Xuanzang, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing have been portrayed. Here Sha Wujing is carrying a knapsack. On the left a road populated with animals and birds are depicted. Therefore, here it appears to show that Monk Xuanzang and his companions are traveling on a mountain road [fig. 6] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).
Take note of Pigsy’s upraised hands and wide stride. This motif appears several more times on other panels (fig. 12, 13, 17, and 24). The posture is quite similar to that from the aforementioned ceramic pillow and incense burner, which depict Pigsy carrying his rake and leading the horse. He lacks his signature weapon in these scenes, however (fig. 7). This might explain the strange posture of his right hand.
Fig. 7 – Similar Pigsy iconography from the Cizhou ware pillow (left), the incense burner (center), and panel two (right), all corresponding with the Yuan Dynasty (larger version). See also figure 24 for a better match.
On the left, the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown is kneeling. Behind him, a figure of a person holding a club appears to threaten the nobleman in front. Behind them something like an altar is depicted. Symmetrical with the figure of the kneeling nobleman, a figure looking like a government official from a prison in a provincial district stands holding a tool of torture.
Even if we don’t know what this is, it seems to show the oppression by those of other religions during the years of Xuanzang’s journey [fig. 8] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).
My view on the scene differs from the authors. The “government official” appears to be a deity (noted by the flowing ribbons around the shoulders), possibly Guanyin since the upheld item reminds me of her holy vase. The figure to the right could be her disciple Moksha. Would this make the club-wielding figure Monkey and his prisoner a captured demon?
On the left, a figure holding a club and Monk Xuanzang are depicted. On the right, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are portrayed. Here Monkey is posed as if he is defeating something with the stick, and behind the horse Sha Wujing is carrying the knapsack. Monk Xuanzang is shown lifting his left hand as if he is arguing something. This appears to show the scene of Xuanzang’s companions defeating some hindrance [fig. 9] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).
I believe Tripitaka is begging Monkey not to slay or beat the person, as the monk steps in many times throughout the narrative to do this. Could this be the White Bone Demon under one of its many disguises from chapter 27?
On the right side, a figure riding a lion is depicted. On the left side, three figures that seem like they are servants are depicted, and in the back a building structure is carved. It seems to depict some group of royals or noblemen on Xuanzang’s way to India [fig. 10] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).
The group of servants appear to me to be our pilgrims, the long-faced figure possibly being Pigsy. The figure riding the lion could be Manjusri and his feline mount. Could this be a reference to him subduing the beast in chapter 77? The figure’s hands appear to be producing bolts of lightning. I’m not sure of the significance, if any.
On the right, there is a figure of a Buddhist monk holding a monk’s staff who seems to be Monk Xuanzang, and a figure to his left seems to be a disguised Monkey. On the left, figures of noblemen from a palace are portrayed. This appears to depict a scene where Monk Xuanzang’s travel party is welcomed in some palace along the road [fig. 11] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).
The strange figure in the middle is a complete mystery to me. While the figure is identified as Monkey, it’s impossible to tell for sure.
On the left side, a pattern of fire sparks is carved. And in front of that is Monkey, holding a fan trying to put out the fire. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is carrying out some action with lifted hands, and behind him Zhu Bajie is holding the horse reins while Sha Wujing as always is carrying the knapsack. This depicts the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting and trying to eliminate difficulties along the road [fig. 12] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).
This is the least ambiguous of the twenty scenes and my personal favorite. It depicts Monkey using the magic palm leaf fan to conquer the flames of Fire Mountain.
Pigsy’s upraised hand-wide stride motif appears once more.
A table is placed in the middle, and on top of it lays objects that seem to be offerings. On the right Xuanzang’s travel party and on the left figures of noblemen or royals are depicted. Two of the figures from Xuanzang’s travel party are covering their heads with something, but this seems to be to conceal the sight of Monkey and Zhu Bajie’s animal heads. This appears to be the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party receiving offerings from a royal or gentry family along the way [fig. 13] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).
The bearded figure between Tripitaka and the supposedly veiled figure is no doubt Pigsy, based on his upraised hands and wide stride. The elongated snout has been confused for a beard.
Also, could the veil actually be supplies on the horse’s back? Maybe the original rubbing is degraded in this area, making the head look as if it is under (instead of in front of) the object.
On the left, a figure of a nobleman who is kneeling or bending his head is depicted. On the right, the figure of Zhu Bajie, who is trying to attack the nobleman, and the figure of Monk Xuanzang, who is trying to prevent this, are shown. It appears to be depicting some sort of misunderstanding that happened between the nobleman and Xuanzang’s attendant [fig. 14] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).
Pigsy has not been portrayed with a weapon up to this point. It would make more sense if Monkey was wielding the staff. After all, figure 17 depicts Sun standing in a similar posture while wielding a club/staff. Perhaps the elongated face on this panel is just an artifact from the original rubbing?
On the left side, Xuanzang bears a monk’s staff and his attendants are depicted together with the horse. And on the right side, symmetrical to this, are the figures of a Buddhist monk (holding a monk’s staff) and his attendant, who are about to receive Xuanzang’s travel party. This appears to depict the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party being welcomed by the monks of some temple along the way. Here Monkey and Zhu Bajie seem to have transformed into monks and are posing as Buddhist monks.
The above ten sides, beginning at due south and reaching due north, appear to be depicting the process of Xuanzang’s travel party going to India, while the ten sides starting at due north appears to depict their return journey [fig. 15] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).
The scene shows the small monk on the right passing something to Tripitaka. Based on iconography from the following images (see, for example, fig. 18), this could be portraying the monks receiving the scriptures in India.
On the left side, two horses carrying something on their backs and Xuanzang’s travel party are shown. On the left are two figures of kings with umbrellas held over their heads by attendants. And to the left of them, a figure of an official who seems to be guarding the palace is visible. This appears to be depicting the scene where the kings are sending off Xuanzang’s travel party, who are setting off on their journey home after obtaining the scriptures [fig. 16] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).
The “something” on the horses’ backs could be the scriptures.
On the left, the figure of a monk is caught by the figures of noblemen wearing crowns. On the left Monkey, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing and the horse are depicted. But Monkey and Zhu Bajie are assuming postures threatening to save the captured Monk Xuanzang. This seems to show the image of Monkey and company as guards, trying to save Xuanzang when he was being captured on their way back [fig. 17] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).
Here the figure wielding the staff is designated Monkey, with Pigsy standing behind him. Again, this makes more sense than Zhu Bajie attacking (as portrayed in figure 14).
On the right side, Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse carrying the scriptures are depicted. Here Xuanzang is shown handing over some of the Buddhist scriptures to the figure of a monk on the left. This appears to show Xuanzang’s travel party passing on Buddhism along the way on their return journey [fig. 18] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).
Compare the shape of the Buddhist scriptures held by the monks with that in figure 15.
The panel draws on preexisting iconography regarding the sutras. The collection of holy writings are sometimes portrayed as a bundle of scrolls emitting an aura of holy light. See, for example, the 12th-century mural from Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu province, China (fig. 19).
Fig. 19 – Detail of sutras from a 12th-century Yunlin cave mural (left) and the sutras from panel thirteen (right) (larger version). Both are shown stacked atop a horse.
In the middle of the right side, the figure of a king seated on a throne is depicted. On both sides of him figures of scholar-officials attend to him or sit. On the left, figures of officials are shown attending to duties or sitting. It seems this is depicting the scene of China’s emperor waiting for Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 20] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).
Could the figures at the table actually be our heroes, with Xuanzang kneeling before a foreign king?
On the left side, a figure of an ascetic is depicted sitting under a tree (Bodhi tree) meditating, and Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse are depicted. Here Xuanzang is assuming a posture, holding the monk’s staff and lifting his right hand trying to assert something. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting an ascetic and passing on Buddhism on their journey home [fig. 21] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).
Look closely and you will notice that Sun Wukong does not appear in the scene. Could the “ascetic” be Monkey kneeling before Xuanzang. If so, could this be a reference to the immortal and his master mending their relationship in chapter 58 after the trickery of the Six-Eared Macaque forced them apart?
On the right, a building is depicted and inside it a figure of a king sitting on a throne, and in front of him, a figure of a kneeling monk (Xuanzang) are portrayed. Outside the building, the figure of a young monk that seems to be Xuanzang’s attendant is depicted. Behind him, figures that seem to be civil and military officials are depicted. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang meeting some king along his way [fig. 22](Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).
On the left, a pagoda is depicted and in front of it, Zhu Bajie is carrying a club, assuming a posture trying to bring the pagoda down. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is lifting his right hand and insisting something, as if trying to stop him. This seems to show the soothing of Zhu Bajie’s aggressive, insulting actions towards Buddhism [fig. 23] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).
Like figure 14, it would make more sense if Monkey is the one wielding the staff. Could this be a reference to chapter 62 when Sun captures two fish spirits found on a pagoda’s topmost floor?
In the upper left part, the sun symbolizing light is depicted. Headed in that direction Monk Xuanzang is taking the lead and behind him Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are shown hurrying their steps while leading the horse. Here Monk Xuanzang seems to be urging Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, rushing their journey home [fig. 24] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).
This includes Pigsy’s aforementioned motif. It is a better match for the ceramic pillow and incense burner examples from figure 19.
On the right, a figure of a celestial being is depicted and Xuanzang’s travel party is facing it symmetrically. This seems to show the fact that Xuanzang’s travel party received the blessing of celestial guardian deities [fig. 25] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).
I’m confused as to why the two characters on the far right are stacked one on the other. Per the original ink rubbing, could “they” actually be a singular figure, possibly someone of great importance given their size? Could the “deity” actually be Xuanzang being elevated in spiritual rank like in chapter 100?
On the left, something that seems to be a Buddhist altar is depicted. In front of it, Xuanzang is placed in the middle shown holding the monk’s staff, and Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are each shown performing different actions. Xuanzang is lifting his right hand, posed arguing something and you could say he is trying to educate his attendants, Monkey etc., in Buddhism [fig. 26] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).
While the line drawing looks more like a figure at a desk, it very well could be an altar with a Buddha statue. Could this depict the lives of our heroes after entering paradise?
IV. Other Pagodas
This is not the first time characters from the story cycle have appeared on a pagoda. Even older examples appear on the 13th-century tower of the Kaiyuan Temple from Quanzhou, Fujian province, China. In this previous article I described how the pagoda is covered with eighty life-sized carvings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, guardian deities, Buddhist saints, and eminent monks. Of note is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior that many consider to be an early example of Sun Wukong. Another is an armored, spear-wielding warrior believed to be the dragon prince who becomes the white dragon horse. Both occupy the same face of the eight-sided structure (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 47-48 and 49-51).
Zhu Bajie’s oldest known depictions come from a time coinciding with the late Yuan Dynasty, examples including a ceramic pillow and a fragmented incense burner from China and carvings on a pagoda from Korea. Built in 1348 by Goryeo representatives with ties to the Yuan court, the ten-story Gyeongcheonsa pagoda includes twenty Journey to the West-related scenes around the second level of the structure’s multifaceted three-tiered base. Many of the scenes are vague or focus more on kings and nobles in place of Tripitaka’s tribulations or instances of supernatural battles. One has to consider the story cycle was still solidifying at this point, so it’s possible some of the scenes depict episodes that did not make it into the final Ming version of the novel. But given the amount of royalty, is it possible the donors/planners were trying to ingratiate themselves with people of higher social rank? Or were they just trying to illustrate the great many countries visited by the pilgrims (each one ruled by a king) within the limited space provided?
The panels involving Pigsy for the most part use a consistent iconography borrowed from China. The aforementioned Yuan examples portray Pigsy leading the horse with one hand and with the other holding his signature rake, which rests on his shoulder, all while taking a large step forward. The pagoda panels, however, do not portray the rake, leaving our portly hero with his arm strangely floating in the air. Instead of a rake, some panels appear to show him wielding a staff. But the figure might actually be Sun Wukong, the elongated face just being an artifact from the original ink rubbings.
The fact that characters from the Journey to the West story cycle appear on Chinese and Korean pagodas alongside Buddhist deities proves just how intertwined the story is with the religion. The tale essentially symbolizes the quest for enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Therefore, such pictorial representations, especially the narrative-type scenes from Gyeongcheonsa, were probably meant to both entertain and spread the faith.
I have recently learned that the line drawings from Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso (1993) are all but useless. A prime example is number nineteen. As a reminder, here is the drawing:
I originally suggested that the being on the cloud was Xuanzang being elevated in spiritual rank. I didn’t comment on the strange, flower-like cloud to the right of that figure because of its abstract shape.
Now here is a photo of the actual carving. It has been enhanced slightly for clarity.
You’ll noticed that the cloud really is a flower with a defined bulb, stem, and leaves. There also appears to be a figure sitting on the flower, one who is surrounded by what looks to be spikes or swords. Here’s a closer look with a crude line drawing by the author.
Wall (2019) notes the figure on the flower is Red Boy and the figure on the cloud is Guanyin (pp. 2129-2130), making this a depiction of the former’s defeat at the end of what would be chapter 42 of the Ming Journey to the West:
After she received [treasure swords borrowed from heaven], the Bodhisattva [Guanyin] threw them into the air as she recited a spell: the swords were transformed into a thousand-leaf lotus platform. Leaping up, the Bodhisattva sat solemnly in the middle.
[Sun Wukong feigns defeat and tricks Red Boy into chasing him to Guayin’s domain] When the monster spirit suddenly discovered that Pilgrim was gone, he walked up to the Bodhisattva with bulging eyes and said to her, “Are you the reinforcement Pilgrim Sun brought here?” The Bodhisattva did not reply. Rolling the lance in his hands, the monster king bellowed, “Hey! Are you the reinforcement Pilgrim Sun brought here?” Still the Bodhisattva did not reply. The monster-spirit lifted his lance and jabbed at the heart of the Bodhisattva, who at once changed herself into a beam of golden light and rose into the air. Pilgrim followed her on her way up and said to her, “Bodhisattva, you are trying to take advantage of me! The monster-spirit asked you several times. How could you pretend to be deaf and dumb and not make any noise at all? One blow of his lance, in fact, chased you away, and you have even left behind your lotus platform.”
“Don’t talk,” said the Bodhisattva, “let’s see what he will do.” At this time, Pilgrim and Mokṣa both stood in the air shoulder to shoulder and stared down; they found the monster-spirit laughing scornfully and saying to himself, “Brazen ape, you’re mistaken about me! What sort of person do you think that I, Holy Child, happen to be? For several times you could not prevail against me, and then you had to go and fetch some namby-pamby Bodhisattva. One blow of my lance now has made her vanish completely. Moreover, she has even left the treasure lotus platform behind. Well, let me get up there and take a seat.” Dear monster-spirit. He imitated the Bodhisattva by sitting in the middle of the platform with hands and legs folded. When he saw this, Pilgrim said, “Fine! Fine! Fine! This lotus platform has been given to someone else!”
“Wukong,” said the Bodhisattva, “what are you mumbling again?”
“Mumbling what? Mumbling what?” replied Pilgrim. “I’m saying that the lotus platform has been given to someone else. Look! It’s underneath his thighs. You think he’s going to return it to you?”
“I wanted him to sit there,” said the Bodhisattva.
“Well, he’s smaller than you,” said Pilgrim, “and it seems that the seat fits him even better than it fits you.”
“Stop talking,” said the Bodhisattva, “and watch the dharma power.”
She pointed the willow twig downward and cried, “Withdraw!” All at once, flowers and leaves vanished from the lotus platform and the auspicious luminosity dispersed entirely. The monster king, you see, was sitting actually on the points of those swords. The Bodhisattva then gave this command to Mokṣa:
“Use your demon-routing cudgel and strike back and forth at the sword handles.”
Dropping from the clouds, Mokṣa wielded his cudgel as if he were demolishing a wall: he struck at the handles hundreds of times. As for that monster-spirit,
Both his legs were pierced till the points stuck out; Blood spouted in pools as flesh and skin were torn.
Marvelous monster! Look at him! Gritting his teeth to bear the pain, he abandoned the lance so that he could use both hands to try to pull the swords out from his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 246 and 249-250).
Could the figures, one on top of the other’s shoulders, be an inventive way of showing Monkey and Guanyin’s disciple Moksha working together to subdue Red Boy?
This carving shows the Red Boy episode was known in Korea during the 14th-century, demonstrating that it predates the final Ming novel by centuries. The tale obviously would have taken time to form, become established in the accepted story cycle, and travel north, suggesting it may date to the early part of the corresponding Yuan-period when the Pagoda was raised in Korea, or possibly even before.
I hope to locate pictures of the other carvings to make this article more accurate.
1) See Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 60-74 for more information. The tale itself is translated in appendix B of the same work. See pages 179-188.
This entry will explore the curriculum that Sun Wukong follows while studying under the immortal sage Master Subodhi in India. Monkey stays in the immortal’s monastery for a total of ten years, the first seven living as a junior Daoist monk and the last three as a close disciple of Subodhi. Apart from menial tasks like fetching firewood and water, tending the garden, and cleaning the monastery grounds, Monkey first receives lessons on human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and minor ritual procedures like incense burning. These are taught to him by his senior religious brothers, thereby freeing up the Sage to teach higher level lessons on philosophy, internal alchemy, magic, and other skills to his more advanced students.
I should point out that Sun’s greatest asset during his training appears to be a supernatural mental acuity. Upon becoming Subodhi’s close disciple, Monkey rapidly masters skills that even his more senior religious brothers cannot grasp. The novel therefore refers to our hero as “someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122). Monkey’s intellect allows him to outsmart many opponents and bypass many obstacles during his later adventures.
I. Overtly stated
These subjects are overtly mentioned in chapter two.
1) Chinese Philosophy – One poem best describes the philosophical lessons taught by Subodhi:
With words so florid and eloquent
That gold lotus sprang from the ground.
The doctrine of three vehicles he subtly rehearsed,
Including even the laws’ minutest tittle.
The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance:
His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven.
For a while he lectured on Dao;
For a while he spoke on Chan–
To harmonize the Three Parties is a natural thing.
One word’s elucidation filled with truth
Points to the birthless showing nature’s mystery
(Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122).
This poem is a prime example of the Ming syncretic philosophy of the Three Teachings (Sanjiao, 三教): Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. “The doctrine of the three vehicles” could refer to the three main branches of Buddhism, namely Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, but could also be referring to the Three Teachings (the same as the “Three Parties” mentioned further down the poem). “The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance” refers to the bingfu (秉拂), or “to take hold of the whisk”, a metonym for a sermon by a learned Chan (Zen) master conducted from a high chair. The phrase derives from the fly whisk (Sk: vālavyajana; Ch: fuzi, 拂子; Jp: hossu, 払子), a symbol of religious authority held in hand during a lesson (Robert & David, 2013, p. 120). “His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven” refers to the Nine Heavens (jiutian, 九天) of Daoism (Pregadio, 2008, pp. 593-594). And of course the poem goes onto mention Subodhi lecturing on both Chan and the Dao, thereby identifying him as a teacher of unparalleled knowledge.
2) The Secret of Immortality – As I’ve explained in this article, Sun achieves immortality via breathing exercises designed to absorb yang energy during prescribed times (after midnight and before noon), the retention of chaste semen and transformation into qi energy, and the purification and circulation of the resulting spiritual energy throughout his body. While these practices are traditionally associated in Daoist internal alchemy with the formation of an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.
Monkey achieves immortality. Photomanipulation by the author (larger version).
3) The 72 Transformations – This series of oral formulas allows Wukong to change his physical appearance into anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. Subodhi teaches this skill to Monkey with the expressed purpose of escaping three heaven-sent calamities meant to destroy immortals for defying their fate. Despite the intended use, this skill becomes one of his greatest strengths.
Because of Monkey’s mental acuity he is able to instantly remember all of the oral formulas imparted to him and, after some practice, he quickly masters the transformations.
Sun’s heated battle of transformations with the god Erlang. From the 1965 animated classic Havoc in Heaven.
4) Cloud-Somersaulting – The combination of a hand mudra and an oral formula allows Monkey to rise above the ground and travel at immense speed by somersaulting from cloud to cloud, each leap being 108,000 li, or 33,554 miles (54,000 km) long.
This skill is mastered in a single night.
Monkey flying on clouds. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).
Sun Wukong’s tutelage in these subjects are never stated but are understood to have taken place.
5) General Daoist Magic – This skill allows him to call forth gods and spirits, grow or shrink to any size, part fire and water, create an impassable barrier, conger a wind storm, cast illusions, freeze someone in place, unlock any lock, give human disciples superhuman strength, etc.
What’s interesting is that, during his training, Monkey expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests simply because the skill won’t result in his immortality. Instead, after achieving eternal life, Sun is just so powerful he can command the very gods themselves to do his bidding. His lack of ritual knowledge is highlighted in chapter 45 when he agrees to engage in a rain-making competition with an animal spirit disguised as a Daoist priest. The spirit relies on an established liturgy involving a ritual sword and tablet, as well as the burning of a written note. This elaborate ritual initiates a bureaucratic chain in which the request is sent to heaven, the Jade Emperor agrees to the appeal, and then heavenly officials, namely the gods of wind, clouds, lightning, and rain, are dispatched to fulfill the application. But Monkey rises into the clouds above to bully the respective deities into helping him instead, noting: “I don’t know how to burn charms, issue summons, or strike any tablet. So all of you must play along with me” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).
Likewise, Monkey is so powerful that he can bring the dead back to life by simply fetching a person’s soul from the underworld (like he does for an elderly benefactor in chapter 97).
Sun casting a magic spell. Drawing by Poppindollars on deviantart (larger version).
6) The Art of War – I’m including military and civilian martial arts in this section as both are related.
Weaponry – After returning home in chapter 3, the young immortal teaches his children how to wield a plethora of weapons, including swords, spears, axes, bows and arrows, etc. Of course, he shortly thereafter acquires his magic staff, the weapon most commonly associated with him. Monkey’s skill with the staff is so great, in fact, that his supernatural technique is likened in chapter 33 to two of the Seven Military Classics of China.
Monkey’s broad knowledge of weapons implies that he learns the famous “Eighteen Martial Arts” (Shiba ban wuyi, 十八般武藝). A vague list of these war implements first appeared during the Song Dynasty, but a later definitive list became “a standard shorthand for complete martial arts knowledge” in Yuan-period stage plays (Lorge, 2012, p. 146). One version of the list appearing in the great Chinese classic The Water Margin (c. 1400) includes everything from chains, clubs, and whips to axes, halberds, and even early firearms (Lorge, 2012, p. 147). Variations on the eighteen weapons remained a staple of Chinese stage plays, oral literature, and written fiction. Therefore, it’s no wonder a great warrior like Monkey would come to be associated with the mastery of so many weapons.
Monkey assaults heavenly forces with his magic staff. Drawing by JeremyBLZ on deviantart (larger version).
Military Maneuvers – Monkey goes onto train his children how to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat, turning the tangled mass of monkeys into an elite army.
Sun’s children engaging in mock battles during their training. From Havoc in Heaven.
Boxing – Sun displays a mastery of unarmed boxing in chapters one and 51, the former against a demon who takes over his mountain home in his absence and the latter against a Rhinoceros demon who steals his staff. Both chapters describe Monkey using techniques akin to short fist, a style known for quick, compact punches. Learning this close range style may be out of necessity, though, considering Sun is so short (he’s less than 4 ft (122 cm) tall).
In his wonderful book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Prof. Meir Shahar of Tel Aviv University shows Shaolin kungfu developed during the Ming-Qing transition from a synthesis of Daoist gymnastics (stretching and breathing exercises), religious rituals, and fist techniques. This new form of spiritual cultivation ushered in the era of so-called “internal martial arts“, Taiji boxing being the most famous among them.
Interestingly, some of the real world techniques used by Monkey and his opponent in chapter 51 appear in Taiji boxing.
Journey to the West (1592) was published during the late Ming when this synthesis was in full swing. Therefore, Sun’s study of martial arts in a religious institution is an accurate snapshot of one facet of 16th-century monastic life.
Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).
7) Chinese Medicine – This skill is displayed only once in the novel. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long-standing malady of a foreign emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, he is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. Sun deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a recipe of herbs, kettle soot, and dragon horse urine and administers the elixir with dragon king saliva. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowls, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.
Baring the strings, Monkey’s method of reading the pulse aligns with real Chinese medicinal practice. The area of the forearm analyzed by traditional Chinese doctors is known as Cunkou (寸口, the “inch opening”), and this is broken up into the three spots Cun (寸, “inch”), Guan (關, “pass”), and Chi (尺, “foot”). The mirrored spots on each arm are believed to correspond to specific internal organs. For example, the Cun spot (nearest the wrist) on the right hand corresponds to the lung, while that of the left hand corresponds to the heart (Liao, 2011, pp. 55-56). Therefore, analyzing the pulse at these spots is believed to reveal the health of the corresponding organs.
The skills learned by Sun are varied, straddling the religious, the literary, and the martial. Therefore, Monkey is a perfect example of what Deng Mingdao (1990) calls the “Scholar Warrior”:
Skill is the essence of the Scholar Warrior. Such a person strives to develop a wide variety of talents to a degree greater than even a specialist in a particular field. Poet and boxer. Doctor and swordsman. Musician and knight. The Scholar Warrior uses each part of his or her overall ability to keep the whole in balance, and to attain the equilibrium for following the Tao. Uncertainty of the future inspires no fear: whatever happens, the Scholar Warrior has the confidence to face it (p. 10).
Monkey stays in Subodhi’s monastery for a total of ten years, the first seven living as a junior Daoist monk and the last three as a close disciple of Subodhi. During his time as a junior monk, he learns human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and incense burning. These foundational skills are taught to him by his senior religious brothers. During his time with Subodhi, Sun learns Chan 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.
I’ve written a continuation of this article where I use the above info to speculate Sun Wukong is a warrior monk in Master Subodhi’s immortal monastic army. It’s good fodder for fanfiction. I even suggest a mythological baddie for the warrior monks to fight, the headless deity Xingtian.
I’ve written at length about Monkey’s staff, armor, golden headband, and tiger skin kilt, but the one thing that has puzzled me the most is the origin of his magic hair. His ability to create anything he wants from his fur first appears in chapter two when he is forced to fight a demon who has taken control of his Water Curtain cave in his absence.
Seeing that his opponent was growing fiercer, Wukong now used the method called the Body beyond the Body [shen wai shenfa, 身外身法]. Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides [fig. 1]. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 128).
Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).
I was pleased to find the answer while finishing work on a recent article. The following material appears in Meulenbeld’s (2007) wonderful study on Sire Thunder:
This peculiar technique was not an invention of the author of Xiyouji; it existed in ritual practice as performed by Daoist priests to produce martial proxies. In an example from the late fourteenth century [the Song Lian quanji, 宋濂全集], recorded by Song Lian, we read about a certain Daoist that his “steps of Yu formed a Heavenly Paladin, pulling out hair to make soldiers” 禹步成罡, 拔髮為兵. A ritual manual from the Heavenly Reed tradition [the Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元], written at least one and a half centuries before Xiyouji (and probably much earlier even), mentions that in the practice of summoning forth divine troops “the spiritual agents, generals and scribes come out through the pores” 靈官, 將吏, 自毛竅出. Consistent with the Golden Glow of self-incineration practices I have described in chapter 3, the pores could radiate with the same Golden Glow, and make the gods manifest: “From all the holes and pores in the body of down and hair burst forth ten-thousand rays of Golden Glow; […] the ten-thousand gods all manifested themselves inside this Golden Glow” 一身毛髮孔竅都迸出萬道金光 […] 萬神俱現於金光中. In Daoist literature generally, the pores were regarded to be the “source of transformations” 造化之源 (pp. 294-295).
As previously stated, the novel refers to Monkey’s ability to make clones of himself as “the method [of] the Body beyond the Body” (shen wai shenfa, 身外身法). Interestingly, this corresponds to a similar sounding name for the immortal embryo that a Daoist adept cultivates within themselves in an effort to create an immortal spirit body. Pregadio (2018) notes that, once gestated to maturation and freed to roam, this embryo-turned-immortal spirit is called the “person outside one’s person” or the “self outside one-self” (shen zhi wai shen, 身之外身) (p. 400). Above, I cited Meulenbeld (2007) who described a ritual in which a Daoist creates heavenly paladins by plucking out hair. Monkey instead creates magic clones of himself and sends these autonomous beings out to do his bidding, much like an advanced practitioner might send out their immortal spirit body. So it appears the author-compiler of Journey to the West mixed and matched various Daoist concepts to create some of Sun Wukong’s magical abilities.
Body division (fenxing, 分形) is a common skill of the Daoist sage (Robinet, 1979, p. 49). Daoist hagiography mentions several practitioners able to divide themselves in order to simultaneously entertain multiple guests or answer the numerous summons of lofty officials. The most famous example is that of the late Han alchemist Zuo Ci (左慈), who is known for enraging the warlord Cao Cao (曹操) and using his body division power in hilarious ways to escape capture and execution time and time again. Part of his story reads:
<Inquiries determined that Zuo Ci had returned home. Duke Cao was now even more determined to have him killed, and he also wanted to test whether Zuo could avoid death, so he gave orders to have him apprehended. [As Cao’s men approached,]> Zuo ﬂed into a ﬂock of sheep, and his pursuers, losing sight of him, suspected that he might have transformed himself into one of the sheep. They had the sheep counted. Originally there had been an even thousand of them, but now there was one extra, so they knew that Zuo had indeed transformed himself. They announced: “Master Zuo, if you’re in there, just come out; we won’t hurt you.” Then one of the sheep knelt down and spoke words, saying, “Who would have thought I’d be pardoned?” When the pursuers tried to seize that one sheep, all of the other sheep knelt down and said, “Who would have thought I’d be pardoned?” So the pursuers [gave up and] left.
<Later on, someone learned Zuo Ci’s whereabouts and informed Cao, who once again sent men to apprehend him, and they captured him. It was not that Zuo could not have escaped; he deliberately allowed himself to be arrested in order to demonstrate his divine transformations. He was taken into prison. When the guards there were ready to torture and interrogate him, there was one Zuo inside the cell door and another Zuo outside it, and they did not know which one to torture. When Cao was informed, he despised Zuo even more, and ordered that he be taken out of the city and killed.> As they were taking him out of the city, Zuo suddenly vanished. So they locked the city gates and searched for him. It was announced that [they were searching for a man who] was blind in one eye and wearing a linen cloth wrapped on his head and a one-layer gown. The moment this announcement was made, the entire city full of people, numbering several tens of thousands, all turned into men blind in one eye wearing a linen cloth on their head and a one-layer gown [fig. 2]. So in the end they did not know which one to seize.
<Cao then put out an all-points order that Zuo Ci was to be killed on sight.> Someone saw and recognized Zuo, so they beheaded him and presented [the head] to Cao. Cao was overjoyed. When he inspected the head, however, it turned out to be only a bundle of straw. <When someone went back to search for Zuo’s corpse, it had vanished (Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 280-281).
Fig. 2 – An entire city of Zuo clones (larger version). From a modern Romance of the Three Kingdoms comic.
Zuo and Monkey share a cheeky talent for taunting their enemies with magic transformations. It’s important to note that, while this particular hagiography appears in Traditions of Divine Transcendents (Shenxian zhuan, 神仙傳, c. 4th-century), a later adapted version appears in chapter 68 of the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi, 三國演義, 14th-century).
Additionally, Robinet (1979) describes a form of body division in which Daoists create miniature clones to do their bidding, much like the monkeys called forth from Sun’s magic hairs:
The Taoist encyclopedia, Yunji Qiqian[雲笈七籤, c. 1029], sets forth three similar methods, all of which involve the creation of a human simulacrum (yingren 影人 [lit: “shadow person”]) by means of mental concentration. Such figures, only several inches tall, can pass through walls and ascend to the heavens. They are substitutes for the Taoist himself, acting as representatives for him so as to roam the heavens and secure beneficial influences for him. They infuse these influences into the adept’s body where they proceed to the major organs (p. 49). 
This information shows that body division appeared in religious and vernacular literature prior to the publishing of the Ming Journey to the West. This means the novel’s author-compiler could have drawn from such media to influence Monkey’s powers.
1) Original source changed slightly. The original Wade-Giles was changed to pinyin.
Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To live as long as heaven and earth: A translation and study of Ge Hong’s traditions of divine transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).
Pregadio, F. (2018). Which is the Daoist immortal body? Micrologus 26, 385-407.
Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: volumes 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Heroes from Chinese military fiction are often cast as reincarnations of celestial beings. For instance, the famous patriot General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103–1141) is portrayed as a reincarnation of the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda (Jialouluo, 伽樓羅; Jialiuluo, 伽留羅) in his folk biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). The bird, called the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王), sits at the head of the Buddha’s throne in the Western Paradise. His fiery temper is aroused when a bat-spirit (the embodiment of the Aquarius constellation) passes gas during the Enlightened One’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. He swoops down from the throne and snatches her up in his beak, killing her instantly. The Buddha admonishes the bird for his transgression of Buddhist law and exiles him to earth. His rebirth in the human world actually serves to counterbalance the actions of a nomadic antagonist, originally a dragon sent from the Eastern Heaven to punish China (Qian, 2016). This storyline was influenced by a previous work, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), which explains how Garuda came to hold such an important position above the Buddha.
Called the “Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏),  the bird is portrayed as a spiritual uncle of the Buddha and an ancient demon king with unequaled strength, speed, and powers of transformation (fig. 1). He wields two magic weapons, a halberd and a vase capable of trapping and killing even immortals. Garuda is so powerful, in fact, that not even Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is strong enough to pacify the beast. Therefore, the Buddha himself is forced to leave the Western Paradise to confront the demon headon. He casts the illusion of a bloody piece of meat above his head, and when the man-bird pounces on the bait, the Buddha takes away his ability to fly, thus trapping Garuda above his head in the demon’s original form as a golden-winged vulture (Dapeng jinchi diao, 大鵬金翅鵰) (fig. 2). After some struggle, the bird agrees to become a protector of Buddhist law (Sk: dharma; Ch: fa, 法). Thus, Chinese fiction portrays Garuda as a powerful demon king that submits to the Buddha and perches above his throne as a hot-tempered guardian deity. 
The fact that this literary motif appears in two famous Chinese classics points to some widely known religious concept circulating during the 16th– and 17th-centuries. In this paper I will trace the origins of the motif from ancient South Asian literature and religious architecture to Esoteric Buddhist art in East Asia. The path we walk is a complicated one spanning centuries, belief systems, and artistic mediums.
Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the Roc demon in his humanoid form (artist unknown) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A modern depiction of the roc trapped above the Buddha’s head (artist unknown) (larger version).
1. India – Where our search begins
1.1. Garuda’s appearance in ancient literature
The origin of the Chinese literary motif is over two thousand years old, first appearing in the 4th-century BCE Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The holy work states that Garuda is the son of the creator-sage Kashyapa and his second wife Vinata. After gestating in his egg for one thousand years, the bird bursts forth and his massive, fiery body grows to engulf the entire cosmos. His sun-like splendor is so bright that the devas mistake him for Agni, the god of holy fire. Garuda is forced to reduce his size and illumination when the devas ask him to do so out of fear. Falling prey to an ancient curse, his mother Vinata loses a bet and is enslaved by her sister Kadru, mother of the naga-serpents. Garuda agrees to steal the vessel containing the immortal elixir of amrita from the devas in order to secure his mother’s release. He uses his great strength and speed to defeat the celestial army and kill the serpents guarding the elixir, and he uses his powers of transformation to extinguish the fire surrounding the treasured substance and sneak past the magic discus charged with dismembering thieves. Upon his return trip, Garuda is halted by the supreme deva Vishnu who grants him the boon of immortality for partaking in such a difficult quest. In return, the bird grants him the boon of serving as the carrier of his celestial vehicle (vimana) and positions himself above Vishnu’s head atop the flagpole (dhvaja). Not long after, Indra, king of the devas, strikes the bird with a lightning bolt in an attempt to retrieve the amrita. The bird pays him respect by shedding a single feather and grants him the boon of eternal friendship. After learning the reason for the theft, the devaraja grants Garuda the boon of taking his enemies the nagas as his food. Both of them then orchestrate a plan in which the bird pays the amrita ransom to free his mother, but Indra takes the elixir away before the serpents can drink of it. Finally, Garuda slaughters all of the nagas (Ganguli, 2003, pp. 57-82).
It’s easy to discern several aspects from Chinese fiction in the ancient story: 1) a powerful golden bird with great strength, speed, and powers of transformation; 2) a vessel with magical properties; 3) conflict between the bird and heavenly forces; 4) his subjugation by a higher power; 5) his installment above a deva’s head; and 6) continued conflict between the bird and his serpent foes. This adds to existing literature showing that the Mahabharata influenced Journey to the West (Subbaraman, 2002).
1.2. Garuda’s appearance on religious architecture
Since the Mahabharata was published, Garuda has been depicted on a number of ritual flagpoles (dvaja) in India. The dvaja pillar “is placed opposite the entrance to the main shrine [of a Hindu temple], on axis with the central image…it is an object of great importance and worship” (Dallapiccola, 2002, p. 60). Adherents would have paid reverence to it before entering the temple. People affected by snake bites would often embrace these types of pillars because they believed Garuda’s powers over the nagas (and their serpentine kin) would neutralize the poison (Zimmer, 1946, p. 75). The oldest of the stone dvaja columns still standing is the Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE) erected by a Bactrian-Greek envoy and convert of that name in honor of Vishnu in Vidisha (fig. 3) (Walker, 1968, p. 246). The Garuda is no longer extant, having been eroded by time or destroyed by iconoclasts. It is considered the “first dated monument linked with Vishnu” (Elgood, 2000, p. 56). Clues to what the original capital may have looked like can be drawn from numismatic evidence. The golden dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375 CE) of the Gupta Empire, for example, features a Garuda dvaja (fig. 4) (Mookerji, 1973, p. 52). The capital is depicted as a bird, suggesting the eroded figure on the Heliodorus pillar may have originally taken such a form. This differs from later humanoid depictions of the god (see below).
Fig. 3 – The Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE), Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda capital is missing. Photo by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Fig. 4 – The gold dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375) of the Gupta Empire (larger version). The Garuda dvaja can be seen to the left. Photo by the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA).
Garuda’s association with Buddhism seems to be quite old. His appearance on a number of standing gateways and carved cave temple entrances, collectively known as toranas, from the 1st-century BCE onward points to him being absorbed into the religion’s pantheon within a few centuries of the historical Buddha’s death. The oldest extant representation of Garuda appears on the eastern gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 5) (Iyer, 1977, p. 52). Dated to the 1st-century BCE, the standing torana has three tiered architraves, the middle of which portrays a bodhi tree, an iconoclastic representation of the Buddha, flanked by real and mythical creatures paying homage to it. The far right side of this stone relief features Garuda standing next to a five-headed king of serpents (nagaraja) (fig. 6). The bird is depicted as a husky parrot with a delicate, forward curling crest, a thick beak, a pierced human ear, small flapping wings, and lacey tail plumage. The relationship between the two is amicable since it is a scene of religious reverence. This “Garuda and serpent” motif appears on the partial remains of a slightly younger stone architrave discovered in Kankali Tila at Mathura (Smith, 1969, p. 28).  The circa 1st-century BCE relief depicts him as a large bird of prey with similar iconography, including the curling crest, thick beak, and pierced human ear. But the tail plumage is far more flowery and ornate, indicating that the artist built off of the earlier example. Also, unlike the architrave from the Sanchi stupa, this piece portrays Garuda locked in a tense standoff with a three-headed nagaraja; the bird has a firm grasp of the hissing serpent with his beak, but the foe’s body is wrapped twice around the god’s neck and the tail is anchored at the base of a nearby tree (fig. 7) (Vogal, 1972, p. 172).
Fig. 5 –The reverse side of the East Torana of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (1st-cent. BCE), Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif is visible on the right side of the central architrave. Fig. 6 – Detail of the Garuda and serpent motif(larger version). Photos by the The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (HABRA), The Ohio State University. Fig. 7 – The partial architrave discovered in Kankali Tila (c. 1st-cent. BCE) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India (larger version). Drawing from Smith, 1969, p. 28 .
Later depictions of the motif anthropomorphize Garuda. For instance, he makes an appearance standing over the torana of the carved Bhuta Lena cave shrine number forty (c. 100 CE) in Junnar (fig. 8) (Qureshi, 2010, p. 315). He is coupled with a nagaraja at the apex of the arched doorway; the two are presented as peaceful humanoid companions wearing matching hats and clothing and standing in a similar pose. This could be related to a birth tale (jataka) in which the Buddha, in his previous life as a hermit, reconciles the hatred between Garuda and a naga by “rehears[ing] the blessings of loving kindness until they [are] both at one. Thenceforward they abode together happily in peace and harmony” (Vogal, 1972, p. 142).
Fig. 8 – Garuda (left) and Nataraja (right) above the torana entrance of the Bhuta Lena cave shrine no. 40 (c. 100 CE) in Junnar, Maharashtra, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA.
Dhar (2009) notes that the standing gateway toranas were replaced in popularity by “the post, lintel, and eave-cornice (kapotapālikā) type entryways” sometime after the 2nd to 3rd-century CE (p. 16). She continues, “From the fifth century, such an entrance gateway became an integral part of temple doorframes…its posts served as pilaster-doorjambs (stamhaśākhās) and the eave-cornice integrated with the lintel” (Dhar, 2009, p. 16). It was around this time that Hindus followed the example of their Buddhist neighbors and began to create carved religious structures (Dehejia, 1997, p. 124). Such temples were considered the home of a given deity when they left their heavenly abode (Dehejia, 1997, p. 141). As such, these temples were profusely decorated with images of the deva, including the entrance way, to aid in their worship. A related root word for torana “suggests its role as an architectural symbol of a rite of passage or liminality” (Dhar, 2009, p. 1). This means whoever steps into the world of the “other” does so under the watchful eye of the deity placed on the torana. In the case of temples devoted to Vishnu and lesser devas associated with him, the image is either Garuda by himself (being a symbol of the god) or bearing the deva on his back, a variation on his portrayal in the Mahabharata that came to dominate his traditional iconography (Zimmer, 1946, p. 76).
1.3. Appearance of the antagonistic Garuda and Serpents motif
Whether alone or coupled with Vishnu, the antagonistic version of the Garuda and serpents motif began to appear on Hindu toranas by at least the 7th to 8th-century. In fact, the only examples that I can find come from this time period. I have seen examples of the “Garuda and Vishnu” motif above entrance ways as late as the 11th-century, but these are missing the serpents. However, later Tibetan art featuring the serpent variation suggests there may be Indian examples that I am not aware of. The 7th-century example appears on the torana of the Gaudar Gudi Temple in Badami (Gupte, 1967, p. 54) (fig. 9). Garuda is portrayed in humanoid form wearing a hat and clothing similar to figure 8. He is squatting over the entrance while grasping the tails of naga-serpents flanking him on both sides. The first c. 700 example appears on the torana of the Durga (Fort) Temple in Aihole (fig. 10) (Tartakov, 1997, p. 192). He is depicted as a smiling human in an erect flying posture with his left leg tucked under his groin and his right trailing behind him. Just like the first piece, he is wearing similar attire and grasping the tails of nagas on his left and right sides. The second c. 700 example appears over the entranceway of the Rajivalocana Temple in Rajim (fig. 11) (Patel, 1992, p. 146). But this version has Garuda transporting a four armed Vishnu. The figure is again depicted in human form and grasping the tails of his serpentine foes.
Fig. 9 – The Gaudar Gudi Temple Garuda with serpents (7th-cent.), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by AIIS. Fig. 10 – The Durga (Fort) Temple Garuda with serpents (c. 700), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA. Fig. 11 – The Rajivalocana Temple Garuda and Vishnu with serpents (c. 700), Rajim, Chhattisgarh, India (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.
2. Cambodia – The motif achieves perfection
The torana spread to Southeast Asia by the late 6th– or early 7th-century. Next to India, Cambodia has the largest number of and most diverse toranas in all of Asia (Dhar, 2009, p. 214). In fact, I would dare say this is where the Garuda and serpents motif reached the point of perfection. Parul Pandya Dhar’s wonderful monograph The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture (2009) features two beautiful examples from Buddhist temples carved in the unmistakable Khmer style. The first is an exquisitely crafted 9th-century entranceway from the Prasat Kok Po Temple in Siem Reap (pp. 222 and 228) (fig. 12 and 13). It portrays Garuda as a large, stout man-bird with pierced ears and wearing a Cambodian headdress and garment. He is standing on a pedestal and bearing a four-armed Vishnu on his back while grasping the flower garland-like tail of a three-headed nagaraja in each hand. The god is further flanked by two large creatures with gaping mouths known as “Faces of Glory” (Kīrtimukha).  Their arms interlock not only with the undulating serpents grasped by the man-bird, but two others located on the outermost left and right portion of the torana—the combination of arms and slithering serpentine bodies form a beautiful horizontal wave pattern with four crests. These larger nagarajas bear images of tiny Garudas standing on the back of their hoods.  The author notes that the “Kīrtimukha and makaras seen on Indian and Indonesian toranas are often replaced by the garuḍa-nāgas combination in Cambodia” (Dhar, 2009, p. 228). The second is a mid-10th-century entranceway from the Prasat thom Temple in Koh Ker (fig. 14 and 15). The depiction of Garuda is identical to the first example down to the clothing. But instead of bearing Vishnu and cooperating with the Kirtimukha to conquer nagas, he alone is grasping the long, flowery tails of his enemies who are positioned on pedestals at the same level as his own. Two small Buddhas use the bodies of the tightly drawn serpents as a place to meditate. Both nagarajas bear the Wheel of Buddhist Law (Dharmachakra) on their chests. The composition is therefore symbolic of Garuda and the nagas working together to literal “support” Buddhism.
Fig. 12 – The Prasat Kok Po Temple lintel featuring the Garuda and Vishnu with serpents motif (9th-cent.), Siem Reap, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 13 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Prasat thom Temple lintel with the Garuda and serpents motif (mid-10th-cent.), Preah Vihear, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons.
3. The motif spreads to East Asia
3.1. Tibet – The motif jumps from architecture to art
The Buddhist examples from Cambodia appear to have been influenced by depictions of the Garuda and serpents motif from Hindu temples. This is because they depict Hindu deities like Vishnu and portray the bird and naga as (symbolic) enemies. The same can be said for Buddhist art and architecture in East Asia. For instance, Heather Stoddard (1996) comments that the motif “is in fact present in all the main Tibetan [Buddhist] styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art” (p. 40). She continues, “The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (Stoddard, 1996, p. 40). (It’s obvious that Stoddard was unaware of the architectural origins of the motif at the time of her study.) One of the three pieces that she cites as examples is a 13th-century Nepalese painting of Ratnasambhava (Baosheng rulai, 寶生如來, fig. 16), one of the five Esoteric Buddhas (Stoddard, 1996, p. 42). The painting shows the Buddha sitting on a throne comprised of a lotus flower base and a backrest framed by all sorts of real and mythical creatures. The Garuda and serpents motif crowns the apex of the throne. Art historians call this an “enlightenment torana” or a “gate of glory” (Beer, 1999, p. 88; Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). It’s clear that Buddhist artists came to equate the torana with the fiery halo that signifies a deity’s enlightened or divine nature. Robert Beer (1999) believes that these enlightenment toranas could have appeared as early as the 4th-century, but that it became a common fixture in Buddhist art from the 8th to the 12th-century (p. 90). Two beautiful examples of an enlightenment torana from the mid-6th-century appear in the Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety in Mumbai (Malandra, 1993, p. 110). It depicts two Buddhas standing under their own gates of glory, complete with what appears to be licks of heavenly flame (fig. 17). Though missing the motif, these examples are nearly identical to later Tibetan art, suggesting, as mentioned above, that there could be later Indian examples featuring the Garuda and serpents motif that I am unaware of.
Fig. 16 – Ratnasambhava, with Bodhisattvas (13th-cent.), Nepal (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif can be seen at the apex of the throne. Photo by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 17 – Two Buddhas with enlightenment toranas, from Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India (mid-6th-cent.) (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.
Nepalese-Tibetan Buddhist art featuring the motif doesn’t appear to predate the 11th-century, so this may have something to do with the second coming of Buddhism in Tibet. The religion became popular among the common folk during the 11th-century after lying dormant for nearly two hundred years. The Tibetan people embraced the Indian Buddhist faith and flocked to India in order to study in various monastic universities. Jan Casey Singer (1999) notes:
Within this international Buddhist community, the Tibetans stood apart by virtue of the particular zeal with which they sought to master the Indian Buddhist tradition. They had both the will and, since Tibet is relatively close to eastern India, the opportunity to observe closely and gradually absorbed the highly sophisticated traditions of Buddhism and Buddhist art that flourished in eastern India at this time” (p. 6).
Tibetans living and traveling in India no doubt came into contact with architecture featuring the Garuda and serpents motif. This is evidenced by their depiction of Garuda as a chubby man-bird (see fig. 22 below, for example). The Vishnudharmottara Purana (7th-century) contains a treatise on prescribed Hindu iconography that mentions the deity “should be made slightly pot-bellied and adorned by all ornaments” (Kramrisch, 1928, p. 80).
3.2. The fiery Garuda halo
Variations of the motif appeared as it spread eastward. For instance, an 11th-century wall mural of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩) in Kashmir features five colored Garudas flying about his flaming halo (fig. 18). Beer explains that these represent the five Buddhas or Buddhist families of Esoteric Buddhism. He adds: “a yellow garuda stands for earth, a white for water, a red for fire, a black for air, and a blue or multicoloured for space” (Beer, 1999, p. 62). This variation changed as it rapidly spread into China. An 11th-century painting from the famous Mogao caves of Dunhuang depicts the Bodhisattva Hayagriva (Matou Guanyin, 馬頭觀音), the “Horse-Headed Guanyin,” with three (of five?) fiery Garudas comprising his halo (Fig. 19). This “Garuda aureola” reached its zenith in Japan. One beautiful 11th-century example shows the Esoteric Buddhist guardian deity Fudō Myōō (Budong mingwang, 不動明王) set against a Garuda halo. The five Garudas are portrayed as flaming roosters encircling the god (fig. 20) (Akiyama, 1961, pp. 53 and 57). Thus, Esoteric Buddhism was the catalyst for the spread of the Garuda aureola motif towards the east.
Fig. 18 – Five colored Garudas in the aureola of the the Lha khang Soma Vajrapani (11th-cent.), Kashmir (larger version). Photo by HABRA. Fig. 19 – Hayagriva with flaming Garudas (11th-cent.), Dunhuang, Gansu, China(larver version). The simplistic Garudas are located to the respective left and right of a Face of Glory, as well as in between his legs. Photo by the Musée national des Arts asiatiques. Fig. 20 – The God Fudo-myoo (Acala) and Two Attendants (11th-cent.), Japan (larger version). Photo by the University of California, San Diego.
3.3. China – The Mongols welcome the motif
The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) were largely responsible for bringing the Garuda and serpents motif to China. They were ardent followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and so they invited Buddhist lamas to preach in the Middle Kingdom. The person who first introduced Tibetan Buddhist art to China was the Nepalese artist Anige (阿尼哥, 1245–1306). At the surprisingly young age of eighteen or nineteen years old, he arrived at the Mongol court in 1260 as the leader of twenty-four artisans. His most famous accomplishment is the White Pagoda of the Miaoying temple in Beijing (Stoddard, 2008, pp. 19-20). Anige is the father of a Tibetan Stylistic tradition that carried on long after his death.
For instance, the Mongols commissioned several stupa-arches to be constructed “on strategic roads leading to the capital [of Beijing]” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The only surviving example is the cloud platform of Juyong Pass (Juyong guan, 居庸關), a later addition to the Great Wall of China built in 1354. It originally supported three Buddhist stupas, but these disappeared within a century of their completion. Multilingual inscriptions on the arch indicate that it was built “in order to bring happiness to the people who pass under the stupa and receive thus the Buddha’s blessings” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The apex of the arch contains the Garuda and serpents motif (fig. 21 and 22). The man-bird is depicted as a stout, pot-bellied figure with the face, wings, and talons of a raptor bird and the ears, arms, and torso of a human. He wears a jeweled crown and his body is decorated with serpents on his wrists, arms, and chest. Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the humanoid naga-spirits as smaller in stature and importance. They are trying to run away from him, but their scaly heels are pierced by his talons.
Fig. 21 – The Gate of Glory from the Cloud Platform of Juyong Pass (1345), Beijing, China (larger version). Photo by Snuffy on Flicker. Fig. 22 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (photographer unknown) (larger version).
The motif continued to appear in Buddhist art into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the Chinese had overthrown the Mongols. This is because some Chinese rulers, such as the Yongle Emperor (永樂帝, r. 1402–1424), upheld the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Ming examples include a painting in the Sotheby’s collection dated to the 15th-century (fig. 23 and 24); a relief carving on a 15th-century pagoda at Zhenjue Temple (真覺寺) in Beijing (fig. 25 and 26); and a stone stele in the Freer Art Gallery collection dated to circa 1500 (fig. 27 and 28). All of these pieces depict a Buddhist deity sitting before an enlightenment torana lorded over by Garuda and his serpentine foes. What’s important here is that the variety of media suggests the motif became a standardized element of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist art at least a century prior to the publishing of Journey to the West (1592). The commonplace nature of the motif might then explain why it was included in the story. There are numerous occasions in the novel when the author-compiler provides folk origins for everyday concepts, such as why rings are put through the noses of buffalos.  So a bird attacking serpents above the head of the Buddha would certainly need a fanciful genesis story.
Fig. 23 – The Amitabha Buddha with an enlightenment torana (15th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 24 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (larger version). Photos by Sotheby’s. Fig. 25 – Zhenjue Temple relief carving (15th-cent.), Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 26 – A detail of Garuda (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons. Fig. 27 – A stone stele of a Bodhisattva with an enlightenment torana (c. 1500) (larger version). Fig. 28 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by the Freer Gallery of Art.
4. Garuda’s transformation from a god to a demon
The Ming dynasty examples suggest Garuda was considered a common element of the Buddha’s enlightenment torana. The bird god is in effect a guardian of the faith who watches over the world from an exalted position high atop the Buddha’s throne. So why then did the author-compiler of Journey to the West transform him into a monster who needed conquering? This obviously follows the novel’s theme of powerful demons, such as Sun Wukong, being subjugated and put to good use. This can be traced to the Thunder Ritual (Leifa, 雷法), a Daoist liturgy designed to subjugate powerful gods and demons to be wielded as weapons against evil forces. One such god is Sire Thunder (Leigong, 雷公), a native Chinese weather deity responsible for making dragons produce rain when needed. And since lightning is his weapon, he is also considered a heavenly executioner who kills mortals guilty of unpunished crimes.  The god was sometimes portrayed as a human, but it was around the Tang Dynasty (618–907) when he took on a bird-like appearance with a beak, wings, and talons. This avian transformation coincided with the appearance of Garuda and Esoteric Buddhism in China. Upon entering the Middle Kingdom, Garuda served many of the same functions as Sire Thunder. His power over dragons gave him control of rain and his fierce nature enabled him to be a heavenly executioner. Therefore, depictions of Sire Thunder came to absorb features of the bird god. Most importantly, Tang-era stories describe religious masters and certain brave individuals subjugating this demonic figure and using his powers for their own purposes. 
Artistic renderings of Sire Thunder after his metamorphosis are strikingly similar to Garuda. A prime example of this comes to us in the form of a 9th-century fresco from Xinjiang originally held in the Berlin Museum of Indian art. The piece depicts numerous beings paying homage to the Four Heavenly Kings (Sida tianwang, 四大天王) (fig. 29). The foreground depicts Sire Thunder caught in a hunter’s snare around his neck, while a hound bites at his leg. A larger figure, presumably a guardian deity of sorts, holds one of the god’s wrists and stands with a club held overhead ready to strike (fig. 30). This scene contrasts with the overall religious nature of the piece, giving the impression that this “demon” is being captured in the name of the heavenly kings. So here we have a bird monster being subjugated by Buddhist forces. Such art could have easily influenced Garuda’s depiction in Journey to the West.
Fig. 29 – A fresco showing the adoration of the Heavenly Kings (9th-cent.), Xinjiang, China (larger version). Fig. 30 – A detail of the subjugation of Sire Thunder (larger version).
A literary motif appearing in Journey to the West (1592) and The Story of Yue Fei (1684) depicts the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda as a demon-turned-Buddhist guardian who sits above the Buddha’s throne. This is based on the bird’s portrayal in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata (4th-century BCE), where he comes to sit above the deva Vishnu after taking part in a filial quest and agreeing to carry the god’s celestial vehicle (vimana). Beginning around the 2nd-century BCE, Garuda started appearing on Hindu and Buddhist architecture that depicted him on ritual flag poles and above torana doorways. A motif of Garuda gasping the tails of naga-serpents, his eternal foes from Hindu lore, appeared by at least the 7th-century and spread as far away as Cambodia by the 9th– or 10th-century. The motif was adopted by Tibetan Buddhist artists by the 11th-century and incorporated into wall murals, thus making the jump from architecture to paint. It never lost its association with architecture, however, since the torana came to be equated with the halo of Buddhist deities. This “enlightenment torana” or “gate of glory” became a common feature of Tibetan Buddhist art and even made its way to Japan. This feature was depicted as the backrest of a throne, hence the Chinese literary motif of Garuda sitting above the Buddha can be directly tied to this style of art. The Mongols were largely responsible for bringing the motif to China as they were adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. It continued into the Ming dynasty thanks to royal patronage of Esoteric Buddhism. The motif appeared in Ming religious architecture, paintings, and stele, making it commonplace enough for the author-compiler of Journey to the West to provide a folkloric explanation for the phenomenon. But the concept of a demonic bird being subjugated is most likely based on the Tang Dynasty Thunder Ritual and stories of Sire Thunder, a Daoist weather deity with bird-like features, being captured by mortals and compelled to use his powers in their service.
Sire Thunder’s avian form has persisted to this day, having become his standard iconography. Here I present a late 19th to early 20th-century wooden altar statue depicting the deity with his counterpart the Mother of Lightening (Dianmu, 電母) (fig. 31). His similarities to Garuda are just as noticeable today.
Fig. 31 – Sire Thunder and the Mother of Lightning (19th to 20th-cent.), Taipei, Taiwan (larger version). In the author’s personal collection.
Sire Thunder actually appears with the Mother of Lightning (and other weather gods) in Journey to the West. Chapter 45 sees Monkey participating in a competition of transformations and ritual magic with three animal spirits disguised as Daoists. One competition involves making rain, during which time said gods appear. Although the spirit calling on the rain is powerful, Sun Wukong blocks his magic to make him look bad:
Becoming rather agitated, the Daoist loosened his hair, picked up his sword, and recited another spell as he burned a charm. Once more he brought down his tablet with a bang, and immediately the Heavenly Lord Deng arrived from the South Heaven Gate, trailed by the Squire of Thunder and the Mother of Lightning. When they saw Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] in midair, they saluted him, and he gave his explanation as before. “What powerful summons,” he said “brought you all here so quickly?” The Heavenly Lord said, “The proper magic of Five Thunder [Wulei fa, 五雷法] exercised by that Daoist was not faked.
He issued the summons and burned the document, which alerted the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor sent his decree to the residence of the Primordial Celestial Worthy of All-Pervading Thunderclap in the Ninefold Heaven. We in turn received his command to come here and assist with the rainmaking by providing thunder and lightning.” “In that case,” said Pilgrim, “just wait a moment. You can help old Monkey instead.” There was, therefore, neither the sound of thunder nor the flash of lightning (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).
The techniques used by the animal spirit for calling rain refers back to the aforementioned Thunder Ritual, where the powers of Sire Thunder are used in the service of another.
1) This name is a reference to the mythical Peng (鵬) bird mentioned in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi (莊子), a philosophical work of the 3rd-century BCE. The chapter details how the creature starts life as a small Kun (鯤) fish and changes into a bird of unfathomable size with wings that span the sky (Zhuangzi & Watson, 2003, pp. 23-24).
2) See Wu & Yu (2012) chapters 74 to 77.
3) The sources are actually conflicting on which relief is older. For instance, Iyer (1977) claims the first is the “earliest representation of garuda” (p. 52). On the contrary, Dhar (2009) lists the second as being from “c. second-first century BCE” (p. 10), which would make it older than the Sanchi example. I, however, believe the second is younger than the first because it is clearly an embellished version of the first.
4) Although some of its iconographical elements can be similar to the bird god, the Face of Glory shouldn’t be confused with Garuda because it represents the “monster of greed” (Beer, 1999, pp. 69-70). This is why it is constantly in the act of eating.
5) This recalls the story of Krishna defeating the serpent Kaliya by dancing on his head (Leeming, 2006, p. 232).
6) For example, in chapters 50 to 52, Laozi’s buffalo runs amuck on earth as a demon. The monster uses a diamond bracelet that he stole from his master to capture Monkey’s staff. The simian hero enlists the aid of the Daoist patriarch, who subjugates the beast and later puts the bracelet through its nose and uses a sash as a lead. The novel then explains: “Thus the custom of leading the buffalo with a ring in its nose was established, a custom in use even now” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 30).
7) People struck by lightning were thought to have been marked (scarred) with a sign of their guilt much like a convict in ancient China was tattooed (Meulenbeld, 2007).
8) See Meulenbeld (2007) chapter 4. See also section 6.4 for a discussion on Sun Wukong and his relationship to Sire Thunder and the Thunder Ritual.
Akiyama, T. (1961). Japanese painting. [Geneva]: Skira; [distributed by World Pub. Co., Cleveland.
Association for Asian Studies., Goodrich, L. C., & Fang, Z. (1976). Dictionary of Ming biography, 1368-1644. New York: Columbia University Press.
Beer, R. (1999). The encyclopedia of Tibetan symbols and motifs. Boston: Shambala.
Dallapicolla, A. L. (2002). Dictionary of Hindu lore and legend. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Dehejia, Vidya. 1997. Indian art. London: Phaidon.
Dhar, P. P. (2009). The Toraṇa in Indian and Southeast Asian architecture. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Elgood, H. (2000). Hinduism and the religious arts. London: Cassell.
Ganguli, K. M., and Rāya, P. (2003). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
Gupte, R. S. (1967). The art and architecture of Aihole: A study of early Chalukyan art through temple architecture and sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.
Hsia, C. T. (2004). C. T. Hsia on Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
Iyer, K. B. (1977). Animals in Indian sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.
Kramrisch, S. (1928). The Vishnudharmottara (part III): A treatise on Indian painting and image-making. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.
Leeming, D. A. (2006). The Oxford companion to world mythology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Malandra, G. H. (1993). Unfolding a maṇḍala: the Buddhist cave temples at Ellora. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press.
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).
Mookerji, R. (1973). The Gupta Empire. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Patel, S. K. (1992). Hinduism in India: A study of Viṣṇu worship. Delhi (India): Amar Prakashan.
Qian, C. (2016). Shuo yue quan chuan. Zhangsha: Yue lu shu she.
Qureshi, D. (2010). The rock-cut temples of Western India. Delhi, India: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.
Singer, J. C. (1999). The cultural roots of early Central Tibetan painting In Kossak, Steven M., and Jane Casey Singer. 1999. Sacred visions: early paintings from Central Tibet (pp. 3-24). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Smith, V. A. (1969). The Jain stûpa and other antiquities of Mathurâ. Varanasi: Indological Book House.
Stoddard, H. (1996). Early Tibetan Paintings: Sources and Styles (Eleventh-Fourteenth Centuries A.D.). Archives of Asian Art 49, pp. 26-50.
Stoddard, H. (2008). Early Sino-Tibetan art. Bangkok: Orchid Press.