What Does Sun Wukong Look Like? A Resource for Artists and Cosplayers

Last updated: 02/02/2021

Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.

1. Ancient Depictions

Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century. [1] But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling, [2] records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains an 11th-century (Xixia dynasty) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2, 11th-c. - Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim praying to Guanyin - small

Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.

Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains an 11th to 12th-century wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).

Yulin Cave 3 full with detail for article - small

Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the 11th to 12th-century Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).

Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 11th-century. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.

A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河],
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.

I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).

The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted this size could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.

2. What the novel says

2.1. Physical appearance

The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subhuti, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].” [3] After he returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).

In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [the Rhesus macaque]” (fig. 6) (p. 148).

Male macaques during mating season (for What Does Sun Wukong Look Like article)

Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.

In chapter 20, the reader learns that Monkey’s head is bald (fig. 7). An old man asks him: “…why did you shave your hair to become a monk?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).

In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)

His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)

Baby baboon with goldedn fillet - small

Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).

Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).

In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:

A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing;
A round head and a hairy face jowl-less;
Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly;
He looks more strange than [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).

In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).

In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:

A hairy face, a thunder god beak,
An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s;
Two forked ears on a big, broad head,
And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:

“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

In chapter 77, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:

You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).

We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).

Macaque features and skinny body for article

Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.

2.2 Clothing and accessories

The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.

The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:

“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).

Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).

Armor pics

Fig. 10 – Ming chainmail from the Wubei zhi (1621) (larger version). Fig. 11 – A woodblock print of Sun wearing mountain pattern armor while fighting the heavenly army (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century, “Mr. Li’s Criticism” hereafter). Fig. 12 – A detail of halberd-bearing soldiers wearing mountain pattern armor and feather caps from The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (16th-century) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 13 – Monkey as portrayed in Beijing Opera (larger version). Photo by TAO Images Limited via Alamy. Fig. 14 – A 16th-century brass statue of Skanda (larger version). This blog has photos from all sides. Fig. 15 – A modern example of a Purple Gold Cap (larger version). 

Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:

Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)

Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One sixteenth-century woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).

Monkey escaping from Laozi's 8 trigrams furnace - from Mr. Li Zhuowu's Literary Criticism of Xiyouji, later 16th-early 17th-c. - small

Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late 16th-c.).

The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 17). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:

[Slit] the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece … He cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

Monkey King Kicking - small

Fig. 17 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.

Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 11th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 18). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 19). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 and Yulin Cave no. 3 - Heads

Fig. 18 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 19 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237) (larger version).

As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:

His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.

There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.

2.3. The staff

Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:

Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [hei tie, 黑鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,550 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). [4]

A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:

The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself. [5]
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍]
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒],
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)

So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.

Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 20 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.

sun_wukong_staff_inscription___enlarged_by_ghostexorcist-d7681eb - small

Fig. 20 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).

As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.

3. Popular depictions

The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.

3.1. The least accurate

1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 21). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.


Fig. 21 – “Do you even lift?” Wukong (larger version).

2) Warriors Orochi video game – Mutton chops, frosted tips, and an outfit borrowed from Prince’s wardrobe (fig. 22). Words fail me.


Fig. 22 – “Backup Dancer” Wukong (larger version).

3) The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) – Jet Li has a blond ponytail, mutton chops, and a soul patch (fig. 23). Need I say more?


Fig. 23 – “L’Oréal Paris” Wukong (larger version).

3.2. The most accurate

1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 20).

116.19L - small

Fig. 24 – Wukong salutes Xuanzang (larger version).

2) Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) – This dark comedy depicts the Great Sage as a short, ugly primate wearing golden armor (fig. 25).

Conquer monkey - small

Fig. 25 – Wukong prior to becoming Xuanzang’s disciple (larger version).

3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 26).

maxresdefault (1) - small

Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).

4. Conclusion

The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.

I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.

Update: 08/31/2018

My friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information (fig. 27). As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.

Fig. 27 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Slightly modified by the author to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here.

Update: 02/02/2021

As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact”. I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.

Fig. 28 – Size chart (larger version).


1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.

2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.

3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

4) Anthony Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “13,500 pounds”. However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty”. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs.

5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).


Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Dubue, C., Allen, W. L., Maestripieri, D., & Higham, J. P. (2014). Is Male Rhesus Macaque Red Color Ornamentation Attractive to Females? Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 68(7), 1-10. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262066733_Is_male_rhesus_macaque_red_color_ornamentation_attractive_to_females

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Elvin, M. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of how the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

“That Piece of Rare Magic Iron”: The Literary and Religious Origins of the Monkey King’s Staff

Last updated: 02/06/21

Sun Wukong (孫悟空) the Monkey King (fig. 1) is one of the most enduring characters of East Asian literature and folklore. Much ink has been spilled in the analysis of the novel in which he appears, the highly popular Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) (1592). For instance, Anthony C. Yu’s updated translation includes an almost 100 page introduction highlighting the historical background and religious and literary influences of the novel.[1] The origins of Monkey has also been discussed at great length.[2] However, no scholars have attempted to trace the origins of his magical iron staff, the most recognizable part of his iconography. In this paper, I propose that the weapon is an amalgam of ringed staves carried by religious monks and iron staves carried by martial monks. Both are featured in Chinese fiction and religious-inspired martial arts legends. My hope is that this information will be both useful to researchers and interesting to fans of Ol’ Monkey.

Fig. 1 – A 19th-century woodblock print of Sun Wukong and his staff (larger version).

1. Literary description

The staff first appears in the third chapter when Monkey 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 magic weapons—a scimitar, a fork, and a halberd weighing thousands of pounds each—fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims that the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The novel never explains how the pillar was made, only that it was originally used by Yu the Great (大禹), a semi-historical Chinese emperor, to measure the depths of the world flood during times immemorial.[3]

The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron twenty feet in height and the width of a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests that a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff comply with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun sees that the weapon is banded with a gold ring on each end, as well as the inscription along the body reading: “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: thirteen thousand five hundred catties” (如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤).[4] The inscription indicates that the staff follows the commands of its owner, shrinking or growing to their whim, and that it is immensely heavy, weighing 17,550 lbs.[5] One particular passage from the novel best summarizes the abilities of Monkey’s staff:

[Sun Wukong] held the treasure [the staff] in his hands and called out, “Smaller, smaller, smaller!” and at once it shrank to the size of a tiny embroidery needle, small enough to be hidden inside the ear. Awestruck, the monkeys cried, “Great King! Take it out and play with it some more.” The Monkey King took it out from his ear and placed it on his palm. “Bigger, bigger, bigger!” he shouted, and again it grew to the thickness of a barrel and more than twenty feet long. He became so delighted playing with it that he jumped onto the bridge and walked out of the cave. Grasping the treasure in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. He bent over and cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be ten thousand feet tall, with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The staff in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell. Tigers, leopards, wolves, and crawling creatures, all of the monsters of the mountain and the demon kings of the seventy-two caves, were so terrified that they kowtowed and paid homage to the Monkey King in fear and trembling. Presently he revoked his magical appearance and changed the treasure back into a tiny embroidery needle stored in his ear.[6]

Sun later uses this powerful weapon in his war against heaven when they don’t recognize him as a full-fledged god. He is so powerful that the Jade Emperor (Yuhuangdi, 玉皇帝) of heaven has to ask the Buddha to intervene. After being imprisoned beneath a mountain range for 500 years, Monkey is eventually released and takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. He is charged with the protection of the monk Xuanzang (玄奘) on a journey to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from India. He uses his staff to battle all sorts of monsters, spirits, and rogue gods along the way.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (khakkhara) (larger version). Originally found here.

1.1 Literary antecedent

The earliest depiction of the staff appears in the oldest edition of Journey to the WestThe Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the late Song Dynasty (960-1279).[7] In the second chapter, Sun takes Xuanzang to heaven to meet Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma Deva.[8] After the monk impresses the heavenly retinue with his lecture on the Lotus Sutra, Monkey is given a cap of invisibility, an alms bowl, and a golden ringed monk’s staff (khakkhara) (fig. 2) as magical weapons against the evils they will face on their journey to India. Sun later uses the staff in a battle with a white-clad woman who transforms into a tiger demon. He changes the staff into a titanic, red-haired, blue-skinned yaksha with a club, showing that the predecessor of the Compliant Rod has more magical abilities in comparison.[9]

A weapon that predicts the Compliant Rod is mentioned early on in The Story. Monkey describes how the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), a demon-like goddess originally worshiped in ancient China, had him flogged with an “iron cudgel” (tiebang, 鐵棒) for stealing ten peaches from her heavenly orchard. He later borrows the cudgel to use in tandem with the monk’s staff to punish nine dragons.[10] The golden rings (jinhuan, 金環) on the monk’s staff most likely influenced the golden hoops (jingu, 金箍) on the weapon from the Ming version.[11] Therefore, both staffs from the Song version were combined to create the Compliant Rod.

2. Origin

Many scholars believe that Sun Wukong was influenced by the monkey god Hanuman from the Indian epic the Ramayana (3rd-century BCE). The two have many textual similarities,[12] but weapons are not among them. Despite his traditional iconography, the Ramayana doesn’t mention Hanuman wielding a mace. His later association with this weapon may have been influenced by two sources. First, the novel portrays him as using his great strength to wield heavy objects, both natural and man-made, as blunt weapons.[13] Second, he was closely associated with yaksha demons in other great Hindu classics like the Mahabharata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE). Early Buddhist sutras mention yakshas wielding maces.[14] One such individual is the Yaksha King Kubera-turned-Buddhist deity Vaisravana, who later makes appearances in the The Story and Journey to the West.[15] The mace was a fixture of Hanuman’s iconography by at least the 12th-century since dynastic coins from this time feature him holding the weapon.[16] However, the association between the two surely took place well before this if the iconography was common enough to stamp on coins. Yet, I am not inclined to speculate that stories of his mace eventually made it to China. Monkey’s weapon may have just been influenced by Buddhist yakshas as well.

As previously mentioned, Sun becomes a Buddhist monk after being released from imprisonment. Meir Shahar explains that the staff was the emblem of the monk. It was a part of the eighteen items that Indian Buddhist monastic law required that they carry with them on the road.[17] In China, there were two different kinds of monks (with some overlap), the lesser known martial type charged with protecting the religious community (sangha) and the more widely known religious type living in cloisters and proselytizing on the road. Both groups carried different kinds of staves. The martial monks wielded the wooden or iron kind. The former was chosen for its diminished capacity to kill unlike edged weapons,[18] while the latter was used for killing during times of war.[19] The religious monks carried the aforementioned ringed kind.

Fig. 3 – The 1517 Shaolin stele featuring Vajrapani (larger version).

The martial monks of the Shaolin Monastery, for example, are famous for their skill with the staff. It’s interesting to note that they venerate the yaksha-turned-Buddhist protector deity Vajrapani as the progenitor of their staff method. A stele erected in 1517 tells the story of how the deity, disguised as a lowly kitchen worker, grew to titanic proportions and wielded a fire poker as a makeshift staff to defend the monastery against rebels during the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (fig. 3).[20] Buddhist iconography traditionally depicts Vajrapani wielding a mace in defense of the Buddha and his teachings (the dharma). [21] The Shaolin monks may have changed his mace to a staff because this was the blunt weapon with which they wielded in defense of the religious community and, by extension, the Buddha and his Word,[22] as well as in defense of China against rebels and foreign invaders. Shahar suggests that “martial deities such as Vajrapani exonerated the monks from their responsibility for the creation of military techniques.” He continues, “In this respect their legends could be read as Buddhist apologies for the monastic exercise of violence.”[23] Therefore, I suggest that Monkey’s iron staff from the The Story is based on the staves used by martial monks. After all, Sun is a Buddhist warrior just like the monks of Shaolin, and he uses his iron staff to meter out punishment and death just like Vajrapani and his mace.[24]

The ringed staves were known as “xi staves” (xizhang, 錫杖; Sk: khakkhara), which early medieval Chinese documents describe as being decorated with six to twelve metal rings. These rings were designed to make a clanging noise (xi, 錫) to not only scare away any poisonous animals on the road, but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence. Noted Buddhist personages and deities were often portrayed as having the same ringed staff and alms bowl given to Monkey in The Story.[25] For instance, a popular story circulating during the Song involves Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a close disciple of the Buddha, using the magic power of the aforementioned objects to free his deceased mother from the torments of the underworld.[26]

3. Conclusion

The Compliant Rod from Journey to the West is based on two staves from an earlier Song-era edition of the story. The first is a golden ringed monk’s staff given to Monkey by the deva Vaisravana (among other objects) as a magical weapon to protect the monk Xuanzang. The second is an iron staff procured by Monkey from the Queen Mother of the West in order to punish nine dragons. The former is based on ringed staves historically carried by religious monks while proselytizing on the road. The ringed staff is among the magic items used by Buddhist personages and deities in Song-era stories. The latter is based on wooden and iron staves historically used by martial monks to defend both the Buddhist community and China from rebels and foreign invaders. Martial monks, such as those from Shaolin, attributed their staff skills to mace-wielding yaksha demons-turned-Buddhist protector deities as way of excusing their use of violence. Likewise, Monkey’s use of violence is excused because he wields his staff in protection of his master Xuanzang. In the end, both staves were combined in the Ming version. The golden rings of the ringed staff were transposed onto the iron staff. The Compliant Rod therefore inhabits the worlds of heaven and hell, religion and combat, salvation and punishment.

The staff influenced the weapon used by the humanoid alien Son Goku (himself based on Sun Wukong),[27] the main character of the Dragon Ball franchise. It is named Nyoi Bo, the Japanese transliteration of Ruyi bang (如意棒, “Compliant Rod”), and is commonly called “Power Pole” in English language media.[28] The staff is given to him as a child by his grandfather Gohan, a human who adopts and teaches him martial arts.[29]

Update: 06/4/14

I was mistaken when I stated that the novel doesn’t explain how the staff was made. The 75th chapter has a long poem describing the history of the weapon. The first few lines read:

The rod of steel nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,”
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men

However, instead of reflecting the actual history of the staff (within the novel’s fictional universe), I think this is an example of how character’s boast about their weapons in a bid to “one-up” their opponents. It’s like saying, “My weapon is more prestigious than yours, so you have no chance of beating me.”

I wrote a sister blog to this entry a few days ago that describes additional influences of the staff. It can be read here:


Update: 12/30/14

I just posted the third and final installment of my investigation on the history of Monkey’s staff. It can be read here.


Update: 09/10/16

I noted in a previous entry (06-4-14) that a poem in the 75th chapter states the staff was created by Laozi in his oven. A later poem in the 88th chapter notes that it was made by Yu the Great:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,

Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.



[1] Wu Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1-96.
[2] See, for instance, Ibid, 8-15 and the sources therein.
[3] Yu the Great is believed to have ruled during the 22nd century BCE. The novel, however, does not follow a historical chronology. Yu is just portrayed as inhabiting a mystical time in the distant past.
[4] Wu and Yu, The Journey to the West, 135. Anthony Yu’s original translation uses the word “pounds.” However, Chinese versions of the novel use jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this.
[5] The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press, 2004), 491 n. 133).
[6] Meir Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), 93.
[7] This is also known as the “Kōzanji Version” (高山寺) because a 17th-century document mentioning the work was discovered in a Japanese temple of that name (Victor H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1181).
[8] These are actually two different deities, but the Chinese author of the tale seems to have confused them (Ibid, 1182 n. 4 and 1183 n. 6.)
[9] Dudbridge, The Hsi-Yu Chi, 32 and 35.
[10] Ibid, 37-38.
[11] Ibid, 38. For a comparison between the Chinese names of the Song and Ming weapons, see Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 107-108.
[12] These similarities include being monkey protagonists and having births associated with wind, episodes of upsetting cosmic order in their youths, and comparable powers of transformation and flight. Bits and pieces of the Ramayana arrived in China in the form of Buddhist sutras from the north via the Silk Road and word of mouth from Southeast Asian merchants via the southern sea route. It then mixed with indigenous Chinese stories concerning water spirits and ape demons to influence the creation of Sun Wukong. For more details, see Hera S. Walker, “Indigenous or Foreign? A Look at the Origins of the Monkey Hero Sun Wukong”, Sino-Platonic Papers 81 (September 1998): 1-110, accessed February 20, 2014, http://sino-platonic.org/complete/sp…sun_wukong.pdf.
[13] Philip Lutgendorf, Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 41 n. 9.
[14] Ibid, 41-42.
[15] He appears as the heavenly general Li Jing (李靖) in the Ming version.
[16] Ibid, 61.
[17] Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 102.
[18] Ibid, 101.
[19] Shahar mentions a Shaolin monk who used his iron staff to kill the wife of a rebel during the Ming dynasty (Ibid, 69).
[20] Ibid, 83-85.
[21] Ibid, 37. For a story of Vajrapani defending the Buddha, see Vessantara, Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities (Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998), 162.
[22] The Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma are known as the “Three Jewels of Buddhism.”
[23] Ibid, 91.
[24] For instance, one story tells how Vajrapani kills a Hindu deity in order to revive him as a Buddhist deity. This is connected to the concept of skill in means in which an evil being is killed in order to save them from karmic punishment in the next life (Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael K. Jerryson, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 55).
[25] Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 103.
[26] Dudbridge, The Hsy-Yu Chi, 32 n. 6. For a full version of the story, see Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 1093-1127.
[27] Mark I. West, The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 203.
[28] Brian Camp and Julie Davis Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces (Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2007), 112.
[29] Akira Toriyama and Gerard Jones, Dragon Ball (Vol. 2) (San Francisco, Calif: Viz LLC, 2003), 4.
[30] Wu and Yu, Journey to the West (Vol. 3), 375.
[31] Ibid (Vol. 4), 201.


Camp, Brian, and Julie Davis. Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces. Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

Dudbridge, Glen. The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970

Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press, 2004

Juergensmeyer, Mark, Margo Kitts, and Michael K. Jerryson. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Lutgendorf, Philip. Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994

Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.

Toriyama, Akira, and Gerard Jones. Dragon Ball (Vol. 2). San Francisco, Calif: Viz LLC, 2003.

Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998.

Walker, Hera S. “Indigenous or Foreign? A Look at the Origins of the Monkey Hero Sun Wukong.” Sino-Platonic Papers 81 (September 1998): 1-110. Accessed February 20, 2014. http://sino-platonic.org/complete/sp…sun_wukong.pdf.

West, Mark I. The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

Wu, Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012.