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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The Origin of Monkey’s Battle with Lord Erlang and its Ties to Han Dynasty Funerary Rites and Folklore

Did you know the battle between Monkey and Lord Erlang is tied to Han Dynasty funerary rights and folklore? Wu (1987) notes that, during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), the people of Sichuan often buried their dead in stone tombs decorated with brave heroes, such as archers and crossbowmen, and fierce animals, such as tigers and hounds. Regarding the latter, the canines are sometimes depicted attacking or intimidating apes, which were considered emblems of disease or bad luck (fig. 1). Therefore, by portraying the subjugation of such evil forces, the carvings are thought to have served the ritual function of protecting deceased loved ones from dark influences on their wayward journey to the afterlife (pp. 100-101).

The idea of dogs overcoming apes should bring to mind Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s loyal hound at the end of chapter six.

One recurring motif depicts an archer drawing his bow to fall an ape in a tree (fig. 2). This is based on a third-century BCE tale about the legendary Chu archer Yang Youji (養由基) shooting an elusive white ape held in the palace of the King of Jing. This in turn is based on an even older tale about the archer Yi (羿) bringing order to the primordial earth by killing nine of ten suns that took the form of monstrous crows. Han era tombs are known to portray Yi drawing a bow to shoot said birds flying around a tree, so it most likely influenced the motif of Yang shooting the ape in a tree (Wu, 1987, pp. 102-106). Despite his later connection with the three-pointed polearm, Erlang was also portrayed as an archer in early media.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Top left) A Han Dynasty tomb rubbing of oversized dogs intimidating apes (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Bottom left) A Han tomb decoration depicting an archer shooting at an ape (larger version). Fig. 3 – (Center bottom) The 13th-century painting depicting Erlang and his soldiers rounding up and executing ape demons. A captive ape can be seen on the bottom left between the two soldiers (larger version). Fig. 4 (Center right) A detail from the 15th-century painting showing the ape, his humanoid wives, and their gibbon-like children being rounded up (larger version). This section is located in the last four-fifths of the scroll. Fig. 5 – (Right) A detail showing Erlang near the front of the same scroll (larger version). His armor differs slightly from that of the 13th-century version. Also take note of how a young page holds his bow, while a spirit soldier bears his (slightly obscured) three-pointed polearm.


Lord Erlang was originally worshiped during the Han as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. His cult grew and absorbed other deities and heroes under his mantle. For instance, Wu (1987) writes:

The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country.

When the Er-lang cult became increasingly popular in Sichuan, the previous divine archers such as Yang Youji and Yi, (like many other legendary demon-quellers), were mologized into this new cult, and their defeat of an ape demon became an important part of the Er-lang legend. Er-lang’s traits in later stories and art works clearly disclose this transformation (pp. 107-108).

It should also be noted that Erlang was at some point associated with the historical engineer Li Bing (李冰, c. 3rd-cent. BCE) and the official Zhao Yu (趙昱, c. 6th/7th-cent CE), both of whom were worshipped for defeating flood demons (Wu, 1987, p. 107). I suggest this may have led to his cult being connected to that of Yu the Great (大禹), the flood-queller par excellence in Chinese folklore. This is important because Tang Dynasty legends state Yu battled a simian water demon and eventually imprisoned it under a mountain (see Andersen, 2001). Sound familiar? This may have been another avenue in which Erlang was associated with quelling ape demons.

One anonymous 13th-century album leaf ink painting portrays Erlang seated in a kingly fashion and watching as his spirit soldiers round up and execute ape demons (fig. 3). One anonymous 15th-century scroll painting reproduces the scene in color, along with other animal spirits (fig. 4 and 5). The image of the deity as a queller of ape monsters culminated in an anonymous Yuan-Ming Dynasty play called The God Er-lang Locks up the Ape-Demon “Great Sage-Equal to Heaven” (二郎神鎻齊天大聖, Er-lang Shen suo Qitian Dasheng). Much like JTTW, the god is sent to capture a magical primate, in this case an ape, who has stolen immortal food and wine from heaven. (Wu, 1987, pp. 108-109). This no doubt influenced Monkeys mischief in heaven and subsequent battle with the deity.

See also:


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under turtle mountain: The history and mythology of the Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

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

Journey to the West and Islamic Lore

Last updated: 04-04-2020

Did you know that certain portions of Journey to the West were influenced by Indo-Persian and Arab Islamic lore? For instance, in chapter six Sun Wukong and Lord Erlang engage in a magical battle of skill in which they freely transform into myriad animals, each trying to one-up the other. This battle is unusual as Chinese stories going back to pre-Tang dynasty sources show characters could not transform at will. Conversely, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1704), which is based on stories as far back as the 9th-century, contains a tale featuring a magical battle of transformations between a princess and a genie. Literary critic C.T. Hsia (1996) notes that the similarities in magical combat “does not mean…the makers of the Monkey legend were specifically indebted to [the Arabian Nights], but it certainly indicates their general awareness of the popular literature of the Middle and Near East” (pp. 132-133).

(I no longer feel Hsia’s (1996) suggestion is accurate. See the 11-21-2019 update below.)

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Fig. 1 – (Left) Modern pears grown in molds to imitate ginseng baby fruit. Fig. 2 – (Right) A 14th to 15th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the women fruit of the Waqwaq tree (larger version).


Chapters 24 to 26 of Journey to the West feature a magical Ginseng Tree (人參樹, Renshen shu) that produces crying, baby-shaped ginseng fruits (人參果, renshen guo) capable of extending the lives of those who eat them to 47,000 years (fig. 1). The literary antecedent of this fruit first appears in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, “The Story” hereafter), a 17-chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Chapter 11 features an immortal peach tree with fruits that transform into edible children once they drop into water. Each is capable of answering when asked a question:

Monkey Pilgrim continued: ‘There are more than ten peaches on the tree now, but there are gods of the earth who are posted here especially to protect them. There is no way to steal the peaches.’ The Master teased: ‘Your supernatural powers are stupendous. If you were to go, what could prevent you?’ Before his words were finished three peaches of immortality fell down into the pool. The Master was startled by the splash and he asked: ‘What fell down?’ Monkey Pilgrim replied: ‘Don’t be alarmed, Master. It was just a few ripe peaches of immortality which fell into the pool.’ The Master said: ‘Can we find them and eat them?’

Monkey Pilgrim took the golden-ringed staff and shook it three times in the direction of the huge, flat stone. A small child with a greenish face appeared. His fingernails were as sharp as a hawk’s claws and from his gaping mouth the teeth showed as he emerged from the pool. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child answered: ‘Three thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I have no use for you.’ Again he rapped five times and a child appeared whose face was as round as the full moon. He wore embroidered clothes and a headdress with tassels. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child replied: ‘Five thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I will not use you.’ And once more he rapped several times with the staff. Another child appeared all of a sudden. Monkey Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ ‘Seven thousand years,” the child replied. Monkey put down the golden-ringed staff and made the child get on his hand. Then he asked: ‘Monk! Will you eat this?’ The monks were terrified and fled. Pilgrim whirled his hand with the child in it a number of times and the child became a milky jujube which he popped into his mouth (Wivell, 1994, p. 1196).

The concept of speaking, human-shaped fruit can be traced to the “Waqwaq tree” from Islamic lore. For example, The Book of the Wonders of India (Kitaab Ajaaib al-Hind), a set of Indo-Persian sailor stories collected between 900 and 953, contains a brief anecdote which reads:

Muhammad b. Babishad told me that, according to what he had learnt from men who had been to the Waqwaq country, there is a large tree there, with round leaves, or sometimes oblong, which bears fruit like a marrow, only larger, and looking something like a human being. When the wind blows, a voice comes out of it. The inside is full of air, like the fruit of the usher. If one picks it, the air escapes at once, and it is nothing but skin (Buzurg & Freeman-Grenville, 1981, p. 39).

The 15th-century Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi took the concept further by describing the fruit as being shaped like voluptuous women (fig. 2) with the power of speech:

On this island are trees that bear as fruit women: shapely, with bodies, eyes, hands, feet, hair, breasts, and vulvas like the vulvas of women. Their faces are exceptionally beautiful and they hang by their hair. They come out of cases like big swords, and when they feel the wind and sun, they shout “Waq Waq” until their hair tears (Toorawa, 2000, p. 393).

Various sources respectively locate the Waqwaq tree and its home of Waqwaq, a faraway, exotic land or island, somewhere within the Indian Ocean, beyond Iraq, or, further still, beyond China. The Waqwaq term was most likely used to describe the limits of the known world at given times (Toorawa, 2000). The tree itself can possibly be traced to a passage in the Quran (Sura 37, verses 60-64) that describes how the “Tree of Zakkum” produces fruit shaped like the heads of demons. The earliest mention of the Waqwaq tree in Chinese sources appears in the late 8th-century Comprehensive Encyclopedia (通典, Tongdian) by the travel writer Du Huan (杜環). This is apparently based on an earlier Arabic source (A floral fantasy, n.d.).

Update: 02-28-2018

I was looking through the Ming-era Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Three Realms (三才圖會, Sancai tuhui, 1609, “Three Realms” hereafter) and happened upon a woodblock print of a Waqwaq tree (fig. 3). The image is labeled Dashi Guo (大食國), A term used since the Tang Dynasty to refer to an ancient country in the Arab World (Zhang & Unschuld, 2015, p. 81). This shows the Chinese were still aware of the tree’s foreign origin around the time that Journey to the West was published.

Ginseng tree - From Sancai tuhui (1609), based on image of Iskander (Alexander the Great) talking to the Talking Tree from the Shamanah

Fig. 3 – Woodblock print from the Three Realms showing the Waqwaq tree (larger version).

Update: 11-21-2019

As noted above, Hsia (1996) suggests the battle of transformations between Monkey and Erlang was influenced in some way by Islamic literature. However, Robinet (1979) describes a tit-for-tat battle from Daoist literature that casts doubt on this view:

The Xianyuan bianzhu [仙苑編珠, “Paired Pearls from the Garden of Immortals”, after c. 921] tells how Wang Tan [王探] received “the art of hiding his light and transforming his body.” Dared by someone to metamorphose himself, he took the form of a tree, but the other fellow seized an axe. Wang immediately transformed himself into a stone, but the other lit a fire (in the theory of the five elements, fire prevails over minerals). After turning himself into bubbling water and so on, Wang Tan finally achieved the upper hand by adopting the appearance of a corpse-the man fled immediately (p. 46). [1]

The way the Daoist and his opponent try to one up the other is very similar to the battle between the Great and Small Sages. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to suggest this story (or related media) was embellished by a storyteller or the author-compiler of the Ming Journey to the West to include two masters of transformation instead of one.

Update: 04-04-2020

Thanks to a recent Twitter post by Guy Reisman, I was delighted to learn that the Islamic Waqwaq tree made its way to Japan, where it is known as the Jinmenju (人面樹, “human-face tree“). In fact, an illustration of the tree appearing in the Edo-period bestiary Konjaku Hyakki Shūi (今昔百鬼拾遺, “Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past”, c. 1781) appears to be based on that from the Three Realms cited above (refer back to fig. 3).

Even more exciting, however, is the revelation of the identity of the man standing beneath the tree in the Three Realms illustration. Foster (2015) traces the Japanese image to the Three Realms and then further back to a Persian source, thereby associating the man with a famous historical king:

If we continue back in time and along the Silk Road, we find different versions of the great Persian epic poem Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020), with illustrations of a man conversing with a tree bearing human heads. The man, it turns out, is Alexander the Great (Sikandar or Iskandar), and the illustrations portray his legendary encounter with a talking tree, sometimes called the Wakwak Tree, that prophesied his death (p. 185).

That’s right, the man in the Three Realms is based on Alexander the Great! See image four for a comparison of the Chinese illustration and one example of Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree”-genre drawings. Both men stand in a similar position, looking upwards. The Persian Alexander is passively listening, while the Three Realms Alexander is actively talking.

Iskander and the Talking Tree - Three Realms Ginseng Tree

Fig. 4 – A comparison of a 15th-century Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree” image and the Three Realms image (larger version). The former is held by the Bodleian Library.

This then raises the question: Did material related to the Shahmana influence the Ginseng Tree in Journey to the the West? [2] I’ve already demonstrated that an antecedent of the Ginseng tree appears in The Story. But this doesn’t necessarily negate some sort of influence. After all, both the Shahmana and Journey to the West feature mythic kings (Alexander and Sun Wukong) coming into contact with magic trees with humanoid fruit. I should note, however, that the trees represent two drastically different fates. Alexander’s tree foresees his death, while Monkey’s tree holds the promise of eternal life. Further research might shed light on stronger connections between both stories.


1) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

2) Hall (2019) explains Iskander’s meeting with the talking tree takes place in both the Shahmana and the older Greek Alexander Romance (p. 149).


A floral fantasy of animals and birds (Waq-waq). (n.d.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from…0Waq%20waq.pdf

Buzurg, S., & Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. (1981). The book of the wonders of India: Mainland, sea and islands. London: East-West.

Foster, M. D. (2015). The book of yōkai: Mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. Oakland: University of California Press.

Hall, M. (2019). The imagination of plants: A book of botanical mythology. Albany : State University of New York Press

Hsia, C. (1996). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia program, Cornell University.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Toorawa, S. M. (2000). WaÃq al-waÃq: Fabulous, fabular, Indian Ocean (?) island(s). Emergences, 10(2), 387-402.

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.

Zhang, Z., & Unschuld, P. U. (2015). Dictionary of the Ben cao gan mu: Volume 2 – Geographical and administrative designations. Oakland, California: University of California Press