Journey to the West Artist Spotlight #1: Dario Virga

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

Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of researching the history and influences of Journey to the West. But as an artist, I am also a fan of JTTW-related artwork. There are so many talented people in the world who post their traditional and original designs and comics online, so I’ve decided to feature some of them on my blog. My hope is that such posts will expose this art to a wider audience interested in JTTW, while also documenting modern day perceptions and depictions of the novel and its characters.

Our first artist is Dario Virga, who goes by Onibotokemaru on Instagram. They were kind enough to answer some interview questions, as well as allow permission to display a few of their pieces.

I. Q & A

1) Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Real name Dario Virga, from Italy (Piedmont). Interest in eastern culture and literature, mostly from Japan and China.

2) Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?

Self-taught, though I had some help from someone who went to art school.

3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?

Usually animals and characters/elements taken from mythology and literature.

4) How did you learn about Journey to the West?

My very first contact with Journey to the West was back when I was younger, in a book about Chinese myths. Later I found an integral translation done by Serafino Balduzzi (translated from a French one).

5) Who is your favorite character?

Tough question, but I like most of the characters. If forced to choose, I’d say Pigsy for the good guys and the Bull Demon King for the villains.

6) Do you have a favorite episode from the novel?

Probably the whole Gold Horn & Silver Horn arc.

7) Does the novel have a special meaning to you?

Not a special meaning per se, but it was a novel I really enjoyed, both for the setting, the narration, the characters within and watching them grow.

8) Can you tell me about your ongoing JTTW-related projects?

Plan to make a gallery of, if not all, at least a huge amount of the novel’s characters.

II. Art and Thought Process

1. As the opening drawing of the Xiyouji-themed Inktober set, I’ve decided to focus not on Sun Wukong himself but rather on Tripitaka, the monk, as Guanyin Pusa appears before him to assign him the quest for the sutras. Guanyin’s reference are commonly-found icons and statues. Between the two of them float the items Tripitaka receives (the cossack, nine-ringed staff and hat).

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2. This is the first time I depict Sun Wukong in the series, and I did it based his design on an article written on this very blog, trying to stick as much as possible to his literary description, especially regarding the clothing (monk’s shirt and tiger pelt kilt held by a rope), short stature, simian face and bald spot on the top of the head (converted to Buddhism). I gave him long spike-like hair in the back because otherwise his head felt too small. The Ruyijingubang has a rather simple design, as I never liked its depictions with pommels on both ends. I also tried to make the inscriptions on the shaft, but ultimately gave up, admittedly.

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3. This picture has Sun Wukong fighting against the Iron Fan Princess, who sends him flying away with her Banana Leaf Fan. Once again, I wanted to show how small Monkey is (in comparison to nearly everyone else, though I’m not always 100% consistent) and remind that the Ruyijingubang can increase in both length and width, as seen here where he tries to use it as a shield to block the wind, unsuccessfully. Also of note, the massive stone pillar on which the “address” of the Iron Fan Princess is written.

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4. This one isn’t based on any specific event, but it’s here to bring out two topics: the first is the size of the party members, which I always tried to keep consistent (and tried is the keyword). The idea is that Sun Wukong is the smallest of the group (4 feet), then we have Tripitaka, the “normal” one, and the Dragon (horse-sized): Pigsy (here depicted with a hint of boar) is the second tallest but also the fattest, while Sandy is the tallest of the party (and definitively not a Kappa). The second one is Sha Wujing’s weapon: while it’s usually depicted as a Monk Spade, the actual name is the “Demon-Subduing Treasure Cane” (降魔宝杖, Xiangmobaozhang), making it a stick/staff. However, it’s also worth a mention that the Monk Spade is sometimes called “Zen Cane” (禪杖, Chanzhang), a term which also refers to the ringed staff used by monks. Admittedly, I liked the spade version the most, though I plan to depict this weapon as a staff when Sandy is in his celestial marshal/arhat forms, implying that the staff changed into a spade when he fell from Heaven.

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5. The big battle between Sun Wukong and the Lion Demons working for the Great Sage Nine Spirits (seen in the background, in his giant nine-headed form): this was mostly done because it was one of the rare parts of the book where Sandy actually fights the monsters alongside Sun Wukong (as Pigsy was captured), as well as an attempt to make a big battle scene.

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6. The only god who actually beat Monkey, Erlang Shen. Since the Inktober was focused on the journey itself, I’ve decided to depict their battle as a bad dream. This time, Monkey wears his old, stylish outfit he got from the Dragon Kings, while Erlang is in full battle regalia, including his “Sanjiang Lianrendao” (三尖两刃刀 Three-pointed, Double Edged Glaive) and his Heavenly Roar Dog.

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7. The clash between the three pilgrims and the three Demon Kings of Lion Camel Mountain, from top to bottom: the Blue-Haired Lion vs Sha Wujing, the Yellow-Tusked White Elephant vs Zhu Bajie and the Golden-Wings Peng King vs Sun Wukong. The design of the three kings was based on a series of pictures I loved very much. Once again, a reminder that Wukong’s staff can widen as well.

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8. Sun Wukong fights the three Rhino Kings, who’re kidnapping Tripitaka. This time I wanted to depict Monkey twirling his staff as he fights. Like with the Demon Kings above, the design of the three Rhinos was based on the same set of pictures, even though I remember that in the novel they’re described as “bull-like” in appearence. Particularly like the dust cloud to the right.

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9. Sun Wukong is poisoned by the Scorpion Spirit. Aside from the scenery, I like the scorpioness. I’ve noticed in several arts (even old ones) that she sports a relatively skimpy outfit. As of her weapon, mentioned to be a “fork/trident” in the book, I’ve seen plenty of depictions with both the single trident version and the smaller, dual trident version.

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10. As a bookend, I’ve depicted a scene from the end of the book, the moment where Tripitaka drowns and ascends to buddhahood, so that he can obtain the sutras properly. This is also to represent one of the things I liked the most from the novel, the gradual growth of the pilgrims and the attachment to Tripitaka as a father figure. [Note: Tripitaka sheds his mortal form as he and his disciples are ferried across a body of water to the Buddha’s paradise. See the paragraph above image one and the material between images two and three in this article.]

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Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

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

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of tens of thousands of arms. [1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

I. Explanation

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

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

big dipper anf yu pace

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

baby belly

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

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

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

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

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

Fire phases

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

II. Similarities to Comic Book Heroes

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


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

III. Conclusion

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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