I’ve previously written an article in which I detail the origins of the Monkey King’s magic hair. He first exhibits the ability to transform his hair in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592):
Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces and then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129).
This tactic of transforming chewed up hairs into dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of monkey clones also appears in chapters 3, 5, 21, 35, 44, 86, and 90 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 132, 165, 172, & 409; vol. 2, pp. 138 & 277; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, pp. 164-165, 168, 219, & 221). But these chewed up hairs can also be transformed into other objects, such as sleep-inducing bugs in chapters 5 and 86, as well as seven kinds of hawks in chapter 72 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 165; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, p. 168).
But the novel states that Sun sometimes changes his hair by first blowing on it with his magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣). This article will provide a brief survey of this skill and its abilities.
Explicit mentions of the immortal breath show that it can transform hair into:
- Ink-soaked brush to write on the Buddha’s hand (ch. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 195).
- Dagger to skin a tiger (ch. 14) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
- Three-ply hemp rope to tie up Zhu Bajie (ch. 19) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 385).
- Duplicates of the Monkey King (fig. 1) (ch. 25, 27, 45, 73, 77, 84, 85, & 94) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465; vol. 2, p. 27, 129, & 292; vol. 3, p. 340; vol. 4, pp. 20, 139, 151, & 293).
- Copper coin to pay for paper (ch. 33) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 117-118).
- Fake lesser demons (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 122).
- Yellow-gold rope to replace a magical weapon of the same name (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 130).
- Gold-plated, red lacquered box to hold a white jade token (ch. 37) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 169).
- Wrapper to infiltrate a demon’s lair (ch. 41) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 235-236).
- Yellow hound to carry away a bogus immortal’s decapitated head (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 308).
- Hungry hawk to eat a bogus immortal’s entrails (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 310).
- Group of 30 tigers to scare away monks (ch. 64) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 194).
- Sleep-inducing insects and lice, fleas, and bedbugs (ch. 71 (A & B) & 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 303 & 304; vol. 4, p. 139).
- Gold-headed fly to scare a demon king (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 366).
- Bow drill (comprised of a diamond bit, a bamboo strip, and a cotton string) to drill out of a dangerous magic treasure (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369).
- Very thin but long rope to climb out of a monster’s stomach (ch. 76) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 3).
- Thirty ropes for tying up bandits (ch. 97) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 328).
It should be noted, however, that the novel is very inconsistent regarding this ability. The immortal breath is not always used; Sun often just commands the hair to transform or changes it without saying anything, such as in chapters 4, 33, 34 (A, B, & C), 42, 46, 49, 51, 59, 65, 68, 71, and 74 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156; vol. 2, p. 115, 124-125, 237, 301, 305, & 345-346; vol. 3, p. 13, 120, 216, 269, 305, & 358). The “chewing” and “spitting out” of the hair is another example (see above). But one might argue that spitting requires a build of air in the lungs, so by extension, the immortal breath is being used.
This inconsistency is probably due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, some story tellers likely employed the immortal breath, while others did not.
Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).
This immortal breath is also shown capable of transforming the magic iron staff (fig. 2).
- Steel file to file through a magic golden ring pinning Monkey’s neck to a column (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 129).
- Razor to mutilate two lesser demons (ch. 63) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 180).
- Flag pole to make a pair of magic cymbals stand upright (ch. 65) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 216).
- Seventy forked weapons to cut the threads of supernatural spider webs (ch. 73) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 340).
- Nail to prop open a demon’s mouth while Monkey climbs out of their stomach (ch. 83) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 113).
- Three-pointed drill to make a covert hole in a wardrobe (ch. 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 139).
As noted above, the novel is inconsistent in this regard. For instance, Monkey changes the staff into a steel drill without blowing on it in chapter 65 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218). Likewise, no breath is used in chapters 46 and 84 when Sun transforms the weapon into razors for shaving heads (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305; vol. 4, p. 139).
Fig. 2 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar that will become his iron staff (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).
Monkey can also transform items not in contact with his body. For instance, in chapter 46, he changes a Daoist lad’s clothing from a spring onion white robe into a brown monk’s robe (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In chapter 78, Sun transforms Tripitaka into his likeness using a mask made from mud:
Pilgrim, too, had little alternative but to flatten the mud and press it on his own face and, after a little while, succeeded in making an apelike mask. Asking the Tang Monk to stand up but without uttering another word, Pilgrim pasted the mask on his master’s face and recited a magic spell. He then blew his immortal breath onto the mask, crying, “Change!” At once the elder took on the appearance of Pilgrim. He was told to take off his own garments and switch clothes with Pilgrim, who made the magic sign and then recited another spell to change into the form of the Tang Monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 47).
Again, the novel is inconsistent regarding external objects. Sometimes Monkey bights his tongue and spits blood out to change said item, such as in chapter 25 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 474-475 & 477; vol. 2, p. 303). [1-2] But, again, one could argue that the immortal breath is used as spitting requires a build-up of air in the lungs.
IV. Special abilities
The immortal breath (fig. 3) is also shown to have other special abilities. For instance, in chapter 46, Monkey uses it to heal a gaping wound in his stomach:
With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).
The novel implies that Sun’s immortal breath also has the ability to manipulate souls. For example, in chapter 88, Sun uses it in an arcane ritual designed to bestow three human disciples with super human strength. The pertinent section reads:
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 [yuanshen, 元神] were thus restored to their original abodes …
The term “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神) is commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, it is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008). This suggests that Monkey’s immortal breath also grants the disciples some form of immortality. You can read about the entire ritual here.
And in chapter 97, Sun uses the immortal breath to transform an old man’s soul into “ether” for easy transport back to the world of the living:
Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether [qi, 氣] by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave [Hell] and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house. Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] was told to pry open the lid of the coffin, and the soul of the squire was pushed into his body. In a moment, he began to breathe once more and revived (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 339).
The phrase “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) is missing in the original Chinese, but the ability’s use is understood as the passage mentions Monkey “blowing” (chui, 吹) on the soul.
Various chapters of Journey to the West show that Sun Wukong can use his immortal breath to transform his hair, his magic staff, and items not directly in contact with his body into anything he desires. These range from utilitarian items like files, blades, drills, and ropes to living creatures like insects, birds of prey, dogs, tigers, lesser demons, and even independent copies of himself. It can also change the color and appearance of clothing, as well as magically disguise someone when used in tandem with a mask. The skill’s special abilities include healing and soul manipulation. Evidence suggests that it can restore the “primordial spirit,” granting superhuman strength and some form of immortality, as well as transform souls into “ether” for better ease of transport.
The immortal breath, however, is not used consistently throughout the novel. Monkey sometimes chews up and spits out the hair, commands it to change, or simply transforms it without saying anything at all. This inconsistency is likely due to the novel coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries.
1) Thank you to Irwen Wong for reminding me of this.
2) The second instance of tongue-biting doesn’t mention the word for blood (xie, 血), but it can be understood to be present.
Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vols. 1-2) (pp. 883-884). London: Routledge].
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.