Dragon Ball and Journey to the West

Last updated: 03-20-2022

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.


Update: 03-20-22

I recently remembered that I’ve also referenced the origin of the spikey hair in esoteric Buddhist art. On 02-14-2019 I posted on twitter saying: “Goku’s spiked hair is based on esoteric guardian deities. For ex., here is Tianpeng, the former incarnation of Oolong’s precursor Zhu Bajie.”

What Does Zhu Bajie Look Like? A Resource for Artists and Cosplayers

Type “Zhu Bajie” (豬八戒) into Google images and you will generally see a cute or friendly-looking pig-man with pink skin, big ears, a short snout, and a large stomach, and he will inevitably be holding some form of metal rake. Most iterations will likely be based on the character’s iconic look from the classic 1986 TV show, which portrays him wearing a Ji Gong-style Buddhist hat (Ji Gong mao, 濟公帽) with a golden fillet (à la Sun Wukong), a handkerchief tied around his neck and a sash at his waist, and black monk’s robes open at the chest (fig. 1). You might even see a few images depicting Zhu as a hulking warrior, but rarely will you see him portrayed with dark skin. So how do these representations compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present Zhu’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.

I should note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive survey, just a general overview.

Zhu Bajie In-Flames Action Figure- small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie from the 1986 TV show (larger version).

1. Ancient Depictions

Zhu’s earliest depictions hail from the 14th-century as he is a latecomer to the story cycle, postdating the appearance of Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing by centuries. He is featured on a ceramic pillow and an incense burner from late Yuan China, as well as a series of carvings on a stone pagoda from late Goryeo Korea. Each piece draws on the same motif, depicting Zhu as a pig-headed monk taking large strides as he shoulders his rake and/or leads the horse. Even in instances where the weapon and equine are not present, he’s depicted in the same general posture (fig. 2-4).

Korean Pagoda paper - Pigsy iconography comparison

Fig. 2 – Detail of Zhu from a Cizhou ware ceramic pillow. See here for the full image. Fig. 3 – Detail from the incense burner. See here for the full image. Fig. 4 – Detail from panel two of the Korean pagoda. Note the figure’s matching posture. See here for the full line drawing.

2. What the novel says

2.1. Physical appearance

A poem in chapter 8 contains the earliest reference to Zhu’s appearance:

Lips curled and twisted like dried lotus leaves;
Ears like rush-leaf fans [pushan, 蒲扇] and hard, gleaming eyes;
Gaping teeth as sharp as a fine steel file’s;
A long mouth wide open like a fire pot [huopen, 火盆].
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211).

Chapter 18 provides more detail about his bristly neck and dark skin:

“Well,” said old Mr. Gao, “when he first came, he was a stout, swarthy [hei, 黑; lit: “black”] fellow, but afterwards he turned into an idiot with huge ears and a long snout, with a great tuft of bristles [zongmao, 鬃毛; lit: “mane”] behind his head. His body became horribly coarse and hulking. In short, his whole appearance was that of a hog!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 372).

When the violent gust of wind had gone by, there appeared in midair a monster who was ugly indeed. With his black face [hei lian, 黑臉] covered with short, stubby hair, his long snout and huge ears, he wore a cotton shirt that was neither quite green nor quite blue. A sort of spotted cotton handkerchief was tied round his head (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).

The mane on the back of Zhu’s head is such a prominent feature that he took it as his personal name: “[M]y surname is based on my appearance. Hence I am called Zhu ([豬] Hog), and my official name is Ganglie ([剛鬣] Stiff Bristles)” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 376).

Chapter 19 shows he has hands and feet like a man:

The monster did indeed raise his rake high and bring it down with all his might; with a loud bang, the rake made sparks as it bounced back up. But the blow did not make so much as a scratch on Pilgrim’s head. The monster was so astounded that his hands [shou, 手] turned numb and his feet [jiao, 腳] grew weak (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 383-384).

Compare this to the mention of hooves (ti, 蹄) when he transforms into a giant boar in chapter 67 (see section 2.2 below).

Chapter 29 gives the fullest description:

My elder disciple has the surname of Zhu, and his given names are Wuneng [悟能] and Eight Rules [Bajie, 八戒]. He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge, fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51).

Chapter 85 reveals the shocking size of his snout:

A snout, pestlelike, over three Chinese feet long [san chi, 三尺, 3.15 feet/96 cm] [1]
And teeth protruding like silver prongs.
Bright like lightning a pair of eyeballs round,
Two ears that whip the wind in hu-hu [唿唿] sound.
Arrowlike hairs behind his head are seen;
His whole body’s skin is both coarse and black [qing, 青]. [2]
[…] (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149).

Chapter 90 notes Zhu has a tail: “Seizing him by the bristles and the tail [wei, 尾], the two spirits hauled Eight Rules away to show him to the nine-headed lion, saying, “Grandmaster, we’ve caught one” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 219).

We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, an overly long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin. He is also said to have human hands and feet and a pig tail. This grotesque description greatly differs from his cutesy appearance in modern media. It’s important to note that, just like Sun Wukong, Zhu was modeled on a real life animal. In this case, he shares many of his monstrous qualities with the wild boar (yezhu, 野豬) (fig. 5 & 6).

While the novel doesn’t give an exact height for our hero, the cited attributes do provide clues as to his general size. First and foremost is Tripitaka‘s statement: “[H]e causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Obviously something capable of stirring the wind just from moving is going to be really big. Then there is Zhu’s 3.15 foot (96 cm) snout, which is over half the height of an average person. This suggests he’s several feet taller than a human. Furthermore, the novel states Sha Wujing is a whopping twelve Chinese feet (zhang er, 丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) tall (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). [3] Zhu is likely shorter than Sha as the latter’s height is specifically mentioned. So I would guess that he is at least 10 feet (roughly 3 m) tall. Zhu’s size is highlighted in some lovely online art (fig. 7 & 8).

Fig. 5 – A pack of running Visayan warty pigs (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 6 – An Indian boar (larger version). Check out that cool hair!!! Fig. 7 – The relative sizes of the pilgrims (larger version). As noted, I believe Zhu is probably shorter than Sha. Fig. 8 – The disciples on patrol (larger version). This is my favorite. Images found here. Artwork by @真·迪绝人 (see here and here).

2.2. Original form?

Zhu provides two contradictory origins for himself, which have implications for what his true form may be and why he looks the way he does in the novel. [5] A biographical poem in chapter 19 explains he was once a wayward, lazy youth who took up Daoist cultivation and later rose on clouds to receive celestial rank in heaven. But his immortal spirit was eventually exiled for drunkenly forcing himself on the moon goddess and mistakenly regained corporeal form in the womb of a sow, becoming the pig spirit that we know today (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 378-379). [6] However, a poem in chapter 85 implies he was already a powerful pig monster who was given celestial rank but later exiled for drunkenly mocking the moon goddess, destroying Laozi‘s palace, and eating the Queen Mother‘s magic herbs (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). The latter origin might be represented in chapter 67 when Zhu transforms into a gigantic boar (fig. 9):

A long snout and short hair—all rather plump.
He fed on herbs of the mountain since his youth.
A black face with round eyes like the sun and moon;
A round head with huge ears like plantain leaves.
His bones were made lasting as Heaven’s age;
Tougher than iron was his thick skin refined.
In deep nasal tones he made his oink-oink cry.
What gutteral grunts when he puffed and huffed!
Four white hoofs [ti, 蹄] standing a thousand feet tall;
Swordlike bristles topped a thousand-foot frame. [7]
Mankind had long seen fatted pigs and swine,
But never till today this old hog elf [lao zhu xiao, 老豬魈].
The Tang Monk and the people all gave praise;
At such high magic pow’r they were amazed (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253).

Fig. 9 – Zhu’s giant boar form from the manhua Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) (larger version).

2.3. Clothing

Zhu is not associated in popular culture with any specialized clothing or adornments like Sun Wukong, who’s very name brings to mind the golden fillet, a tiger skin kilt, and golden armor with a feather cap. But several later chapters do mention our pig hero wearing a “black brocade zhiduo robe” (zao jin zhiduo, 皂錦直裰) (ch. 55, 61, 72, & 86) or just a “black zhiduo robe” (zao zhiduo, 皂直裰) (ch. 63, 67, & 84). [4] The zhiduo robe is known colloquially in English as “Buddhist monk” or “Taoist monk” robes. Also called haiqing (海青), such garments reach almost to the ground and have long, broad sleeves. The robe is closed by a tie on the right side of the torso (fig. 10; also refer back to fig. 7).

Fig. 10 – A zhiduo/haiqing robe (larger version). Image found here. Imagine this robe with black cloth.

2.4. The rake

Zhu’s signature weapon is first mentioned in chapter 8. A line from his introductory poem reads: “He holds a rake—a dragon’s outstretched claws” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 211). The most detailed description appears in chapter 19:

This is divine bin steel greatly refined, [8]
Polished so highly that it glows and shines.
Laozi wielded the large hammer and tong;
Mars himself added charcoals piece by piece.
Five Kings of Five Quarters applied their schemes;
The Six Ding and Six Jia Spirits expended all their skills. [9]
They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade,
And double rings were cast with dropping gold leaves.
Decked with Five Stars and Six Celestial Bodies, [10]
Its frame conformed to eight spans and four climes.
Its whole length set to match the cosmic scheme
Accorded with yin yang, with the sun and moon:
Hexagram Spirit Generals etched as Heaven ruled;
Eight-Trigram Stars stood in ranks and files.
They named this the High Treasure Golden Rake, [Shang bao qin jin pa, 上寶沁金鈀]
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382).

So we see the rake has nine jade-like teeth and a bin steel body decorated with two golden rings and inscriptions of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. The exact position of the rings is not specified, but one online drawing shows them at each end of the rake head (refer back to fig. 8). This might be a reference to the rings capping the ends of Sun’s weapon. While the weight is not listed on the rake like the Monkey King’s staff, chapter 88 states it is 5,048 catties (wuqian ling sishiba jin, 五千零四十八斤; 6,566 lbs. / 2,978.28 kg), [11] or the weight of the Buddhist canon (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). [12]

Since the rake’s literary description is more vague than that of Wukong’s staff, my normally strict views on the accuracy of the disciples’ weapons in various media don’t really apply in this case. This is especially true as even historical depictions are all over the place (fig. 11-13). I think the monstrous pig face on the rake from the 1986 TV show-inspired action figure is really neat (refer back to fig. 1). Another favorite of mine is the spiky rake from the ongoing manhua The Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) (fig. 13).

Fig. 11 – A print of Zhu vs Sha Wujing from the Shide tang edition (1592) of the novel (larger version). The weapon is portrayed as a war rake used by the Chinese military. Fig. 12 – His rake is depicted as a wolftooth club in Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Criticism (late-16th/early-17th-century) (larger version). Fig. 13 – Zhu (top) wields the rake against his evil brother (bottom) in The Westward (larger version). This brother is not a character in the original novel.

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

3.1. The least accurate

1) Journey to the West (1996/1998) – It’s like the show’s creators purposely went in the opposite direction. Instead of big, black, and scary, they went with small, pink, and cute (fig. 14).

Fig. 14 – Wayne Lai as the adorable pig spirit (larger version).

2) The Monkey King 2 & 3 (2016/2018) – It’s the same as before but minus the hair (fig. 15).

Fig. 15 – Xiaoshenyang as the fake hero (larger version).

3) The Precious Lotus Lantern (Baolian deng, 寶蓮燈, 2005) – And then there’s this mess… (fig. 16).

Fig. 16 – Xie Ning (谢宁) as “Spaghetti Head” Zhu (larger version).

3.2. The most accurate

1) The Westward (Xixingji, 西行記, 2015-present) – This is perhaps the closest to his literary description (but his body and hair should be darker) (fig. 17). Admittedly, this is not the character’s original form. The manhua portrays Zhu as a small, pink pig-man who needs to absorb energy from the surrounding environment in order to achieve this monstrous transformation.

Fig. 17 – Zhu’s ultimate form (larger version).

2) Journey to the West (2011) – This is how Zhu is portrayed when he’s still a monster (fig. 18). He has the dark skin, fangs, and mane. But he later changes to a friendly, pink pig-man once subjugated.

Fig. 18 – Zang Jinsheng as the armored pig monster (larger version).

3) The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) – While missing his bristly mane, Zhu is portrayed with a long snout, big ears, and, most importantly, black skin (fig. 19). He is also wearing a black zhiduo robe. Thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting this entry.

Fig. 19 – Zhou Hongquan (周鴻泉) as Zhu in The Cave of the Silken Web (1927) (larger version).

4. Conclusion

While modern media often depicts Zhu as a friendly-looking, pink pig-man, the novel describes him as a giant pig monster with a bristly mane on the back of his head, fan-like ears, a big mouth with protruding fangs, a three-foot-long snout, and a hulking body with black, furry skin, human hands and feet, and a pig tail. He wears a black zhiduo robe. His 3.28 ton bin steel rake has nine jade-like teeth, two golden rings (possibly adorning the ends of the head), and a body inscribed with the sun, moon, and planets and hexagram and eight-trigram symbols. Needless to say, the literary Zhu is far more imposing than his modern, family friendly persona.


1) The Chinese foot (chi, 尺) was slightly longer than the modern western foot (12 in/30.48 cm). The Board of Works (Yingzao, 營造) of the Ming and Qing standardized the measurement at 32 cm (12.59 in), though it varied at the local level and at different times (Ruitenbeek, 1996, Chinese Dynasties and Chinese Measurements section). I’m basing the length given in the novel on that from the Board of Works as the novel was published during the Ming dynasty.

2) The original English translation says “green” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149). However, there are times when it refers to black. For example, the phrase “The black ox goes west” (qing niu xi qu, 青牛西去) references Laozi and the Daodejing (Ma & van Brakel, 2016, p. 328 n. 71). In addition, the novel previously refers to Zhu having a “black face” (hei lian, 黑臉) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 375).

3) This recalls the origin of the immortal Iron Crutch Li (Li tieguai, 李鐵拐), whose body was prematurely burnt by a disciple while his celestial spirit traveled to heaven. Upon his return, Li was forced to take corporeal form in the body of a recently deceased cripple.

4) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the garment as “black cloth shirt” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253, for example).

5) Thank you to Irwen Wong and Anthony “Antz” Chong for bringing this to my attention.

6) See note #1 for how this measurement is calculated.

7) The original English translation says “hundred-yard” (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 3, p. 253). However, the Chinese states 百丈 (bai zhang), or 100 x 10 Chinese feet, which of course equals 1,000 feet.

8) The original English translation/Chinese text states “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382). However, this is likely an error for “divine bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) was a high quality metal originally imported from Persia before the secret of its manufacture reached China in the 12th-century. It is mentioned a few times in the novel, including being associated with Monkey’s staff in one instance (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).

I’ve made several changes to the translation from this point forward to better accord with the original Chinese.

9) The “Six Ding and Six Jia” (六丁六甲, Liuding liujia) are protector spirits of Daoism (Mugitani, 2008).

10) The “Five Stars” (wuxing, 五星) refer to Mercury (shuixing, 水星), Venus (jinxing, 金星), Jupiter (muxing, 木星), Mars (huoxing, 火星), and Saturn (tuxing, 土星). The Six Celestial Bodies (liuyao, 六曜) refer to the sun (taiyang/ri, 太陽/日) and moon (taiyin/yue, 太陰/月) and the four hidden pseudo-planets Yuebei (月孛), Ziqi (紫氣), Luohou (羅睺), and Jidu (計都). Combined, they are called the “Eleven Luminaries” (shiyi yao, 十一 曜), and these are sometimes broken into the “Seven Governors and Four Hidden Luminaries” (qizheng siyu, 七政四余) (Wang, 2020, pp. 169-170; Hart, 2010, p. 145 n. 43).

11) The original English translation says “five thousand and forty-eight pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 200). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 5,048 catties would equal 6,566 lbs. or 2,978.28 kg.

12) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) notes popular belief held that the Buddhist canon was comprised of 5,048 scrolls (vol. 4, p. 396 n. 7). I’m not sure if the rake’s weight was purely based on the number of scrolls, or if each scroll was believed to weigh one catty.


Hart, R. (2010). The Chinese Roots of Linear Algebra. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ma, L., & van Brakel, J. (2016). Fundamentals of Comparative and Intercultural Philosophy. United States: State University of New York Press.

Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (vol. 1-2) (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.

Ruitenbeek, K. (1996). Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-century Carpenter’s Manual, Lu Ban Jing. Germany: E.J. Brill.

Wang, X. (2020). Physiognomy in Ming China: Fortune and the Body. Netherlands: Brill.

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

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.

Archive # 12 – The Origin of Sun Wukong’s 72 Transformations

Last updated: 06-12-22

Upon Sun Wukong achieving immortality, his Buddho-Daoist master Subodhi warns him of three calamities sent by heaven to kill those who defy their fate and attain eternal life. The Sage then offers to teach Monkey one of two forms of transformation in order to avoid this outcome by living in hiding. [1] The first form, called the “Multitude of the Heavenly Ladle” (Tiangang shu, 天罡數), contains thirty-six changes, while the second, the “Multitude of Earthly Fiends” (Disha shu, 地煞數), contains seventy-two. [2] Our hero chooses the latter and quickly masters a set of secret oral formulas (koujue, 口訣). This becomes one of his signature abilities used throughout the narrative. Monkey’s most famous use of the skill appears in chapter six when he battles Lord Erlang, a divine demon queller and fellow master of transformations (video 1).

Video 1 – Sun’s battle with Lord Erlang. From the great animated Classic Havoc in Heaven (1965).

I. Connection to Chinese astrology and literature

The names of the two forms of transformation that Subodhi offers to teach Monkey can be traced to Chinese astrology. The “Heavenly Ladle” (Tiangang, 天罡; i.e. the Big Dipper) is associated in some traditions with thirty-six stars (fig. 1). Regarding the origin of these stellar bodies, Werner (1932/1969) explains: “The gods of these stars (all stars of good omen) are all heroes who fell on the field of battle in the epic combat known as Wan Xian Zhen 萬仙陣, “The Battle of the Myriad Genii [or Immortals]” (p. 506). [3]

Sun Wukong Transformation - 36 Heavenly Ladle Stars - small

Fig. 1 – A list of the thirty-six Heavenly Ladle stars (larger version). Photograph of Werner, 1932/1969, p. 506. Apologies for not having access to a scanner at this time. 

Furthermore, he writes that the “Earthly Fiends” (Disha, 地煞) are:

[S]eventy-two stars [fig. 2] of evil influence, opposed to the Tiangang. The wicked genii of these stars are cast out and slain by tongzi 童子 magicians [i.e. spirit mediums], who impale them on forks and shut them up in earthen jars, then take them to waste lands, throw them into fires, and surround the spot with a circle of lime, which is supposed to prevent any spirit which may have survived the burning from getting out of it (Werner, 1932/1969, p. 496). [4]

Sun Wukong Transformation - 72 Earthly Fiend Stars - small

Fig. 2 – A list of the seventy-two Earthly Fiend stars (larger version). Photographs of Werner, 1932/1969, pp. 496-497.

Additionally, the Earthly Fiends are considered the “enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments” (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii). Several Buddho-Daoist folk talismans exist to ward afflictions caused by the Fiends. One such Buddhist talisman said to cure the “one hundred ailments” even invokes the thirty-six Heavenly Ladle stars to aid in the conquering of the seventy-two demons:

An order is hereby made by the “Ministry of the Thunderbolt”, commanding in the name of the “three religions” that the auspicious stellar gods, Tiangang 天罡, reduce to order the maleficent demons, Disha 地煞, who have caused this disease. The charm must also repress these malignant beings and expel them forthwith (fig.3) (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. 312).

Di-sha talisman spell #2- small

Fig. 3 – A reproduction of the illness-curing Buddhist Talisman (larger version).

It’s interesting that Sun Wukong chooses the transformation method centered around stars of evil influence and later becomes a demon who challenges heaven. [5] Good fodder for fan fiction, no?

When these dichotomous stellar bodies were first acknowledged isn’t exactly clear. [6] But the Heavenly Ladle stars go back to at least the mid-13th-century as they are mentioned in the Old Incidents in the Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事) (Anonymous, n.d.), a storytelling prompt of the late-Song to early-Yuan. It contains the earliest stories associated with the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400), a Chinese classic that predates Journey to the West. The one hundred and eight heroes of this novel are famous for being reincarnations of the Heavenly Ladle and Earthly Fiend stars, a fact revealed in chapter seventy-one when a heaven-sent stone slab is found to list their human names along with the corresponding stellar titles. The long association of the stars with the hugely popular Water Margin novel therefore may have inspired the names for the techniques taught by the sage Subodhi in Journey to the West.

II. Ties to Daoist practices

Robinet (1979) expertly explains that transformation (bianhua, 變化), or “metamorphosis” as she calls it, is central to Daoism. Gods and Saints are portrayed in Daoist literature as being in constant flux, changing with the seasons, taking on different guises and titles, disappearing and reappearing, never remaining the same, thereby living eternally. Daoists and magicians achieve metamorphosis through external and internal alchemical processes, the former involving the ingestion of drugs and talismans and the latter via mental exercises. Those who succeed in their practice can divide themselves endlessly; create rivers, mountains, and forests from meager samples of water, earth, and seeds; and, most importantly, change their form into anything (fig. 4), including the five elements, dragons, clouds, rays of light, or even celestial bodies like the sun and moon. 

72 Transformations Childrens Book - small

Fig. 4 – The cover of a vintage children’s flip book about Monkey’s transformations (larger version). Here he is seen changing into a fish.

Interestingly, transformations could be used to live in hiding, much like originally intended by Subodhi in Journey to the West. Adepts still questing for immortality could magically transform a sword, staff, or slipper into their deceased body, thereby faking death and escaping elsewhere to find a method leading to eternal life. (Often times, those who took this route assumed a new identity to avoid heaven’s gaze (Campany, 2005)). Additionally, sages are said to use their powers to hide in the earth or in the light of the sun, moon, and stars. One source mentions adepts hiding by scattering their shadow and transforming it into seventy-two types of light. In a related book chapter, Robinet (1993) notes this number “alludes to [Laozi’s] seventy-two supernatural marks” (clearly borrowing from the Buddhist Mahapurusa laksana) (p. 166). This is fascinating as it shows there is precedent for seventy-two transformations in Daoism.

III. Archive link

I have archived Robinet’s (1979) wonderful paper on metamorphosis. It can be read here:

Click to access robinet-metamorphosis.pdf


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

Update: 06-12-22

I recently posted an in-depth article about the Patriarch Subodhi in which I reveal information about the additional benefits of the 72 Transformations. Anyone involved in any upcoming “What if” battles involving the Monkey King (COUGH, COUGH!) would do well to take note of this information.

Subodhi teaches this skill to Monkey with the expressed purpose of helping him hide from three calamities of cosmic lightning, fire, and wind sent by heaven to destroy immortals for defying fate and achieving eternal life. But beyond the power of metamorphosis, the novel implies that the ability also grants the user multiple lives (similar to a video game), which might serve as a buffer against the calamities. For example, in chapter 41, after Sun passes out from Red Boy‘s fiery attack, Zhu Bajie reassures everyone by saying: “If he is capable of seventy-two transformations, he has seventy-two lives” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 232). Also, in chapter 46, Monkey magically regrows his head after being non-fatally beheaded in a contest of magical skillSha Wujing remarks: “If he knows seventy-two ways of transformation, … he may have altogether seventy-two heads!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 308). [7] In addition, while not directly related to the primate hero, the Bull Demon King is said in chapter 61 to also know the 72 changes (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 148). He uses the extra lives to survive being beheaded by Prince Nezha a number of times:

[Nezha] leaped onto the bull’s back and brought his monster-cleaving sword down on the bull’s neck: the bull was beheaded at once. Putting away his scimitar, the devaraja was about to greet [Sun Wukong] when another head emerged from the torso of the bull, his mouth belching black air and his eyes beaming golden rays. [Nezha] lifted his sword once more and cut off the bull’s head; as soon as it dropped to the ground, another head came out. It went on like this more than ten times. At last, [Nezha] took out his fiery wheel and hung it on the Bull’s horn. The wheel at once started a great blaze of true immortal fire, which burned so fiercely that the bull began to growl and roar madly, shaking his head and wagging his tail (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 160).


1) It should be noted that the calamities are sent every five hundred years. Sun never has to live in hiding, though, as he is trapped under Five Elements Mountain upon the five hundredth anniversary of his immortality (he lived to be roughly four hundred prior to taking up spiritual cultivation). And he achieves Buddhahood prior to reaching the one thousandth year of his immortality, so he never has to guard against subsequent calamities.

2) The translation of these names are loosely based on Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122). I have provided more accurate names based on related Chinese literature (see section one above).

3) Source changed slightly. I updated the Wade-Giles to Pinyin. This refers to a military trap appearing in the Chinese classic Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, 16th-century), which was published around the same time as Journey to the West

4) I’ve previously mentioned a similar ritual in the first section of this article.

5) Conversely, Zhu Bajie is shown capable of thirty-six transformations (for example, Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 2, p. 328), meaning he studied the method associated with the stars of good omens. And of course we know his sordid story…

6) Though, in my opinion, the thirty-six stars are likely based on the thirty-six generals led by the stellar exorcist, Marshal Tianpeng (天蓬, i.e. Zhu Bajie’s former incarnation), who is himself one of the nine stars of the Big Dipper. The Marshal and his generals appear in the liturgy of the Song-era “Correct Method of the Celestial Heart” (Tianxin zhengfa, 天心正法) exorcist tradition (Anderson, 2008).

[7] Thank you to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing these examples to my attention.


Anderson, P. (2008) Tianxin zhengfa In F. Pregadio (ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 989-993). Longdon: Routledge.

Anonymous. (n.d.). Da Song Xuanhe Yishi [Old incidents in the Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=290731&searchu=%E5%A4%A9%E7%BD%A1

Campany, R. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming 命 [Preallotted Lifespan] in Early Medieval China In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150). University of Hawaii Press.

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

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

Robinet, I. (1993). Taoist meditation: The Mao-shan tradition of Great Purity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

E. T. C. Werner (1969). A dictionary of Chinese mythology. New York: The Julian Press. (Original work published 1932)

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

Zhu Bajie’s Earliest Known Depictions and the Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda

Last updated: 10-26-19

I suggested in a previous article that Zhu Bajie was first added to the Journey to the West story cycle during the 14th-century. This is because the character does not appear in the 13th-century version of the story, but he does appear in a stage play from the 15th-century. Thanks to the writing of Prof. Ben Brose, I learned of Pigsy’s three earliest known depictions from this time period. The first is a Yuan Dynasty Cizhou ware ceramic pillow showing all of the characters (fig. 1). The second is a fragmented Yuan-era blue and white incense burner (fig. 2). Older still are Zhu’s depictions appearing on the 14th-century Gyeongcheonsa pagoda (Kyŏngch’ŏnsa sipch’ŭng sŏkt’ap, 경천사십층석탑) from Korea (fig. 3). You read that right, Korea!

cizhou ware pillow and korean pagoda

Fig. 1 – The Cizhou ware pillow featuring Pigsy and the other pilgrims (larger version); Fig. 2 – A fragment of the blue and white incense burner showing Pigsy leading the White Dragon Horse (larger version). Fragments with the other characters can be found here; Fig. 3 – The Gyeongcheonsa pagoda is now housed inside of the National Museum of Korea (larger version). 

I. Why Korea?

The Pak t’ongsa ŏnhae (Ch: 朴通事諺解, Pu tongshi yanjie), a circa 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese, presents the Journey to the West story cycle as a highly popular tale among Koreans. This fact is revealed during a conversation between two Buddhist monks, one of which states: “The Xiyouji is lively. It is good reading when you are feeling gloomy” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 180). The same monk then recounts an episode where Monkey competes with three animal spirits-cum-Daoist priests in a test of magic skill. This episode comprises chapters 44 to 46 in the final Ming version of the novel. [1] The popularity of the Chinese story cycle in Korea then explains why scenes from it appear on the pagoda.

II. Pagoda Background

The National Museum of Korea explains the 13.5 meter (44.3 ft) tower has a long and tumultuous history:

Made of marble, this ten-story stone pagoda was erected at Gyeongcheonsa Temple in Gaeseong in 1348, the fourth year of the reign of Goryeo’s King Chungmok. The first tier of the pagoda bears an inscription that records various details about the pagoda’s production, including the production date and the patrons. According to the inscription, the pagoda was sponsored by Goryeo people who were associated with China’s Yuan Dynasty. Notably, this stone pagoda was closely modeled after wooden architecture, and each story is expertly carved with Buddhist images. The platform is sculpted with scenes of Xiyouji (Journey to the West), as well as lions, dragons, and lotus flowers. The lower four stories are sculpted with scenes of Buddha’s Assembly, while the upper six stories are sculpted with images of Buddha with both hands clasped. The four sides of the platform and those of the lower three tiers are protruding, recalling the shape of Tibetan-Mongolian pagodas that were prevalent in the Yuan period. However, the upper seven tiers have a more standard rectangular shape that corresponds with the conventional form of stone pagodas. Notably, about 120 years after this pagoda was built, the Joseon royal court erected a stone pagoda with a similar material and shape at Wongaksa Temple in Gwangju. In 1907, this pagoda was illegally dismantled and smuggled to Japan by Tanaka Mitsuyaki, the Japanese Minister of the Imperial Household. However, thanks in part to the efforts of a British journalist named Ernest Thomas Bethel and an American journalist named Homer Hulbert, it was returned to Korea in 1918. The pagoda was partially restored in 1960, while it was being kept at Gyeongbokgung Palace, but after having been kept outside for so long, suffering the effects of weather and acid rain, it could not be properly preserved. Thus, in 1995, it was dismantled for a more extensive restoration project. Ten years later, it was reassembled inside the new building of the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, being unveiled as part of the museum’s grand opening in 2005 (“Ten-story Stone Pagoda”, n.d.).

The pagoda’s political and architectural connections to Yuan China further explain why scenes from the story cycle grace the platform.

III. The Images

Twenty Journey to the West-related scenes appear on the second level of the pagoda’s multifaceted three-tiered base. The following line drawings, which are based on ink rubbings of the original carvings, come from an in-depth field report by the Yegŭrin Architectural Firm (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993). (Note: I have recently learned that the line drawings from Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso (1993) are all but useless. See the update below for more info.) The images are presented below starting from the southernmost face (the six o’clock position) of the pagoda’s diamond-shaped cross section, proceeding in a clockwise fashion. Each is accompanied with commentary from the original report.[2] You will notice the report is generally vague as the exact meaning of the scenes are often unclear. I will therefore present my own commentary or questions below in the hopes of furthering the discussion.

Number One: A royal send off

image 1 (small)

Fig. 5 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure of a Buddhist monk stands at the front, and behind him a horse and figures in the shape of a pig’s head, a monkey, and more are depicted. The figure of the Buddhist monk appears to be Monk Xuanzang, the figure of the monkey, Sun Wukong, the figure with the pig’s head, Zhu Bajie, and the last figure appears to be Sha Wujing. In other words, it is Monk Xuanzang’s travel companions. On the right, pictured symmetrically with Xuanzang’s travel party is the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown, and behind him stands a figure of a young boy holding an umbrella over his head and the figures of three noblemen.

And to the right of this a building structure is depicted. The nobleman who is at the very front wearing a crown seems to be a king and the building structure appears to represent a palace. Therefore, the content of the carving above seems to be the scene of a king sending off Monk Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 5] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).

Could this scene be a telescopic version of the narrative, one in which the already assembled group is being sent off by Tang Taizong? After all, the authors suggest in panel number ten that the first ten images likely show the journey to India, while the latter half shows the return (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124). Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the king as the largest and therefore the most important, with Tripitaka being the second tallest/important, and the three disciples even shorter. Pigsy’s porcine head really stands out as Sandy is depicted as a human monk.

Number Two: On the Road

image 2 (small)

Fig. 6 – (larger version)

As above, the horse and the travel party of Monk Xuanzang, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing have been portrayed. Here Sha Wujing is carrying a knapsack. On the left a road populated with animals and birds are depicted. Therefore, here it appears to show that Monk Xuanzang and his companions are traveling on a mountain road [fig. 6] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p.123).

Take note of Pigsy’s upraised hands and wide stride. This motif appears several more times on other panels (fig. 12, 13, 17, and 24). The posture is quite similar to that from the aforementioned ceramic pillow and incense burner, which depict Pigsy carrying his rake and leading the horse. He lacks his signature weapon in these scenes, however (fig. 7). This might explain the strange posture of his right hand.

Korean Pagoda paper - Pigsy iconography comparison

Fig. 7 – Similar Pigsy iconography from the Cizhou ware pillow (left), the incense burner (center), and panel two (right), all corresponding with the Yuan Dynasty (larger version). See also figure 24 for a better match. 

Number Three: A prisoner?

image 3 (small)

Fig. 8 – (larger version)

On the left, the figure of a nobleman wearing a crown is kneeling. Behind him, a figure of a person holding a club appears to threaten the nobleman in front. Behind them something like an altar is depicted. Symmetrical with the figure of the kneeling nobleman, a figure looking like a government official from a prison in a provincial district stands holding a tool of torture.

Even if we don’t know what this is, it seems to show the oppression by those of other religions during the years of Xuanzang’s journey [fig. 8] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

My view on the scene differs from the authors. The “government official” appears to be a deity (noted by the flowing ribbons around the shoulders), possibly Guanyin since the upheld item reminds me of her holy vase. The figure to the right could be her disciple Moksha. Would this make the club-wielding figure Monkey and his prisoner a captured demon?

Number Four: A confrontation

image 4 (small)

Fig. 9 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure holding a club and Monk Xuanzang are depicted. On the right, Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are portrayed. Here Monkey is posed as if he is defeating something with the stick, and behind the horse Sha Wujing is carrying the knapsack. Monk Xuanzang is shown lifting his left hand as if he is arguing something. This appears to show the scene of Xuanzang’s companions defeating some hindrance [fig. 9] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

I believe Tripitaka is begging Monkey not to slay or beat the person, as the monk steps in many times throughout the narrative to do this. Could this be the White Bone Demon under one of its many disguises from chapter 27?

Number 5: A king or deity

image 5 (small)

Fig. 10 – (larger version)

On the right side, a figure riding a lion is depicted. On the left side, three figures that seem like they are servants are depicted, and in the back a building structure is carved. It seems to depict some group of royals or noblemen on Xuanzang’s way to India [fig. 10] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 123).

The group of servants appear to me to be our pilgrims, the long-faced figure possibly being Pigsy. The figure riding the lion could be Manjusri and his feline mount. Could this be a reference to him subduing the beast in chapter 77? The figure’s hands appear to be producing bolts of lightning. I’m not sure of the significance, if any.

Number Six: A foreign court

image 6 (small)

Fig. 11 – (larger version)

On the right, there is a figure of a Buddhist monk holding a monk’s staff who seems to be Monk Xuanzang, and a figure to his left seems to be a disguised Monkey. On the left, figures of noblemen from a palace are portrayed. This appears to depict a scene where Monk Xuanzang’s travel party is welcomed in some palace along the road [fig. 11] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The strange figure in the middle is a complete mystery to me. While the figure is identified as Monkey, it’s impossible to tell for sure.

Number Seven: Fire Mountain

image 7 (small)

Fig. 12 – (larger version)

On the left side, a pattern of fire sparks is carved. And in front of that is Monkey, holding a fan trying to put out the fire. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is carrying out some action with lifted hands, and behind him Zhu Bajie is holding the horse reins while Sha Wujing as always is carrying the knapsack. This depicts the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting and trying to eliminate difficulties along the road [fig. 12] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

This is the least ambiguous of the twenty scenes and my personal favorite. It depicts Monkey using the magic palm leaf fan to conquer the flames of Fire Mountain.

Pigsy’s upraised hand-wide stride motif appears once more.

Number Eight: Offerings

image 8 (small)

Fig. 13 – (larger version)

A table is placed in the middle, and on top of it lays objects that seem to be offerings. On the right Xuanzang’s travel party and on the left figures of noblemen or royals are depicted. Two of the figures from Xuanzang’s travel party are covering their heads with something, but this seems to be to conceal the sight of Monkey and Zhu Bajie’s animal heads. This appears to be the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party receiving offerings from a royal or gentry family along the way [fig. 13] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The bearded figure between Tripitaka and the supposedly veiled figure is no doubt Pigsy, based on his upraised hands and wide stride. The elongated snout has been confused for a beard.

Also, could the veil actually be supplies on the horse’s back? Maybe the original rubbing is degraded in this area, making the head look as if it is under (instead of in front of) the object.

Number Nine: Another confrontation

image 9 (small)

Fig. 14 – (larger version)

On the left, a figure of a nobleman who is kneeling or bending his head is depicted. On the right, the figure of Zhu Bajie, who is trying to attack the nobleman, and the figure of Monk Xuanzang, who is trying to prevent this, are shown. It appears to be depicting some sort of misunderstanding that happened between the nobleman and Xuanzang’s attendant [fig. 14] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

Pigsy has not been portrayed with a weapon up to this point. It would make more sense if Monkey was wielding the staff. After all, figure 17 depicts Sun standing in a similar posture while wielding a club/staff. Perhaps the elongated face on this panel is just an artifact from the original rubbing?

Number Ten: A temple

image 10 (small)

Fig. 15 – (larger version)

On the left side, Xuanzang bears a monk’s staff and his attendants are depicted together with the horse. And on the right side, symmetrical to this, are the figures of a Buddhist monk (holding a monk’s staff) and his attendant, who are about to receive Xuanzang’s travel party. This appears to depict the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party being welcomed by the monks of some temple along the way. Here Monkey and Zhu Bajie seem to have transformed into monks and are posing as Buddhist monks.

The above ten sides, beginning at due south and reaching due north, appear to be depicting the process of Xuanzang’s travel party going to India, while the ten sides starting at due north appears to depict their return journey [fig. 15] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The scene shows the small monk on the right passing something to Tripitaka. Based on iconography from the following images (see, for example, fig. 18), this could be portraying the monks receiving the scriptures in India.

Number Eleven: Returning home

image 11 (small)

Fig. 16 – (larger version)

On the left side, two horses carrying something on their backs and Xuanzang’s travel party are shown. On the left are two figures of kings with umbrellas held over their heads by attendants. And to the left of them, a figure of an official who seems to be guarding the palace is visible. This appears to be depicting the scene where the kings are sending off Xuanzang’s travel party, who are setting off on their journey home after obtaining the scriptures [fig. 16] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 124).

The “something” on the horses’ backs could be the scriptures.

Number Twelve: Saving their Master

image 12 (small)

Fig. 17 – (larger version)

On the left, the figure of a monk is caught by the figures of noblemen wearing crowns. On the left Monkey, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing and the horse are depicted. But Monkey and Zhu Bajie are assuming postures threatening to save the captured Monk Xuanzang. This seems to show the image of Monkey and company as guards, trying to save Xuanzang when he was being captured on their way back [fig. 17] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Here the figure wielding the staff is designated Monkey, with Pigsy standing behind him. Again, this makes more sense than Zhu Bajie attacking (as portrayed in figure 14).

Number Thirteen: Passing on the dharma

image 13 (small)

Fig. 18 – (larger version)

On the right side, Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse carrying the scriptures are depicted. Here Xuanzang is shown handing over some of the Buddhist scriptures to the figure of a monk on the left. This appears to show Xuanzang’s travel party passing on Buddhism along the way on their return journey [fig. 18] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Compare the shape of the Buddhist scriptures held by the monks with that in figure 15.

The panel draws on preexisting iconography regarding the sutras. The collection of holy writings are sometimes portrayed as a bundle of scrolls emitting an aura of holy light. See, for example, the 12th-century mural from Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu province, China (fig. 19).

Yulin Cave and Korean pagoda examples of sutras - small

 Fig. 19 – Detail of sutras from a 12th-century Yunlin cave mural (left) and the sutras from panel thirteen (right) (larger version). Both are shown stacked atop a horse. 

Number Fourteen: The emperor waits

image 14 (small)

Fig. 20 – (larger version)

In the middle of the right side, the figure of a king seated on a throne is depicted. On both sides of him figures of scholar-officials attend to him or sit. On the left, figures of officials are shown attending to duties or sitting. It seems this is depicting the scene of China’s emperor waiting for Xuanzang’s travel party [fig. 20] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Could the figures at the table actually be our heroes, with Xuanzang kneeling before a foreign king?

Number Fifteen: An ascetic or Monkey

image 15 (small)

Fig. 21 – (larger version)

On the left side, a figure of an ascetic is depicted sitting under a tree (Bodhi tree) meditating, and Xuanzang’s travel party and the horse are depicted. Here Xuanzang is assuming a posture, holding the monk’s staff and lifting his right hand trying to assert something. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang’s travel party meeting an ascetic and passing on Buddhism on their journey home [fig. 21] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Look closely and you will notice that Sun Wukong does not appear in the scene. Could the “ascetic” be Monkey kneeling before Xuanzang. If so, could this be a reference to the immortal and his master mending their relationship in chapter 58 after the trickery of the Six-Eared Macaque forced them apart?

Number Sixteen: Imperial court

image 1 (small)

Fig. 22 – (larger version)

On the right, a building is depicted and inside it a figure of a king sitting on a throne, and in front of him, a figure of a kneeling monk (Xuanzang) are portrayed. Outside the building, the figure of a young monk that seems to be Xuanzang’s attendant is depicted. Behind him, figures that seem to be civil and military officials are depicted. This seems to show the scene of Xuanzang meeting some king along his way [fig. 22](Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Could the “attendant” be Monkey?

Number Seventeen: Attacking a pagoda

image 2 (small)

Fig. 23 – (larger version)

On the left, a pagoda is depicted and in front of it, Zhu Bajie is carrying a club, assuming a posture trying to bring the pagoda down. Behind him Monk Xuanzang is lifting his right hand and insisting something, as if trying to stop him. This seems to show the soothing of Zhu Bajie’s aggressive, insulting actions towards Buddhism [fig. 23] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

Like figure 14, it would make more sense if Monkey is the one wielding the staff. Could this be a reference to chapter 62 when Sun captures two fish spirits found on a pagoda’s topmost floor?

Number Eighteen: Nearing home

image 3 (small)

Fig. 24 – (larger version)

In the upper left part, the sun symbolizing light is depicted. Headed in that direction Monk Xuanzang is taking the lead and behind him Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are shown hurrying their steps while leading the horse. Here Monk Xuanzang seems to be urging Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, rushing their journey home [fig. 24] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 125).

This includes Pigsy’s aforementioned motif. It is a better match for the ceramic pillow and incense burner examples from figure 19.

Number Nineteen: A deity appears

image 4 (small)

Fig. 25 – (larger version)

On the right, a figure of a celestial being is depicted and Xuanzang’s travel party is facing it symmetrically. This seems to show the fact that Xuanzang’s travel party received the blessing of celestial guardian deities [fig. 25] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).

I’m confused as to why the two characters on the far right are stacked one on the other. Per the original ink rubbing, could “they” actually be a singular figure, possibly someone of great importance given their size? Could the “deity” actually be Xuanzang being elevated in spiritual rank like in chapter 100?

Number Twenty: Teaching the dharma

image 5 (small)

Fig. 26 – (larger version)

On the left, something that seems to be a Buddhist altar is depicted. In front of it, Xuanzang is placed in the middle shown holding the monk’s staff, and Monkey, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are each shown performing different actions. Xuanzang is lifting his right hand, posed arguing something and you could say he is trying to educate his attendants, Monkey etc., in Buddhism [fig. 26] (Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso, 1993, p. 126).

While the line drawing looks more like a figure at a desk, it very well could be an altar with a Buddha statue. Could this depict the lives of our heroes after entering paradise?

IV. Other Pagodas

This is not the first time characters from the story cycle have appeared on a pagoda. Even older examples appear on the 13th-century tower of the Kaiyuan Temple from Quanzhou, Fujian province, China. In this previous article I described how the pagoda is covered with eighty life-sized carvings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, guardian deities, Buddhist saints, and eminent monks. Of note is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior that many consider to be an early example of Sun Wukong. Another is an armored, spear-wielding warrior believed to be the dragon prince who becomes the white dragon horse. Both occupy the same face of the eight-sided structure (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 47-48 and 49-51).

V. Conclusion

Zhu Bajie’s oldest known depictions come from a time coinciding with the late Yuan Dynasty, examples including a ceramic pillow and a fragmented incense burner from China and carvings on a pagoda from Korea. Built in 1348 by Goryeo representatives with ties to the Yuan court, the ten-story Gyeongcheonsa pagoda includes twenty Journey to the West-related scenes around the second level of the structure’s multifaceted three-tiered base. Many of the scenes are vague or focus more on kings and nobles in place of Tripitaka’s tribulations or instances of supernatural battles. One has to consider the story cycle was still solidifying at this point, so it’s possible some of the scenes depict episodes that did not make it into the final Ming version of the novel. But given the amount of royalty, is it possible the donors/planners were trying to ingratiate themselves with people of higher social rank? Or were they just trying to illustrate the great many countries visited by the pilgrims (each one ruled by a king) within the limited space provided?

The panels involving Pigsy for the most part use a consistent iconography borrowed from China. The aforementioned Yuan examples portray Pigsy leading the horse with one hand and with the other holding his signature rake, which rests on his shoulder, all while taking a large step forward. The pagoda panels, however, do not portray the rake, leaving our portly hero with his arm strangely floating in the air. Instead of a rake, some panels appear to show him wielding a staff. But the figure might actually be Sun Wukong, the elongated face just being an artifact from the original ink rubbings.

The fact that characters from the Journey to the West story cycle appear on Chinese and Korean pagodas alongside Buddhist deities proves just how intertwined the story is with the religion. The tale essentially symbolizes the quest for enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Therefore, such pictorial representations, especially the narrative-type scenes from Gyeongcheonsa, were probably meant to both entertain and spread the faith.

Update: 10-26-19

I have recently learned that the line drawings from Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso (1993) are all but useless. A prime example is number nineteen. As a reminder, here is the drawing:

Korean Pagoda scene with Red Boy - Line drawing

(larger version)

I originally suggested that the being on the cloud was Xuanzang being elevated in spiritual rank. I didn’t comment on the strange, flower-like cloud to the right of that figure because of its abstract shape.

Now here is a photo of the actual carving. It has been enhanced slightly for clarity.

Korean Pagoda scene with Red Boy - small

(larger version)

You’ll noticed that the cloud really is a flower with a defined bulb, stem, and leaves. There also appears to be a figure sitting on the flower, one who is surrounded by what looks to be spikes or swords. Here’s a closer look with a crude line drawing by the author.

Korean Pagoda scene with Red Boy - Close up of flower with new line drawing - small

(larger version)

Wall (2019) notes the figure on the flower is Red Boy and the figure on the cloud is Guanyin (pp. 2129-2130), making this a depiction of the former’s defeat at the end of what would be chapter 42 of the Ming Journey to the West:

After she received [treasure swords borrowed from heaven], the Bodhisattva [Guanyin] threw them into the air as she recited a spell: the swords were transformed into a thousand-leaf lotus platform. Leaping up, the Bodhisattva sat solemnly in the middle.


[Sun Wukong feigns defeat and tricks Red Boy into chasing him to Guayin’s domain] When the monster spirit suddenly discovered that Pilgrim was gone, he walked up to the Bodhisattva with bulging eyes and said to her, “Are you the reinforcement Pilgrim Sun brought here?” The Bodhisattva did not reply. Rolling the lance in his hands, the monster king bellowed, “Hey! Are you the reinforcement Pilgrim Sun brought here?” Still the Bodhisattva did not reply. The monster-spirit lifted his lance and jabbed at the heart of the Bodhisattva, who at once changed herself into a beam of golden light and rose into the air. Pilgrim followed her on her way up and said to her, “Bodhisattva, you are trying to take advantage of me! The monster-spirit asked you several times. How could you pretend to be deaf and dumb and not make any noise at all? One blow of his lance, in fact, chased you away, and you have even left behind your lotus platform.”

“Don’t talk,” said the Bodhisattva, “let’s see what he will do.” At this time, Pilgrim and Mokṣa both stood in the air shoulder to shoulder and stared down; they found the monster-spirit laughing scornfully and saying to himself, “Brazen ape, you’re mistaken about me! What sort of person do you think that I, Holy Child, happen to be? For several times you could not prevail against me, and then you had to go and fetch some namby-pamby Bodhisattva. One blow of my lance now has made her vanish completely. Moreover, she has even left the treasure lotus platform behind. Well, let me get up there and take a seat.” Dear monster-spirit. He imitated the Bodhisattva by sitting in the middle of the platform with hands and legs folded. When he saw this, Pilgrim said, “Fine! Fine! Fine! This lotus platform has been given to someone else!”

“Wukong,” said the Bodhisattva, “what are you mumbling again?”

“Mumbling what? Mumbling what?” replied Pilgrim. “I’m saying that the lotus platform has been given to someone else. Look! It’s underneath his thighs. You think he’s going to return it to you?”

“I wanted him to sit there,” said the Bodhisattva.

“Well, he’s smaller than you,” said Pilgrim, “and it seems that the seat fits him even better than it fits you.”

“Stop talking,” said the Bodhisattva, “and watch the dharma power.”

She pointed the willow twig downward and cried, “Withdraw!” All at once, flowers and leaves vanished from the lotus platform and the auspicious luminosity dispersed entirely. The monster king, you see, was sitting actually on the points of those swords. The Bodhisattva then gave this command to Mokṣa:

“Use your demon-routing cudgel and strike back and forth at the sword handles.”

Dropping from the clouds, Mokṣa wielded his cudgel as if he were demolishing a wall: he struck at the handles hundreds of times. As for that monster-spirit,

Both his legs were pierced till the points stuck out;
Blood spouted in pools as flesh and skin were torn.

Marvelous monster! Look at him! Gritting his teeth to bear the pain, he abandoned the lance so that he could use both hands to try to pull the swords out from his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 246 and 249-250).

Could the figures, one on top of the other’s shoulders, be an inventive way of showing Monkey and Guanyin’s disciple Moksha working together to subdue Red Boy?

This carving shows the Red Boy episode was known in Korea during the 14th-century, demonstrating that it predates the final Ming novel by centuries. The tale obviously would have taken time to form, become established in the accepted story cycle, and travel north, suggesting it may date to the early part of the corresponding Yuan-period when the Pagoda was raised in Korea, or possibly even before.

I hope to locate pictures of the other carvings to make this article more accurate.


1) See Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 60-74 for more information. The tale itself is translated in appendix B of the same work. See pages 179-188.

2) I am indebted to Sini Henningsen, BA (sinihenningsen@gmail.com) for translating the cited Korean material.


Brose, B. (2018). The pig and the prostitute: The cult of Zhu Bajie in modern Taiwan. Journal of Chinese Religions, 46 (2), pp. 167-196, DOI:

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ten-story Stone Pagoda from Gyeongcheonsa Temple. (n.d.). Retrieved January 23, 2019, from https://www.museum.go.kr/site/eng/relic/masterpiece/view?relicMpId=11

Wall, B. (2019). Dynamic texts as hotbeds for transmedia storytelling: A case study of the story universe of the Journey to the West. International Journal of Communication 13, 2116-2142. Retrieved from https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/10006/2648

Yegŭrin Kŏnchʻuksa Samuso 예그린 건축사사무소. (1993). Wŏn′gaksaji sipch′ŭng sŏkt′ap: silch′ŭk chosa pogosŏ 圓覺寺址十層石塔: 實測調查報告書. Seoul: Munhwajae Kwalliguk.