Dragon Ball and Journey to the West

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

I. Son Goku

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


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

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


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


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


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


II. Other characters

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


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


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


III. Miscellaneous

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


Story Idea: The Reason for Sun Wukong’s Rebellion

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins. 

During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數). [1] It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:

The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).

They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)

Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).

Fig. 1 – The “72 Killer Deities” (Qi shi er Shashen, 七十二煞神) folk print from the Anne S. Goodrich Collection (larger version).

In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.


1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).


Doré, H., & Kennelly, M. (1916). Researches into Chinese superstitions: Vol. 3 – Superstitious practices. Shanghai: T’usewei Printing Press. Retrieved from https://ia800709.us.archive.org/2/items/researchesintoch03dor/researchesintoch03dor.pdf

Meulenbeld, M. (2019). Vernacular “Fiction” and Celestial Script: A Daoist Manual for the Use of Water Margin. Religions10(9), 518. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/rel10090518

Pas, J. F., & Leung, M. K. (1998). Historical Dictionary of Taoism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (1993). Outlaws of the Marsh. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

When was the Monkey King Born?

Last updated: 04/02/2021

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen herehere, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I was recently contacted by someone writing a Journey to the West fanfiction and asked when the Monkey King was born from stone. I have therefore decided to write an entry for those interested in the subject. I will start at the end of the novel and work my way backwards. The years presented are guesstimates and should not be taken as wholly accurate considering that the novel does not follow a strict historical timeline.

I should point out that this has nothing to do with his religious birthday, which is variously celebrated on the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 82), the twenty-third (Fuzhou) or twenty-fifth day (Putian) of the second lunar month in Fujian (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 288; Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example), and the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month (Taiwan) (see here).

Monkey’s birth from stone (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West (1950).

Chapter 100

Upon the pilgrims’ return to China from India, Tang Emperor Taizong tells Tripitaka: “We have caused you the trouble of taking a long journey. This is now the twenty-seventh year of the Zhenguan period!” (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, p. 374). It should be noted that this era historically lasted from 627 to 650 CE (Zhang, 2015, p. 49). So the novel dates their return to 654 CE, adding four fictional years to the reign period.

The historical Xuanzang returned in 645 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

Chapter 13/14

In chapter fourteen, Tripitaka releases Sun Wukong from under the Mountain of Two Frontiers (a.k.a. Five Elements Mountain) a short time after leaving the confines of the Chinese empire. But prior to taking Monkey as a disciple, he is briefly guarded by the hunter Liu Boqin on his trek westward. Liu tells Tripitaka the history of the area during their journey across the mountain: “A few years ago, I heard from my elders that during the time when Wang Mang usurped the throne of the Han emperor, this mountain fell from Heaven with a divine monkey clamped beneath it” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 306). [1] The former Han official Wang Mang historically ruled from 9 BCE–23 CE (Bielenstein, 1986). I will return to this point below.

Chapter thirteen states Tripitaka leaves from Chang’an “on the third day before the fifteenth of the ninth month in the thirteenth year of the period Zhenguan” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 293). This dates his departure to the year 640 CE.

The historical Xuanzang left China in 627 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

Chapter 7/8

In the beginning of chapter eight, the Buddha says: “We do not know how much time has passed here since I subdued the wily monkey and pacified Heaven, but I suppose at least half a millennium has gone by in the worldly realm…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 203). But as noted above, Wukong is imprisoned during the reign of Wang Mang (r. 9 BCE–23 CE). Therefore, if he is discovered in 640 CE, this means Monkey’s imprisonment lasts anywhere from 617 to 649 years and not 500 as is commonly thought.

Prior to his wager with the Buddha in chapter seven, Wukong is placed into Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. The novel reads: “Truly time passed swiftly, and the forty-ninth day arrived imperceptibly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative previously revealed that “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). So this means his turn in the furnace lasts close to fifty years, starting between 40–26 BCE.

Chapter 5

Following Monkey’s initial rebellion and being granted the empty title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, he is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves. He later flees back to earth after eating the life-prolonging fruits and wreaking havoc on the Queen Mother’s peach banquet. Upon his return, his commanders ask him: “The Great Sage has been living for over a century in Heaven. May we ask what appointment he actually received?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 166) (emphasis mine). [2] This dates his ascension to heaven somewhere below the range of 140–126 BCE (150–136 BCE?). I Obviously can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Chapter 3/4

After Wukong bullies the Eastern Dragon King and the Judges of Hell, Heaven appoints him the “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” in order to keep his unruly adventures in check. But upon learning that his position is the lowest in heaven, he returns home in rebellion. His children ask, “Having gone to the region above for more than ten years, you must be returning in success and glory” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150) (emphasis mine). [3] This dates his first ascension somewhere below the range 150–136 BCE (160–146 BCE?). Again, I can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Shotaro_Honda_1939 - Hell (small)
Monkey strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death in Hell (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

During his time in Hell, Monkey calls for the ledger containing his information. Under a heading marked “Soul 1350”, Wukong reads, “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140). [4] If we use 160–146 BCE as a conservative estimate for his first ascension, then this dates his birth to somewhere between 502–488 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE). I think 500 BCE is a nice round number.

This means that Sun Wukong is roughly 1,100-years-old when he attains Buddhahood at the end of the novel.

Update: 07/08/2020

The novel suggests a two hour window for the time of Wukong’s birth. This takes place in chapter 61 when Monkey is preparing to battle the Bull Demon King over the palm-leaf fan. Our hero recites an emboldening poem, to which Zhu Bajie replies:

Yes! Yes! Yes!
Go! Go! Go!
Who cares if the Bull King says yes or no!
Wood’s born at Boar,
the hog’s its proper mate,
Who’ll lead back the Bull to return to earth.
Monkey is the metal born under shen [申]:
Peaceful and docile, how harmonious!
Use the palm-leaf
As water’s sign.
When flames are extinct, Completion’s attained.
In hard work we persist both night and day
And rush, merit done, to Ullambana Feast (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 154). (emphasis mine)

The monkey is one of twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, each corresponding to an earthly branch, an elemental phase, and a time period. The monkey is born under the shen (申) branch, which is associated with metal and the hours 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM.

Update: 04/02/2021

As I explain in this article, Wukong learns the 72 transformations in order to escape a trio of heaven-sent punishments scheduled to kill him for defying his fate and achieving immortality. The calamities of thunder, fire, and wind respectively come every 500 years (after the initial attainment of eternal life) to kill Daoist cultivators. Monkey becomes an immortal around his 342nd year when his soul is taken to Hell. He is immortal for over 160 years [5] at the time he’s imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. This means his 500th year of immortality, the year that the calamity of thunder would be scheduled to strike him, takes place during his imprisonment under the celestial mountain. But this is never described in the story. I assume this is just one of many inconsistencies born from oral storytelling. Although, one could argue that, within the fictional universe, the thunder calamity was voided since Wukong was undergoing punishment at the behest of the Buddha.


1) I am indebted to Irwen Wong for bringing this passage to my attention.

2) Wukong, however, questions this estimate, saying: “I recall that it’s been but half a year…How can you talk of a century?’” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 167). But, earlier in the novel, a wise member of Monkey’s tribe points out that one’s view of time is skewed while inhabiting the celestial realm: “You are not aware of time and seasons when you are in Heaven” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). Add to this the established fact that one heavenly day equals one solar year. Therefore, the Great Sage’s recollection of the passage of time is unreliable.

3) Monkey also questions this estimate: “I have been away for only half a month…How can it be more than ten years” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). But, again, his recollections are not reliable. See note #2.

4) These include three years as Subodhi’s student (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 121), seven as a junior monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117), and “more than ten years” searching the world for a master (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).

5) As previously mentioned, Wukong serves in heaven twice: first “for more than ten years” and second “for over a century” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 166). Then he is punished to 49 heavenly days/49 solar years in Laozi’s furnace (see above).


Bielenstein, H. (1986). Wang Mang, the Restoration of the Han Dynasty, and Later Han. In D. Twitchett and M. Loewe (Ed.). The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220 (pp. 223-290). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual Alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A Survey of Village Temples and Ritual Activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social Life of the Chinese: With Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions. With Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau (vol. 1 and 2). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

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

Zhang, Q. (2015). An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Belgium: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Archive #16 – Sun Wukong and Chinese Medicine

In my previous article, I noted medicine was among the skills acquired by Monkey while training under the Buddho-Daoist sage, Master Subodhi. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long-standing malady of the Scarlet-Purple Kingdom emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, Sun is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. He deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a secret recipe and administers the elixir with dragon king saliva. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowels, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.

Monkey analyzes the Emperor's Pulse (from Mr. Li Zhouwu's Lit. Criticism) - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey uses golden threads to analyze the emperor’s pulse (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

I. Analyzing the pulse

We were telling you about the Great Sage Sun, who went with the palace attendant to the interior division of the royal palace. He stood still only after he had reached the door of the royal bedchamber. Then he told the attendant to take the three golden threads inside along with the instruction: “Ask one of the palace ladies or eunuchs to tie these three threads to the inch, the pass, and the foot sections of His Majesty’s left hand where the radial pulse are felt. Then pass the other ends of the threads out to me through the window shutters” [fig. 1].

The attendant followed his instruction. The king was asked to sit up on the dragon bed, while the three sections of his pulse were tied by the golden threads, and their other ends were then passed out to Pilgrim. Using the thumb and the index finger of his right hand to pick up one of the threads, Pilgrim first examined the pulse of the inch section; next, he used his middle finger and his thumb to pick up the second thread and examine the pulse of the pass section; finally, he used the thumb and his fourth finger to pick up the third thread and examine the pulse of the foot section.

Thereafter Pilgrim made his own breathing regular and proceeded to determine which of the Four Heteropathic Pneumatics, the Five Stases, the Seven External Images of the Pulse, the Eight Internal Images of the Pulse, and the Nine Pulse Indications were present. [1] His pressure on the threads went from light to medium to heavy, and from heavy to medium to light, until he could clearly perceive whether the condition of the patient was repletion or depletion of energy and its cause. Then he made the request that the threads be untied from the king’s left wrist and be attached as before to the positions on his right wrist. Using now the fingers on his left hand, he then examined the pulse on the right wrist section by section. When he had completed his examination, he shook his body once and retrieved his hairs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 270).

Baring the strings, Monkey’s method of reading the pulse aligns with real Chinese medicinal practice. The area of the forearm analyzed by traditional Chinese doctors is known as Cunkou (寸口, the “inch opening”), and this is broken up into the three spots Cun (寸, “inch”), Guan (關, “pass”), and Chi (尺, “foot”) (fig. 2). The mirrored spots on each arm are believed to correspond to specific internal organs. For example, the Cun spot (nearest the wrist) on the right hand corresponds to the lung, while that of the left hand corresponds to the heart (Liao, 2011, pp. 55-56). Therefore, analyzing the pulse at these spots is believed to reveal the health of the corresponding organs.

TCM hand chart

Fig. 2 – The spots analyzed during pulse diagnosis. Picture originally found here.

II. The Elixir of Black Gold and its historical origins

Wukong selects his ingredients from among 808 requested substances in order to keep the recipe a secret from the foreign kingdom’s doctors. It is made from an ounce of powderizedahuang (大黃), which is said to “loosen phlegm and facilitate respiration [and] sweep out the chill and heat congealed in one’s stomach” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 273-274); an ounce of shelled, powerderized badou (巴豆), which is said to “break up congestion and drain the intestines [and] take care of swellings at the heart and dropsy in the abdomen (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); half a flask of “‘Hundred-Grass Frost” (baicao shuang, 百草霜), or frying pan soot, which is said to “soothe a hundred ailments” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); and half a flask of dragon (horse) urine, which is said to “cure any kind of disease a human may have when it is ingested” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274). The resulting paste is rolled into three pills and presented to the emperor as the “Elixir of Black Gold” (Wujin dan, 烏金丹) (video 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 276).

Video 1 – Episode 20 of the 1986 Journey to the West series portrays this story. See minute 19:19 for the preparation of the Elixir of Black Gold.

Andrew Schonebaum’s (2016) fascinating book Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China explains the historical significance of the real world ingredients used in this elixir. He introduces the first two ingredients to us by way of their anthropomorphization as Badou Dahuang, the ruler of the fictional Hujiao (胡椒, black pepper) kingdom from the vernacular novel Annals of Herbs and Trees (Caomu chunqiu yanyi, 草木春秋演義, c. 17th/18th-century), a work that gives human form to Chinese medicines, pitting armies of mortal, immortal, and demonic characters/remedies against one another. Badou is depicted as having the mandate of heaven (the right to rule) in his own country but wanting to invade the Han empire. This dual nature can be explained by the properties of the ingredients making up his name. Schonebaum (2016) writes:

[B]adou (croton) and dahuang (rhubarb), are two of the most common drugs in Chinese medicine. Badou is toxic and a strong purgative, and it was used to treat stagnation in the viscera and bowels, as well as to facilitate urination, eliminate malignant flesh, and purge vicious agents such as invading ghosts or worms. Dahuang is nontoxic and is sometimes referred to by the name “military general” because “the drug pushes away the old and brings in the new, like a military general putting down a riot and bringing peace” (pp. 99-100).

Regarding the “Elixir of Black Gold,” Schonebaum (2016) explains “black gold” was the name of a common prescription and that badou and dahuang were part of its core, while other ingredients could be replaced with those of similar properties:

One commentator had never heard of this medicine, saying that it had a strange name, but this only reveals his own highbrow background (or general ignorance), since “black gold” was the name of various prescriptions common among hereditary doctors. In fact, it was mentioned in the Systematic Materia Medica repeatedly, and Xu Dachun recommends it in Medical Cases of Huixi, so it was not exclusively the purview of nonelite healers.

“Black gold pills” (wujin wan) was a name and a concoction similar to “elixir surpassing [the value of] gold” (shengjin dan) and “black spirit pills” (heishen wan). All of them were core formulas that could be modified in their effects by ingesting them with different liquids. These “black gold” medicines, along with the likes of “the prescription offering Guanyin’s all-encompassing help” (Guanyin puji fang) and “pills prepared with old ink” (gumo wan), treated a wide variety of ailments (in one medical manuscript, twenty-nine, forty, and seventy-one ailments, respectively), and were extremely common formula in the Qing. The “black gold” formulas had at their core the drugs dahuang and badou. One medical manuscript from the Republican period states in its introduction, “Black gold powder [wujin san] cures all ailments, just as the wind bends the grasses. Other names [of this prescription] are ‘pine smoke elixir’ [songyan dan] and ‘black spirit pills’ [heishen wan]. It cures thousands of illnesses, just as the sun melts the frost.”

Black gold pills (wan), powder (san), paste (gao), and elixir (dan) were commonly employed to cure gynecological issues. A prescription named “black gold powder” was first recorded in the Song work A Spring of Recipes in the Magic Park (Lingyuan fangquan) and was followed by references in the Southern Song prescription collection “Complete Collection of Effective Prescriptions for Women” (Furen daquan liangfang, 1237), Formulas for Universal Benefit (Puji fang, 1390), and other works. Over the centuries, numerous formulas, each with different ingredients, became known under the names “black gold powder,” “black gold pills,” and “black gold elixir.” The three designations of this formula result from the use of pitch (mo), a vernacular name for which is the “black gold” of these prescriptions.

Monkey’s prescription reflects a historical reality, namely that the advent of the imperial pharmacy (huimin yaoju) in the Song required doctors who had previously relied on simple medicines with one or two ingredients to employ formulas with numerous substances whose composition followed theories of systematic correspondences. From this conflict between empirical and theory-based recipes arose a new type of prescription eventually consisting of a nuclear formula that could be adapted to the requirements of a given patient’s disease by omitting or adding individual constituents in accordance with his pathological condition. Monkey is preparing simple, trusted medicine at the core, namely badou and dahuang, and adding to it many exotic, unobtainable ingredients (pp. 103-104).

As noted above, black gold medicines were sometimes used to treat gynecological issues. This makes Monkey’s prescription all the more comical as he had partly attributed the foreign emperor’s ails to a “cessation of the menses” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 271), obviously a woman’s problem. Schonebaum (2016) comments: “To understand this aspect of the carnivalesque comedy, or to realize that it was a mistake in the incorporation of medical materials into the novel, readers would have had to be quite familiar with medicine, at least enough to know that the medicine Monkey is preparing is consistent with his diagnosis” (p. 104). 

III. Archive link

Chapter three of Novel Medicine (2016) is archived here.

Click to access novel-medicine-healing-literature-and-popular-knowledge-in-early-modern-china-chapter-3-contains-jttw-ch.-68-69-material.pdf


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


1) Anthony C. Yu provides explanations for these terms in the end notes of his wonderful translation. See Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 448-449, notes 3-7.


Liao, Y. (2011). Traditional Chinese medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schonebaum, A. (2016). Novel medicine: Healing, literature, and popular knowledge in early modern China. Seattle : University of Washington Press

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Volume 3. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subodhi:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.


Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).


Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subodhi observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 5). One passage from the tale reads: 

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Popular Culture

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subodhi teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.

VI. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subodhi. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.


1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Mair, V. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/25076127.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307