Dragon Ball and Journey to the West

It recently occurred to me that I’ve referenced the Dragon Ball franchise in several blog articles. So I’ve taken the opportunity to gather everything into one spot, including information that I haven’t previously mentioned. This is meant to be a very basic introduction and not an exhaustive analysis. My current interest here is in modern adaptations of Journey to the West. Those interested in a broader discussion on the influences of Dragon Ball should consult the work of Derek Padula.

I. Son Goku

The name of the series protagonist, Son Goku (孫悟空), is a Japanese transliteration of Sun Wukong, meaning “Monkey Aware of Emptiness“, an allusion to Buddhist enlightenment. While referencing Rhesus macaques and “grandsons”, the surname Sun (孫), is also a veiled symbol for the development of an immortal spirit in Taoist elixir arts. Therefore, the name Son Goku straddles both Buddhism and Taoism.

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Goku’s monkey tailflying nimbus cloud, and extending power pole are all based on the respective trait, skill, and weapon of the Monkey King. The latter’s skill is called the “Cloud Somersault” (jindou yun, 筋斗雲), which can travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), or one and one-third the circumference of Earth, in a single leap. Sun’s staff, the “‘As-You-Will‘ Gold-Banded Cudgel”, weighs a whopping 17,560 lbs (7,965 kg) and (among other abilities) can magically grow as big or shrink as small as the immortal desires.

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Goku’s proficiency in boxing has a fun connection to Sun Wukong. Series creator Akira Toriyama partly based the Saiyan’s fighting style on the Wing Chun techniques used by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in their respective films. This style falls under the umbrella term “Short Fist” (Duan quan, 短拳), a school of martial arts with a low stance and quick, compact punches. Journey to the West states that this very style is the Monkey King’s preferred fighting technique! He uses Short Fist a few times in the novel.

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The spherical spaceship that baby Goku crash lands on Earth in from DBZ is a clever nod to the magic stone that Sun Wukong is born from in the beginning of the novel.

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Goku’s Ozaro (大猿) form, or his ability to change into a titanic “great ape” during a full moon, is largely based on the Monkey King’s cosmic transformation. The novel calls this magical skill the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and Sun uses it to grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall during battles with powerful opponents. This is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han dynasty concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.

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While I don’t have confirmation from Toriyama, Goku’s “Instant Transmission” skill might be based on the aforementioned cloud somersault. This is because Chinese Buddhist literature mentions the world of man is separated from the Buddha’s paradise by 108,000 li (the distance covered by the cloud), and the only way to instantly bypass all of the hardships in-between is achieving enlightenment. Hence the cloud somersault is symbolic of instant travel.

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II. Other characters

Goku’s early quest to find the dragon balls along with Bulma, the shape-shifting pig Oolong, and the desert bandit Yamcha is based on the “journey” of Journey to the West. The Monkey King, along with the pig spirit Zhu Bajie and the sand spirit Sha Wujing, guards a monk traveling to India to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from the Buddha. Not surprisingly, other DB/DBZ characters come from the Chinese novel. The Ox-King and Chi-Chi are respectively based on the Bull Demon King and his wife, Princess Iron FanTien Shinhan is based on Erlang, the only god to truly defeat Sun Wukong, which is why Tien is such a threat to young Goku.

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Goku’s martial arts teacher, Master Roshi, is based on the Buddho-Taoist Sage Subodhi who teaches Sun Wukong magic and the secret of immortality. Subodhi is based on Subhuti, a historical disciple of the Buddha. This is hilarious when you think about how much of a pervert Roshi is.

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The antagonist Broly wears a shock collar and mind-controlling headband in various DB media. These are based on the Monkey King’s “Golden Fillet” (jing gu quan, 金箍圈), which represses his unruly nature by painfully constricting around his head when a magic spell is chanted. It’s interesting to note that this fillet is based on a historical ritual headband worn by ancient Indian Buddhist yogins as a physical reminder of self-restraint.

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III. Miscellaneous

The senzu (仙豆, “immortal bean”) used by Goku and other Z fighters to replenish their strength from prolonged training or battle are based on immortality-bestowing elixir pills that Sun Wukong eats while drunkenly stumbling through the laboratory of the Taoist high god Laozi. Once eaten, the pills immediately counteract the effects of the heavenly wine.

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Dragon Ball’s Senzu Bean and Journey to the West

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Fig. 1 – A birdseye view of Senzu beans (larger version). Original image found here.

One reoccurring plot device in the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present) is the Lima bean-like Senzu (仙豆; Ch: xian dou; lit: “sage or immortal bean”) (fig. 1). As explained by Dragon Ball scholar Derek Padula, the Senzu is a green, crunchy bean used to magically and instantly heal life-threatening flesh wounds and broken bones, to rejuvenate warriors who have overexerted themselves during intense, prolonged training or battle (video 1), and to sate hunger for up to ten days. Its only limitations are the inability to heal viral sicknesses, missing body parts, and preexisting scars. Much like the immortal peaches of the Queen Mother of the West, which only mature every few thousand years, the beans only mature in small numbers, possibly taking hundreds of years for their caretaker, the long-lived sage cat Korin, to harvest a few hundred specimens. The beans become a rarity once a dimwitted character eats them by the handful (Padula, 2015).

Video 1 – The villain-turned-hero Vegeta is healed by a Senzu.

Derek traces the bean to elixirs created by practitioners of Daoist external alchemy. For example, he writes:

The sennin [仙人; Ch: xianren] collect rare ingredients and prized metals such as gold, mercury, mushrooms, and precious stones such as jade. Then they place them into a crucible, stoke the fire, and melt them into a concoction. Each particular ingredient possesses various amounts of yīn and yáng energy, and by mixing the ingredients together in just the right fashion the hermit can concoct a potion or pill that will balance the yīn and yáng in their own bodies. Their hope is that the pill will  increase their life span, eliminate illness and injuries, or confer immortality (Padula, 2015).

He makes a keen connection between the Senzu and immortal peaches. After all, both are heavenly agricultural goods with magico-medical properties.

Over time, legends formed around such practices and made their way into popular culture. For example, the Daoist Patriarch Laozi’s “pills of immortality” and “peaches of immortality” (Chinese: xiāntáo, 仙桃), from Journey to the West that Sun Wukong (the character Son Goku is inspired by) so voraciously devours. Sun Wukong becomes immortal not once, not twice, but thrice, by also practicing Internal Alchemy and transforming his body. Since Xiyouji is the inspiration for Dragon Ball, it’s no surprise that we find a simplified form of them here that Son Goku eats. Senzu do not confer instant immortality in Dragon Ball, but they do provide the other benefits. They’re a simplified representation of ancient and supernormal concepts (Padula, 2015).

While Derek alludes to Laozi’s elixir pills above, I think he might have missed an important element from the novel, one that appears to be the ultimate source for Senzu. After raiding the heavenly peach banquet and getting drunk on immortal wine in chapter five, Sun Wukong stumbles into Laozi’s laboratory and eats all of the god’s elixir pills:

Searching around, our Great Sage went all the way to the alchemical room. He found no one but saw fire burning in an oven beside the hearth, and around the oven were five gourds in which finished elixir was stored. “This thing is the greatest treasure of immortals,” said the Great Sage happily. “Since old Monkey has understood the Way and comprehended the mystery of the Internal’s identity with the External, I have also wanted to produce some golden elixir [jin dan, 金丹] on my own to benefit people. While I have been too busy at other times even to think about going home to enjoy myself, good fortune has met me at the door today and presented me with this! As long as Laozi is not around, I’ll take a few tablets and try the taste of something new.” He poured out the contents of all the gourds and ate them like fried beans [chao dou, 炒豆] [fig. 2].

In a moment, the effect of the elixir had dispelled that of the wine, and he again thought to himself, “Bad! Bad! I have brought on myself calamity greater than Heaven! If the Jade Emperor has knowledge of this, it’ll be difficult to preserve my life! Go! Go! Go! I’ll go back to the Region Below to be a king.” He ran out of the Tushita Palace and, avoiding the former way, left by the West Heaven Gate, making himself invisible by the magic of body concealment (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 166).

So we have immortality-bestowing alchemical pills described as beans, which can instantly cure the effects of alcohol, a mild poison. As noted above, Son Goku is based on Sun Wukong. Additionally, many other characters and episodes of the manga/anime were pulled directly from Journey to the West. So it’s not a stretch to think that Akira Toriyama, the creator, embellished the ability of these bean-like pills to create the Senzu.

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Fig. 2 – “The Great Sage Steals the Elixir”, from Newly Engraved, Illustrated, Large-Character Official Edition of the Journey to the West (Xinke chuxiang guanban dazi Xiyouji, 新刻出像官板大字西遊記, 1592) (larger version).

Sources:

Padula, D. (2015). Dragon Ball Culture: Vol. 5. (n.p.): Derek Padula.

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