The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Last updated: 01-24-2022

Sun Wukong‘s golden headband (jingguquan, 金箍圈) (fig. 1) is an instantly recognizable part of his popular iconography. Anyone who’s read Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) will know that it painfully tightens around our hero’s skull to correct any unsavory behavior. “What kind of behavior?” someone might ask. Well, mass murder, of course! In chapter 56, for example, Monkey’s Buddhist master Tripitaka recites the spell to punish him for beating a group of bandits to death with his magic staff and beheading one of them with a blade (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 89).

Fig. 1 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden headband (larger version).

This spell is first revealed to the monk by Guanyin in chapter 14:

I have a spell which is called the True Words for Controlling the Mind [dingxin zhenyan, 定心真言], or the Tight-Fillet Spell [jingu er zhou, 緊箍兒咒]. You must memorize it secretly; commit it firmly to your memory, and don’t let anyone learn of it […] When [Sun Wukong] returns, give him…the cap [containing the headband] to wear; and if he again refuses to obey you, recite the spell silently. He will not dare do violence or leave you again” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 317).

You can see the exact words are never revealed. This is not surprising, though, as the spell is one of the few things in the entire Buddho-Daoist cosmos that can control Sun Wukong. Tripitaka’s life would be in danger and the journey would be doomed if any villains got ahold of this secret. But … what if … we could guess the spell, just for fun? I’d like to suggest a mantra based on historical religious beliefs and iconography. This thought experiment was written for the benefit of artists and fanfiction writers looking to create more accurate portrayals of the novel and its characters.

I. The Band’s Religious Background

As I note in this article, the golden fillet is based on a ritual headband worn by Buddhist ascetics in ancient India. The Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, 8th-c.) states yogins must wear the band and a list of other prescribed ritual items in their worship of the wrathful protector deity Heruka (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Most importantly, the tantra states the band symbolizes the Buddha Akshobhya (Ch: Achu, 阿閦; Budong, 不動; lit: “Immovable”) (fig. 2), who gained enlightenment through moralistic practices of right speech and action (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251; Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 27).

Fig. 2 – A depiction of Akshobhya (larger version). Artist unknown. The buddha’s iconography is as follows: “[He] is represented seated…with the legs locked and both feet apparent. There are often wheels marked on the soles of his feet, or a protuberance like a button, resembling the urna on the forehead. His left hand lies on his lap in ‘meditation’ mudra. His right touches the earth with the tips of the outstretched fingers, the palm turned inward. This is called the bhumisparsa or ‘witness’ mudra” (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36). 

Akshobhya and the other esoteric Wisdom Buddhas are sometimes depicted as small figures or colored jewels in the headdress of the Manjusri Bodhisattva (and other Buddhist personages) (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 37; Vessantara, 1993, p. 155). The buddha is symbolized by the color blue (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36). A cursory Google image search shows the blue jewel is often set in the top most position over Manjusri’s forehead (fig. 3).

This might suggest a more religiously accurate version of Sun Wukong’s golden headband would include a figure or jewel representing Akshobhya.

Fig. 3 – A modern painting of Manjusri by Ben Christian (larger version). Image found here

II. The Mantra

Given the above information, I’d like to suggest the tightening spell for Monkey’s headband—within the context of our thought experiment—is the buddha’s mantra: Oṃ a kṣo bhya hūṃ (fig. 4). This can be very roughly translated as “Praise to the Immovable One!”. Om and Hum are both holy syllables invoking spiritual power and enlightenment, respectively. They also appear in the more well-known Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ (Ch: An mo ni ba mi hong, 唵嘛呢叭咪吽). One Chinese version of the Akshobhya mantra appears to be “An a bie zha zhi ga hong hong” (唵 阿別炸枝嘎 吽吽).

Reciting this to rein in Sun Wukong not only references the band’s historical and religious connection to Akshobhya but also serves as a physical reminder of right speech and action (how the deity gained buddhahood). It’s Tripitaka’s way of screaming, “Stop murdering everyone within arm’s reach!”


Fig. 4 – The Siddham version of the mantra (larger version). Image found here.

There’s a longer chant associated with the buddha called the “Mantra of Akshobhya” (Achu fo xinzhou, 阿閦佛心咒) (video 1). It’s interesting to note that the historical Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based) is known to have translated a version of the mantra. [1] I’ll leave it up to you which one you like better.

Video 1 – A chant of the mantra.

Update: 01-24-22

The DC Comics’ story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” presents the spell as the Nianfo (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – Shifu Pigsy (a.k.a. Zhu Bajie) reciting “Amituofo” to activate the golden headband on the Monkey Prince, son of the original Monkey King (larger version). From Yang, 2021, p. 80. Copyright DC Comics.


1) The Chinese source refers to Akshobhya as the “Immovable Buddha” (Budong rulai, 不動如來).


Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Getty, A. (1988). The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History, Iconography and Progressive Evolution through the Northern Buddhist Countries. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (Original work published 1914)

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Vessantara. (1993). Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. United Kingdom: Windhorse Publications.

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

Yang, G. L. (2021). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double

Last updated: 12-12-2021

Readers may wonder where I get my inspiration to write articles. Most of the time I seek to answer a question that pops up while reading a book or researching a subject, leading to a subsequent paper on what I learned. Other times, I simply stumble across something online. A prime example of this is the “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人), a rare folk Taoist deity that I recently learned about from Facebook. He is depicted with long hair (sometimes with ear-pressing tufts) and a golden fillet, linking him to Chinese opera depictions of military monks (wuseng, 武僧) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178), thus signaling his position as a martial deity. A headdress with lingzi (翎子) feathers sometimes adorns his crown. His visage ranges from welcoming to fierce and from human to more primate-like. He wears a golden suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with the right knee resting on the seat, exposing the bottom of his foot to the viewer. This armor is sometimes draped in a colorful ritual cape. His left arm is usually bent at the elbow and the hand is clenched in a fist (or two-finger shooting mudra) or holds an immortal peach at the chest, while the other is held high and contains a fly whisk or staff. This iconography is shockingly similar to religious depictions of Sun Wukong as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖). In fact, the two deities are nearly indistinguishable apart from the ape sometimes having white hair and a white face. But this isn’t always a good indicator, though, as one Fujian tradition features a brother of the Monkey King with a white face. And other times, statues of the white ape might be plain wood or even bronze, thereby erasing any signifying color. But the best clue to his identity appears to be the combination of the fist at the chest and a raised foot while in a seated position, what I call the “fist over foot motif” (fig. 1 to 4).

I’ve previously written about magical white apes (gibbons) in relation to Tang-era Chinese literature, primate-based martial arts, and the fictional origin of Sun Wukong. I’ve even archived an entire book on the subject which surveys historical references, poems, folktales, and art spanning over 3,000 years from the Zhou to Qing dynasties. I would like to supplement this material by writing an article about the White Ape Perfected Man and his appearance in vernacular fiction and Taoist scripture. I suggest his iconography was directly influenced by Sun Wukong based on a centuries-long association between the two magic primates in popular literature.

Fig. 1 – One of the first pictures I ever saw of the White Ape Perfected Man (larger version). Photo from Facebook. Fig. 2 – A statue from an unknown temple (larger version). Photo found here. Fig. 3 – One of several statues from the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮濟宮) (larger version). Screenshot from this Facebook video. Fig. 4 – A statue belonging to Jishen Temple of Tainan, Taiwan (Tainan Jishen gong, 台南濟申宮) (larger version). Photo from Facebook.

I. Religious Story

I traveled to the Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple in Yingge District, New Taipei, Taiwan (Yingge Hongde Gong Sun Bin Miao, 鶯歌宏德宮孫臏廟) (fig. 5) to gather material for this article. Unfortunately, the temple’s statue of the White Ape Perfected Man (fig. 6) was out for repairs on the day of my visit. But I collected information about the deity from the temple’s history book (fig. 7). The ape god is associated with Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE) (fig. 8), a deified military strategist of the Warring States period, and is revered as a transmitter of divine knowledge. [1] A rough translation of his religious story follows:

“The White Ape Steals a Peach and Offers a Heavenly Book” (Baiyuan toutao xian tianshu, 白猿偷桃獻天書)

According to legend, when Sun Bin was studying military arts under Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xiansheng, 鬼谷先生), he opened a plot of uncultivated land on the side of Yunmeng Mountain (Yunmeng shan, 雲夢山) and grew a peach orchard with big, fleshy, and delicious fruits using his teacher’s method. At the foot of the mountain lived a mother and son who depended on each other. The son looked like a monkey because his body was covered with white hair, and so he was known as the “Little White Ape” (Xiao baiyuan, 小白猿). His mother was constantly sick and occasionally dreamed of a transcendent pointing and saying, “Eat the immortal peaches on Yunmeng Mountain and your illness will be cured”.

The white ape was a filial son, and so he went to steal a peach for his mother but lost his way. Sun caught the boy and asked him why he would steal from the orchard. Once he heard of the ape’s sick mother, he gave him the peach. The mother ate the fruit and recovered. In return, the white ape gave Sun a heavenly book of military strategy (bingshu, 兵書) passed down from his ancestors, saying, “Thank you for your life-saving grace”.

Another version of the story states the Yunmeng peach was so famous for its large size, fleshy fruit, and delicious taste that, upon hearing of it, the Queen Mother of the West sent the white ape to steal it for her Peach Banquet.

This last part is a reversal of Sun Wukong stealing the Queen Mother’s peaches in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). [2]

Fig. 5 – The Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 6 – A detail of the temple’s White Ape Perfected Man’s statue (larger version). See fig. 8 for a full version. Fig. 7 – A page from the temple’s history book (larger version). Note the bronze statue of the White Ape, including the lingzi headdress. Photo by the author. Fig. 8 – The central statue of Sun Bin (larger version). Note the position of the white ape in front of Sun. Photo from Facebook.

Astute readers will notice that the tale does not touch on the white ape’s religious title, the “Perfected Man” (Zhenren, 真人). Perfected individuals rank among the highest transcendents of the celestial hierarchy and even rule over lower immortals residing in various earthly paradises (Miura, 2008). This contrasts with the meager, filial son presented in the story. It also contrasts with the white ape’s iconography as an armor-clad martial deity. Perfected individuals are usually portrayed as lofty immortals wearing robes decorated with Daoist symbols (Stevens & Welch, 1998, for example). 

I reached out to the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮齊宮), where the White Ape Perfected Man is worshiped as the main deity (zhu shen, 主神) (fig. 9), to make sense of these disparate strands. However, they did not get back to me by the time this article was ready for publication. I’ll make an update when new information becomes available. But until then, I suggest his martial iconography was directly influenced by depictions of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, whose cult is far more prevalent in Taiwan. This proposed connection to Sun Wukong becomes even more evident when the information below is taken into account.

Fig. 9 – Zhenji Temple’s main White Ape Perfected Man statue (center background) surrounded by various smaller figures (larger version). The statue in the left foreground looks very similar to the Great Sage apart from the fist over foot motif. Image from Facebook.  

II. Vernacular Fiction

The White Ape Perfected Man’s religious story can be traced directly to The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (Sun Pang douzhi yanyi, 孫龐鬥智演義, 1636; a.k.a. The Former and Latter Annals of the Seven Kingdoms, Qianhou qiguo zhi, 前後七國志), which tells of the great struggle between Sun Bin and his former friend and classmate Pang Juan (龐涓). The two study supernatural military arts under the Immortal Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xianshi, 鬼谷仙師) in his “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) before their fates take separate paths and they become bitter enemies. Chapter four sees the teacher appoint Sun as guardian of an immortal peach tree on the backside of Yunmeng Mountain. But the young disciple is surprised to discover a talking white ape stealing peaches night after night. When asked how it can speak, the primate reveals his aristocratic family has been soaking up immortal qi energy for three generations northwest of the Master’s cave. His ancestor is the Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯), [3] his father the Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公), [4] and his mother the Princess Mountain Blossom (Shanhua gongzhu, 山花公主). [5] When asked why he’s stealing peaches (fig. 10), the white ape reveals he’s trying to cure his mother of an illness and that she will die unless the treatment is completed. Taking pity on the filial primate, Sun picks the last peach needed and gives it to the white ape, telling him never to return to the orchard. The grateful son repays the favor by stealing three scrolls of heavenly books (tianshu, 天書) from Master Ghost Valley’s secret hiding place to give to his mother’s savior.

But Sun Bin mistakenly incurs the wrath of heaven not only because he acquires the books before he’s fated to but also because he fails to ritually cleanse himself before reading them. Master Ghost Valley is forced to intervene on his student’s behalf by teaching Sun how to hide from heavenly punishment (da zainan, 大災難, lit: “great tribulation”) by meditating in a cave for 49 days (Wumen xiaoke & Yanshui sanren, 1636).

This novel shares many elements with Journey to the West. Both include:

  1. Characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a “Water Curtain Cave”. [6]
  2. Sun characters studying under an immortal master (Master Ghost Valley VS Master Subodhi). [7]
  3. Sun characters being directed to guard trees laden with immortal peaches (one tree on earth VS an entire grove in heaven). 
  4. Supernatural primates stealing the magic peaches for consumption (the white ape VS the Monkey King). [8]
  5. Sun characters defying their fate and incurring the wrath of heaven, thereby learning from their masters how to hide from punishment (Sun Bin Vs. Sun Wukong). [9]

Fig. 10 – A lovely New Years print depicting scenes from the story, including the “White Ape steals peaches” (right) and the “White Ape is filial to mother” (left) (larger version). The right print includes Master Ghost Valley and a young Sun Bin. Print found here.

It’s important to note that there is also some overlap between The Battle of Wits and Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). I quote from my previous article:

[The rogue immortal Huaguang (華光)] works to end his mother’s demonic lust for flesh by procuring an immortal peach in chapter 17. He does this by transforming into Sun Wukong and stealing the magic fruit from heaven. The real Monkey King is subsequently accused of his double’s misdeeds, much like the Six-Eared Macaque episode of the original novel. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give Sun a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit.

So we have two magical primate characters (the white ape VS Huaguang-as-Sun Wukong) that steal immortal peaches to help cure their mothers. This association with the rogue immortal might then explain why the statue of the White Ape Perfected Man from figure one has a third eye. Huaguang’s various incarnations are described as having three eyes in Journey to the South (for example) (Yu, n.d.).

Therefore, it seems that these later novels borrowed from Journey to the West, as well as each other. But I will show the theme of a primate stealing fruit actually predates the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West by hundreds of years, suggesting it too borrowed from an earlier source.

III. Taoist Literature

The story of Sun Bin and the white ape actually prefaces the first scroll of the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin (Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing, 太上六壬明鑑符陰經) (a.k.a., the Ape Book, Yuanshu, 猿書), [10] a Northern Song-era work related to the Taoist doctrine of the Three Sovereigns (Steavu, 2019, p. 195). Instead of peaches, the tale just says “fruit” (guo, 菓). But I imagine the produce is something special like immortal peaches as Sun guards them with a weapon. A rough translation follows (I have skipped over some of the more esoteric parts that escape me):

[Master Ghost Valley] saw the fruit had ripened, so he commanded Sun to watch over it. One night a person jumped the wall into the nine gardens and took some of the fruit. But Sun was hiding with a sword and caught the culprit, a white ape. The primate said: “Don’t hurt my body. I share the same age as heaven and earth and have lived as long as the sun and moon. I have mysterious texts (xuanwen, 玄文). Wait for me the next day and I will give them to you”. The white ape then transformed into white light and left. Sun waited the following day. Suddenly, he saw the white ape fly from the northwest. He was given one scroll of mysterious texts. The primate again transformed into white light and headed towards the southeast. Sun then returned to his room to inspect the text. He didn’t know the name but saw that it was divided into three volumes: initial (shang, 上), middle (zhong, 中) and final (xia, 下). He named it after the white ape (Taishang liuren, n.d.).

The story of a magic monkey stealing peaches was already present in the Journey to the West story cycle by the 13th-century, for the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), Sun Wukong’s predecessor, admits to raiding the Queen Mother’s orchard when he was still a young immortal (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). But the preceding Daoist scripture indicates the motif is even older. [11] In addition, the scripture shows the idea of a character surnamed Sun (Sun Bin) guarding special fruit predates the motif in the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West. It’s not a stretch then to suggest the Most High Luminous Mirror (or related media) influenced the 13th and later 16th-century versions of the story. Therefore, it’s possible the tales of Sun Bin, the white ape, and Sun Wukong have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years.

This centuries-long association between the magical primates in literature then strengthens my suggestion that the White Ape Perfected Man’s iconography was directly influenced by that of Sun Wukong. Drawing upon a well of preexisting cultural beliefs and imagery likely helped the cult of this relatively recent deity establish itself faster, allowing him to take his place in a rapidly evolving religious landscape where ever newer gods are constantly added to the ranks of their older brethren.

IV. Conclusion

The White Ape Perfected Man is a rare folk Taoist deity associated with revealing heavenly scriptures to the Warring States military strategist Sun Bin (4th-cent.). His statues depict him as a seated, armor-clad primate with a “fist over foot” motif and the long hair and golden fillet of military monks from Chinese opera. This martial iconography conflicts with the deity’s title, “Perfected Man”, a high-ranking immortal usually depicted wearing robes. It also conflicts with his own religious story, which presents him as a meager, filial son who steals immortal peaches to cure his sick mother. I suggested above that his religious imagery was directly influenced by depictions of Sun Wukong as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. Beyond shockingly similar iconography, both primate deities have a long association in Chinese popular literature. The white ape appears in The Battle of Wits Between Sun and Pang (1636), which shares many similarities with Journey to the West (1592). These include characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a Water Curtain Cave, studying under immortal masters (Ghost Valley VS Subodhi), guarding immortal peaches, and hiding from heavenly punishment. It also includes supernatural primates (the white ape VS the Monkey King) stealing the life-prolonging fruit for consumption. The number of similarities suggests The Battle of Wits borrowed from Journey to the West. The theft of immortal peaches is already present in a 13th-century version of Journey to the West, but this is preceded by a tale appearing in a work from Taoist canon, the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin. It describes the white ape stealing fruit from a garden protected by Sun Bin. It’s possible the Monkey King’s early story cycle was influenced by this scripture (or related media), suggesting the stories of Sun Wukong, Sun Bin, and the white ape have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years. This centuries-long connection lends support to the martial iconography of Sun Wukong influencing the religious imagery of the White Ape Perfected Man.

Update: 12-11-21

I was under the impression that the White Ape Perfected Man is a deity specific to Taiwan (albeit with a mythos connected to China). But Palmer and Siegler (2017) quote a certain Master Hu, a monk of Mt. Hua in Shaanxi province, China, who claims the immortal taught him a system of primate-based martial arts:

I learned [White Ape Through the Back Boxing] spontaneously; it was transmitted to me by the White [Ape] Immortal (Baiyuan zhenren). When I start, he comes down into me, and I do the forms spontaneously. In the future, perhaps I will arrange it into a method in stages that can be taught to others. The White [Ape] Immortal first transmitted the method to humans in the spring and autumn period (770–476 BC), but owing to the poor moral quality of the inheritors of the method, it was lost. Now, it has been transmitted directly to me by the Immortal (pp. 120-121).

The notion of a white ape revealing knowledge matches with what I have described above. Teaching boxing also aligns with the martial iconography. But northern China is so far removed from the available information that I have to question whether or not this a different figure with the same name. I’ve written the authors to see if I can learn more about this Chinese variant.

Also, Master Ghost Valley’s association with the Water Curtain Cave goes back to at least the Northern Song as his Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) lists him as the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主) (Andersen, 2019). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with the caves of the Master (and Sun Bin) in The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (1636) and Sun Wukong in Journey to the West (1592). But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth. This might suggest, apart from the guarding and theft of immortal peaches, other elements from Sun Bin’s story cycle were borrowed by that of the Monkey King.

Update: 12-12-21

I mentioned in the introduction white face and hair are not always the best indicators that a figure is the White Ape Perfected Man. Take, for example, some depictions of Sun Wukong in glove puppetry (fig. 11).

Fig. 11 – A Taiwanese glove puppet of the Monkey King (larger version). Photo found here.


1) The idea of a white ape sharing heavenly knowledge goes back centuries. For example, one 4th-century source reveals Zhou Qun (周羣/群, 3rd-cent.) learned the art of divination from a book of bamboo slips given to him by a gibbon-turned-old man in the Min Mountains (Gulik, 1967, p. 50).

2) Sun is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves in chapter four. He starts eating the life-prolonging fruit early in his tenure, and his theft is eventually discovered by attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 160 and 162-163).

3) The Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯) is an ape spirit appearing in a story from the Song-era Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). A retired official from Sichuan is invited to an eerie, drunken party by the Marquis, only to wake up the next morning to find his host was a gibbon and all of the other guests were also animal spirits (Gulik, 1967, pp. 67 and 68-69).

4) The only Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公) that I’m aware of is a human keeper of monkeys from a parable on freedom appearing in The Collected Works of Bowen (Chengyi Bowen ji, 诚意伯文集, 14th-cent.). I’m not sure if the novel is claiming the ape has a human father, or if it’s just a vague reference to a character from Chinese literature with a connection to primates.

5) I can’t find any information on this character. But given the ancestor and father, I’m sure the mother is associated with apes or monkeys in some way.

6) Wukong becomes king of the monkeys in chapter one by discovering a cave, the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong水簾洞), behind a waterfall. His people soon after take residence inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 104-106).

7) See my article on Master Subodhi’s curriculum.

8) See note #2.

9) Monkey learns the 72 transformations in order to escape heavenly punishments of lightning, fire, and wind sent to kill him for defying his fate by attaining immortality.

10) Steavu (2019) calls it the “Monkey book” (p. 195), but a gibbon is an ape, so I have adjusted the translation accordingly.

11) I suggest in this article that the supernatural ape stealing peaches motif could be a mixture of a Sinicized version of the Great Monkey jataka tale, in which the Buddha’s reincarnation as a monkey king leads his people to raid an imperial fruit garden, and the theft of immortal peaches by the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), who is subsequently exiled to reincarnate as the Han-era jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔).


Andersen, P. (2019). Guigu zi tiansui lingwen 鬼谷子天隨靈文. In K. Schipper and F. Verellen (Eds.), The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang (p. 1239). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Miura, K. (2008). Zhenren. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol. 1 & 2 (pp. 1265-1266). Longdon: Routledge.

Palmer, D. A., & Siegler, E. (2017). Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Steavu, D. (2019). The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Stevens, K., & Welch, J. (1998). XU, The Daoist Perfected Lord Xu Zhenjun 許真君 The Protective Deity of Jiangxi Province. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3, 137-146.

Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing juan yi (n.d.). [Book of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin: First Scroll]. Retrieved from

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wumen xiaoke, & Yanshui sanren (1636). Qianhou qiguo zhi [Annals of the Seven Kingdoms]. Retrieved from

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

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from

Archive #28 – Tripitaka’s Reincarnation and its Connection to Ancient Greek and Egyptian Philosophy

The Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang) is depicted in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子) (fig. 1), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. This deity is banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time comes for him to build merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise. His crime of not paying attention to the Buddha’s lectures and subsequent exile to the mortal realm is encapsulated in part of a poem from chapter twelve:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).

Fig. 1 – A modern interpretation of Master Golden Cicada as a literal insect by Taylor-Denna (larger version). See here for the full version and the artist’s statement. Used with permission.

I. Similarities to Western philosophy

McEvilley‘s (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought reveals Tripitaka’s story is preceded by beliefs from Greek Orphic and ultimately Egyptian philosophy. For example, Empedocles (5th-c. BCE) wrote of gods being exiled from heaven for ten thousand years for the crime of murder or lying under oath. The fallen deity is believed to reincarnate into every creature of land, air, and sea (fig.3), and when their long punishment is up, they are reborn in their last life as a person of high culture, such as royalty, religious leaders, and scholars. They then return to their former heavenly station upon death (McEvilley, 2002, p. 106). [1] Plato (5th to 4th-c. BCE) specifically mentions the god undergoing ten reincarnations interspersed with thousand-year-long periods of afterlife reward or punishment (McEvilley, 2002, p. 108). [2] The multiples of ten mentioned here fascinate me as they relate to the number of Tripitaka’s incarnations.


Fig. 3 – A symbolic painting showing the course of life, death, and reincarnation (larger version). Artist unknown.

McEvilley (2002) continues by tracing these and related Greek and Indian beliefs to the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

The deceased must somehow be regarded as a king or prince before he is eligible to “get thee back to the heights of heaven.” Thus Ani declares, “I am crowned like unto the king of the gods, and I shall not die a second time in the underworld.” Again, the prayer is made, “May Osiris, the scribe Ani, be a prince … and may the meat offerings and the drink offerings of Osiris Ani, triumphant, be apportioned unto him.” “I am crowned,” Ani claims, “I am become a shining one, I am mighty, I am become holy among the gods.” “I am the prince of eternity.” “May it be granted that I pass on among the holy princes,” Ani prays, and he is reassured: “The god Tmu hath decreed that [Ani’s] course shall be among the holy princes.” “Horus,” the Book of the Dead says, “was like unto a prince of the sacred bark, and the throne of his father was given unto him.”

Something very like the doctrine of Empedocles is suggested, and possibly related to it as forerunner. The ba, which was once a god among the other gods, descends to earth, that is, into a body, in order to right some wrong it has done in the past; either it descended as a pharaoh or it has somehow been processed through nature for long ages until it has purified itself sufficiently to be reborn as a pharaoh; after its purification it is ready to return to the company of the gods in heaven, and this is signified by the status as pharaoh. Empedocles said the final incarnation was as a prince, a poet, or a healer. Plato said the last reincarnation was as a philosopher—but he meant philosophers to be kings. They both may be echoing an Egyptian idea either that gods are incarnated only as pharaohs or that the last incarnation is as a pharaoh. A parallel is found in the Hindu caste system, in the idea that only brahmans can attain moksa—that is, “become Osiris”; the soul must reincarnate upward through the castes before it is in position to get off the wheel.

The nature of the primal crime or ancient wrong which the soul “descended on to the earth” to set right is not clearly stated, as it is not in the Greek versions of the myth, where it is either left undefined or ambiguously declared to be either perjury or bloodshed. The Egyptian texts dwell repeatedly on this subject, but with an ambiguity not unlike that of the Greek texts. Various clues in the Greek tradition indicate that the crime which the Orphic was attempting to expiate was either the ancient war of the Titans against the gods, for which they were exiled from heaven and imprisoned in Tartarus, or their rending and devouring of Dionysus Zagreus, or both. (In the Greek tradition, as West says, “The Titans are by definition the banished gods, the gods who have gone out of this world.”) The Egyptian texts may foreshadow the Greek myth of the Titans when they refer to a primal rebellion of one group of gods against another. “O ye gods of the underworld,” Osiris Ani says, “who set yourselves up against me, and who resist the mighty ones …” Again, he says:

Hail, Thoth! What is it that hath happened unto the holy children of Nut? They have done battle, they have upheld strife, they have done evil, they have created the fiends, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble; in truth, in all their doings the mighty have worked against the weak …I am not one of those who work iniquity in their secret places; let not evil happen unto me.

The children of Nut include Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. When Ani claimed “before Isis I was,” he was dissociating himself from this contentious generation of deities in which the primal murder of Osiris by Set occurred, and claiming to have been one among the earlier generation, the “gods of the first time.” But there are also suggestions that the crime might be Set’s dismemberment of Osiris, whom Ani, in his role as Horus, avenger of his father, has to reconstitute to make reparation. Ani, in other words, might be expiating either or both of the Egyptian versions of the crimes of the Titans, and part of his strategy in doing so is to claim that he belongs to the earlier generation of gods (pp.131-133). [3]

So the crime of murderous rebellion or bearing a false oath became inattentiveness to the Buddha’s teachings in Journey to the West. And the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt became a son of Buddha punished to ten reincarnations as a mortal, his last one as a holy monk. This final point mirrors the concept of the last incarnation being a grand one as a king or holy person.

How these beliefs or related proto-beliefs came to China is unknown to me. If pressed, I would venture it involved some Buddhist text containing an ancient Indian arm of this philosophy.

II. Connection to the other pilgrims

I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention how this also relates to the other pilgrims, who are portrayed as former gods exiled from heaven for some offense. In place of several rounds of reincarnation, they are (among other punishments) forced to serve as Tripitaka’s guardians, protecting him from leagues of demons wanting to jump ahead in the cosmic hierarchy by eating the the monk’s flesh and gaining immortality. Marshal Tianpeng (Zhu Bajie) is banished for drunkenly forcing himself on the Moon goddess and reborn as a grotesque pig spirit (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 212) (fig. 2). The Curtain-Raising General (Sha Wujing) is banished for breaking a treasure cup at a heavenly banquet and reborn as a monstrous water spirit plagued by a magic sword that stabs at him weekly (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 209-210). [4] The dragon prince, son of the Western Sea Dragon King Aorun, is banished for burning a heavenly pearl (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 213-214), but in place of execution, he agrees to transform into a dragon horse (a kind of rebirth) and serve as Tripitaka’s mount (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328). And even Sun Wukong is banished for his rebellion (the divine crime mentioned above) and punished to imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain. It’s interesting to note that one scholar suggests this punishment represents a symbolic death, leading to his eventual reincarnation (see Shao, 1997). (I’d like to add Sun’s additional punishment of eating a hellish diet of molten copper and hot iron balls speaks to a transitional period of afterlife punishment.) And once the pilgrims complete their penance (i.e. the journey), all are welcomed back into heaven, in this case the Buddha’s paradise

Zhu Bajie-Chang'e stamp

Fig. 2 – A Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess.

III. Archive

Below I present a PDF of McEvilley (2002). I converted it from an EPUB, meaning the page count is not the same as the physical edition cited above. I originally intended to just post chapter four, but I was afraid of breaking any internal links, so I instead posted the entire book. This is a very fascinating read. Just know that it is extremely dense and can be hard to follow at times if you lack deep knowledge in Western philosophical history and belief. 

Archive link:

Click to access The-Shape-of-Ancient-Thought-Comparative-Studies-in-Greek-and-Indian-Philosophies-2001.pdf


This has been uploaded for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


1. This appears on page 206 of the PDF.

2. See pages 209-210 in the PDF.

3. See pages 247-249 in the PDF.

4) It could be argued that Zhu and Sha do not reincarnate but simply take on monstrous forms upon being banished to earth because they still retain their memories, weapons, and magical skills. But maybe, as immortals, they are able to affect their own rebirth by directing the final destination of their primal spirit, thereby bypassing the normal mode of reincarnation that results in the loss of memory. An example of this is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-c.), who is reborn several times and still has memories of his past and access to his holy weapons.


McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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

Archive #27 – The Journey to the West Japsang Effigies of Korean Royal Palaces

Japsang or Chapsang (Kor: 잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像, “miscellaneous figurines”) are effigies of dark gray fired clay adorning the roof-hips of royal palaces in Korea. The first four of (up to eleven) figures are traditionally associated with the main characters of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (fig. 1 & 2). Tripitaka is connected to the first figure, which wears a suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with hands on splayed knees (fig. 3). Sun Wukong is connected to the second, an ape-like figure with a pointed hat, long arms, and small legs. Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are respectively connected to the third and fourth figures, which are portrayed as scaled beasts with their heads turned in different directions.

Wall (2019) reveals the earliest reference to our our heroes’ association with the japsang appears in Eou yadam (어우야담, “Eou’s Unofficial Histories”), a collection of stories by the scholar-official Yu Mongin (유몽인, 1559-1623). Yu frames knowing the names of the figures as a test for a new official:

When newly appointed officials meet their predecessors for the first time, they have to be able to tell the names of the ten divine figures on top of the palace gates for ten times. . . . The names are Master of Great Tang (Taedang sabu, 大唐師傅 [Tripitaka]), Pilgrim Sun (Son haengja, 孫行者 [Sun Wukong]), Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), [and] Monk Sha (Sa Hwasang, 沙和尙 [Sha Wujing]) (Yu, 2004, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2137).

Interestingly, Sun Wukong was eventually associated with the very nails that fastened the figures to the royal rooftops (Chang, 2004, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2137). They were called “Pilgrim Sun-Nails” ((Sonhaengja taech’ ol; Ch: (孫)行者帶鐵), [1] which implies our hero “was at some point considered representative of all roof ornaments” (Wall, 2019, p. 2137). This connection no doubt references Monkey’s adamantine body and position as the demon-conquering exorcist par excellence. After all, the japsang figurines were believed to “protect the palaces from calamities” (Ro & Park, 2015, p. 78), making them cognates for Chinese roof figurines, which serve as “guardians against fire and evil spirits” (Li, 1990, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2138). This is fascinating from a historical perspective as late dynastic Korea was staunchly Neo-Confucian, showing Journey to the West was so wildly popular in the “Land of the Morning Calm” that the pilgrims were able to transcend their original Buddhist associations (Wall, 2019, pp. 2137-2138).

(I also find this subject interesting because, while not officially worshiped by people of non-Chinese descent, it shows Sun served a religious function in Korea. Thus, we can add this thread to the complex tapestry of his worship in East and Southeast Asia.)

I originally intended to write my own in-depth article on japsang figures but later discovered Macouin (2003). This masterful paper explains the evolution of such roof adornments and their later association with the Chinese novel. Macouin (2003) is written in French, so I am presenting both the original and a rough English translation. I did not include the Korean and Chinese characters in the translation.

Fig. 1 – A chart of nine japsang (larger version). Notice that most feature the same basic arched back design similar to the Hebrew letter mēm (מ). Fig. 2 – Photo of a roof-hip featuring seven figures (larger version). From Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A picture of the lead figure believed to be Tripitaka (larger version). From Yogin, 2001 as cited in Macouin, 2003, p. 29. But as noted, Sun Wukong came to be associated with all japsang figures. 

I. Abstract (with translation)


Dans l’architecture ancienne de la Corée, à l’époque de la dynastie des Yi (1392-1910), les toits de certains bâtiments étaient ornés de statuettes protectrices, disposées en file sur leurs arêtes. À la fin du XIXe siècle, seuls les édifices peu ou prou en relation avec la fonction royale en étaient pourvus. La présence de ces figurines, à l’aspect d’animaux accroupis, est attestée au XVe siècle. Elles peuvent avoir succédé à d’autres ornements et, plus lointainement, à des tuiles spéciales à embout relevé.

Une tradition associe quatre de ces grotesques à des personnages bien connus par le roman chinois du XVIe siècle, le Xiyou ji. Plus précisément, la statuette placée en rive est identifiée au célèbre moine Xuanzang, héros de ce livre. Il est suggéré finalement que la personnification de ces statuettes pourrait être en relation avec des pratiques de bizutage.


In the ancient architecture of Korea, during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), the roofs of some buildings were adorned with protective statuettes, arranged in a line on their ridges. At the end of the 19th century, only buildings more or less related to the royal function were provided with it. The presence of these figurines, with the appearance of crouching animals, is attested in the 15th century. They may have succeeded other ornaments and, more distantly, special raised-toe tiles.

One tradition associates four of these grotesques with figures well known from the 16th century Chinese novel, Xiyou ji. More precisely, the statuette placed on the bank is identified with the famous monk Xuanzang, hero of this book. It is finally suggested that the personification of these statuettes could be related to hazing practices.

II. Original French Paper

Click to access Chapsang-paper.pdf

III. English Translation

Click to access Chapsang-paper-English-Translation-PDF.pdf


This has been uploaded for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


1) For a discussion of Monkey’s “pilgrim” nickname, see section three of my previous article.


Macouin, F. (2003). Des Figurines De Toiture Coréennes, Les Chapsang. Journal Asiatique, 291(1-2), 17-34.

Ro, M. & Park, S. (Eds.). (2015). The King at the Palace: Joseon Royal Court Culture at the National Palace Museum of Korea (C. Kwon, Trans.). Seoul: National Palace Museum of Korea.

Wall, B. (2019). Dynamic Texts as Hotbeds for Transmedia Storytelling: A Case Study of the Story Universe of the Journey to the WestInternational Journal of Communication 13, 2116-2142. Retrieved from



Archive #26 – The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana (1955) by Arthur Waley

Last updated: 11-26-2021

Sun Wukong is invited to heaven in chapter four to serve as the Bimawen (弼馬溫), a minor post overseeing the imperial horse stables (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 148). [1] He takes the position seriously, caring for nearly 1,000 horses day and night and making sure they are all well-fed, exercised, and rested (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149) (fig. 1). But these are no regular horses. A poem associates them with the most famous steeds in Chinese history (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149), and most importantly, the last line states: “They tread the mist and mount the clouds with unflagging strength” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 149). This points to them having the supernatural ability to gallop through the skies (fig. 2). Additionally, the novel refers to them as “dragon horses” (long ma, 龍馬) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 309), which brings to mind the White Dragon Horse (Bai long ma, 白龍馬) that serves as Tripitaka‘s mount throughout the journey (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328).

The following essay by Arthur Waley (1955), famed translator of the Journey to the West abridgement Monkey (1942), links heavenly horses to a historical breed from Central Asia, the Ferghana horse. He describes China invading the region to procure these horses by force, suggesting Emperor Wu of Han directed this action because the ruler believed the equines were dragon horses capable of transporting him to heaven. This is linked to stories of ancient Chinese rulers attaining immortality by riding horses or dragons to the celestial realm. Waley (1955) notes both the Chinese and Indians believed supernatural steeds hailed from the water, showing a link between horses and dragons.

But Creel (1982) refutes the claim that the heavenly horses were procured for purely religious reasons. He shows they were indeed used in military battles. See the 11-26-21 update for a PDF.

Fig. 1 – A 2014 stamp featuring a scene from the classic 1960s animation Havoc in Heaven in which Sun Wukong serves as the keeper of the heavenly horses (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 2 – A photo of the famous circa 2nd-century BCE Flying Horse of Gansu (larger version). Image found here.

I. The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana

Individuals are not happy in proportion to the amount of space their persons occupy. Yet certain nations, at certain periods of their history, seem to take it for granted that the wider they spread themselves the happier they will be. China is a case in point. Why did this enormous country in the second century BC, in the first century AD and again at various later periods ruin itself by gratuitous westward expansion? Were her aims commercial or strategic? Was she defending her silk trade, or guarding against possible wars on two fronts? What part was played by the individual ambition of Emperors or generals, or by mere restlessness and love of adventure?

To answer these questions we should have to take the campaigns one by one. In doing so we should not be reduced to mere guesses. In Imperial edicts and addresses about military campaigns certain traditional pretences are, of course, kept up: ‘everything under Heaven’ belongs by right to the Chinese Emperor, and any peoples who do not think so must be chastised. Concrete and material motives for war are not always mentioned in these regal utterances, any more than an Address from the Throne (or its equivalent) in modern countries usually mentions petrol or rubber. But statesmen and officials were often quite frank about material motives for conquest: more so, I think, than is the case with us today. Thus, as justifying a proposal to secure from the Huns a strip of territory that projected into the Kansu corridor in north-western China the following reasons are given by a statesman in 8 BC: first, that it was a good source of supply for the sort of wood and feathers used in making arrows; secondly, that it would mean a large increase of Chinese territory, and lastly that it would give the general in command of the campaign a chance to win a big reputation. It is interesting to find that extension of territory is here regarded as an end in itself. Possibly supporters of the proposal might, if pressed, have pointed out as an afterthought that Chinese farmers could be settled in the new territory and that the taxes they paid would be a help to the exchequer.

The tendency of modern historians, and not only in Marxist countries, is to stress material and particularly economic motives for war, and to regard the profession of other motives as mere propaganda. In dealing with early Chinese history I do not think this view would generally lead us far astray, so long as we bear in mind the additional factor of personal ambition and the almost axiomatic belief that extension of territory was an end in itself. But I am going to deal with a case that seems to me to be exceptional. Oddly enough the early Chinese military adventure that modern scholars have most unanimously explained solely on materialist lines, seems, on closer examination, to have been to a large extent a religious quest

In 102. BC the Chinese Emperor Wu sent a huge military expedition (there had been a small and abortive one two years before) to Ta Yüan, corresponding roughly to the modern Ferghana in Russian Turkestan, to capture Heavenly Horses. Modern scholars, both Far Eastern and European, have usually assumed that the real object of the expedition was a purely practical one; namely, to secure a better type of cavalry horse. It is certain that by the middle of the second century AD the Chinese did possess two kinds of horse: a steppe-pony, with a large clumsy head, and a western type of horse, similar to that shown on Greek coins of the fourth to the second century BC, with small graceful head. It may well be that one of the results of the Ferghana expedition was the introduction of a western type of horse into China; and in the eyes of the generals and the horse-experts who accompanied them this may have been the main object as well as the result of the expeditions. But modern historians, intent on the very interesting material aspects of the episode, have tended to overlook its place (amply attested by contemporary texts) in the history of Chinese religion. Incidentally, by examining these texts more closely, I think one gets fresh light on what concretely and zoologically (as opposed to mythologically) the Heavenly Horses really were. I should mention that as a result of the expedition thirty or so ‘superior horses’ and 3,000 horses and mares of ‘middling or lower quality’ were handed over to the Chinese. How many of these survived the journey of 2,500 miles back to the Chinese capital we do not know. A few years later the king of Ferghana agreed to send two Heavenly Horses to China every year. I shall here be concerned only with the thirty ‘superior’ Or ‘Heavenly’ horses. There is no reason to suppose that the 3,000 inferior horses were of a type different from the usual Chinese horse. They may merely have been needed as remounts.

In studying what was said about the horses in contemporary Chinese literature the best point of departure is the hymn made in 101 B.C. when the horses were about to arrive at the Chinese capital :

The Heavenly Horses are coming,
Coming from the Far West.
They crossed the Flowing sands,
For the barbarians are conquered.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
That issued from the waters of a pool.
Two of them have tiger backs.
They can transform themselves like spirits.
The Heavenly Horses are coming
Across the pastureless wilds
A thousand leagues at a stretch,
Following the eastern road.
The Heavenly horses are coming.
Jupiter is in the Dragon.
Should they choose to soar aloft,
Who could keep pace with them?
The Heavenly Horses are coming;
Open the gates while there is time.
They will draw me up and carry me
To the Holy Mountain of K’un-lun.
The Heavenly Horses have come
And the Dragon will follow in their wake
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven,
I shall see the Palace of God.

This song has often been spoken of by western historians as though it were a purely secular literary poem. It is in reality one of a series of hymns written (possibly by the Emperor Wu himself, but the authorship is very uncertain) for use at the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth-sacred rituals performed by the Emperor in person. One or two of the phrases in it obviously need further explanation. Whether the people of Ferghana believed that their sacred horses ‘issued from a pool’ we do not know. But there are, apart from other instances of this belief elsewhere in Central Asia, many Chinese stories of horses coming up out of the water, the implication being that they are dragon-horses, that is to say, water-dragons who have changed themselves into horses, often retaining their dragon wings. As we shall see, the Emperor had been on the look-out for a water-born horse for some time. What is meant by ‘the Dragon will follow in their wake,’ more literally ‘they will be introducers of the Dragon’ ? The idea underlying these words is best illustrated by the following story, dating perhaps from some forty years earlier than the hymn: Recently a man who lived on the frontier lost his horse which ran away into the land of the barbarians. He was very much upset, and everyone condoled with him, except his father who remarked cheerfully, ‘This may be a blessing in disguise.’ And sure enough the lost horse came back bringing with it a ‘fine horse,’ that is to say, a horse of superior value and breed. The Emperor in this hymn hopes that the Ferghana horses would one day bring along a Dragon, a being even more magical than a Heavenly Horse.

The general implication of the hymn therefore is that the Heavenly Horses will carry the Emperor to the abode of the Immortals on the magical mountain K’un-lun. He imagines himself, I think, driving in a chariot drawn by horses rather than riding on horseback. Riding did not become common in China till the fourth century BC and was in the second century still felt ‘to be a utilitarian, unlegendary form of transport. More than this, the Ferghana horses being, as another hymn in the series says, ‘friends of the Dragon ‘ who is master of the clouds, will eventually carry him to Heaven, to the Abode of God-on-High-(Shang Ti).

The preceding hymn (No. 9 in the series), which is about the fleeting and uncertain nature of man’s life, ends with the words, ‘Why does not Tzu-huang come down to me?’ Tzu-huang was the horse with dragonwings that carried up the mythical Yellow Emperor to Heaven. There are many Chinese stories of legendary monarchs being carried up to Heaven by magic steeds; but it would be difficult to prove that any of them is older than the fourth century BC. It is interesting to compare these Chinese myths with Indian ideas about the relation of monarchs to magic steeds. In Indian legends the magic horse Valaha (‘Cloud’), is one of the ‘seven treasures’ of a great monarch. Valaha came up out of the sea, just as the Ferghana horse and others in which the Chinese were interested came up out of the water, and carried Simhala, the legendary founder of the Kingdom of Ceylon, back to India when he was on the verge of being eaten by female cannibals.

The Emperor Wu had, as I have mentioned, for some time past been on the look-out for a magic horse, ‘born from’ a stream. In 121 BC someone thought it worthwhile to report to the Court that a horse had come up out of a river to the north of the Ordos, the great square-shaped northern bend of the Yellow River. We have no details about this horse ; but in 113 BC another strange horse was not only seen but captured and sent to Court. A Chinese who in consequence of some misdemeanour had been sent to do service at the military colony near Tun-huang, on the northwest frontier, frequently saw a horse of strange appearance drinking in the river along with a number of wild horses. He tamed the strange horse by putting at the water-side a dummy figure of a man whose hands were bridle and halter. When the horse was used to this sight he substituted himself for the dummy, captured the horse and sent it to Court. In order to prove that the horse was ‘divine’ he pretended that it had come up from under the water. His story was evidently believed at the time, for this horse, too (like the Ferghana horses twelve years later), was made the subject of a hymn to be used in the Imperial sacrifices :

The Heavenly Horse comes down
A present from the Grand Unity,
Bedewed with red sweat
That foams in an ochre stream
Impatient of all restraint
And of abounding energy.
He treads the fleeting clouds,
Dim in his upward flight;
With smooth and easy gait
Covers a thousand leagues.

Historians of religion, particularly those of the Vienna school, regard as ‘the beginning of religion’ the belief in a supreme celestial deity who later becomes merely a vague memory and ultimately fades away or becomes merged in other, more concrete cults. The ‘Grand Unity‘ (or ‘Great Unique,” as one might also translate it) of this hymn has therefore particular interest as a religious phenomenon, being a supreme celestial deity whose origin (at any rate as a national cult), whose heydey and disappearance all take place before our eyes within a limited historical period. So far from belonging to a remote, ‘archaic’ past he begins, officially at any rate, in 133 B.C. Up till then the Grand Unity was a philosophic conception denoting the primal unity out of which grew the plurality of the universe as we know it. Sometimes the phrase is a synonym of Tao, the underlying principle of the Universe in Taoist philosophy. But in the second century BC a cult sprang up in which the Grand Unity figures not as a philosophic conception but as a personal divinity, the highest of all gods, worshipped with an elaborate ritual. About 133 BC a member of the Grand Unity sect prevailed on the Emperor Wu to make the whole Imperial cult centre round this deity. The Grand Unity maintained this position during several reigns and the cult was only brought to an end (along with many other religious innovations of Wu’s reign) in 32 BC.

I will leave aside for the moment the other points of interest in the Heavenly Horse hymn of 113 BC and note here that the Emperor’s search for immortality did not begin with his interest in divine horses. He had, as is well known, for long past been pursuing this quest on other lines. He had sent numerous and costly expeditions to the East in the hope of discovering islands inhabited by Immortals who might be persuaded to yield their secrets to him. He had dabbled in alchemy, in the belief that if he ate out of vessels made of alchemic gold he would live forever, or at any rate for a prodigiously long time. The expedition to fetch magic horses from the West was, it seems to me, merely a continuation of his earlier quests in the East. ‘The Emperor Wu,’ says Wen Ying in about AD 200, ‘had set his heart on immortality. He was always hoping that a Heavenly Horse would come and carry him to K’un-lun,’ the western Abode of the Immortals. At last when all his guests in the East had failed and when the Horse did not come of its own accord (as it had come to legendary Emperors in the past, both in India and in China) he determined, having known for long that the king of Ferghana had such horses, to wrest some from him by diplomacy or, if need be, by force.

We have seen, then, how the horses were regarded by the Chinese Emperor. Other people, less obsessed by magico-religious ideas, may have viewed them differently; but there is nothing in the Chinese sources to suggest that they were needed or used for military purposes. Naturally, the normal political excuses were made for the expedition. In a public proclamation the Emperor accused Ferghana of having killed two Chinese envoys on their way to the west and an Indian envoy who was on his way to China. The excuse has a familiar ring. One is reminded, for example, of the German seizure of Tsingtao in 1897, alleged to be a reprisal for the murder of the German missionaries Nies and Henle.

Another question clearly arises. How were the Heavenly Horses regarded by the king of Ferghana and what role did they play at his Court? It is generally assumed that they were battle-chargers. But I wonder whether their function was not perhaps something like that of the ten Nesaean horses ‘most gorgeously caparisoned,’ who in the procession of the Persian king Xerxes, as described in the seventh book of Herodotus, walked immediately in front of the sacred chariot of ‘Zeus’ ? ‘And it occurs to one that to this same category of ceremonial horse may very well belong the ten yellow mares of the Pazaryk grave mound, in the eastern Altai, preserved in a solid ice block. They form part of the burial gear of a semi-nomad chieftain who lived perhaps somewhere about the 5th century B.C. ‘They are,’ says the Swedish archaeologist Karl Jettmar, ‘certainly of the noblest breed. They resemble the best strains of Turkmenistan or Ferghana.’ Two of them have masks. One mask represents a deer or reindeer; the other, a composite mythological creature. They may well have been special horses used by a ruler for ritual purposes, and perhaps (as Jettmar suggests) they took part in the funeral procession, which like the Scythian funeral processions described’ by Herodotus may have travelled an immense way. Their mythological function may well have been to carry the dead Khan to Immortality, just as the horse Tzu-huang carried the legendary Chinese Yellow Emperor and as in historic times the Emperor Wu hoped to be carried by the Ferghana horses. One is reminded, again, of the ‘treasure-horses,’ blue-grey in colouring and with black heads (that is to say, descendants of the magic horse Valaha) and gorgeously caparisoned, who took part in the procession that brought the infant Buddha back from Lumbini to his father’s palace. If the function of the Heavenly Horses at the Ferghana Court was a ritual rather than a practical one it would well explain why the king was so anxious not to part with them and at one point even threatened to kill them all rather than let them fall into the hands of the Chinese.

Though the main subject of this essay is the relation between the Ferghana expeditions and the religious pre-occupations of the Chinesr Emperor, the texts we have studied do also tell us something about the physical characteristics of the Ferghana horses, and it may be worth while to close with a few remarks on this subject. The first of the two hymns mentions that two Heavenly Horses had stripy backs. Lydekker in The Horse and Its Relatives says : ‘It has been noticed that dun-coloured domesticated horses frequently show a tendency to develop … one or two transverse dark stripes across the shoulder, and another along the middle line.’ Such presumably were the two Ferghana horses, and the Chinese regarded them as ‘marked’ by heaven and consequently particularly sacred. The other physical characteristic commonly attributed to Ferghana horses is that they ‘sweated blood.’ This, as we have seen, was also said of the horse sent from near Tun-huang in 113 BC. Professor Dubs, in his valuable translation of the Han History, has suggested that the flow of blood was caused by lesions inflicted on the horses by a parasite with the intimidating name Parafilaria multipapillosa. There is in any case no question of this characteristic being merely legendary. In AD 78 the Emperor Chang gave one of his uncles ‘a Ferghana horse which bled from a small hole above its front upper leg.’ In the letter that accompanied this gift he said, ‘I had often heard the line in Emperor Wu’s song about the Heavenly Horse in which it is said that it is ‘ bedewed with red sweat,’ and I have now seen with my own eyes that this is actually the case.’ Presumably the ‘hole’ looked more like a pore in the skin than a wound, and therefore what came out of it was regarded as sweat rather than blood.

Nowhere, I think, is it said that they were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers. The only horses that the Chinese at this period call big (ta) were to be found not in Ferghana but in Parthia. ‘They have the big horse and the big bird (ostrich),’ says the Han History. But there is no record of those huge Parthian steeds (no doubt the Parthikoi of Strabo, which he says were of the same build as the huge Nesaean horses) being brought to China.

To sum up: the accepted idea about the Ferghana expeditions is that the Emperor Wu sent them in order to obtain ‘horses larger and fleeter than the small steppe breed.” It is assumed that in this he was successful and that the ‘western’ type of horse seen in some of the second century A.D. grave-reliefs corresponds to the type of horse brought back from Ferghana in 101 BC. I would re-formulate this view as follows: The Emperor sent the expeditions in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven. There is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or China: If they had been they would hardly have remained long, as it were, ‘on the secret list.’ I’m inclined, to think that their function was a ritual one, both in Central Asia and in China. About the breed of the horses that the Emperor secured we know nothing. But it is reasonable to suppose that the existence of the ‘Western’ horse in China, in the second century AD was due to Chinese intercourse with the West from the second century BC onwards and that the Ferghana expedition, as an episode in this intercourse, may well have played its part in what was perhaps a gradual process. There is no justification for saying as Tam does that ‘the origin of the Ferghana horses must have been one of the great Parthian war-horses’ or that the Ferghana horses were ‘of the great Nesaean-Parthian breed.’.

Thus though my main object was to show that this episode cannot be properly understood without taking into account more than has hitherto been done its magico-religious aspects, my conclusions about its secular, concrete aspects are also somewhat different from those of my predecessors (Waley, 1955).

Updated: 11-26-21

I posted Waley (1955) because I wanted to highlight the origin of heavenly horses and their historical connection to dragons. But for the sake of balance, I’m posting Creel (1982) because he successfully refutes the former’s claim that the horses were procured for only religious reasons:

Waley, “Heavenly Horses of Ferghana,” 102, takes the position that the horses of Fergana were sought by the Han Emperor Wu “in order to secure Heavenly Horses which would carry him to Heaven.” He says that “there is no evidence that Heavenly Horses were used in battle either in Ferghana or in China.” (Ibid., 102.) But in fact, as we have seen, the use of Fergana horses in fighting is mentioned in Hou-Han-shu, 110A.4b. By speaking here of “Heavenly Horses” Waley is evading the real question: were horses obtained from Fergana used in battle in Han times? The answer is that they were. Waley also says: “Nowhere, I think, is it said that they [i.e., “Heavenly Horses”] were larger than Chinese horses, though this has constantly been assumed by Western writers.” (Ibid.) The evidence cited above certainly indicates that the Fergana horses were extremely large and that there is every reason to feel assured that they were much larger than most of the horses in China both in Han times and later. Further evidence against Waley’s view is the nature of the titles of the two men sent by the Emperor to Fergana “to select good horses.” (Shih-chi, 123.37.) These would appear to be ordinary official titles and refer to “managing horses” and “driving horses.” If the purpose had been primarily to select horses having special religious virtues, why did the Emperor not send men with religious qualifications? Certainly there was some religious aspect to this curious affair, and Waley has performed a service by emphasizing it. But in doing so he has given undue attention to a part of the evidence and neglected other parts of it entirely (p. 176 n. 66).

Please see the PDF below for the entire chapter.

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1) This is a homophonous pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”), a Song-era (and likely older) superstition from Sichuan where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness (Eberhard, 1969, p. 52).


Creel, H. G. (1982). What is Taoism?: And other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago Press.

Eberhard, W. (1969). The Local Cultures of South and East China. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Waley, A. (1955, February). The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana. History Today, 5, 95-103.

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