Various forms of media portray Sun Wukong wearing three types of golden headbands (jingu quan, 金箍圈). The first has blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like a pair of scowling eyebrows. The second has an upturned crescent moon shape in the center. And the third is just a thin fillet devoid of any adornment (fig. 1). This article will briefly discuss the origins of type two, what I call the “crescent-style” headband.
The type two headband is heavily associated with Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s (六小齡童; a.k.a. Zhang Jinlai, 章金萊, b. 1959) portrayal of the Monkey King from the famed 1986 CCTV series. This actor comes from a long line of Chinese opera performers who specialize in playing Sun Wukong. It should be no surprise then that the type of circlet that he wears comes directly from Chinese opera. Known as a “precepts headband” (jiegu, 戒箍), this fillet is worn on stage by Military Monks (wuseng, 武僧) as a sign that they’ve taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328). Such clerics are depicted as wearing a jiegu in combination with a wild mane of hair (fig. 2), which contrasts with the bald heads of religious monks.
To my knowledge, the oldest source associating Sun with the precepts headband is an early-Ming zaju play that predates the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. In act ten, the Bodhisattva Guanyin tells Monkey:
Great Sage Reaching Heaven [a previous title for Sun], you originally destroyed form and extinguished nature, but the honored monk saved you. This time, you will cease your desires. I give you the dharma name Sun Wukong, as well as an iron precepts headband [tie jiegu, 鐵戒箍], a black monk’s robe, and a precepts knife.  The iron headband will guard your nature, the robe will cover your beastly body, and the knife will cut your relations. If you want to go with your master, then you will be called Pilgrim Sun. Swiftly obtain the scriptures and seek the right fruit.
The precepts headband likely finds its origin in the triple-crescent crown of Central Asia. This crown was originally a fixture of Iranic Hephthalite royalty that was later adopted by Sogdian rulers. Zoroastrian gods were even portrayed wearing it. The motif is known to have entered China as early as the 6th-century. For instance, the stone tomb of the Sogdian leader Di Caoming (翟曹明, d. 579) features two foreign-looking, trident-wielding door guardians wearing the crown (fig. 3 & 4). Most importantly, a crown featuring the triple-crescent and wings (also of Hephthalite origin) appears in Chinese Buddhist art, particularly in the headdresses of Bodhisattvas (fig. 5), before, during, and after the Tang and Liang periods (Kageyama, 2007). Therefore, the association of the triple-crescent with guardians and Buddhist deities might then explain why it was later connected to military monks in Chinese opera.
Fig. 3 – Triple-crescent crown-wearing guardians on the door of Di Caoming’s stone tomb (larger version). Fig. 4 – A detail of one of the guardians (larger version). Images found on this tweet. Fig. 5 – A diagram showing the various Bodhisattva crowns featuring the triple-crescent and winged adornments in Chinese Buddhist art (larger version). From Kageyama, 2007, p. 22. 
Various forms of media portray the Monkey King wearing different kinds of headbands. The second type, which includes an upturned crescent moon shape in the middle of the forehead, is featured in Chinese opera depictions of Sun Wukong. This “precepts headband” (jiegu, 戒箍) is a symbol of military monks, thus linking Monkey to such martial clerics. To my knowledge, the oldest source associating our hero with the jiegu is an early-Ming zaju play in which Guanyin gives Sun an “iron precepts headband” (tie jiegu, 鐵戒箍) (among other items).
This style of circlet was likely influenced by the “triple-crescent crown” used by the Iranic Hephthalite and Sogdian cultures as a symbol of royalty. The motif appeared in China as early as the 6th-century as evidenced by the stone tomb of Di Caoming, which features foreign-looking door guardians wearing the triple-crescent crown. Most importantly, the motif also adorns the crowns of Bodhisattvas during China’s medieval period, which (combined with the aforementioned door guardians) might explain why the crescent came to be associated with military monks in Chinese opera.
This Iranic crown is one of three cultural threads influencing the function and look of Monkey’s golden headband, the other two coming from India (Esoteric Buddhism) and China (Daoism).
1) Precept knives (jiedao, 戒刀) were historically small, unadorned, curved, finger-length blades used for cutting robes, trimming fingernails, opening wounds, or slicing food (Yifa, 2009, p. 250, n. 37).
2) The diagram is labeled thusly in the original paper:
Winged crowns and triple-crescent crowns represented in the Buddhist art of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Sui. a, c, e-h: Wall paintings. Dunhuang (Gansu). a: Cave 254 (Northern Wei. Second half of the fifth century or first half of the sixth century), c: Cave 285 (Western Wei. 538-539 CE), e: Cave 276 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), f. Cave 380 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), g. Cave 389 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century), h. Cave 407 (Sui. Late sixth or early seventh century). b: Stone sculpture from Wanfo-si 万仏寺. Liang. First half of the sixth century. Chengdu (Sichuan). d. Stone relief from Dazhusheng 大住聖 Cave, Baoshan Lingquan-si 宝山霊泉寺, Anyang. Sui. 589 CE (Kageyama, 2007, p. 22).
3) After asking him a question on the original tweet, Jin Xu replied:
This type of crown is the prototype of Jiegu. It was a headgear favored by Sogdians, as you can see in some pictures taken by @eranudturan. I’m not sure if it had a specific name at the time, but perhaps related to later Persian word “taj” (tweet).
Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Kageyama, E. (2007). The Winged Crown and the Triple-crescent Crown in the Sogdian Funerary Monuments from China: Their Relation to the Hephthalite Occupation of Central Asia. Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology, 2, 11-22. Retrieved from https://isaw.nyu.edu/publications/jiaaa/Kageyama.pdf.
Yifa. (2009). The Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China: An Annotated Translation and Study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i press.
Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project recently introduced me to the Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師)  folk religion sect of Malaysia and Singapore. It features an intriguing trinity with the Monkey King as the Great Sage Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) in the center, the aforementioned deity to his right, and the Most High Elder Lord (Taishang laojun, 太上老君; a.k.a. Laozi, 老子) to his left. Combined, they respectively represent Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. This is shocking as Sun Wukong replaces the Buddha himself as a representative of the “Three Teachings” (sanjiao, 三教). Needless to say, his inclusion here elevates the Monkey King from a mid-tier god to a supreme one.
There doesn’t appear to be any concrete information about when the trinity first appeared. The oldest photograph (fig. 1) that I can find hails from 1970s Singapore (per an informant). But this page states that Chee Chung Temple (慈忠庙), followers of the sect, was founded in 1960, showing that it was flourishing as early as this time. However, an informant tells me that the sect is more rare in Singapore these days. Conversely, Ronni notes it’s more common in Malaysia and that the trinity from the photograph looks similar to “twenty or thirty examples” he’s seen while visiting temples in the south.
Fig. 1 – The 1970s photograph (larger version). Image in a private Malaysian collection.
I’d like to add that the three-person grouping follows precedent in Chinese religion, with examples including the “Three Pure Ones” (Sanqing, 三清) of Daoism and the “Three Bodies” (Sk: Trikaya; Ch: Sanshen, 三身) of Buddhism. These likely influenced the trinity (see below).
I’ll update this section as new information becomes available.
The Great Sage Patriarch is portrayed with a small guan cap (xiao guan, 小冠) crowning a furry, simian head, and the face is sometimes painted similar to his Chinese opera depictions. He wears a (sometimes golden) suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed and his hands on his legs. One hand loosely cups the handle of an “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) scepter, with the mushroom head resting near his shoulder. As noted here, this scepter is a symbol of some Buddhist and Daoist gods, most notably the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao tianzun, 靈寶天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, and Guanyin (觀音).
The Immortal Master Yellow Elder is portrayed with a small guan cap crowning a smiling, elderly man with drawn back white hair and a long, white beard and mustache. He wears bagua robes (of various colors) and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed. And he either holds a fly whisk or command flag in one hand, while the other is sometimes held in a mudra.
The Most High Elder Lord is quite similar to the former (including the guan cap, hair and beard, and bagua clothing), but he’s instead seated cross-legged on a lotus throne. One hand holds a traditional palace fan (gong shan, 宮扇), while the other might delicately hold a pearl.
All three are sometimes depicted in a cave-like alcove over which hangs a sign reading “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (Zhong xian dong, 眾/衆仙洞) or “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (Xian fo dong, 仙佛洞) (fig. 2 & 3).
The trinity appears to have borrowed from depictions of the Three Pure Ones. Take for example this painting (fig. 4). Two of the three figures include the As-you-will scepter and the palace fan.
Fig. 4 – A print of the Three Pure Ones from Werner, 1922, p. 124 (larger version).
III. The Immortal Master Yellow Elder
This is not a common deity, so I’ve chosen to quote the BOXS article on the subject. I’ve changed the Wade Giles to pinyin. The information was gathered by Keith Stevens:
[…] His images have been seen on altars in Singapore in Balestier Road, also in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, in Seremban and Muar, and in southern Thailand, where in each temple he is known as one of the Supreme Trinity .
In Kuala Lumpur where he is regarded as a deity who possesses the spirit mediums of his cult, the Huang jiao [黃教], he is known as an avatar of Laozi. He is said to have first appeared and became popular during the Han dynasty as the Governor of the World but without interfering with its day to day running. […] He was identified as Huang Shigong [黃石公], a patron of Zhang Liang [張良] who in about 200 BC was a trusted counsellor of Liu Bang [劉邦] and is said to have written a work on military tactics, the Sanlue [三略, “Three Strategies”].
Zhang Liang was one of the Three Heroes of China, said to have been a governor of a province during the Han, and according to Taoist legend was one day crossing a bridge of a river when a poor old man on a mule passed by. One of the old man’s sandals fell off into the river and in one version Zhang picked up the sandal of his own volition whilst in another, told by devotees, the old man asked him to pick it up. Zhang feeling a great sense of indignity but moved by pity for the old man picked it up. Then, after several tests Zhang Liang was told by the old man that with the book he had just given to Zhang he would become an adviser to the king. In years to come it came about exactly as foretold, and the old man on the mule turned out to be Huang Lao xianshi.
In these temples Huang Lao xianshi’s annual festival is celebrated on the double sixth [i.e. 6th day of the 6th lunar month]. His image has not been noted in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau.
In most temples he is revered for his healing powers, with one sip of water blessed by him curing sickness; it also provides stamina and nerve, and wrestlers and boxers visit his altars to drink his tonic before their matches.
The Huang Lao school combines the teachings of Huang Di, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Buddhist[s], as well as Confucian[s], developed over the centuries into its own particular form (RefNo. W3015).
This philosophical connection is interesting as one scholar suggests that the Sanlue “was written around the end of the Former Han dynasty, probably by a reclusive adherent of the Huang-Lao school who had expert knowledge of military affairs” (Sawyer & Sawyer, 2007, p. 283). This would explain why the Yellow Elder’s story is associated with Huang Shigong (“Old Man Yellowstone”). Also, his name might imply that he’s considered an embodiment of this philosophy.
One thing not noted in the BOXS article is that some statues alternatively spell his name as 黃老先師 (Huang Lao xianshi), meaning the “First Teacher Yellow Elder” (see the third section on this page). The term 先師 is a reference to one of Confucius‘ titles (Chin, 2007, p. 13).
Ronni shared with me a source explaining the birth of Master Yellow Elder’s sect. One webpage claims it came about in 1937 at No. 38 Beer Village of Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, Peninsular Malaysia (马来西亚半岛森美兰州马口三十八啤农村). This might explain why the sect is more popular in Malaysia than Singapore:
At that time, Liao Jun [廖俊] was alone in the hall near the Daoist altar when he became curious about learning spirit-mediumship and spirit-writing. All of a sudden, a spirit entered his body, causing him to sit solemnly while stroking his whiskers and mumbling incomprehensively. He didn’t know what spirit had taken hold of his body or what was being said. Afterwards, Liao woke up but didn’t know anything. After that he requested the spirit to descend everyday but wasn’t able to speak. Later, Mr. Dai Zhao [Dai Zhao xiansheng, 戴招先生], the original owner of the Daoist temple, consecrated him as a new spirit-medium with a seal. He was then able to write messages and finally speak. Until that day when Liao Jun called the spirit, he opened his mouth and preached with strict principles and profound meaning. He said that the Immortal Master came to teach disciples in order to help the world. But he did not reveal his origin.
After a period of Liao calling down the spirit, the gathered crowd questioned the deity. He finally revealed that the Immortal Master Yellow Elder was actually Oldman Yellowstone [Huang shigong, 黃石公], known from legends passed down through the generations. According to the Jade Emperor’s decree, he was to open the dharma gate [famen, 法门] by preaching his teachings for the universal deliverance of the people.
Those who wish to enter the dharma gate first have to fast for 30 days and then complete the dharma hall ceremony to become a formal disciple. This dharma transforms according to one’s heart and can be used as one desires. Only when it is used in the right way (zhengdao, 正道) will it be effective. One cannot harbor any evil desires.
All of Immortal Master Yellow Elder’s disciples can worship at home by arranging their own shrine. A memorial tablet [paiwei, 牌位] must be set up in the center, and the following words must be written: mercy [ci, 慈], loyalty [zhong, 忠], faith [xin, 信], righteousness [yi, 义], rituals [li, 礼], relationships [lun, 伦], continence [jie,节], filial piety [xiao, 孝], honesty [lian, 廉], and right virtue [de德]. A sign on the left side must say, “Obey the Way of Heaven with Loyalty” [Shuntian xingdao zhong, 顺天行道忠], and on the right, “From the Earth Return to Ceremony” [Congdi fu liyi, 从地復礼仪].
Apart from the aforementioned ten precepts [shi xundao, 十训道], the disciples of the Immortal Master can also draw talismans [fu, 符] to exorcise evil spirits from residences. At the same time, they can practice a boxing method to protect oneself in case of emergency.
At that time, more than 40 people were attracted to join. They worshiped the Immortal Master Yellow Elder and were diligent in practicing the dharma and martial arts. Later, the number of disciples increased. After the Immortal Master made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. After the Immortal Master Yellow Elder made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. And after they went before him and asked for instructions, he ordered that the first temple be built in Malacca. Because Malacca is a holy place of Buddhist temples, the sect spread throughout Malaysia and into Singapore (source).
This passage is interesting because it mixes Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist terminology. Examples include “dharma gate” and “right way”; the list of the ten precepts, which are similar to the Four Cardinal Principles and Eight Virtues; and the evil-warding talismans.
It still amazes me, though, that the Great Sage is given such a prominent position in the center when he’s not even the main focus of the sect.
1) The BOXS catalog explains that there’s actually some confusion between two similarity named deities in different versions of the trinity. One is the aforementioned Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) and the other is the Immortal Master Kingly Elder (Wang Lao xianshi, 王老仙師). This is because Huang (黃) and Wang (王) “are almost homophones” (RefNo. W6675 & W3015).
Chin, A. (2007). Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. United Kingdom: Yale University Press.
Sawyer, R. D., & Sawyer, M. (2007). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Werner, E. T. C. (1922). Myths & Legends of China. New York: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.
I’ve written many articles on the origins of the Monkey King’s staff over the years. Therefore, I’ve decided to combine all of the information in one location for the benefit of people wishing to learn more about the weapon and its history. This will no doubt be interesting to fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592; JTTW hereafter), as well as those of modern franchises like Dragon Ball and Lego Monkie Kid (fig. 1). Citations can be found in the articles linked below.
Fig. 1 – The Lego Monkie Kid character “MK” wielding the Monkey King’s magic staff (larger version). Copyright Lego.
1. The Literary Weapon
1.1. Staff Background
The staff first appears in chapter three of the original novel when the Monkey King goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional weapons offered to him fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun Wukong “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The weapon is said to be a “divine treasure iron” originally used to set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe ding di de shenzhen tie, 天河定底的神珍鐵) by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythic Chinese emperor and demigod.
The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron or bin steel more than 20 feet in height and as wide as a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun notices that the weapon is decorated with a golden ring on each end, as well as an inscription along the body reading: “The ‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff is immensely heavy, weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg).
Apart from the above information, a poem in chapter 75 (see section 2.3 here) highlights another name, “Rod of Numinous Yang” (Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒). In addition, the poem describes the staff being covered in “tracks of planets and stars” (i.e. astronomical charts) and esoteric “dragon and phoenix scripts” (longwen yu fengzhuan, 龍紋與鳳篆).
The novel provides two contradictory origins for the staff. The chapter 75 poem notes that it “[w]as forged in the stove by Laozi himself”. Laozi is of course the high god of Daoism. Chapter 88 instead states that it was “forged at Creation’s dawn / By Yu the Great himself, the god-man of old”.
Contrary to popular images of the Monkey King holding a regular-sized staff, his literary counterpart wields a massive weapon in battle. It is said to be 20 feet long (likely an error for 12),  with the width of a bowl (erzhang changduan, wankou cuxi, 二丈長短，碗口粗細) (fig. 2). I did a cursory search of bowls during the Ming (when the standard edition of JTTW was published) and found that they have a radius of between 4 to 6 inches (10.16 to 15.25 cm).
Size manipulation – This is the weapon’s most well-known ability, growing as big or as small as Monkey wishes.
Controlling the oceans – The aforementioned poem from chapter 88 writes: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. / Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas…”
Astral entanglement – Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in Hell despite the physical weapon being with his body in the world of the living.
Multiplication – He can multiply his staff in the hundreds of thousands.
Lock-Picking – He can open any door just by pointing it at the lock.
Transformation – He can change it into tools like a straight razor or a drill.
Sentience – The weapon glows in anticipation of Monkey’s arrival (fig. 3), responds to his touch, and follows his commands, denoting a certain level of sentience.
The staff found in the standard Ming edition of JTTW is actually based on two weapons from a 17-chapter storytelling prompt called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procured the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century). Sun Wukong’s precursor, an ageless immortal called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), magically transports Tripitaka and his entourage to heaven. There, the supreme god, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王; i.e. Vaiśravana), gives the monk a cap of invisibility, a khakkhara (ringed monk’s staff) (fig. 4), and a begging bowl. Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim take turns using these items throughout the journey. The staff is shown capable of shooting destructive beams of light, as well as transforming into magical creatures like an iron dragon or a giant, club-wielding Yaksha. Later, the Monkey Pilgrim also borrows an iron staff from heaven to fight a dragon.
The two staves from this tale were eventually combined by later storytellers. The rings from the first weapon were added to the ends of the second.
Fig. 4 – A beautiful, modern monk’s staff with six rings (larger version).
2.2. Influence from Religion
The Monkey Pilgrim’s magic ringed staff and begging bowl were directly influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the historical Buddha. One particular 9th to 10th-century story notes that the Saint uses the staff to unlock the gates of hell in order to save his mother (fig. 5). This is where Sun Wukong’s weapon from JTTW gets the power to open locks.
Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.
The ringed and metal staves used by the Monkey Pilgrim are based on those historically carried by Buddhist monks in ancient China. The aforementioned ringed variety, called “tin staves” (xizhang, 錫杖) where used by religious monks and decorated with six to twelve metal rings (see fig. 4). These rings were designed to make a clanging noise to not only scare away animals on the road but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence.
Martial monks charged with protecting monasteries or deployed by the Chinese government against pirates wielded wooden or iron staves (fig. 6). The former were chosen for their diminished capacity for fatal injuries, while the latter were explicitly used for killing during times of war. Sun Wukong wielding the iron variety makes sense as he’s a martial monk charged with protecting Tripitaka from monsters and spirits.
Fig. 6 – A martial monk practicing a drunken staff-fighting form (larger version).
The term “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) from Monkey’s staff (mentioned above) is connected with a scepter used in ancient China as a symbol of religious debate and authority and, to a lesser extent, as a weapon. While it can be traced to a Hindo-Buddhist tradition in India, the scepter came to be associated with the highest gods of Daoism thanks to being decorated with a “numinous mushroom” (lingzhi, 靈芝), a real world fungi believed to bestow immortality. This mushroom scepter was at some point associated with the Buddhist Cintamani (Ruyi zhu, 如意珠), or “As-you-will jewel”. This was believed to grant any wish that one might desire. This explains why Monkey’s As-you-will staff grows or shrinks according to his commands. It’s interesting to note that some religious images of the scepter depict it with a syncretic mix of the Daoist mushroom and the Buddhist jewel (fig. 7).
The weapon’s portrayal in JTTW as an iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom comes from old stories about the immortal Xu Xun (許遜), a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province. Popular tales describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century version titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace Drives Away Evil” (Jingyang gong tieshu zhenyao, 旌陽宮鐵樹鎮妖) describes how he chained the flood dragon patriarch to an iron tree (tieshu, 鐵樹) and submerged it in a well, thus preventing the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm and causing trouble. Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 8). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.
Fig. 8 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting the immortal Xu overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement the well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version).
As previously noted, the staff weighs 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg). This is likely based on an episode from chapter 27 of the Chinese novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block said to weigh 300 to 500 catties (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg) (fig. 9). This scene and the one from JTTW where Monkey lifts the iron pillar are quite similar. Both involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. And given the close historical and cultural ties between the two heroes, I believe the author-compiler of JTTW embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.
1) Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog has suggested that the length is likely an error for 12 feet (zhanger, 丈二) since the staff was already near 20 feet when Monkey first acquired it, and he later asked it to shrink to a more manageable size.
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 (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). Those interested in a broader discussion on the influences of Dragon Ball should consult the work of Derek Padula.
Goku’s proficiency in boxing (fig. 3) 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.
Goku’s Ozaro (大猿) form, or his ability to change into a titanic “great ape” during a full moon (fig. 5), 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.
While I don’t have confirmation from Toriyama, Goku’s “Instant Transmission” skill (fig. 6) 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.
The antagonist Broly (fig. 9) 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.
The senzu (仙豆, “immortal bean”) (fig. 10) 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.
I first became interested in Journey to the West thanks to Dragon Ball Z. The series is obviously named after the seven glass-like orbs (fig. 12) created by the Namekian-turned-protector deity Kami for the benefit of mankind. When all seven are collected, they summon the dragon god Shenron, who grants a single wish. One common wish is to resurrect a beloved fighter who had previously been killed in battle.
But what would the Dragon Balls be like if they appeared in the Journey to the West universe? There are two possibilities. The first is the most obvious, the Cintāmaṇi (Sk: “wish-fulfilling jewel”; Ch: ruyi baozhu, 如意寶珠, lit: “as-you-will treasure jewel”). Also known as “dragon jewels” (longzhu, 龍珠), these luminous orbs are commonly held by Bodhisattvas in Buddhist art (fig. 13), thereby signifying their ability to grant any wish that a believer desires. They are also mentioned in Buddhist scripture. For instance, the Treatise of the Great Perfection of Wisdom (Sk: Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra; Ch: Da zhidu lun, 大智度論, c. 2nd-century) reveals that the Cintāmaṇi is a bodily relic found in the brains of dragon kings (longzhu chu longnao zhong, 龍珠出龍腦中) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 193). Therefore, we would be able to maintain the connection to dragons in Journey to the West.
(If we view Dragon Ball Z under the light of this new information, a creepy implication is that Kami killed seven dragon kings in order to create his set of dragon balls.)
In East Asia, the Cintāmaṇi is closely associated with our second possibility, the Śarīra (Sk: “body”; Ch: Sushe/zi, 舍利/子) (fig. 14). These pearl-like beads figure among the bodily relics left over from the historical Buddha’s cremation.  Strong (2004) explains: “[They are the result] of a process of metamorphosis brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).
They are said to come in different colors and sizes depending on the country and religious tradition (Strong, 2004, p. 11).
Journey to the West could have one or even both of these bodily relics. For example, the Cintāmaṇi would allow demon kings or lesser spirits to wish for powerful heavenly weapons, thereby helping them fight stronger opponents; or, the Śarīra could grant the devils more spiritual power, thereby allowing them to bypass centuries of spiritual cultivation.
But neither of these items could help evil beings achieve immortality. I’ve previously noted that Journey to the West was heavily influenced by the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of the Southern Quanzhen School Patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid to late-980s-1082). He believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (Shao, 1997; 2006). The first extends your life, while the second frees you from the endless rounds of rebirth. While the aforementioned spiritual objects may grant them divine longevity, it won’t make them unkillable. And if they are killed, they would still be subject to the wheel of reincarnation. It would be up to them to achieve the last step in this two-step process. But that would require these spirits to mend their evil ways and “return to the right path” (gui zheng, 歸正)—i.e. convert to Buddhism.
It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:
Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). 
As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement above that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (emphasis added) … whose body they re-present” (p. 12).
1) There are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (Strong, 2004, p. 8).
2) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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.
The 2018 film Monkey King 3 (Xiyouji: Nu er guo, 西遊記·女兒國; lit: “Journey to the West: Woman Kingdom”) sees the pilgrims enter a magic portal to discover a hidden land peopled entirely by women. At one point, Tripitaka jumps into a river to retrieve the scattered words of a sentient piece of paper with information revealing how they can escape this female land; and in Sha Wujing’s attempt to save him, both inadvertently swallow water. The resulting splashes also enter the mouth of Zhu Bajie sleeping nearby. Sometime later, all three pilgrims discover that they are pregnant due to drinking from the river (fig. 1-3). The queen of the Woman Kingdom sends Sun Wukong to retrieve magic water to abort the births from a cross-dressing immortal. However, upon his return, Monkey learns that they have decided to keep their babies. Despite this, he uses fixing magic to freeze them in place and gives them the water so that nothing will keep the pilgrims from their quest.
This event from the movie is a very loose adaptation of chapter 53 of Journey to the West (1592). In this article, I describe the chapter and suggest that it is based on a story from Hindu religious literature in which an ancient king becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. I will show that the version appearing in the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE) likely influenced Journey to the West as other events from the Hindu epic appear in the Chinese novel. I will also show that an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas (books) discovered in Xinjiang, China names the parva containing the king’s story, suggesting the tale may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.
Fig. 1 – The Monkey King 3 movie poster showing a pregnant Tripitaka and the Woman Kingdom queen (larger version). Fig. 2 – The Zhu Bajie variant (larger version). Fig. 3 – The (beardless) Sha Wujing variant (larger version).
1. Episode from the novel
After the defeat of the Rhinoceros demon, the pilgrims continue their journey to the west by taking a river ferry. Upon reaching the other side, Tripitaka takes note of the clear water and asks Zhu Bajie to fetch him a bowl full. Both drink from the river, but a short time later they experience horrible abdominal pain and their stomachs swell as if something was growing inside. They seek help from an old woman at a nearby inn, but she simply laughs and calls her friends to come see the spectacle. Her jovial attitude changes, however, once an enraged Wukong grabs hold and offers to spare her life in exchange for some hot water to calm their stomachs. But she explains it won’t help, for they have drunk from the “Child-and-Mother River” (Zimu he,子母河) in the Woman Kingdom of Western Liang (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國), where the sole female inhabitants, according to custom, drink the water to become pregnant upon reaching their 20th year. After hearing the news, both Tripitaka and Bajie panic. Monkey and Sha Wujing take the opportunity to tease Bajie, frightening him with the possibility of a painful, unnatural birth or some natal sickness that would threaten the baby.  When asked for a cure, the old woman reveals that the only way to end the pregnancy is to bribe the True Immortal Compliant (Ruyi zhen xian, 如意真仙) (fig. 4), who lords over the Abortion Spring (Luo tai quan, 落胎泉) in the Abbey of Immortal Assembly (Ju xian an, 聚仙庵), formerly known as the Child Destruction Cave (Po er dong, 破兒洞), on the Male-Undoing Mountain (Jie yang shan, 解陽山). Wukong travels to the mountain but is forced to fight when the immortal, the Bull Demon King’s brother, attacks him to avenge Red Boy’s subjugation by Guanyin. Though weaker than Monkey, the immortal’s weapon, an “As-you-wish” golden hook (Ruyi jin gouzi, 如意金鉤子), proves hard to ward off while trying to retrieve the needed water. Wukong ultimately resorts to trickery by luring his foe into battle while Wujing obtains the water. In the end, the immortal is defeated but shown mercy, and the unwanted pregnancies are aborted, being dissolved and passed as fleshy lumps in bowel movements (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 31-46). 
Fig. 4 – A drawing of the True Immortal Compliant holding his golden hook as he sits next to a well marked “Abortion Spring” (larger version). Artist unknown. The weapon is here depicted as a hooked sword. Bribes of silk, livestock, and alcohol can be seen at the immortal’s feet.
2.1. Hindu religious literature
This episode shares similarities with a story about the ancient Indian King Yuvanasva (a.k.a. Yuvanashva/Yuvanaswa) (fig. 5) who becomes pregnant from drinking ritual water. The tale is well known, appearing in Hindu religious texts like the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE), the Vishnu Purana (400 BCE to 900 CE) and the Bhagavata Purana (8th to 10th-c. CE).  The version appearing in the Vana Parva (3rd book) of the Mahabharata reads:
Lomasa said, ‘Hear with attention, O king! how the name of Mandhata belonging to that monarch of mighty soul hath come to be celebrated throughout all the worlds. Yuvanaswa, the ruler of the earth, was sprung from Ikshvaku‘s race. That protector of the earth performed many sacrificial rites noted for magnificent gifts. And the most excellent of all virtuous men performed a thousand times the ceremony of sacrificing a horse. And he also performed other sacrifices of the highest order, wherein he made abundant gifts. But that saintly king had no son. And he of mighty soul and rigid vows made over to his ministers the duties of the state, and became a constant resident of the woods. And he of cultured soul devoted himself to the pursuits enjoined in the sacred writ. And once upon a time, that protector of men, O king! had observed a fast. And he was suffering from the pangs of hunger and his inner soul seemed parched with thirst. And (in this state) he entered the hermitage of Bhrigu. On that very night, O king of kings! the great saint who was the delight of Bhrigu’s race, had officiated in a religious ceremony, with the object that a son might be born to Saudyumni [“Son of Sudyumna”, i.e. Yuvanasva]. O king of kings! at the spot stood a large jar filled with water, consecrated with the recitation of sacred hymns, and which had been previously deposited there. And the water was endued with the virtue that the wife of Saudyumni would by drinking the same, bring forth a god-like son. Those mighty saints had deposited the jar on the altar and had gone to sleep, having been fatigued by keeping up the night. And as Saudyumni passed them by, his palate was dry, and he was suffering greatly from thirst. And the king was very much in need of water to drink. And he entered that hermitage and asked for drink. And becoming fatigued, he cried in feeble voice, proceeding from a parched throat, which resembled the weak inarticulate utterance of a bird. And his voice reached nobody’s ears. Then the king beheld the jar filled with water. And he quickly ran towards it, and having drunk the water, put the jar down. And as the water was cool, and as the king had been suffering greatly from thirst, the draught of water relieved the sagacious monarch and appeased his thirst. Then those saints together with him of ascetic wealth, awoke from sleep; and all of them observed that the water of the jar had gone. Thereupon they met together and began to enquire as to who might have done it. Then Yuvanaswa truthfully admitted that it was his act. Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee. Having performed severe austerities, I infused the virtue of my religious acts in this water, that a son might be born to thee. O saintly king of mighty valour and physical strength! A son would have been born to thee of exceeding strength and valour, and strengthened by austerities, and who would have sent by his bravery even Indra to the abode of the god of death. It was in this manner, O king! that this water had been prepared by me. By drinking this water, O king, thou hast done what was not at all right. But it is impossible now for us to turn back the accident which hath happened. Surely what thou hast done must have been the fiat of Fate. Since thou, O great king, being a thirst hast drunk water prepared with sacred hymns, and filled with the virtue of my religious labours, thou must bring forth out of thy own body a son of the character described above. To that end we shall perform a sacrifice for thee, of wonderful effect so that, valorous as thou art, thou wilt bring forth a son equal to Indra. Nor with thou experience any trouble on account of the labour pains.’ Then when one hundred years had passed away, a son shining as the sun pierced the left side of the king endowed with a mighty soul, and came forth. And the son was possessed of mighty strength. Nor did Yuvanaswa die—which itself was strange. Then Indra of mighty strength came to pay him a visit. And the deities enquired of the great Indra, ‘What is to be sucked by this boy?’ Then Indra introduced his own forefinger into his mouth. And when the wielder of the thunderbolt said, ‘He will suck me,’ the dwellers of heaven together with Indra christened the boy Mandhata, (literally, Me he shall suck). Then the boy having tasted the forefinger extended by Indra, became possessed of mighty strength, and he grew thirteen cubits, O king. And O great king! the whole of sacred learning together with the holy science of arms, was acquired by that masterful boy, who gained all that knowledge by the simple and unassisted power of his thought. And all at once, the bow celebrated under the name of Ajagava and a number of shafts made of horn, together with an impenetrable coat of mail, came to his possession on the very same day, O scion of Bharata‘s race! And he was placed on the throne by Indra himself and he conquered the three worlds in a righteous way; as Vishnu did by his three strides (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384).
Both events involve men who quench their thirst with water, not realizing that it has the magic power to bestow pregnancy. Tripitaka and Bajie drink from a river which is specifically used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce, while King Yuvanasva drinks ritual water meant to give his wife a son. Additionally, both books state drinking the water is inappropriate, followed by a description of its child-bestowing properties. Journey to the West reads: “That water your master drank is not the best, for the river is called Child-and-Mother River … Only after reaching her twentieth year would someone from this region dare go and drink that river’s water, for she would feel the pain of conception soon after she took a drink” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 39). The Mahabharata reads: “Then the revered son of Bhrigu spoke unto him, saying. ‘It was not proper. This water had an occult virtue infused into it, and had been placed there with the object that a son might be born to thee’” (Roy, 1884, pp. 382-384).
Fig. 5 – King Yuvanasva (center) holding the vessel of ritual water. From the cover of The Pregnant King (2008) by Devdutt Pattanaik (larger version). The book is a reimagining of the king’s story.
2.2. Mahabharata elements in Journey to the West
The possibility of King Yuvanasva’s story influencing Journey to the West is quite high as other events from the Mahabharata are known to appear in the novel. For example, Subbaraman (2002) reveals striking similarities between an event from the Adi Parva (1st book) and chapters 47 to 48 of the Chinese classic. In the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers and their mother Kunti escape assassination and disguise themselves as Brahmins (Hindu priests) traveling the road. They eventually seek shelter in a village plagued by the rakshasaBaka, who offers safety from foreign invaders in exchange for rice, livestock, and a human sacrifice. Those who try to defy this fate risk seeing their entire family eaten along with themselves. The Brahmin home in which the Pandavas stay has been chosen for that year’s sacrifice. Kunti instead sends her son Bhima, the most powerful of the brothers, in place of the householder’s son and daughter. In the end, the warrior kills Baka with his mighty strength. In Journey to the West, the pilgrims (Buddhist monks) stop for lodging in a village afflicted by the demon Great King of Miraculous Power (Ling gan dawang, 靈感大王), who sends clouds and rain in exchange for offerings of livestock and sacrifices of virgin boys and girls. It is impossible to defy this fate as he has memorized the personal details for every inhabitant. The Buddhist home in which the group stays has been chosen for the sacrifice. Wukong and Bajie instead take the place of the respective son and daughter (fig. 6). In the end, the Great King is defeated with the help of Guanyin (Subbaraman, 2002, pp. 11-18).
Furthermore, my own research shows that the tale of Garuda from the Mahabharata influenced the Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), an ancient demon king and spiritual uncle of the Buddha appearing in chapters 74 to 77 of Journey to the West.
Interestingly, the earliest known list of Mahabharata parvas and sub-parvas was discovered in Kizil in what is now Xinjiang, China. This list appears in the Spitzer Manuscript (c. 200-300 CE), a Hindo-Buddhist philosophical palm-leaf manuscript written in Sanskrit. Schlingloff (1969) compares the list with the known books of the completed epic (fig. 7 and 8), noting the absence of some parvas, which indicates that the Mahabharata was still in a state of development at the time the list was compiled. But it’s important to note that the Vana Parva (a.k.a. Aranya Parva/Aranyaka Parva), the book containing the story of King Yuvanasva, is named in the manuscript (Schlingloff, 1969, p. 336). This suggests the story of the monarch’s water-induced pregnancy may have been present in China centuries prior to Journey to the West.
Fig. 7 – Part 1 of a diagram comparing the 100 sub-parvas and 18 parvas of the completed Mahabharata and the Spitzer Manuscript list (larger version). Take note of the highlighted words showing the inclusion of Vana Parva, here called “Aranyakam”. Fig. 8 – Part 2 of the diagram (larger version). From Schlingloff, 1969, pp. 336-337.
Chapter 53 tells how Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant after drinking river water used by the inhabitants of the Woman Kingdom to reproduce. This is similar to a story from Hindu religious literature in which King Yuvanasva becomes pregnant after drinking ritual water meant for his wife. Journey to the West is known to include story elements from the Mahabharata, which means the version of the monarch’s tale from the Varna Parva (3rd book) likely influenced the Chinese novel. The Varna Parva is named in an early Gupta period list of Mahabharata parvas discovered in what is now Xinjiang, China. This suggests the story may have been present in the Middle Kingdom centuries prior to Journey to the West.
1) For example, Wukong tells Bajie: “When the time comes, you may have a gaping hole at your armpit and the baby will crawl out” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, p. 35). This likely references ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, just like Yu the Great and the historical Buddha.
2) I have slightly modified the translation of names in Wu and Yu (2012).
3) See here for the version appearing in the Vishnu Purana. See here for the Bhagavata Purana.
Roy, P. C. (1884). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Translated Into English Prose: Vana Parva. Calcutta: Bharata Press.
Schlingloff, D. (1969). The Oldest Extant Parvan-List of the Mahābhārata. Journal of the American Oriental Society,89(2), 334-338. doi:10.2307/596517