Archive #43: The 72 and 36 Taoist Skills of the Lidai Shenxian Tongjian

Last updated: 08-18-2023

Fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE; hereafter JTTW) sometimes debate whether Sun Wukong’s 72 “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數; a.k.a. “… Earthly Fiends”) and Zhu Bajie’s 36 “Multitude of Heavenly Rectifiers” (Tiangang shu, 天罡數; a.k.a. “… the Heavenly Ladle or Northern Dipper”) [1] are just transformations or actual lists of individual magical skills. For example, in March of 2023, a reddit user claimed in one post that “72 transformations” was a mistranslation for “72 different spells.” And then they asked if there existed a list of the 36 spells. I responded by saying:

There is no official list of the 72 or 36 transformations. This is because they are never mentioned in the novel. Any attempt at making a list is a guesstimate at best or completely made up at worst.


But I was recently contacted by a different reddit user who linked me to a dynastic source, The Comprehensive Mirror of Successive Divine Immortals (Lidai shenxian tongjian, 歷代神仙通鑑, c. 1700; hereafter The Comprehensive Mirror), [2] which does include respective lists for the “Thirty-Six Methods of the Heavenly Rectifiers” (Tiangang sanshiliu fa, 天罡三十六法) and the “Seventy-Two Arts of the Terrestrial Killers” (Disha qishier shu, 地煞七十二術) (said redditor translates the list of 72 abilities in video game terms here). The skills range from creating earthquakes to resurrecting the dead.

However, there are three reasons why these lists should not be associated with Sun and Zhu: 1) They do not appear in JTTW; 2) They postdate the novel by nearly a century; and 3) The JTTW narrative firmly establishes that the numbers of the 72 Terrestrial Killers and 36 Heavenly rectifiers are symbolic of the many ways that Monkey and Pigsy can change their shape. I will discuss this in more detail in section I.

But for the sake of posterity, I would like to translate both lists so that anyone interested can see them for themselves. The info might serve as good fodder for fanfiction or D&D character development. Having said that, I don’t consider myself a translator or an expert on esoteric Taoist jargon. So, if you know of a better rendering for a given phrase, please let me know in the comments below or by email (see the “contact” button).

Also, I will be archiving the section of The Comprehensive Mirror containing the lists of the 72 and 36 skills. See section IV below for the PDF link. It was downloaded from Google Books.

The title page of The Comprehensive Mirror (larger version) (PDF p. 6).

I. Arguments Against the Lists

First, they are not canonical as they don’t appear in JTTW. I’m sure someone could comb through the novel and find parallels, but this wouldn’t necessarily constitute proof of direct influence. This is because immortals have displayed similar powers in Taoist hagiography since at least Ge Hong‘s Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi, 抱樸子, 4th-century CE). For example, just like Sun Wukong, the late-Han alchemist Zuo Ci (左慈) was known for enraging enemies, in this case the warlord Cao Cao (曹操), by using magic clones of himself in hilarious ways to escape trouble (see the 11-24-19 update here for a full translation of his shenanigans). Campany & Ge (2002), especially part II, is a treasure trove of such hagiographic tales.

Second, the lists postdate JTTW by almost a century. Whose to say that the popularity of the novel didn’t influence the creation of said lists? Even The Comprehensive Mirror refers at one point to the skills as the “thirty-six changes and seventy-two transformations” (sanshiliu bian, qishier hua, 三十六變,七十二化) (PDF p. 295). This mimics the metamorphic abilities of Monkey and Zhu discussed below. All one would need to do to create the lists is gather skills from Taoist hagiography and then assign them a place and number among the 72 Terrestrial Killers (Disha, 地煞) or 36 Heavenly Rectifiers (Tiangang, 天罡).

(I should note that the names of these numbered groups are based on malevolent and benevolent stellar deities that appear throughout Chinese culture and literature. See, for instance, the 108 stars of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 14th-century CE) (Meulenbeld, 2019).) [4]

A folk print of the “72 Killer Gods” (Qishier Shashen, 七十二煞神) from the Anne S. Goodrich Collection (larger version). Image found here.

And third, most importantly, JTTW specifically states that Monkey has “seventy-two kinds of transformations” (qishier ban bianhua, 七十二般變化) and Zhu “thirty-six kinds of transformations” (sanshiliu ban bianhua, 三十六般變化). Therefore, the numbers of the 72 Terrestrial Killers and 36 Heavenly rectifiers are symbolic of the many ways that our heroes can change their shape. This is made clear in several places throughout the novel. Here, I will list a few examples.

In chapter 2, the Patriarch Subodhi teaches the 72 changes to Sun Wukong with the expressed purpose of helping him “hide” (duobi, 躲避) from the Three Calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) of cosmic lightning, fire, and wind sent by heaven every 500 respective years to destroy immortals for defying fate and achieving eternal life:

“Very well, then,” said the Patriarch, “what method of hiding would you like to learn? There is the “Multitude of the Heavenly Rectifiers,” which numbers thirty-six transformations, and there is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers,” which numbers seventy-two transformations.” Wukong said, “Your pupil is always eager to catch more fishes, so I’ll learn the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers.” “In that case,” said the Patriarch, “come up here, and I’ll pass on the oral formulas to you.” He then whispered something into his ear, though we do not know what sort of wondrous secrets he spoke of. But this Monkey King was someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred! He immediately learned the oral formulas and, after working at them and practicing them himself, he mastered all seventy-two transformations (based on Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, 122).


In chapter 18, Zhu states, “I have the transformations of the Heavenly Rectifiers” (我有天罡數的變化). [3] And later in chapter 67, he reveals that the 36 changes have their shortcomings:

I, old Hog, after all, am capable of thirty-six kinds of transformation. If you want me to change into something delicate, elegant, and agile, I simply can’t do it. But if it’s a mountain, a tree, a boulder, an earth mound, a scabby elephant, a graded hog, a water buffalo, or a camel, I can change into all these things (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 253).


II. The 36 Methods of the Heavenly Rectifiers

I have included reference numbers when certain skills are similar or related.

Take note that several of these skills appear in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi封神演義, c. 1620), a famous vernacular novel containing the mythos of many gods still worshiped today in Chinese folk religion.

  1. Woxuan zaohua (斡旋造化, lit: “mediate good luck”) – Creating good fortune.
  2. Diandao yinyang (顛倒陰陽, lit: “reverse yin and yang”) – Disturbing the natural flow of the cosmos (switching the sun and moon, reversing right and wrong, confusing black and white, etc.).
  3. Yixing huandou (移星換斗, lit: “shift the stars and switch the Big Dipper) – Altering the position of the stars. Perhaps this is a metaphor for changing someone’s fate.
  4. Huitian fanri (迴天返日, lit: “turn around heaven to bring back the sun) – Rewinding the day to raise the setting sun into the sky.
  5. Huanyu hufeng (喚雨呼風, Lit: “call the rain and summon the wind) – Summoning storms (see sec. II, nos. 5-8 & 28).
  6. Zhenshan handi (振山撼地, lit: “shake mountains and earth”) – Making earthquakes.
  7. Jiawu tengyun (駕霧騰雲) – Flying on the mist and clouds (see sec. II, no. 12).
  8. Huajiang chenglu (劃江成陸) – Parting water to make new land.
  9. Zongde jinguang (縱地金光, lit: “releasing golden light”) – Transforming into light, thus allowing one to travel thousands of Chinese miles in a single day (see sec. II, no. 55).
  10. Fanjiang jiaohai (翻江攪海, lit: “overturn rivers and disturb oceans) – Creating turbulent rapids and violent tsunamis.
  11. Zhidi chenggang (指地成鋼) – Transforming earth into steel with just a point of the finger (see no. 23).
  12. Wuxing dadun (五行大遁, lit: “five elements great escape”) – Escaping a place or situation through any of the five Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) (see no. 32 and sec. II, nos. 40, 54, & 59).
  13. Liujia jimen (六甲奇門, lit: “Strang Door of the Six Jia Spirits) – A computational divination system used to foretell fate.
  14. Nizhi weilai (逆知未來) – Foreknowledge of the future.
  15. Bianshan yishi (鞭山移石, lit: “whipping mountains and shifting stones”) – A kind of earth bending where one can change the landscape at will (see sec. II, no. 47).
  16. Qisi huisheng (起死回生) – Bringing the dead back to life.
  17. Feishen tuoji (飛身托跡, lit: “flying body trace”) – Traveling heaven and earth without leaving a trace.
  18. Jiuqi fuqi (九息服炁, lit: “nine breaths air swallowing) – A kind of Taoist “embryonic breathing” thought to bring about immortality.
  19. Daochu yuanyang (導出元陽) – Extracting someone’s primal yang energy (see no. 36).
  20. Xianglong fuhu (降龍伏虎) – Subduing dragons and tigers. Apart from the literal reading, this could also be a metaphor for mastery of yin and yang energy.
  21. Butian yuri (補天浴日) – Mending the heavens and bathing in the sun. Is this perhaps some kind of power of purification?
  22. Tuishan tianhai (推山填海) – Pushing mountains and filling oceans.
  23. Zhishi chengjin (指石成金) – Turning stone into gold with just a point of the finger (see no. 11).
  24. Zhengli wuying (正立無影) – Standing in broad daylight without casting a shadow.
  25. Taihua yixing (胎化易形, lit: “changing form into a fetus”) – Regressing one’s form to a youthful appearance (see sec. II, no. 43). Could this be a reference to the “spirit embryo” from Taoist internal alchemy?
  26. Daxiao ruyi (大小如意) – Enlarging or shrinking things to meet one’s desires (see sec. II, no. 16).
  27. Huakai qingke (花開頃刻) – Making flowers bloom and plants grow instantly.
  28. Youshen yuqi (遊神御氣) – Traveling in spirit and riding the wind (see sec. 1, no. 17).
  29. Geyuan dongjian (隔垣洞見) – Seeing through walls and partitions.
  30. Huifeng fanhuo (迴風返火) – Repelling wind and fire (see sec. II, no. 4).
  31. Zhangwo wulei (掌握五雷, lit: “controlling the five thunders”) – Controlling divine, often wrathful beings to expel evil.
  32. Qianyuan suodi (潛淵縮地, lit: “diving into the abyss and contracting earth”) – Traveling deep within the water and earth unimpeded (see no. 12 and sec. II, nos. 40, 54, & 59). This likely also refers to immortals contracting the landscape in order to travel quickly or stay out of reach of those pursuing them.
  33. Feisha zoushi (飛砂走石, lit: “flying sand and moving rocks”) – Calling forth a mighty wind (see no. 5 and sec. II, nos. 5 & 12).
  34. Jiashan chaohai (挾山超海) – Carrying mountains under arm while crossing oceans (see sec. II, no. 3). This could also just mean the ability to do impossible things.
  35. Sadou chengbing (撒豆成兵) – Transforming scattered beans into an army of soldiers.
  36. Ding touqi jian (釘頭七箭, lit: “fixing the seventh posthumous day arrow”) – An arcane ritual involving killing someone from afar by stealing their spirit, attaching it to a straw effigy, and shooting it with an arrow (see no. 19).

The 36 Methods of the Heavenly Rectifiers (larger version) (PDF pp. 297-298).

III. The 72 Arts of the Terrestrial Killers

I have again included reference numbers.

  1. Tongyou (通幽) – Traveling through the underworld.
  2. Qushen (驅神) – Expelling spirits.
  3. Danshan (擔山) – Carrying mountains (see sec. I, no. 34).
  4. Jinshui (禁水) – Repelling water (see sec. II, no. 30).
  5. Jiefeng (借風) – Controlling wind (see sec. 1, no. 5)
  6. Buwu (佈霧) – Spreading fog (see sec. 1, no. 5).
  7. Qiqing (祈晴) – Summoning good weather (see sec. 1, no. 5).
  8. Daoyu (禱雨) – Summoning rain (see sec. 1, no. 5).
  9. Zuohuo (坐火, lit: “sit in fire”) – Resisting flame.
  10. Rushui (入水, lit: “entering water”) – Parting water.
  11. Yanri (掩日) – Eclipsing the sun (see no. 65).
  12. Yufeng (御風) – Riding the wind (see sec. I, no. 7).
  13. Zhushi (煮石, Lit: “cooking stones”) – Cooking immortality elixir (see no. 37).
  14. Tuyan (吐焰) – Breathing fire.
  15. Tundao (吞刀) – Swallowing swords.
  16. Hutian (壺天, lit: “pot heaven”) – Creating one’s own immortal land (pocket universe) within a pot or gourd (see sec. 1, no. 26).
  17. Shenxing (神行) – Traveling in spirit (see sec. I, no. 28).
  18. Lushui (履水) – Treading on water.
  19. Zhangjie (杖解, lit: “staff liberation”)Magically turning an object into a fake corpse in order to escape and take on a new identity (see no. 46).
  20. Fenshen (分身) – Dividing the body into clones.
  21. Yinxing (隱形) – Invisibility (see no. 56).
  22. Xutou (續頭, lit: “continue head”) – Living without a head after decapitation (see no. 61).
  23. Dingshen (定身) – Fixing someone or something in place.
  24. Zhanyao (斬妖) – Beheading (or slaying) monsters.
  25. Qingxian (請仙) – Summoning divine beings.
  26. Zhuihun (追魂, lit: “chase a soul”) – Reaping a soul.
  27. Shehun (攝魂, lit: “take in a soul”) – Summoning or resurrecting a soul.
  28. Zhaoyun (招雲) – Summoning clouds (see nos. 5-8 and sec. 1, no. 5).
  29. Quyue (取月) – Fetching the moon.
  30. Banyun (搬運) – Transporting people or things to or away from you.
  31. Jiameng (嫁夢) – Manipulating dreams (see no. 72).
  32. Zhili (支離) – Fragmenting or destroying objects.
  33. Jizhang (寄杖, lit: “transmit the rod”) – Sending the pain of a beating to another person or thing.
  34. Duanliu (斷流) – Halting the flow of water.
  35. Rangzai (禳災) – Averting calamity.
  36. Jie’e (解厄) – Liberating someone from calamity.
  37. Huangbai (黃白, lit: “The (Art of) Yellow and White”) – Producing immortal elixirs via external alchemy (see no. 13).
  38. Jianshu (劍術, lit: “sword art”) – Mastery of swordplay and possibly the ability to direct the weapon like a drone.
  39. Shefu (射覆) – Divining hidden objects.
  40. Tuxing (土行) – Traveling through earth (see no. 54 & 59 and sec. I, nos. 12 & 32).
  41. Xingshu (星數, “star enumeration”) – Divining fate.
  42. Buzhen (布陣, lit: “spread troops”) – Knowledge of military battle arrays.
  43. Jiaxing (假形, lit: “artificial shape”) – Changing shape (see sec. I, no. 25).
  44. Penhua (噴化, “spray transformation”) – Changing the shape of a person or thing by spitting magic water or blood on them.
  45. Zhihua (指化, lit: “finger transformation”) – Changing something’s shape by pointing at it.
  46. Shijie (屍解) – Corpse liberation (see no. 19).
  47. Yijing (移景) –  Magically shifting the landscape (see sec. I, no. 15).
  48. Zhaolai (招來) – Beckoning a person or thing to you.
  49. Zhuqu (逐去) – Sending said person or thing back.
  50. Jushou (聚獸, lit: “assemble beasts”) – Controlling animals.
  51. Diaoqin (調禽, lit:  “move birds”) – Controlling birds.
  52. Qijin (炁禁, lit: “qi restraint”) – A method to affect reality with one’s internal energy (e.g. heal disease, restrain ghosts or animals, reverse the flow of rivers, etc.).
  53. Dali (大力) – Increasing strength.
  54. Toushi (透石) – Passing through solid rock (see no. 40 & 59 and sec. I, nos. 12 & 32).
  55. Shengguang (生光) – Producing a splendid light (see sec. 1, no. 9).
  56. Zhangyan (障眼, lit: “Obstruct vision”) –  Creating a blind spot in someone or something’s eyesight (see no. 21).
  57. Daoyin (導引) – Taoist breathing and stretching exercises.
  58. Fushi (服食) – Consuming alchemical medicine (see no. 68).
  59. Kaibi (開壁, lit: “open ramparts”) – Walking through walls (see nos. 40 & 54 and sec. I, nos. 12 & 32).
  60. Yueyan (躍岩, lit: “jump cliffs”) – Supernatural jumping?
  61. Mengtou (萌頭) – Sprouting a new head after decapitation (see no. 22).
  62. Dengchao (登抄) – I’m not sure what this is. A few online sources point to this skill increasing the course of something, such as making a fire burn faster and hotter. But someone  has also suggested to me that it involves theft. I’m open to other suggestions
  63. Heshui (喝水) – Imbibing supernatural amounts of water.
  64. Woxue (臥雪, lit: “lie in snow”) – Warding off the cold of snow and ice.
  65. Baori (暴日) – Exposing the sun (see no. 11).
  66. Nongwan (弄丸, lit: “manage pellets”) – Skill with projectiles, like pellets and rocks.
  67. Fushui (符水, lit: “talisman water”) – Creating disease-curing talismans meant to be burnt and swallowed with water.
  68. Yiyao (醫藥) – Making medicinal remedies.
  69. Zhishi (知時) – Knowledge of time and the seasons.
  70. Shidi (識地) – Knowledge of the earth and all places.
  71. Pigu (辟穀, lit: “grain law”) – Abstaining from the five grains in order to attain immortality. This may also refer to the common trope of immortals subsisting on wind and dew. [5]
  72. Yandao (魘禱, lit: “nightmare prayer”) – Assuaging nightmares (see no. 32).

The 72 Arts of the Terrestrial Killers (larger version) (PDF pp. 298-299).

IV. Lidai Shenxian Tongjiang PDF File

Lidai Shenxian Tongjian – 歷代神仙通鑑 – 1

Update: 08-18-23

The Saṃyutta Nikāya (Sk: संयुक्त निकाया; Ch: Xiang ying bu相應部, c. 250 BCE) notes that Buddhist cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda). Notice how similar they are to those discussed above:

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)


1) Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates these as the “Art of the Heavenly Ladle” and the “Art of the Earthly Multitude” (vol. 1, p. 122). I instead follow the translation used by Meulenbeld (2019). In regards to Tiangang (天罡), he explains: “In its exorcist manifestation, the Northern Dipper is known as gang 罡, which I translate here as ‘rectifier’ due to the ritual function it has in righting wrong” (Meulenbeld, p. 7). “Terrestrial Killers” is a direct translation of Disha (地煞).

2) This work is a collection of Taoist hagiographic material from ancient times to the Ming.

3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this sentence as, “I know as many transformations as the number of stars in the Heavenly Ladle” (vol. 1, p. 376).

4) For religious views on the 72 Terrestrial Killers (Disha, 地煞), see the cited quotes here.

5) This is funny considering that Monkey is punished to eat hot iron pellets and drink molten copper during his time under Five Elements Mountain.


Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Vols. 1-2). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meulenbeld, M. (2019). Vernacular “Fiction” and Celestial Script: A Daoist Manual for the Use of Water Margin. Religions10(9), 518. MDPI AG. Retrieved from

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


Archive #42 – PDFs of Journey to the West Translations

Note: My blog is not monetized, so I am not making any money from this post. My hope is that the PDFs will make this legendary story more accessible to a wider audience. If you enjoyed the digital versions, please, please, please support the official releases.

Last updated: 08-17-2023

I’m happy to host a number of foreign language translations of the noted Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji西遊記, 1592 CE). This archive currently houses the following editions:

  1. English
  2. French (only part two of two)
  3. German
  4. Hungarian
  5. Italian
  6. Polish
  7. Romanian
  8. Russian
  9. Spanish
  10. Thai
  11. Vietnamese

As of this writing, I don’t yet have a modern Japanese translation. But you can read an original copy of the 1835 translation here.

I have also included translations of the unofficial sequel, A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), in the following languages:

  1. English
  2. Hungarian

I will add more languages to this archive as they become available. Please let me know if you have access to other editions.

Journey to the West (Xiyouji)

1. English

1.A. Complete

1) This is a PDF for The Journey to the West (2012 Rev. ed.) translated by Anthony C. Yu.

Archive #11 – PDFs of the Journey to the West 2012 Revised Edition

2) This is a text PDF for Journey to the West (1993/2020) translated by W. J. F. Jenner.

PDF File

Click to access Wu-Chengen-Journey-to-the-West-4-Volume-Boxed-Set-2003.pdf

The four-volume box set in my collection (larger version).

1.B. Abridged

1) This is a PDF for Monkey (1942/1984) translated by Arthur Waley in 30 chapters (1 to 15, 18 and 19, 22, 37 to 39, 44 to 46, 47 to 49, and 98 to 100). See past book covers here.

PDF File

Click to access Wu-Chengen_-Arthur-Waley-Monkey-Grove-Press-1984.pdf

2) This is a PDF for The Monkey and the Monk (2006): An Abridgement of The Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu in 31 chapters (1 to 15, 18 and 19, 22 and 23, 44 to 46, 53 to 55, 57 and 58, 84, and 98 to 100)

PDF File

Click to access Anthony-C.-Yu-The-Monkey-and-the-Monk_-An-Abridgment-of-The-Journey-to-the-West-2006.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

1.C. Audio Drama

I just learned of “The Fifth Monkey” and their Journey to the West – An Audio Drama Series, which presents a new English translation alongside the original Chinese. They explain:

One reason that led our team to start this audio drama project is to correct some of the mistranslations found in the Yu/Jenner translations. Most of them are very minor and we certainly understand what could have led to those mistakes, but we think it is worth exploring how we can help bring a more accurate presentation of the original text in the English language (source).

The official logo (larger version).

2. French

This is a PDF for volume two (of two) for La Pérégrination vers l’Ouest (Xiyou ji) (1991) translated by André Lévy in 100 chapters. I was told by one French academic that this edition “is one of the best available in Western languages.” Hopefully I will find a PDF for volume one in the future.

Thank you to jyeet on the Journey to the West discord for locating the file.

PDF Files


Vol. 2

The original two-volume boxed edition (larger version). Image found here.

3. German

This is a PDF for Die Reise in den Westen. Ein klassischer chinesischer Roman (2016) translated by Eva Lüdi Kong in 100 chapters. It was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair prize in 2017. This version was converted from an ebook.

PDF File

Click to access German-JTTW-Die-Reise-in-den-Westen.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

4. Hungarian

These are text PDFs for Nyugati utazás: avagy a majomkirály története (1969/1980) translated by Barnabás Csongor in two volumes. While the work covers the full 100 chapters, I’ve been told that it deletes the poems and occasionally paraphrases long-winded sections of text.

Thank you to Twitter user Jakabfi Károly for locating the files.

PDF Files

Vol 1

Vol 2

The official covers for volumes one and two (larger version). Image found here.

5. Italian

This is a text PDF for Viaggio in occidente (1998/2008) translated by Serafino Balduzzi and published in two volumes. It is based on the French edition published in 1991. The work covers all 100 chapters.

Thank you to Dario Virga for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Italian-JTTW-Viaggio-In-Occidente.pdf

The official cover of volume one (larger version).

6. Polish

This is a PDF for Małpi bunt (1976) translated by Tadeusz Żbikowski. It is a 14 chapter abridgement of the first 20 chapters of the original.

Thank you to Twitter user Friend_Pretend for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Polish-JTTW-Malpi-bunt-1976.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

7. Romanian

This is a text PDF for Călătorie spre soareapune (1971) translated by Corneliu Rudescu and Fănică N. Gheorghe. It appears to be an abridgment.

Thank you to greencicadarchivist on the Journey to the West discord for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Romanian-JTTW-U_Ceng_En_Calatorie_Spre_Soare_Apune_pdf.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

8. Russian

8.1. Complete

These are PDFs for Путеше́ствие на За́пад (1959) translated by A. Rogachev (vols. 1-2) and V. Kolokolov (vols. 3-4). It covers all 100 chapters.

PDF Files

Vol 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4

The four-volume hardcover edition (larger version).

8.2. Abridged

This is a text PDF for Неприятность в небесах. Из китайской мифологии (1926) translated by Yakov Arakin. It is a poetic retelling of the first seven chapters of the novel.

Thank you to Adelar Eleramo for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Russian-JTTW-poem-Yakov-Arakin.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

9. Spanish

This is a text PDF for Viaje al Oeste: Las aventuras del Rey Mono (2022) translated by Enrique P. Gatón and Imelda Huang-Wang in 100 chapters.

PDF File

Click to access viaje-al-oeste-las-aventuras-del-rey-mono.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

10. Thai

This is a PDF for ไซอิ๋ว (2004/2010). It appears to be based on a four-volume edition translated by one Mr. Tin (นายติ่น) and published from 1906 to 1909. I believe it covers all 100 chapters.

Thank you again to greencicadarchivist for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Thai-JTTW-ไซอิ๋ว.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

11. Vietnamese

This is a text PDF for Tây Du Ký translated by Như Sơn, Mai Xuân Hải, and Phương Oanh. The 100 chapters were originally split between 10 volumes and published from 1982 to 1988. The volumes were later transcribed and combined to make a single eBook via an online community in 2013 (see here). I have converted it into a PDF.

PDF File

Click to access Vietnamese-JTTW-Tay-Du-Ky.pdf

The covers for the original ten volumes (larger version). Image found here.

A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu)

1. English

A) This is a PDF for Further Adventures on the Journey to the West – Master of Silent Whistle Studio (2020) translated by Qianchng Li and Robert E. Hegel.

PDF File

Click to access Further-Adventures-on-the-Journey-to-the-West-Master-of-Silent-Whistle-Studio-2020.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

B) This is a PDF for Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West (2000) translated by Shuen-fu Lin and Larry J. Schulz. This version was converted from Mobi.

PDF File

Click to access English-Xiyoubu-Lin-Shuen-fu_Dong-Yue-Schulz-Tung-Yueh-The-tower-of-myriad-mirrors_-a-supplement-to-Journey-to-the-West.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

2. Hungarian

This is a text PDF for Ami a nyugati utazásból kimaradt (1957/1980) translated by Barnabás Csongor.

My thanks again to Twitter user Jakabfi Károly.

PDF File

Click to access Hungarian-Xiyoubu-tung_jue_ami_a_nyugati_utazasbol_kimaradt.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

Update: 08-17-23

I forgot to mention that I have previously archived two other Chinese classics. The first is Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620; a.k.a. Investiture of the Gods), a sort of prequel to JTTW.

Archive #17 – PDFs of Creation of the Gods Library of Chinese Classics Chinese-English Bilingual Edition (Vols. 1-4)

The second is Journey to the South (Nanyouji南遊記, c. 1570s-1580s). This is NOT a direct sequel to JTTW. It instead follows the adventures of a martial god from Chinese folk religion. However, Sun Wukong makes a guest appearance in chapters one and seventeen.

Archive #40 – Journey to the South (Nanyouji) English Translation PDF


These have been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you enjoyed the digital versions, please support the official releases.


How Tall are the Main Characters from Journey to the West?

Last updated: 08-26-2023

A member of a Monkey King Facebook group I belong to posted a Chinese informational picture titled “Journey to the West: The Four Body Height Ratios of the Master and His Disciples” (Xiyou ji: Shitu siren shengao duibi, 西游记 师徒四人身高对比) (fig. 1). Each character is depicted with their correct corresponding height, ranging from Sun Wukong as the shortest to Sha Wujing as the tallest. The bottom of the picture provides some measurements:

The original novel describes Bajie’s body as being 1 zhang tall. Three chi is 1 meter. One zhang is around 3.3 meters. Sha Monk is 1.2 zhang, which is close to 4 meters. The Tang monk is 1.8 meters. The Lord Great Sage is 4 chi, or approximately 1.3 meters.


The information is overgeneralized and at times conjectural, but I figured the picture would be interesting to my followers on Twitter. Little did I know that it would explode in popularity. As of this writing, my tweet has 940 likes (most of these received in a few days). This indicates that not many people were aware of the great height disparity between the pilgrims. I’ve therefore decided to write an article recording what Journey to the West actually says about each character’s height. 

I believe that the creator of the informational picture got their measurements from this essay, for it has the exact same title and very similar material (Zhongshi Damei Shenghuo [ZDS], 2020). I will use the claims therein to compare and contrast with the actual text from the novel.

Fig. 1 – The Chinese informational picture listing the pilgrims’ heights (larger version). I unfortunately don’t know who the original artist is. A reverse image search didn’t turn up anything. This page has the earliest appearance of the informational picture that I can find.

1. Measurements

ZDS (2020) uses a mixture of the ancient Chinese chi (尺) and zhang (丈) and the modern meter (mi, 米). The chi (and subsequently the zhang) varied at the local level at different times. During the Ming (1368-1644), when Journey to the West was published, the measurements equaled:

  • One chi (尺) = roughly 31.8 cm (12.3 in)
  • Ten chi = one zhang (丈)
  • one zhang (丈) = roughly 3.18 m (10.43 ft) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi).

Yes, the novel is set during the Tang (618-907), but many elements of the story (e.g. language, religion, mythos, martial arts, etc.) are filtered through the lens of the Ming. Therefore, it’s appropriate to use Ming-era measurements.

2. Heights

The characters are listed below from shortest to tallest.

(Note: I will be relying on the Wu & Yu (2012) translation. But since it uses “feet” instead of the original chi or zhang, I’ll alter the source throughout the article for more accuracy.)

2.1. Sun Wukong

See my previous articles discussing Monkey’s height (here and here).

ZDS (2020) states that Sun is “4 chi, that is less than 1.3 m [4.26 ft] or the same height as a child” (4 chi, yejiushi budao 1.3 mi, gen haitong yiban gao, 4尺,也就是不到1.3米,跟孩童一般高). But they miss an important distinction. The novel twice describes him as being “not four chi tall” (buman sichi, 不滿四尺), meaning that Monkey is an unknown height below 1.272 m (4.17 ft).

The phrase is first spoken by the Monstrous King of Havoc (Hunshi mowang, 混世魔王) in chapter 2:

When the Monstrous King saw him, he laughed and said, “You’re not four chi tall (emphasis added), nor are you thirty years old; you don’t even have weapons in your hands. How dare you be so insolent, looking for me to settle accounts?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).


The second is said hundreds of years later by the Great King Yellow Wind (Huangfeng dawang, 黃風大王) in chapter 21:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim—less than four feet (emphasis added), in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408).


Some readers may wonder why such a powerful character can be so tiny. This is because the novel describes Sun as a literal monkey. Refer back to this article for more information.

2.2. The Tang Monk

I have yet to formally write about Tripitaka‘s height.

ZDS (2020) suggests that the “Tang Monk should be about 1.8 m [5.90 ft]” (Tangseng yinggai zai 1.8 mi zuoyou, 唐僧应该在1.8米左右). This estimate is based around the size of a stone box used in chapter 49 to imprison him:

Pilgrim … mov[ed] towards the rear of the palace. He looked, and sure enough there was a stone box, somewhat like a trough that people use in a pigpen or a stone coffin. Measuring it, he found it to be approximately six chi in length (emphasis added). He crawled on top of it and soon heard the pitiful sound of Tripitaka’s weeping coming from inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 347).

行者 … 徑直尋到宮後看,果有一個石匣,卻像人家槽房裡的豬槽,又似人間一口石棺材之樣,量量足有六尺長短。卻伏在上面,聽了一會,只聽得三藏在裡面嚶嚶的哭哩。

Six chi is 1.9 m or 6.25 ft. Tripitaka would obviously be shorter given the inside thickness of the stone walls, but the novel doesn’t provide such detailed information. This means that the 1.8 m estimate is conjecture. So, what other proof is there?

ZDS (2020) also cites a poem from chapter 54 as evidence that the Tank Monk is “tall and handsome” (yougao youshuai, 又高又帅):

What handsome features!
What dignified looks!
Teeth white like silver bricks,
Ruddy lips and a square mouth.
His head’s flat-topped, his forehead, wide and full;
Lovely eyes, neat eyebrows, and a chin that’s long.
Two well-rounded ears betoken someone brave.
He is all elegance, a gifted man.
What a youthful, clever, and comely son of love,
Worthy to wed Western Liang’s gorgeous girl! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol.  3, p. 55). [1]


But, as can be seen, the verse mentions nothing about his height, only his beauty.

Hence, there isn’t enough information in the novel to officially say how tall Tripitaka is. But for those demanding some sort of answer, we can always speculate using real world data.

According to one study, out of a sample size of 28,044 Chinese men from 31 provinces/autonomous regions, the average modern height is 169 cm (5.54 ft). Additionally, this Chinese article references a study claiming that men from ancient times up to the Ming were between 165 cm (1.65 m or 5.41 ft) and 167 cm (1.67 m or 5.47 ft). This is obviously shorter than the 1.8 m suggested above.

Therefore, the most we can say is that the Tang Monk would be average historical height.

2.3. Zhu Bajie

I’ve written about Zhu Bajie’s height in the past (see here).

ZDS (2020) writes that Zhu’s “snout is 3 chi long” (zui chang 3 chi, 嘴长3尺). This is based on a descriptive poem from chapter 85:

A snout, pestlelike, over three chi long (emphasis added)
And teeth protruding like silver prongs
Bright like lightning a pair of eyeballs round,
Two ears that whip the wind in hu-hu sound.
Arrowlike hairs behind his head are seen;
His whole body’s skin is both coarse and green.
His hands hold up a thing bizarre and queer:
A muckrake of nine prongs which all men fear.

(Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149).


But, again, an important distinction is missed. Zhu’s nose is “over three chi long,” or larger than 95.4 cm (3.12 ft), which is over half the height of an average humanZDS (2020) says this measurement indicates that: “According to the laws of biology, (Zhu’s) body is approximately 3.5 m [11.48 ft]” (Anzhao shengwuxue de guilu, shenti yue 3.5 mi zuoyou, 按照生物学的规律,身体约3.5米左右). However, they never explain what laws they are referring to.

The only other information about Zhu’s size that I’m aware of appears in chapter 29. Upon entering a new kingdom, Tripitaka describes his two remaining disciples. [2] He starts with the pig spirit:

“My elder disciple has the surname of Zhu, and his given names are Wuneng and Eight Rules. He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge, fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks (emphasis added) …” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).

我那大徒弟姓豬,名悟能八戒,他生得長嘴獠牙,剛鬃扇耳,身粗肚大,行路生風 …

This tells us that Zhu has a large body capable of stirring the wind when he moves. But it’s important to note that Tripitaka’s subsequent dialogue assigns Sha Wujing a specific height (see below). This points to Zhu being shorter in comparison.

Therefore, just like the Tank Monk, there isn’t enough info to officially say how tall Zhu is. But we can again speculate using real world data.

My friend Barbara Campbell (blog) suggested that I use extinct prehistoric pigs as reference. A prime example is Megalochoerus homungous, which has been estimated to be 3.8 m (12.46 ft) long, 1.8 to 2.2 m (5.9 to 7.21 ft) at the shoulder, and up to 1,600 kg (3,527.39 lbs) (Uchytel, n.d.). A reconstruction by the paleo artist Roman Uchytel presents a towering creature with a head half as long as a man’s body (fig. 2). This is quite similar to the size of Zhu’s nose. Even with it’s head facing forward, a bipedal M. homungous would still be around 3.8 m (12.46 ft) tall. But as you’ll read below, this is too tall if Zhu is supposed to be shorter than Sha.

So how tall is Zhu? Your guess is as good as mine. But for those demanding some sort of answer, we can use human arm span to body height ratio, which is roughly 1:1. Using 1.8 m (5.9 ft), or the lower estimate for M. homungous‘ shoulder height, Zhu could be as much as 3.6 m (11.81 ft). But I am in no way comfortable with this estimate. It’s 100% pure conjecture, and I think it is still too tall.

Fig. 2 – A reconstruction of M. homungous by Roman Uchytel (larger version). Mr. Uchytel graciously gave me permission to use a watermarked version of his art for free. Please consult his website here.

2.4. Sha Wujing

I’ve previously mentioned Sha’s height in an article about Zhu Bajie’s appearance (refer back to here).

ZDS (2020) writes that Sha is “One zhangchi, nearly 4 m” (yizhang erchi, chabuduo 4 mi le, 一丈二尺,差不多4米了). This is based on Tripitaka’s continued dialogue with the foreign king in chapter 29:

“… My second disciple has the surname of Sha, and his religious names are Wujing and Monk. He is one zhang two chi tall and three span wide across his shoulders (emphasis added). His face is like indigo, his mouth, a butcher’s bowl; his eyes gleam and his teeth seem a row of nails” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).


This tells us that the monstrous monk is a whopping 3.816 m (12.51 ft) tall, with an exceptionally broad body.

Fun fact: Sha Wujing’s height is based on his giant antecedent, an obscure desert spirit appearing in the 7th-century biography of  the historical monk Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based). The spirit comes to the cleric in a dream to admonish him for sleeping on the journey to India:

[Xuanzang] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several zhang tall (emphasis added), holding a halberd and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (based on Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


“[S]everal zhang” would be 3 zhang (9.54 m or 31.29 ft) or more tall! That’s one big spirit!

3. Conclusion 

Journey to the West: The Four Body Height Ratios of the Master and His Disciples” is an informational picture that depicts the pilgrims with their correct corresponding heights. The bottom of the picture also provides measurements to supplement the illustration. These numbers were likely borrowed from ZDS (2020), an online article with the exact same name and very similar material. According to the essay, Sun Wukong is less than 1.3 m (4.26 ft), the Tang Monk is about 1.8 m (5.90 ft), Zhu Bajie is 3.5 m (11.48 ft), and Sha Wujing is nearly 4 m (13.12 ft). However, this information is overgeneralized and at times conjectural.

The original Chinese text of Journey to the West naturally gives more accurate information. But, unfortunately, the book only lists specific heights for two characters: Monkey is shorter than 1.272 m (4.17 ft) and Sha is 3.816 m (12.51 ft). As for the other two, not enough information is given for Tripitaka or Zhu to officially say how tall they are. However, speculating with real world historical height data suggests that the literary monk could be somewhere between 1.65 m (5.41 ft) and 1.67 m (5.47 ft), which is obviously shorter than the 1.8 m cited above. But even using prehistoric pigs as a reference, Zhu Bajie is the hardest to calculate since the novel indirectly implies that he is shorter than Sha. I used the lower end shoulder height estimate of the extinct M. homungous to suggest that Zhu could be as much as 3.6 m (11.81 ft) tall. But I think this is still too big.

On an interesting note, Sha’s great height is based on his giant antecedent, a desert spirit appearing in the historical Xuanzang’s 7th-century biography. The spirit is described as being 9.54 m (31.29 ft) or more!

Update: 08-26-23

Tumblr user digitalagepulao has drawn lovely versions of the JTTW pilgrims (fig. 3). And while some of their heights may differ slightly from those discussed above, the overall ratios are correct. I love the designs.

This is for digitalagepulao’s own “Expedition to the West au” (alternate universe) JTTW storyline based on a previous article of mine.

Fig. 3 – The height ratios for digitalagepulao’s JTTW character designs (larger version). Used with permission.


1) “Western Liang’s gorgeous girl” is referring to the Queen of Womanland.

2) The Tang Monk had previously expelled Monkey from the group in chapter 27 (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp. 26-28).


Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. Vancouver, Wa: University of Washington Press.

Uchytel, R. (n.d.). Megalochoerus. Prehistoric Fauna. Retrieved from

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

Zhongshi Damei Shenghuo. (2020, August 18). Xiyou ji: Shitu siren shengao duibi [Journey to the West: The Four Body Height Ratios of the Master and His Disciples]. Sohu. Retrieved from



A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 08-26-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru. The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another (see 02-14-23 update below). This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).

Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where:

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


After he awoke and mounted his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by Guanyin (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs… (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?

Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [4] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

But since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think that the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [5]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.

Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [6]


As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.

Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya (Sk: संयुक्त निकाया; Ch: Xiang ying bu, 相應部, c. 250 BCE) notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.

Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).


This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.

Update: 02-14-23

Above, I mentioned that Japan or Taiwan would be good candidates for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, but I now feel that I didn’t give enough context. As I explain in this article (and briefly in sec. 1.1 above), Buddhist cosmic geography portrays the world as four cardinal continents surrounding a great mountain. Journey to the West changes the original system by associating China with the southern continent and moving India to the western continent. If we continue this trend by associating the other two continents with real countries, the north would be Russia or Mongolia and the east would be Korea (fig. 8). And since the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is said to be an island east of the eastern most continent, Japan would be the best choice (fig. 9). This means Sun would be a Snow Macaque.

 Fig. 9 – A top view of Buddhist cosmic geography overlaid with the names of real world countries (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxi. Fig 10 – Detail from a map of East Asia (larger version). Map found here.

Update: 08-26-23

Tumblr user digitalagepulao has drawn lovely versions of the JTTW pilgrims (fig. 11). This is for their own “Expedition to the West au” (JTTW alternate universe) storyline based on the info presented above in the original article. They explain their design choices based on the countries where the disciples are recruited:

Sha Wujing (435cm): His outfit is mostly inspired by Mongolian clothes since he’s found in the Gobi desert stretch of the journey. His bangles are made of fossil bone, and he can use the waist cloth as a headwrap during adverse weather. His markings are inspired by African Lungfish and Mudfish fins, as they are species that exist somewhere between water and dry air. The beasts on his knees are an extension of him, and he can see and speak through them as needed. His beard and long hair can have Ghibli physics depending on his mood and emotions.

Zhu Wuneng (~300cm): Inspired by Northern Tibetan clothes, as that’s the region the group recruits him. Traditional clothes tend to have way more accessories and golden details so I had to simplify a bit. His features are a mix of wild boars and Indonesian babirusa, with the iconic bristles on his head. I leaned on ceremonial Tibetan swords and necklace beads for the decorations on his rake. His vest can be closed, he just prefers not to most of the time.

Sun Wukong (125cm): I’ve already commented on his design over here, but I’ll elaborate that the yellow shirt is the one he gained from Tripitaka soon after he was released, while the pants and red half-robe were the garments he was given by Guan Yin. The hoops on his feet and purple beads were reacquired back in Huaguoshan when he first fled the pilgrimage, heading to his family instead of Ao Guang’s palace. (A-ma and Jinju gave them to him so he’ll always have something to home to remember them by, as well as where he first started, as the beads were gained during his lessons with Subodhi.)

Tripitaka (163cm): This is but one of his many outfits since travel can be rough on clothes, and even more so when you get kidnapped by demons and thrown off your horse all the time. He wears the usual orange monk robes, with some kind of travel clothes over them. He gains some fur boots from Boquin for cold weather but usually prefers sandals most of the time. He seldom uses the cassock and crown he received from Guan Yin, save for when he pays respects to temples and holy sites, but the staff is a constant companion.

Ao Lie (167cm, 130cm at the shoulder as horse): Being effectively in exile until the journey is complete, he wears less fancy clothes than he usually would as a prince, but his status still shows. I tried to balance more casual hanfu of the era with some armor parts, like the waist guard and armored boots. He was given the skill to shapeshift into a horse by Guan Yin when she commanded him to wait for the chosen pilgrim monk, so he can shift at will, but preferably when the tack has been taken off. Speaking of, tack is lost and replaced multiple times during the journey, so I didn’t depict any specific one.

Fig. 11 – Digitalagepulao’s JTTW character designs (larger version). Used with permission.


1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

5) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

6) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.


Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Vols. 1-2). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Buswell, R. E. , & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

What Does Zhu Bajie Look Like? A Resource for Artists and Cosplayers

Type “Zhu Bajie” (豬八戒) into Google images and you will generally see a cute or friendly-looking pig-man with pink skin, big ears, a short snout, and a large stomach, and he will inevitably be holding some form of metal rake. Most iterations will likely be based on the character’s iconic look from the classic 1986 TV show, which portrays him wearing a Ji Gong-style Buddhist hat (Ji Gong mao, 濟公帽) with a golden fillet (à la Sun Wukong), a handkerchief tied around his neck and a sash at his waist, and black monk’s robes open at the chest (fig. 1). You might even see a few images depicting Zhu as a hulking warrior, but rarely will you see him portrayed with dark skin. So how do these representations compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present Zhu’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.

I should note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive survey, just a general overview.

Zhu Bajie In-Flames Action Figure- small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie from the 1986 TV show (larger version).

1. Ancient Depictions

Zhu’s earliest depictions hail from the 14th-century as he is a latecomer to the story cycle, postdating the appearance of Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing by centuries. He is featured on a ceramic pillow and an incense burner from late Yuan China, as well as a series of carvings on a stone pagoda from late Goryeo Korea. Each piece draws on the same motif, depicting Zhu as a pig-headed monk taking large strides as he shoulders his rake and/or leads the horse. Even in instances where the weapon and equine are not present, he’s depicted in the same general posture (fig. 2-4).

Korean Pagoda paper - Pigsy iconography comparison

Fig. 2 – Detail of Zhu from a Cizhou ware ceramic pillow. See here for the full image. Fig. 3 – Detail from the incense burner. See here for the full image. Fig. 4 – Detail from panel two of the Korean pagoda. Note the figure’s matching posture. See here for the full line drawing.

2. What the novel says

2.1. Physical appearance

A poem in chapter 8 contains the earliest reference to Zhu’s appearance:

Lips curled and twisted like dried lotus leaves;
Ears like rush-leaf fans [pushan, 蒲扇] and hard, gleaming eyes;
Gaping teeth as sharp as a fine steel file’s;
A long mouth wide open like a fire pot [huopen, 火盆].
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211).

Chapter 18 provides more detail about his bristly neck and dark skin:

“Well,” said old Mr. Gao, “when he first came, he was a stout, swarthy [hei, 黑; lit: “black”] fellow, but afterwards he turned into an idiot with huge ears and a long snout, with a great tuft of bristles [zongmao, 鬃毛; lit: “mane”] behind his head. His body became horribly coarse and hulking. In short, his whole appearance was that of a hog!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 372).

When the violent gust of wind had gone by, there appeared in midair a monster who was ugly indeed. With his black face [hei lian, 黑臉] covered with short, stubby hair, his long snout and huge ears, he wore a cotton shirt that was neither quite green nor quite blue. A sort of spotted cotton handkerchief was tied round his head (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).

The mane on the back of Zhu’s head is such a prominent feature that he took it as his personal name: “[M]y surname is based on my appearance. Hence I am called Zhu ([豬] Hog), and my official name is Ganglie ([剛鬣] Stiff Bristles)” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 376).

Chapter 19 shows he has hands and feet like a man:

The monster did indeed raise his rake high and bring it down with all his might; with a loud bang, the rake made sparks as it bounced back up. But the blow did not make so much as a scratch on Pilgrim’s head. The monster was so astounded that his hands [shou, 手] turned numb and his feet [jiao, 腳] grew weak (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 383-384).

Compare this to the mention of hooves (ti, 蹄) when he transforms into a giant boar in chapter 67 (see section 2.2 below).

Chapter 29 gives the fullest description:

My elder disciple has the surname of Zhu, and his given names are Wuneng [悟能] and Eight Rules [Bajie, 八戒]. He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge, fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).

Chapter 85 reveals the shocking size of his snout:

A snout, pestlelike, over three Chinese feet long [san chi, 三尺, 3.15 feet/96 cm] [1]
And teeth protruding like silver prongs.
Bright like lightning a pair of eyeballs round,
Two ears that whip the wind in hu-hu [唿唿] sound.
Arrowlike hairs behind his head are seen;
His whole body’s skin is both coarse and black [qing, 青]. [2]
[…] (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149).

Chapter 90 notes Zhu has a tail: “Seizing him by the bristles and the tail [wei, 尾], the two spirits hauled Eight Rules away to show him to the nine-headed lion, saying, “Grandmaster, we’ve caught one” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 219).

We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, an overly long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin. He is also said to have human hands and feet and a pig tail. This grotesque description greatly differs from his cutesy appearance in modern media. It’s important to note that, just like Sun Wukong, Zhu was modeled on a real life animal. In this case, he shares many of his monstrous qualities with the wild boar (yezhu, 野豬) (fig. 5 & 6).

While the novel doesn’t give an exact height for our hero, the cited attributes do provide clues as to his general size. First and foremost is Tripitaka‘s statement: “[H]e causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Obviously something capable of stirring the wind just from moving is going to be really big. Then there is Zhu’s 3.15 foot (96 cm) snout, which is over half the height of an average person. This suggests he’s several feet taller than a human. Furthermore, the novel states Sha Wujing is a whopping twelve Chinese feet (zhang er, 丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) tall (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). [3] Zhu is likely shorter than Sha as the latter’s height is specifically mentioned. So I would guess that he is at least 10 feet (roughly 3 m) tall. Zhu’s size is highlighted in some lovely online art (fig. 7 & 8).

Fig. 5 – A pack of running Visayan warty pigs (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 6 – An Indian boar (larger version). Check out that cool hair!!! Fig. 7 – The relative sizes of the pilgrims (larger version). As noted, I believe Zhu is probably shorter than Sha. Fig. 8 – The disciples on patrol (larger version). This is my favorite. Images found here. Artwork by @真·迪绝人 (see here and here).

2.2. Original form?

Zhu provides two contradictory origins for himself, which have implications for what his true form may be and why he looks the way he does in the novel. [5] A biographical poem in chapter 19 explains he was once a wayward, lazy youth who took up Daoist cultivation and later rose on clouds to receive celestial rank in heaven. But his immortal spirit was eventually exiled for drunkenly forcing himself on the moon goddess and mistakenly regained corporeal form in the womb of a sow, becoming the pig spirit that we know today (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 378-379). [6] However, a poem in chapter 85 implies he was already a powerful pig monster who was given celestial rank but later exiled for drunkenly mocking the moon goddess, destroying Laozi‘s palace, and eating the Queen Mother‘s magic herbs (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). The latter origin might be represented in chapter 67 when Zhu transforms into a gigantic boar (fig. 9):

A long snout and short hair—all rather plump.
He fed on herbs of the mountain since his youth.
A black face with round eyes like the sun and moon;
A round head with huge ears like plantain leaves.
His bones were made lasting as Heaven’s age;
Tougher than iron was his thick skin refined.
In deep nasal tones he made his oink-oink cry.
What gutteral grunts when he puffed and huffed!
Four white hoofs [ti, 蹄] standing a thousand feet tall;
Swordlike bristles topped a thousand-foot frame. [7]
Mankind had long seen fatted pigs and swine,
But never till today this old hog elf [lao zhu xiao, 老豬魈].
The Tang Monk and the people all gave praise;
At such high magic pow’r they were amazed (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253).

Fig. 9 – Zhu’s giant boar form from the manhua Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) (larger version).

2.3. Clothing

Zhu is not associated in popular culture with any specialized clothing or adornments like Sun Wukong, who’s very name brings to mind the golden fillet, a tiger skin kilt, and golden armor with a feather cap. But several later chapters do mention our pig hero wearing a “black brocade zhiduo robe” (zao jin zhiduo, 皂錦直裰) (ch. 55, 61, 72, & 86) or just a “black zhiduo robe” (zao zhiduo, 皂直裰) (ch. 63, 67, & 84). [4] The zhiduo robe is known colloquially in English as “Buddhist monk” or “Taoist monk” robes. Also called haiqing (海青), such garments reach almost to the ground and have long, broad sleeves. The robe is closed by a tie on the right side of the torso (fig. 10; also refer back to fig. 7).

Fig. 10 – A zhiduo/haiqing robe (larger version). Image found here. Imagine this robe with black cloth.

2.4. The rake

Zhu’s signature weapon is first mentioned in chapter 8. A line from his introductory poem reads: “He holds a rake—a dragon’s outstretched claws” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211). The most detailed description appears in chapter 19:

This is divine bin steel greatly refined, [8]
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;
The Six Ding and Six Jia Spirits expended all their skills. [9]
They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade,
And double rings were cast with dropping gold leaves.
Decked with Five Stars and Six Celestial Bodies, [10]
Its frame conformed to eight spans and four climes.
Its whole length set to match the cosmic scheme
Accorded with yin yang, with the sun and moon:
Hexagram Spirit Generals etched as Heaven ruled;
Eight-Trigram Stars stood in ranks and files.
They named this the High Treasure Golden Rake, [Shang bao qin jin pa, 上寶沁金鈀]
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382).

So we see the rake has nine jade-like teeth and a bin steel body decorated with two golden rings and inscriptions of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. The exact position of the rings is not specified, but one online drawing shows them at each end of the rake head (refer back to fig. 8). This might be a reference to the rings capping the ends of Sun’s weapon. While the weight is not listed on the rake like the Monkey King’s staff, chapter 88 states it is 5,048 catties (wuqian ling sishiba jin, 五千零四十八斤; 6,566 lbs. / 2,978.28 kg), [11] or the weight of the Buddhist canon (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). [12]

Since the rake’s literary description is more vague than that of Wukong’s staff, my normally strict views on the accuracy of the disciples’ weapons in various media don’t really apply in this case. This is especially true as even historical depictions are all over the place (fig. 11-13). I think the monstrous pig face on the rake from the 1986 TV show-inspired action figure is really neat (refer back to fig. 1). Another favorite of mine is the spiky rake from the ongoing manhua The Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) (fig. 13).

Fig. 11 – A print of Zhu vs Sha Wujing from the Shide tang edition (1592) of the novel (larger version). The weapon is portrayed as a war rake used by the Chinese military. Fig. 12 – His rake is depicted as a wolftooth club in Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Criticism (late-16th/early-17th-century) (larger version). Fig. 13 – Zhu (top) wields the rake against his evil brother (bottom) in The Westward (larger version). This brother is not a character in the original novel.

The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.

3.1. The least accurate

1) Journey to the West (1996/1998) – It’s like the show’s creators purposely went in the opposite direction. Instead of big, black, and scary, they went with small, pink, and cute (fig. 14).

Fig. 14 – Wayne Lai as the adorable pig spirit (larger version).

2) The Monkey King 2 & 3 (2016/2018) – It’s the same as before but minus the hair (fig. 15).

Fig. 15 – Xiaoshenyang as the fake hero (larger version).

3) The Precious Lotus Lantern (Baolian deng, 寶蓮燈, 2005) – And then there’s this mess… (fig. 16).

Fig. 16 – Xie Ning (谢宁) as “Spaghetti Head” Zhu (larger version).

3.2. The most accurate

1) The Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) – This is perhaps the closest to his literary description (but his body and hair should be darker) (fig. 17). Admittedly, this is not the character’s original form. The manhua portrays Zhu as a small, pink pig-man who needs to absorb energy from the surrounding environment in order to achieve this monstrous transformation.

Fig. 17 – Zhu’s ultimate form (larger version).

2) Journey to the West (2011) – This is how Zhu is portrayed when he’s still a monster (fig. 18). He has the dark skin, fangs, and mane. But he later changes to a friendly, pink pig-man once subjugated.

Fig. 18 – Zang Jinsheng as the armored pig monster (larger version).

3) The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) – While missing his bristly mane, Zhu is portrayed with a long snout, big ears, and, most importantly, black skin (fig. 19). He is also wearing a black zhiduo robe. Thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting this entry.

Fig. 19 – Zhou Hongquan (周鴻泉) as Zhu in The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) (larger version).

4. Conclusion

While modern media often depicts Zhu as a friendly-looking, pink pig-man, the novel describes him as a giant pig monster with a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, a three-foot-long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin, human hands and feet, and a pig tail. He wears a black zhiduo robe. His 3.28 ton bin steel rake has nine jade-like teeth, two golden rings (possibly adorning the ends of the head), and a body inscribed with the sun, moon, and planets and hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. Needless to say, the literary Zhu is far more imposing than his modern, family friendly persona.


1) The Chinese foot (chi, 尺) was slightly longer than the modern western foot (12 in/30.48 cm). The Board of Works (Yingzao, 營造) of the Ming and Qing standardized the measurement at 32 cm (12.59 in), though it varied at the local level and at different times (Ruitenbeek, 1996, Chinese Dynasties and Chinese Measurements section). I’m basing the length given in the novel on that from the Board of Works as the novel was published during the Ming dynasty.

2) The original English translation says “green” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). However, there are times when it refers to black. For example, the phrase “The black ox goes west” (qing niu xi qu, 青牛西去) references Laozi and the Daodejing (Ma & van Brakel, 2016, p. 328 n. 71). In addition, the novel previously refers to Zhu having a “black face” (hei lian, 黑臉) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).

3) This recalls the origin of the immortal Iron Crutch Li (Li tieguai, 李鐵拐), whose body was prematurely burnt by a disciple while his celestial spirit traveled to heaven. Upon his return, Li was forced to take corporeal form in the body of a recently deceased cripple.

4) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the garment as “black cloth shirt” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253, for example).

5) Thank you to Irwen Wong and Anthony “Antz” Chong for bringing this to my attention.

6) See note #1 for how this measurement is calculated.

7) The original English translation says “hundred-yard” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253). However, the Chinese states 百丈 (bai zhang), or 100 x 10 Chinese feet, which of course equals 1,000 feet.

8) The original English translation/Chinese text states “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382). However, this is likely an error for “divine bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) was a high quality metal originally imported from Persia before the secret of its manufacture reached China in the 12th-century. It is mentioned a few times in the novel, including being associated with Monkey’s staff in one instance (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).

I’ve made several changes to the translation from this point forward to better accord with the original Chinese.

9) The “Six Ding and Six Jia” (六丁六甲, Liuding liujia) are protector spirits of Daoism (Mugitani, 2008).

10) The “Five Stars” (wuxing, 五星) refer to Mercury (shuixing, 水星), Venus (jinxing, 金星), Jupiter (muxing, 木星), Mars (huoxing, 火星), and Saturn (tuxing, 土星). The Six Celestial Bodies (liuyao, 六曜) refer to the sun (taiyang/ri, 太陽/日) and moon (taiyin/yue, 太陰/月) and the four hidden pseudo-planets Yuebei (月孛), Ziqi (紫氣), Luohou (羅睺), and Jidu (計都). Combined, they are called the “Eleven Luminaries” (shiyi yao, 十一 曜), and these are sometimes broken into the “Seven Governors and Four Hidden Luminaries” (qizheng siyu, 七政四余) (Wang, 2020, pp. 169-170; Hart, 2010, p. 145 n. 43).

11) The original English translation says “five thousand and forty-eight pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 5,048 catties would equal 6,566 lbs. or 2,978.28 kg.

12) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) notes popular belief held that the Buddhist canon was comprised of 5,048 scrolls (vol. 4, p. 396 n. 7). I’m not sure if the rake’s weight was purely based on the number of scrolls, or if each scroll was believed to weigh one catty.


Hart, R. (2010). The Chinese Roots of Linear Algebra. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ma, L., & van Brakel, J. (2016). Fundamentals of Comparative and Intercultural Philosophy. United States: State University of New York Press.

Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (vol. 1-2) (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.

Ruitenbeek, K. (1996). Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-century Carpenter’s Manual, Lu Ban Jing. Germany: E.J. Brill.

Wang, X. (2020). Physiognomy in Ming China: Fortune and the Body. Netherlands: Brill.

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