Archive #18 – Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018)


An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.

Book link


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


Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 02/06/21

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears 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. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

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

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example 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).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.


Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “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 miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.

Update: 12/28/19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the  108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.

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.


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

Mair, V. H. (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.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton 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

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras In V. Mair (Ed.), 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. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #9 – The Magic White Ape of the Tang Dynasty

The brief Tang-era tale “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong Baiyuan Zhuan, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-century) tells how the beautiful young wife of General Ouyang He (歐陽紇, 538–570) is kidnapped by a seemingly invisible force while he is engaged in conquering minority groups of the south lands. The general and his men scour the surrounding area for hundreds of miles before discovering a mountain where she and other women are being kept by a magic white ape (baiyuan, 白猿) (fig. 1). The captives caution that his soldiers are no match for the powerful primate, and so the ladies devise a plan to get him drunk and incapacitate him long enough for a killing blow to be dealt. With their help, the general manages to fall the beast with a well-placed sword strike below the navel, his only weak spot. Before dying, the ape reveals the general’s wife is pregnant and begs him not to kill the child. Ouyang subsequently returns to the north with his wife, the other women, and the monster’s priceless treasures. The tale ends with the birth of an unnamed son a year later.

White Ape and General's Wife - small

Fig. 1 – A modern drawing of the white ape and General Ouyang He’s wife by Japanese artist Natsuki Sumeragi (皇名月) (larger version). Original image found here. The silken ropes around his wrists refer to those intertwined with hemp and triple-tied to ensure that he can’t break free in the story. 

I. Historical background

Chen (1998) explains the original Biography of a White Ape story, purportedly supplemented by the above tale, [1] never existed. The Supplement is actually a standalone piece anonymously published to slander the historical scholar Ouyang Xun (歐陽詢, 557–641), who was known for his legendary monkey-like ugliness and almost supernatural intellect. The tale implies that he was the unnatural offspring of the general’s wife and the magic white ape (p. 76-79).

These mischievous simian spirits are known for kidnapping young maidens in tales from the Han to the Song (fig. 2). The mythical creature is based on the Gibbon (fig. 3), a small, long-armed, arboreal ape present in Asia (see Gulik, 1967).

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 2 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88. Fig. 3 – A woodblock print of a “white ape” or Gibbon from a Ming version of the Shanhai Jing (larger version).

II. Parallels with Sun Wukong

The story’s unnamed primate antagonist shares many surprising similarities with Sun Wukong. Both:

  1. Are supernatural primates possessed of human speech.
  2. Are one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts.
  3. Are masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance.
  4. Are warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army.
  5. Have a fondness for armed martial arts.
  6. Have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them.
  7. Have eyes that flash like lightning.
  8. Live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain).
  9. Reside in a caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).

The character and his home appear to be an early model for the Monkey King, his abilities, and Flower Fruit Mountain.

III. Translation

Chen (1998) provides a complete translation of the brief tale, along with an informative translator’s introduction. The following PDF was put together from smartphone photos as I don’t currently have access to a scanner.

IV. Analysis

Chen (2003/2004) followed up his translation with a detailed analysis of the story. The PDF was located freely on the internet.


These papers have been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


1) A supplement (bu, 補) is an addendum to an existing body of work, sort of like modern fan fiction. See, for example, A Supplement to the Journey to the West (1640).


Chen, J. (1998). A supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape. Renditions, 49, pp. 76-85.

Chen, J. (2003/2004). Revisiting the yingshe mode of representation in “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape”. Oriens Extremus, 44, pp. 155-178.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: Brill.

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Sun Wukong and Miao Folklore

Sun Wukong appears in a body of Buddhist folklore passed on by the Miao ethnic group of Sichuan, also known as the “River Miao” (Chuan Miao, 川苗) or “Old Miao” (Miao: Hmong Bo) (fig. 1). The particular tale is quite different from the popular narrative appearing in Journey to the West (1592). For example, the unnamed monkey tends to a dragon king’s injury and later escorts a Tang dynasty emperor to India.

A Monkey Went Fishing, or Securing Buddhist Sacred Books (97)

The monkey changed into a fisherman and daily went fishing (with a line and hook). He hooked the dragon’s upper lip. When he pulled, the fishhook broke off in the dragon’s upper lip. The dragon’s lip therefore pained him every day. Then every day the dragon king called on his soldiers to go and get a doctor and heal it, but they could not find a doctor.

The monkey daily went to the sand bank to look for his fishhook. One day when he was looking for it two of the dragon king’s soldiers came and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for medicine.” The two soldiers then said, “Old scholar, our old man’s upper lip pains him and he sent us to help him find a doctor. Can you heal him?” The monkey thought, “Probably he has been caught by my fishhook.” He then said, “I can heal it, but I must first look at the injury, then I will give the medicine.” Then the two soldiers invited him to come.

He said, “How can I go since there is so much water?” He had to go down into the water of the stream. The two men then said, “You may get under our fins and close your eyes, and do not open your eyes until we call you.” The monkey wanted to see the dragon, so he closed his two eyes. The two soldiers held him under their fins, and in a short time one of them called him, and he opened his eyes and looked.

When he opened his eyes he had already entered a fine palace. In a little while he heard the soldiers of the dragon king from both sides calling to the dragon king to come and have his wound looked at.

The monkey heard the inside gate resound, “Gu, ga.” He then saw the hands of a big man carrying the dragon king so that he could sit in the chair. Then they requested him to look at the wound. The monkey kowtowed just once to the dragon king and then looked. Then he took a pair of chop sticks and pushed aside the dragon king’s lips, and saw that the fishhook was hooked in the dragon king’s upper lip. Then he took the chopsticks and loosened the fishhook a little. He then asked the dragon king, “Is it any better?” The dragon king answered, “It is a little better.” Then the monkey sat down and rested a little. The dragon king said, “I am afraid that I will die from this illness.”

The monkey said, “You will not die from this sickness. You will certainly recover.” The dragon said, “If you are willing to heal me, I will give you whatever you want.” The monkey then used the chopsticks to push open the lips. Then he seized the fishhook with his chopsticks and with one jerk pulled out the fish book. The lip of the dragon king hurt no longer.

Then the dragon king called to his daughters to entertain the monkey fisherman. The monkey remained there several days. The dragon king was afraid that he [the monkey] was in a hurry and told his soldiers to give him some gold and silver. The monkey said, “I do not want gold and silver. I only want you to permit me to stay here a few days longer.” When the soldiers had reported this to the dragon king, he was glad to have him remain longer. He stayed several months.

One day he was visiting with the women in the palace. The monkey saw a yellow golden club. He then picked it up to play with. He struck with the golden club outside, and the club flew with him to the sea. Then he knew that this club was an ancient golden club. The dragon king did not pursue him.

The monkey lived until the Tang Dynasty, and the Tang Dynasty king wanted to go and get sacred books. But the king could not go himself because the demons and spooks were very numerous along the road. The Tang emperor then sent a messenger to call the monkey to him. The monkey said, “I cannot go. If anybody wants me to go, he must change likenesses with me, and then I will go.”

The Tang emperor himself returned, and for three years sought for a method. One day he came and said to the monkey, “Now I am able to change.” The monkey then requested the Tang emperor to change. The Tang emperor then changed into a big mountain, and the monkey went into the mountain. Then he was unable to come out again. The Tang emperor then said, “Now will you go with me?” The monkey then promised to go with him. Then the Tang emperor lifted aside the written character that had imprisoned him, and then the monkey came out. The monkey then went with the Tang emperor to the western horizon and brought back the sacred books. [79]


79) The Ch’uan Miao said that this is a story about a monkey of some repute, but they did not know his name. It is evidently the monkey god Sen Hou Tzu [Sun houzi, “the monkey Sun”] 孫猴子 or Sen Wu K’ung [Sun Wukong孫悟空 (Graham, 1954, p. 211).

I. Story influences

I suggest the first three-quarters of the Miao tale draws on the Asian variant of a widely known story cycle in which a fisherman is rewarded for releasing a magic fish (B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful, n.d.). This version sees the fisherman release a carp to later discover it was actually the transformed son of a dragon king. He is then rewarded with a magic treasure for his kindness. [1] This cycle is partially played out in another Miao legend in which a fisherman catches a fish, who turns out to be the daughter of the dragon king Ryuang Lan, and later marries her in human form (Graham, 1954, pp. 226-227). In our story, the monkey-turned-fisherman catches the dragon king and then frees him of the hook. He is subsequently rewarded with a prolonged stay in the dragon kingdom and thereafter retrieves the golden club, which is itself a magic treasure.

Miao couple (for Sun Wukong article) - small

Fig. 1 – A Miao couple (larger version). She is wearing traditional dress, while he wears that of the Chinese. From Graham, 1954, p. 125. Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong meets the dragon king Ao Guang (larger version). A screenshot from the classic Chinese animation Uproar in Heaven (1965).

Elements of the first three-quarters and all of the last quarter clearly borrow from Journey to the West. The monkey is presented as a shape-shifting immortal, for he changes into a fisherman and lives until the Tang dynasty. His aversion to water in the tale is a common trope throughout the novel, such as when Sun Wukong uses water-propelling magic or relies on others to fight water-based monsters. [2] The golden club is the Monkey King’s “As-you-will” gold-banded cudgel retrieved from the undersea dragon kingdom. This in turn identifies the dragon king as Ao Guang, the ruler of the Eastern Sea (fig. 2). The unnamed “Tang dynasty emperor”, Tang Taizong in Journey to the West, replaces the monk Tripitaka originally sent to retrieve holy scriptures. The monkey’s imprisonment inside the emperor-turned-mountain is based on Sun’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain in the novel, complete with a written amulet weighing the landmass down.

The monarch’s transformation into a mountain is particularly interesting to me, for I don’t recall ever reading any Asian folklore featuring such an event. I know of at least one instance of a hero in ancient European folklore being changed into a mountain as punishment (see fig. 5 in my article here). However, our tale presents the ruler’s transformation as a willing metamorphosis. The Miao consider mountains to be living beings, [3] having “heads, feet, hands, eyes, ears, hearts, breasts, veins, and arteries” (Graham, 1954, p. 9). Therefore, the mountain is a macrocosm of the human body, making the transformation one of degree and not kind. But this portion of the narrative remains a mystery to me as the original intended outcome was “switch[ing] likenesses.” I take this to mean that the monkey would look like the emperor and visa versa. Does this imply the primate was keen on usurping the throne and the monarch then used his transformation as a deterrent?

II. Monkey progenitors

The Monkey King’s inclusion in Miao folklore should come as no surprise since monkeys play an important role in their mythology. They believe humans are descended from a pair of monkeys who broke off their tails by accident and eventually evolved human features (Graham, 1954, p. 204). As explained in this article, having a monkey ancestor is a common belief among the various ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China. Sun Wukong also appears in the legends of the neighboring (and related) Qiang people of Sichuan.


1) One version appears in the Complete Tale of Guanyin of the Southern Seas (Nanhai Guanyin quanzhuan, 南海觀音全傳), a 16th-century pious novelette detailing Guanyin’s former life as the Princess Miaoshan. After achieving enlightenment, Miaoshan/Guanyin looks to take on disciples. One is a dragon princess (longnu, 龍女) who bestows the Bodhisattva with a magic jewel for saving her brother, a dragon prince who had been caught by a fisherman while transformed into a carp (Idema, 2008, p. 31).

2) The water-propelling magic is first displayed in chapter three when Sun seeks a magic weapon from the underwater dragon kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). An example of Monkey relying on others to fight a water-based monster happens in chapter 22 when he asks Zhu Bajie to battle Sha Wujing (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 423).

3) According to Graham (1954), “The Ch’uan Miao regard all things as alive and sentient. The sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, thunder, the echo, the rainbow, homes, fields, plains, recompense or karma, beds, marriage, swords, the harvest, the year…the ceremonial drum, and even the sound of the ceremonial drum are considered to be living things” (p. 9).


B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful (n.d.). S. Thompson. Motif-index of folk-literature. Retrieved from

Graham, D. C. (1954). Songs and stories of the Chʻuan Miao. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from;view=1up;seq=7

Idema, W. L. (2008). Personal salvation and filial piety: Two precious scroll narratives of Guanyin and her acolytes. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Vol. 1. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.


Master Subhuti’s Curriculum II: Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some fun Fanfiction Speculation

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

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Shaolin map

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).


Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.


Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

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

Journey to the West and Islamic Lore

Last updated: 04-04-2020

Did you know that certain portions of Journey to the West were influenced by Indo-Persian and Arab Islamic lore? For instance, in chapter six Sun Wukong and Lord Erlang engage in a magical battle of skill in which they freely transform into myriad animals, each trying to one-up the other. This battle is unusual as Chinese stories going back to pre-Tang dynasty sources show characters could not transform at will. Conversely, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1704), which is based on stories as far back as the 9th-century, contains a tale featuring a magical battle of transformations between a princess and a genie. Literary critic C.T. Hsia (1996) notes that the similarities in magical combat “does not mean…the makers of the Monkey legend were specifically indebted to [the Arabian Nights], but it certainly indicates their general awareness of the popular literature of the Middle and Near East” (pp. 132-133).

(I no longer feel Hsia’s (1996) suggestion is accurate. See the 11-21-2019 update below.)

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) Modern pears grown in molds to imitate ginseng baby fruit. Fig. 2 – (Right) A 14th to 15th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the women fruit of the Waqwaq tree (larger version).


Chapters 24 to 26 of Journey to the West feature a magical Ginseng Tree (人參樹, Renshen shu) that produces crying, baby-shaped ginseng fruits (人參果, renshen guo) capable of extending the lives of those who eat them to 47,000 years (fig. 1). The literary antecedent of this fruit first appears in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, “The Story” hereafter), a 17-chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Chapter 11 features an immortal peach tree with fruits that transform into edible children once they drop into water. Each is capable of answering when asked a question:

Monkey Pilgrim continued: ‘There are more than ten peaches on the tree now, but there are gods of the earth who are posted here especially to protect them. There is no way to steal the peaches.’ The Master teased: ‘Your supernatural powers are stupendous. If you were to go, what could prevent you?’ Before his words were finished three peaches of immortality fell down into the pool. The Master was startled by the splash and he asked: ‘What fell down?’ Monkey Pilgrim replied: ‘Don’t be alarmed, Master. It was just a few ripe peaches of immortality which fell into the pool.’ The Master said: ‘Can we find them and eat them?’

Monkey Pilgrim took the golden-ringed staff and shook it three times in the direction of the huge, flat stone. A small child with a greenish face appeared. His fingernails were as sharp as a hawk’s claws and from his gaping mouth the teeth showed as he emerged from the pool. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child answered: ‘Three thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I have no use for you.’ Again he rapped five times and a child appeared whose face was as round as the full moon. He wore embroidered clothes and a headdress with tassels. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child replied: ‘Five thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I will not use you.’ And once more he rapped several times with the staff. Another child appeared all of a sudden. Monkey Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ ‘Seven thousand years,” the child replied. Monkey put down the golden-ringed staff and made the child get on his hand. Then he asked: ‘Monk! Will you eat this?’ The monks were terrified and fled. Pilgrim whirled his hand with the child in it a number of times and the child became a milky jujube which he popped into his mouth (Wivell, 1994, p. 1196).

The concept of speaking, human-shaped fruit can be traced to the “Waqwaq tree” from Islamic lore. For example, The Book of the Wonders of India (Kitaab Ajaaib al-Hind), a set of Indo-Persian sailor stories collected between 900 and 953, contains a brief anecdote which reads:

Muhammad b. Babishad told me that, according to what he had learnt from men who had been to the Waqwaq country, there is a large tree there, with round leaves, or sometimes oblong, which bears fruit like a marrow, only larger, and looking something like a human being. When the wind blows, a voice comes out of it. The inside is full of air, like the fruit of the usher. If one picks it, the air escapes at once, and it is nothing but skin (Buzurg & Freeman-Grenville, 1981, p. 39).

The 15th-century Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi took the concept further by describing the fruit as being shaped like voluptuous women (fig. 2) with the power of speech:

On this island are trees that bear as fruit women: shapely, with bodies, eyes, hands, feet, hair, breasts, and vulvas like the vulvas of women. Their faces are exceptionally beautiful and they hang by their hair. They come out of cases like big swords, and when they feel the wind and sun, they shout “Waq Waq” until their hair tears (Toorawa, 2000, p. 393).

Various sources respectively locate the Waqwaq tree and its home of Waqwaq, a faraway, exotic land or island, somewhere within the Indian Ocean, beyond Iraq, or, further still, beyond China. The Waqwaq term was most likely used to describe the limits of the known world at given times (Toorawa, 2000). The tree itself can possibly be traced to a passage in the Quran (Sura 37, verses 60-64) that describes how the “Tree of Zakkum” produces fruit shaped like the heads of demons. The earliest mention of the Waqwaq tree in Chinese sources appears in the late 8th-century Comprehensive Encyclopedia (通典, Tongdian) by the travel writer Du Huan (杜環). This is apparently based on an earlier Arabic source (A floral fantasy, n.d.).

Update: 02-28-2018

I was looking through the Ming-era Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Three Realms (三才圖會, Sancai tuhui, 1609, “Three Realms” hereafter) and happened upon a woodblock print of a Waqwaq tree (fig. 3). The image is labeled Dashi Guo (大食國), A term used since the Tang Dynasty to refer to an ancient country in the Arab World (Zhang & Unschuld, 2015, p. 81). This shows the Chinese were still aware of the tree’s foreign origin around the time that Journey to the West was published.

Ginseng tree - From Sancai tuhui (1609), based on image of Iskander (Alexander the Great) talking to the Talking Tree from the Shamanah

Fig. 3 – Woodblock print from the Three Realms showing the Waqwaq tree (larger version).

Update: 11-21-2019

As noted above, Hsia (1996) suggests the battle of transformations between Monkey and Erlang was influenced in some way by Islamic literature. However, Robinet (1979) describes a tit-for-tat battle from Daoist literature that casts doubt on this view:

The Xianyuan bianzhu [仙苑編珠, “Paired Pearls from the Garden of Immortals”, after c. 921] tells how Wang Tan [王探] received “the art of hiding his light and transforming his body.” Dared by someone to metamorphose himself, he took the form of a tree, but the other fellow seized an axe. Wang immediately transformed himself into a stone, but the other lit a fire (in the theory of the five elements, fire prevails over minerals). After turning himself into bubbling water and so on, Wang Tan finally achieved the upper hand by adopting the appearance of a corpse-the man fled immediately (p. 46). [1]

The way the Daoist and his opponent try to one up the other is very similar to the battle between the Great and Small Sages. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to suggest this story (or related media) was embellished by a storyteller or the author-compiler of the Ming Journey to the West to include two masters of transformation instead of one.

Update: 04-04-2020

Thanks to a recent Twitter post by Guy Reisman, I was delighted to learn that the Islamic Waqwaq tree made its way to Japan, where it is known as the Jinmenju (人面樹, “human-face tree“). In fact, an illustration of the tree appearing in the Edo-period bestiary Konjaku Hyakki Shūi (今昔百鬼拾遺, “Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past”, c. 1781) appears to be based on that from the Three Realms cited above (refer back to fig. 3).

Even more exciting, however, is the revelation of the identity of the man standing beneath the tree in the Three Realms illustration. Foster (2015) traces the Japanese image to the Three Realms and then further back to a Persian source, thereby associating the man with a famous historical king:

If we continue back in time and along the Silk Road, we find different versions of the great Persian epic poem Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020), with illustrations of a man conversing with a tree bearing human heads. The man, it turns out, is Alexander the Great (Sikandar or Iskandar), and the illustrations portray his legendary encounter with a talking tree, sometimes called the Wakwak Tree, that prophesied his death (p. 185).

That’s right, the man in the Three Realms is based on Alexander the Great! See image four for a comparison of the Chinese illustration and one example of Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree”-genre drawings. Both men stand in a similar position, looking upwards. The Persian Alexander is passively listening, while the Three Realms Alexander is actively talking.

Iskander and the Talking Tree - Three Realms Ginseng Tree

Fig. 4 – A comparison of a 15th-century Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree” image and the Three Realms image (larger version). The former is held by the Bodleian Library.

This then raises the question: Did material related to the Shahmana influence the Ginseng Tree in Journey to the the West? [2] I’ve already demonstrated that an antecedent of the Ginseng tree appears in The Story. But this doesn’t necessarily negate some sort of influence. After all, both the Shahmana and Journey to the West feature mythic kings (Alexander and Sun Wukong) coming into contact with magic trees with humanoid fruit. I should note, however, that the trees represent two drastically different fates. Alexander’s tree foresees his death, while Monkey’s tree holds the promise of eternal life. Further research might shed light on stronger connections between both stories.


1) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

2) Hall (2019) explains Iskander’s meeting with the talking tree takes place in both the Shahmana and the older Greek Alexander Romance (p. 149).


A floral fantasy of animals and birds (Waq-waq). (n.d.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from…0Waq%20waq.pdf

Buzurg, S., & Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. (1981). The book of the wonders of India: Mainland, sea and islands. London: East-West.

Foster, M. D. (2015). The book of yōkai: Mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. Oakland: University of California Press.

Hall, M. (2019). The imagination of plants: A book of botanical mythology. Albany : State University of New York Press

Hsia, C. (1996). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia program, Cornell University.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Toorawa, S. M. (2000). WaÃq al-waÃq: Fabulous, fabular, Indian Ocean (?) island(s). Emergences, 10(2), 387-402.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Zhang, Z., & Unschuld, P. U. (2015). Dictionary of the Ben cao gan mu: Volume 2 – Geographical and administrative designations. Oakland, California: University of California Press

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Religious Name

Did you know Sun Wukong was named after a historical Tang Dynasty monk? Originally a Chinese diplomat of Tuoba origin, Che Fengchao (車奉朝, 731-812) was part of a royal mission sent to Kashmir in 751. Che was too sick to return with them in 753, so he stayed in country and was eventually ordained as a Buddhist monk with the religious name Fajie (法界), or “Dharma Realm”. He lived abroad for several decades before returning to China in 790. There, he presented Emperor Dezong with various translated Sutras and a Buddha relic in the form of a tooth. The emperor was so pleased that he renamed the monk Wukong (悟空), or “Awakened to Emptiness” (Wang, 2006, p. 66).

Che Fangchao - The REAL Wukong

A modern depiction of Che Fengchao, the monk known as Wukong.

It’s interesting to note that the name Sun Wukong does not appear in The Story of Tang Tripitaka Procuring the Scriptures, the 13th-century precursor of JTTW. Instead, the novelette refers to him simply as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (hou xingzhe, 猴行者) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). Therefore, the name Sun Wukong was most likely chosen by the compiler/author of the version we know and love today.

See also: Monkey’s Surname and its Connection to Daoist Doctrine


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.

Wang, Z. (2006). Dust in the wind: Retracing dharma master Xuanzang’s western pilgrimage. Taipei: Rhythms Monthly.

The Connection Between Monkey’s Staff, Yu the Great, and Flood Control

Last updated: 02/06/21

Have you ever wondered why Monkey’s staff was stored in the underwater palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, or why it was associated with Yu the Great? The weapon is most likely based on a number of native Chinese mythic and historical iron objects.

First and foremost is a famous Chinese story concerning the immortal Xu Xun (a.k.a. Xu Jingyang, 239-374) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Xu was a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province considered a paragon of filial piety. Popular stories describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century story titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace” describes how the immortal chained the patriarch of the flood dragons to an iron tree that he had constructed and submerged it into a well, thus blocking the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm (Feng, 2005, pp. 673-744). Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 1) (Little, Eichman, & Ebrey, 2000, pp. 314-317). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

There are numerous historical examples of iron objects from the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-13th cent.) being used to control water. Tang official Li Deyu (787-848) erected the great Iron Pagoda on Mt. Beigu in Jiangsu “in order to subdue the tidal waves of the [Yangzi] river” (Andersen, 2001, p. 72). Iron oxen, such as the one by Pujin Bridge in southern Shanxi, were cast during the Tang and Song dynasties and placed along river banks, some serving as bridge anchors or possibly Daoist altar pieces. The thought was that the oxen would ward off flood waters. The first iron oxen is said, according to legend, to have been created by Yu the Great to ward off future floods. Yu is connected to other iron figures placed in or near flowing bodies of water (Andersen, 2001, pp. 73-75; Cast Iron Recumbent Ox, n.d.). Small statues of the monkey-like river spirit Wuzhiqi (無支祁) were submerged in rivers in southern China during the Song (fig. 2). The spirit is mentioned in Tang-Song records as being a fiery-eyed beast known to cause devastating floods, so Yu trapped the creature under Turtle Mountain (Andersen, 2001). This story has obvious parallels with Monkey’s fiery eyes and imprisonment under the Five Elements mountain.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting Xu the immortal overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement in a well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version). Fig. 2 – A Song Dynasty iron figurine of the monkey river spirit Wuzhiqi (larger version).


The 88th chapter of JTTW notes that the staff was created by Yu the Great to aid in his legendary quest to quell the fabled world flood:

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,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 201)

As previously noted, Five Elements Theory dictates that metal has dominion over water. Therefore, an iron pillar would have been the best tool for controlling vast bodies of water, including the Eastern Ocean. This explains why the pillar was in the dragon treasury. The connection between Yu and Monkey comes in the form of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi tale.

The pillar has ties to two literary precursors of Sun’s staff appearing in the earliest known edition of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 13th-century). Our hero uses an iron staff borrowed from the Queen Mother of the West and a Golden Ringed Monk’s staff given to him by the Mahabramha Deva, king of the gods. One chapter sees the latter being changed into a “gigantic yaksha whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth” in order to fight a demon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). The transformative powers of the monk’s staff was eventually grafted onto the iron staff to create the current incarnation of Monkey’s staff. These powers were, in effect, transferred to the pillar, giving it the ability to grow or shrink to any size. This is why the novel states Yu used the pillar as a ruler to set the depths of the rivers and oceans.

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.


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

Cast Iron Recumbent Ox – X.0518. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2016, from…ntOxX0518.html

Feng, M. (2005). Stories to caution the world: A Ming dynasty collection. (S. Yang & Y. Yang Trans.). University of Washington Press (Original work published 1624)

Little, S., Eichman, S., & Ebrey, P. B. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.

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: Volume 4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.