Upon Sun Wukong achieving immortality, his Buddho-Daoist master Subhuti 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.  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. 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 Subhuti offers to teach Monkey can be traced to Chinese astrology. The “Heavenly Ladle” (Tiangang, 天罡; i.e. theBig 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). 
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). 
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).
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.  Good fodder for fan fiction, no?
When these dichotomous stellar bodies were first acknowledged isn’t exactly clear.  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 Subhuti 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.
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 Subhuti 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:
This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.
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.
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).
Anderson, P. (2008) Tianxin zhengfa In F. Pregadio (ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 989-993). Longdon: Routledge.
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.
It recently occurred to me that Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (hereafter, JTTW) and Wu Song (武松) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (hereafter, WM) share a number of similarities. Each is a reformed supernatural spirit, a tiger-slayer, a Buddhist monk nicknamed “Pilgrim”, and a monastic martial artist, and each wears a moralistic headband and wields a weapon made from the same fanciful metal. Since the WM predates the publication of JTTW by nearly two hundred years, one might be tempted to speculate that the latter influenced the former. However, both story cycles first appeared during the Song dynasty, with various iterations from the Yuan to the Ming (see Ge, 2001). In this article I show the parallels are due to the respective narratives drawing on similar religious, folkloric, and historical source material. I feel such a comparison is important as it presents a fuller picture of the cultural landscape in which the Monkey King developed.
Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong’s imprisonment under a section of Five Elements Mountain (larger version).
Chapter one of the WM tells how one hundred and eight spirits were quelled by a Daoist sage during the Tang dynasty and imprisoned in a bottomless pit under a great stone slab. Four or five hundred years later during the Song dynasty, a haughty government official orders the slab dug up and removed to sate his curiosity, allowing the spirits to escape in a plume of miasmic black fumes and later be reborn on earth. Wu Song, whose main story appears in chapters 23 to 32, is one of these extraordinary men and women who come to use their martial, intellectual, or magical skills to rebel against the corrupt Song government. A heaven-sent stone slab in chapter 71 is later discovered to list the names of each bandit with the corresponding name of their previous incarnation, which make up the “Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars” (Tiangang sanshiliu xing, 天罡三十六星) and the “Seventy-Two Earthly Fiend Stars” (Disha qishier xing, 地煞七十二星). Wu Song is listed as the “Heavenly Harm Star” (Tianshang xing, 天傷星), the fourteenth of the Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars.
So we see both are formerly evil spirits who were conquered by a religious figure and imprisoned under stone for centuries. After being released, each rebellious figure becomes a force for good.
Monkey’s punishment can be traced to Tang and Song dynasty tales about the sage king Yu the Great imprisoning a simian water demon under a mountain. To my knowledge, the first recorded mention of this punishment appears in an early Ming zaju play in which Guanyin traps Sun Wukong under Flower Fruit Mountain. Wang (1992) suggests the stone slab from the WM was likely influenced by the Taishan stone (taishan shi, 泰山石) (fig. 2), a class of “evil-warding stones” (shigandang, 石敢當) often placed outside of homes and temples or at the intersection of roads as protection from malevolent forces (pp. 71-72 and 254). The Taishan stone represents Mount Tai and its deity. The landmass is considered the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. This means the evil would be completely immobilized by the great weight.
Fig. 2 – A modern Japanese example of a Taishan stone (larger version). They often read “Taishan stone takes upon itself” (Taishan shi gandang, 泰山石敢當), denoting its duty of protection (Wang, 1992, p. 71). Original image from Wikipedia.
Additionally, the pit containing the spirits can be traced to a Song-era Daoist ritual in which an exorcist draws the character for “well” (jing, 井/丼) on the ground, thereby dividing the ritual space into nine sections, representing the Nine Palaces (jiugong, 九宮),  and creating an earth prison. The Compilation of Rituals of the Way (Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元) reads:
[U]se the Sword mudrā to draw the character for “well” on the ground. Transform it into a black prison, ten-thousand zhang deep, and ten thousand li wide.  Black vapors burst out of it. Inside the prison, visualize how cangues and locks, as well as tools and machinery are laid out. Then recite the Spell for Fast Arrest [cu zhuo zhou, 促捉咒] (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 142).
The black vapors should remind readers of that released upon the spirits’ escape from their centuries-long imprisonment.
Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for mountain (shan, 山) (larger version). Fig. 4 – The Mountain mudra (shanzi jue, 山字訣) (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 5 – The double-handed Mount Tai mudra (Taishan jue, 泰山訣) (larger version). Original picture from here.
Another version of the ritual sees the spirits being coaxed or forced inside of a liquid-filled jar placed in the center of the well diagram. Afterwards, the opening is sealed with paper and the exorcist performs a mudra representing the immense pressing weight of a mountain (just like the aforementioned Taishan stone).  Meulenbeld (2007) writes:
The spirits captured within the grid of the Nine Palaces were kept inside their prison by symbolically pressing them down underneath a mountain. The symbolism here lies in the fact that the mountain was represented by a posture of the hand forming the character for mountain (“Mountain Mudrā” 山字訣 with the thumb, index-finger, and little finger all pointing upward [fig. 3 and 4]. Oftentimes the specific “mudrā of Mt. Tai” 泰山訣 [fig. 5], was used, representing the heaviest of all mountains. Moreover, many present-day exorcist talismans contain a character composed of a “demon” 鬼 underneath a “mountain” 山, namely the character wei 嵬 (p. 145, n. 92).
This means the respective punishments of Sun Wukong and Wu Song (and his brethren) are for all intents and purposes the same: they are imprisoned under mountains. The Taishan stone and the Mountain mudra are no doubt based on the same belief that mountains can immobilize evil spirits. Most importantly, the mudra likely influenced the concept of the Buddha transforming his hand into Five Elements Mountain in chapter 7 of JTTW. The fictional mountain is then a cognate of Mount Tai.
Fig. 6 – A paper fu talisman marked with an image of the Five Thunders(Wu Lei, 五雷) (larger version).
Lastly, the idea that evil spirits can be reformed and their powers put to good use—i.e. Sun Wukong protecting Tripitaka and Wu Song standing against a corrupt government—is tied to the Song-era “Thunder Ritual” (Leifa, 雷法). Meulenbeld (2007) explains stories from the Tang to the Song present the characteristics of the thunder god, Sire Thunder (Lei Gong, 雷公), becoming increasingly demonic, changing from a muscular deity to a number of animals and finally a Garuda-like bird monster. Likewise, while he was a respected force of nature in the past, Sire Thunder becomes an impulsive agent of heaven, one capable of being challenged and even captured by a brave individual or ritual master. The subjugation of this demonic god allows his captors to appropriate his heavenly power for their own purposes. The deity and his four brothers, comprising the “Five Thunders” (Wu Lei, 五雷) (fig. 6), can be summoned on command via talismans and charms and made to bring rain, heal sicknesses, or conquer demons.  Such ritual accouterments are just a small part of a much larger subsequent Thunder Ritual liturgy that is, according to one Song dynasty source, capable of “control[ing] the demons and spirits of the Sixfold Heavens, [expelling] evil and avert[ing] disaster” (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 67).
JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong’s first act of protecting Tripitaka upon his release is effortlessly killing a tiger with a single stroke of his staff. This happens the day after a huntsman had come to the monk’s defense by fighting a tiger for hours before dispatching it with a trident. The difference in power between the immortal and human heroes leads the monk to exclaim, “For the strong, there’s always someone stronger!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
WM, ch. 23 – Wu Song gets drunk on a trip home to see his elder brother, and after ignoring warnings not to take a mountain shortcut, the hero is set upon by a ferocious man-eating tiger. In the process of initially defending himself, Wu snaps his walking staff on a nearby tree, forcing him to resort to brute strength. He manages to wrestle the big cat’s face into the dirt and rains down sixty or seventy fist blows before it stops moving (fig. 7). He then finishes off the beast with the remains of his staff.
Fig. 7 – “Wu Song Beats the Tiger” (Wu Song da hu, 武松打虎) by Wang Kewei (王可偉) (larger version).
I can’t help but imagine the episode from JTTW is a sly nod to that from the WM. Tripitaka’s statement could be a way of propping up the Monkey King as the most powerful hero, one who can dispatch tigers with no effort at all.
The ability to kill a tiger was considered the sign of a powerful warrior in Chinese folklore. For example, A New Account of the Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu, 世說新語, 5th-century), a collection of historical and fictional anecdotes, tells the story of how the Western Jin general Zhou Chu (周處, 236–297) was originally a wayward youth considered the worst of Yixing‘s “Three Scourges”—a tiger, a dragon, and himself. Wanting to prove his strength, Zhou is said to have easily killed the tiger but disappeared for three days and nights fighting the dragon. The youth later returned to find the people celebrating his apparent death. This caused Zhou to mend his ways and eventually become a great general (Knechtges & Chang, 2010, pp. 2274-2275).
III. Buddhist monks with matching religious nicknames
JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk upon his release.  His master Tripitaka then gives him the religious nickname “Pilgrim Sun” (Sun xingzhe, 孫行者), and the character is often simply referred to as “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者; literally: “traveler”) throughout the narrative.
WM, ch. 31 – Wu Song kills a thug and his Song government official friend for framing the hero for theft and attempting to have him murdered en route to a prison camp. As a result, he is forced to dress as a Buddhist monk, taking a slain priest’s religious garb and ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) and calling himself “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者).
The term Pilgrim refers to a “postulant”, a lay Buddhist acolyte who has yet to be ordained but lives as an untonsured monk, one expected to follow the Five Precepts (Pali: Pañcasīla; Ch: Wujie, 五戒) against killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and drinking alcohol (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1011-1012). Ch’en (1956) writes that such trainees were historically required to complete a long period of intense religious study and pass a rigorous examination before being awarded the aforementioned ordination certificate (fig. 8), thereby becoming a full-fledged monk. This certification system was originally initiated during the Tang to weed out those wanting to evade the draft and taxes, as well as bandits like Wu Song who sought refuge from the law. However, during the Song, the government sold these documents like war bonds in order to help pay for their ongoing struggle against the barbarians of northern China. Therefore, ordination certificates were often exuberantly expensive,  meaning those who had the training but could not afford the document were doomed to live as a postulant. This contrasts with the thousands upon thousands of people who bought their way into the Buddha’s fold simply for the draft and tax exemption. They forwent the training altogether and were monks only on paper. This continued practice naturally resulted in a major decline in the quality of monks during the Song.
Fig. 8 – A present day monk showing his ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) (larger version). Original image found here.
Having read the above, we can say Sun Wukong is called Pilgrim because he assists a Buddhist priest but lacks the religious education and ordination certificate. While Wu Song has the document (taken from a dead priest), he lacks the required education. It should be remembered that Wu is a bandit-turned-monk. At the same time, both characters typify the “itinerant monk”, the second meaning of Pilgrim (xingzhe, 行者), as both are on a journey: Sun is traveling to India and Wu is traveling the road—albeit secretly to meet with fellow outlaws. But I would like to suggest that the titles may have also been meant as a jab at the violent, untrained riffraff passing for monks during the Song (more on this below). After all, the earliest references to our characters with these titles come from this period.
“Pilgrim Wu” appears in scholar-painterGong Shengyu‘s (龔聖予, 1222–1307) In Praise of the Thirty-Six [men] of Song Jiang (Song Jiang sanshiliu zan, 宋江三十六贊), a collection of poems eulogizing each of the thirty-six bandits then associated with the early WM story cycle.
Pilgrim Wu Song: You resisted women, obeyed the Five Precepts, among Wine, Women, Wealth and Force, you were inclined to kill people (Børdahl, 2013, p. 29).
Gong claims the poems were based on “stories of the streets and tales of the lanes” (jie tan xiang yu, 街談巷語), popular narratives performed by storytellers at local venues. Given that such early tales no longer exist, its impossible to say whether or not Wu Song was always a monk or a bandit-turned-impostor monk like his counterpart from the published edition of the WM (Børdahl, 2013, pp. 28-29). Either way, this suggests Wu’s predilection for killing was a prominent aspect of his story cycle by at least the 13-century.
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), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Like Wu Song, Monkey is also depicted as comfortable with killing.For example, in chapter five, he turns an evil sorcerer’s wife into grass so that she will be eaten by a young monk who had been transformed by her husband into a donkey. After both parties are changed back to normal, Monkey threatens to “mow down all the grass of [his] house” (i.e. kill his wife and anyone else he loves) if the man ever misuses his magic again.  Later in chapter six, Monkey brutally tortures and then kills a white tiger demon who tries to eat his master (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1181-1207)
Fig. 9 – The “Pilgrim” Wu Song (right) and the “Flower Monk” Lu Zhishen (left) from a recent WM television series (larger version).
Additionally, two early WM-related tales titled “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者) and the “Flower [Tattooed] Monk” (Hua heshang, 花和尚) are listed under the “staff” (ganbang, 桿棒) category of popular stories in The Drunken Man’s Talk (Zuiweng tanlu, 醉翁談錄), a circa 13th-century collection of short stories, anecdotes, and poetry.  So-called staff tales were character-driven narratives about heroes, in this case Wu Song and his fellow outlaw-turned-monkLu Zhishen (fig. 9), righting injustices using staves.  I should note that The Story describes the Monkey Pilgrim wielding two such weapons in his adventures.
Sun and Wu’s association with killing and staff fighting were likely influenced by historical warrior monks and bandit monks. Shahar (2008) explains warrior monks were seasoned fighters who lived in subsidiary shrines away from the devout community and protected monasteries in times of trouble. These “monks” regularly drank wine and ate meat, associating the latter with physical strength and fighting ability, and even worshiped wrathful deities like Vajrapani, who is described in scripture as killing in the name of Buddha. Their weapon of choice was a wooden staff, which was originally chosen for being non-lethal. However, a metal staff like the one wielded by Sun Wukong in JTTW was sometimes used by warrior monks for its killing capacity in times of war. The most famous monastic staff method belongs to the Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) (video 1). After the Shaolin warrior monks helped the Ming dynasty government repelJapanese pirate incursions from the Chinese coast during the 1550s, their staff method was touted in military encyclopedias and civilian weapons manuals. 
Video 1 – A demonstration of Shaolin Wind Devil Staff (Fengmo gun, 風魔棍).
Bandit monks are outlaws like Wu Song who dressed as monks to avoid problems with the law.  Lorge (2012) comments that the characteristics of bandit monks were nearly indistinguishable from that of warrior monks.
[I]t is easy to see how bandit-monks are virtually the same as warrior-monks. These men drank wine, at meat, and had sex with women—practices alien to true Buddhist monks. A number of Buddhist authorities were deeply troubled by the presence of monks who directly violated Buddhist precepts. We do not know whether there was a sharp break between ordained and trained monks who carefully followed monastic rules in their search for enlightenment and men who simply claimed to be monks, wore monastic robes, shaved their heads, but otherwise did not follow monastic rules (p. 174).
He goes on to explain that the Shaolin monastery, for example, became heavily militarized after a nasty defeat in 1356 during the Red Turban Rebellion and so may have replenished its ranks using formerly deactivated soldiers at the turn of the Ming dynasty. Such violence-prone men would naturally turn towards a life of crime. Therefore, these bandits “would have been easy enough to recruit and send out as warrior-monks to fight against [other] bandits” (Lorge, 2012, p. 175).
So we see there existed a class of staff-bearing pseudo-monks who regularly took life and drank alcohol. Serving as mainly monastic bodyguards, these fighters lacked the devotion to the precepts and, especially, the religious education to be considered real monks. Therefore, Sun and Wu’s characterization as such warriors may further explain why they are called Pilgrim.
IV. Monastic martial artists
I want to preface this section by stating upfront that it overlaps to some degree with the previous one. But while the former explored Sun and Wu’s connection to staff-wielding warrior monks by way of their characterization in late Song oral literature, this one will discuss the connection between their images as monastic martial artists and the historical practice of boxing by warrior monks.
While the Great Sage is primarily known for his skill with the staff, he displays a mastery of unarmed combat twice in JTTW. Chapter 51, for example, describes Sun and a demonic opponent fighting with a long list of punches, kicks, grapples, and throws.
Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!
Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”; The double-kicking feet fly up. They pound the ribs and chests; They stab at galls and hearts. “The Immortal pointing the Way”; “Lao Zi Riding the Crane”; “A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful; “A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious. The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”; The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.” The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned; The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag. A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge; A carp’s snapped-back flip. Sprinkling flowers over the head; Tying a rope around the waist; A fan moving with the wind; The rain driving down the flowers. The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,” And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.” The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course. How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs? The two of them fought for many rounds— None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13)
I show in this article that many of the named techniques are real and are still practiced to this day. Furthermore, the poem’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range “is typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature”, as noted by Shahar (2008, p. 117). He continues, “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century military experts allude to various short-range styles including ‘Cotton Zhang’s Close-Range Fist’ (Mian Zhang duanda [綿張短打]), ‘Ren Family Close-Range Fist’ (Renjia duanda [任家短打]), and ‘Liu [Family] Close-Range Fist’ (Liu duanda [劉短打])” (Shahar, 2008, p. 117). This shows the author-compiler of JTTW consulted real martial arts material to make this fight more authentic.
Having donned the monk persona, Pilgrim Wu stops by an inn while on a journey to meet with fellow outlaws in chapter 32. The monk’s great tolerance for wine (fig. 13) and request for meat surprises the inn keeper, whom Wu slaps to the ground upon seeing the man serve better wine and even chicken to a different patron. The patron and his friends attack the monk but are soundly beaten by his superior strength and fighting ability. 
Wu’s characterization as a meat-eating, alcohol-drinking monk with a thirst for combat is obviously tied to the warrior and bandit monks discussed earlier.
Fig. 15 – A modern depiction of Pilgrim Wu holding a jar of wine and brandishing a saber (larger version). By Leewiart user Du_YH. Original image found here.
While it precedes Wu becoming a monk, the best example of his martial prowess appears in chapter 29:
But Jiang was scornful of his foe [Wu Song], thinking that he was drunk, and he closed in rapidly. Quicker than it takes to tell, Wu Song flourished his two fists at Jiang’s face, then turned and started away. Enraged, Jiang raced after him. Wu Song lashed out backwards with his left foot and kicked him in the groin. As Jiang clasped his injured section and doubled over in pain, Wu Song whirled around and swung his right foot in a flying kick to the forehead that slammed the big man over on his back. Wu Song planted one foot on his chest and, with keg-like fists, began pommeling Jiang’s head.
This maneuver we just described—the flourish of fists and turning away, the backward left kick, the whirling around and the forward right kick—is called “the Jade-Circle Steps with Duck and Drake Feet” [Yuhuan bu, yuanyang jiao, 玉環步, 鴛鴦腳]. It was one of Wu Song’s most skillful moves. A remarkable trick! (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 332).
Wu’s style is possibly another name for “Piercing Foot” (Chuojiao, 戳腳), a northern Chinese martial art known for its dynamic kicking skills. Modern folklore traces the style to the Song dynasty due to its association with WM heroes. 
While JTTW never openly describes Sun Wukong training in martial arts, it does imply that he learns armed and unarmed combat as a young monk studying under the Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti. Monkey learning boxing in a religious institution is actually a faithful depiction of one aspect of monastic life during the Ming. Shahar (2008) shows Shaolin warrior monks took up unarmed combat during the late Ming-period, when boxing saw an explosion in popularity in Chinese culture (as demonstrated by the named techniques recorded in JTTW and the WM). Textual evidence suggests the first styles practiced by Shaolin were Drunken Eight Immortals Boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳), popularized by Jackie Chan in The Drunken Master (1978), and Lost Track Boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), the fighting style of the national hero Huo Yuanjia popularized by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972). The monks may have adopted boxing as a form of calisthenic exercise. To this they later added Daoyin (導引), a regimen of yoga-like Daoist breathing and stretching exercises designed to absorb qi (氣) energy and circulate it throughout the body. Therefore, the monks elevated their boxing practice from mere fighting to a form of spiritual cultivation. This synthesis of martial and spiritual practices simultaneously took place in wider Ming culture, leading to the creation of so-called “internal” (Neijia, 内家) martial arts like Taiji and Xingyi boxing. 
Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the monk Sengchou showing off his newfound powers by jumping above the rafters of the Shaolin monastery (larger version). Original image found here.
That’s not to say Shaolin monks did not practice unarmed martial arts prior to the 17th-century. It’s just boxing was only a form of entertainment practiced by a few and not part of the official training regimen. For example, the Tang-era anthology Complete Records from Court and Commonality (Chaoye qian zai, 朝野僉載, c. 8th-century), contains the story of the famed dhyana master and Shaolin monk Sengchou (僧稠, 480–560) beseeching a religious statue of Vajrapani to bless him with martial strength so that the other monks, who enjoy sparring in their free time, will stop bullying him. After six straight days of prayer, the deity appears before him and offers the young novice a bowl of sinews to eat. Sengchou initially refuses due to the prohibition against eating meat, but he ultimately finishes the meal for fear Vajrapani will smite him with his vajra club. Like the radioactive spider bite that changes Peter Parker into Spider-Man, the sinews transform the monk, blessing him with a god-like physique and miraculous powers, such as the ability to walk on walls, leap great heights (fig. 10), and lift thousands of pounds. Most importantly, it drastically improves his fighting skills, so much so, in fact, that his former tormentors come to grovel in his presence (Shahar, 2008, pp. 35-37).
From whom might have Sengchou’s religious brothers learned their unarmed martial arts centuries prior to it becoming an official part of Shaolin’s training regimen? The simplest answer is someone like Wu Song who learned boxing as a bandit or soldier and later joined the sangha. Readers may recall such violence-prone men may have been tapped as warrior monks to protect the monastery in times of trouble. They could have easily passed their fighting skills to the next generation of warrior monks.
A good example of a soldier-turned-monk is the brutish former general Huiming (惠明) from the Platform Sutra (Liuzu tanjing, 六祖壇經, written from the 8th to 13th-c.). The text tells how the disciples of Hongren (弘忍, 601–674), the fifth Chan patriarch, were enraged when their master passed the mantle onto the illiterate postulant laborer Huineng (惠能, 638–713). Hundreds of monks are said to have pursued the fleeing Pilgrim south intent on forcefully taking the patriarchal symbols of the begging bowl and robe for themselves. Huiming persevered and managed to corner Huineng on a mountain. He attempted to wrestle the treasures away, but, by a miracle, he could not lift them. Realizing Huineng was the rightful heir, the monk became his disciple (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 11-12). Jealousy and anger are obviously qualities unbecoming of a real monk. In fact, the only thing that separates Huiming’s actions of hounding and attempted strong arm robbery from a bandit is his monkhood.
So we see Sun Wukong typifies a next generation warrior monk who learns boxing inside a religious institution. Wu Song typifies the soldier or bandit who learns boxing outside the monastery and later becomes a monastic fighter, one who passes on their skills to younger monks.
V. Moralistic headbands
JTTW, ch. 14 – The Monkey King is tricked into wearing a brocade hat under the pretense of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. However, the hat houses a golden fillet (jinguquan, 金箍圈) that soon takes root and painfully tightens around the immortal’s head when the correct spell is chanted (fig. 11). This allows the feeble monk Tripitaka to control the celestial monkey’s unruly nature.
WM, ch. 31 – When Wu Song disguises himself as a monk, he wears the garments of a priest who had previously been killed by bandits. The habit includes a metal “Precepts fillet” (jiegu, 戒箍) that he wears over his long hair (fig. 12).
Fig. 11 – (Top left) Sun Wukong’s golden fillet from the 1986 JTTW television series (larger version). Fig. 12 – (Top right) Wu Song’s Precepts fillet from a recent WM television series (larger version). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) A late 11th to early 12th-century copper alloy statue of the wrathful deity Hevajra (larger version). He is portrayed with the same Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire as his followers, including the headband, arm cuffs, a bone (skull) rosary, bracelets, a girdle, anklets, and a tiger skin sarong. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 14 – (Bottom center) A detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet featured in an 11th-century mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China (larger version). It has been slightly enhanced for clarity. A fuller version of the image can be seen here. Fig. 15 – (Bottom right) A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (larger version). From Bonds, 2008, p. 178.
I explain in this article that the heroes’ fillets share a common origin in an ancient Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband, one representing the Buddha Akshobhya and thereby moral self-restraint. It was one of several ritual items worn while worshiping wrathful protector deities like Heruka. Such deities were often depicted wearing the same attire as their followers, leading to the band becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits (fig. 13). The Hevajra Tantra (Ch: Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經), the original 8th-century Indian Buddhist text mentioning the ritual items, was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century. Interestingly, the earliest example of Monkey wearing the circlet (likely symbolizing the taming of the monkey of the mind) hails from this time (fig. 14). But Wu’s association with the headband was likely influenced by the Precepts fillet worn by the warrior monks of Chinese Opera(fig. 15). These heroes wear the band to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328).
VI. Bin steel weapons
JTTW, ch. 3 – Sun Wukong comes into possession of a magic staff (fig. 16) taken from the Dragon King’s underwater treasury. A poem in chapter 75 describes the weapon being hand-forged from Bin steel (bintie, 鑌鐵) by the high Daoist god Laozi.
WM, ch. 31 – Apart from wearing the fallen monk’s religious clothing, Wu Song also takes possession of his Buddhist sabers made from “snowflake pattern” Bin steel (huaxue bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) (fig. 17). 
Fig. 16 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong holding his magic Bin steel staff (larger version). Fig. 17 – A modern painting of Wu Song wielding his Bin steel sabers (larger version). Artist unknown.
Sun’s staff and Wu’s sabers are not the first bin steel weapons to appear in Chinese literature. A bladed pole arm example is the Bin steel great sword(bintie da podao, 鑌鐵大潑刀) wielded by a bandit from the Old incidents in Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事, mid-13th-century), a storytelling prompt containing WM material predating the published novel.  Another pole arm is the Bin steel spear (bintie qiang, 鑌鐵槍) wielded by a general from The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt (San sui pingyao zhuan, 三遂平妖傳, c. late 16th-century), which also takes place in the Song-era (Luo, n.d.).
I explain in this article that Bin steel is a real world metal akin to Damascus that was imported to China from Persia starting from the 6th-century, and the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom by the 12th-century. The metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel and was often used to make strong, durable, and sharp knives and swords, some worth more than silver. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). This is a simultaneous declaration of his unbreakable resolve and a statement praising the seemingly indestructible metal. Therefore, JTTW and the WM portray the finest of heroes wielding the finest of steel weapons.
As shown, the parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song are the result of JTTW and the WM borrowing from the same cultural source material. Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements mountain and Wu’s time as an evil spirit trapped in a well beneath stone was influenced by the Daoist belief that mountains—be they sympathetically represented by stone or hand mudras—could immobilize malevolent forces. Likewise, our heroes’ portrayal as reformed demons can be tied to the Daoist “Thunder Ritual”, which aims to conquer evil and repurpose its power for good. Sun and Wu’s image as tiger-slayers was influenced by stories of tiger-killing strongmen from Chinese folklore. Their religious nickname “Pilgrim” and characterization as monastic martial artists can be tied to uneducated pseudo-monks and holy warriors skilled in both staff fighting and boxing from Chinese history. Their religious fillets were inspired by an Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband worn as a reminder of moral self-restraint. And the metal comprising Sun and Wu’s weapons can be traced to a real world steel prized in ancient China for its durability.
This was a fun piece to write because it shows the Great Sage obviously didn’t develop in a vacuum. It’s interesting to me that much of Sun and Wu’s influences hail from the Song dynasty. These include the Daoist rituals for trapping and reforming spirits, the Pilgrim nickname and characterization as staff-wielding warrior monks, and the translation of the tantric text mentioning the moralistic headband and Monkey’s earliest known depiction wearing it.
I have written a follow up article explaining the parallels between Monkey and the historical Buddha.
1) The nine palaces are a cosmic geographical concept in which stars are mapped according to the five Chinese cardinal directions(N, S, E, W, and center) and the four intermediate directions. Thus, they represent the universe as a whole.
2) A zhang (丈) is ten Chinese feet, so 10,000 zhang would be 100,000 feet. A li (里) is one-third of a Western mile. More importantly, in Chinese culture, the number 10,000 represents an infinitely large concept. Therefore, by squaring the number, the well prison is described as an unfathomably large and inescapable place. I would like to thank the Dragon Ball scholar Derek Padula (his website) for suggesting this note as it helps better visualize the prison. He was kind enough to read an earlier draft of this article.
3) See Meulenbeld, 2007, pp. 143-145 for more information about the jar ritual. It likely influenced media that influenced Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame to create the Mafuba (魔封波; Ch: mofengbo), or “Demon Containment Wave” ritual. Padula (2016) describes the etymology and background of the Mafuba (pp. 122 to 126). He graciously provided me with a digital copy of his book.
4) See chapter two.
5) This is not openly stated in chapter 14 but is implied in chapter 27. See this article for more information.
6) Ch’en (1956) gives examples. During the Song, the official selling prices for the certificates ranged from one hundred thirty to eight hundred strings of cash. To put these prices in perspective, he notes the lowest cost would pay for the equivalent of seventy-five bolts of silk or one hundred twenty-five bushels of rice (pp. 316-317).
7) Wivell, 1994, p. 1187. The full episode appears on pages 1186-1187.
8) Ge, 2001, p. 38. The eight types of stories appearing in The Drunken Man’s Talk are: “lingguai [靈怪] (spirits and demons), yanfen [煙粉] (rouge and powder), chuanqi [傳奇] (marvels), gong’an [公案] (court cases), podao [朴刀] (broadsword), ganbang [桿棒] (staff), shenxian [神仙] (immortals), and yaoshu [妖術] (sorcery)” (Ge, 2001, p. 209, n. 6).
9) Huang, 2018, p. 61 and n. 8. It’s interesting to note that the monk Lu Zhishen is said to wield an impossibly heavy metal staff like Sun Wukong. See this article for more details.
10) See chapters three and four.
11) Lorge (2012) cites a Tang-era story about an 8th-century prince who discovers an abandoned wardrobe while hunting in the forest. It is found to contain a young woman who had been kidnapped the previous night by bandits but was subsequently whisked away by two monks among the group. The prince replaces her with a wild bear that later mauls the bandit monks to death when the wardrobe is reopened (pp. 106-107). The monks were likely impostors like Wu Song.
12) Wu Song is famed in Chinese folklore for his martial arts ability. This led to the creation of a wushu form known as “Wu Song Breaks Manacles” (Wu Song tuo kao, 武松脫拷), which mimics a person fighting with their hands clasped as if shackled, forcing them to rely on doubled fist and elbow strikes and lots of kicking. The form is based on an episode from chapter 30 of the WM when the hero is attacked by assassins while being led in shackles to a prison camp. Wu Song is forced to defend himself in such a manner before breaking his restraints.
13) See, for example, Chlumsky, 2005, p. 72. The author also repeats folklore further tying the style to the Song dynasty heroes Yue Fei and his teacher Zhou Tong.
14) See chapters five and six.
15) I think it’s interesting that each weapon is presented as having somelevel of sentience. Called the “As-you-wish” Gold-Banded Cudgel (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), Sun’s staff grows or shrinks according to his whim. Wu’s peerless blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350),suggesting a magic longing for combat. The sentience of each weapon is based on different sources, however. I note in this article that the compliance of Monkey’s weapon is based on the Ruyi (如意) scepter, a symbol of religious and secular authority that was at some point associated with the similarly named wish-fulfilling cintamanijewel (ruyi zhu, 如意珠) from Buddhist mythology. The vocal ability of Wu Song’s blades may be based on the Chinese belief that swords have a soul. Two prime examples are the famed treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) made by the legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi (歐冶子) during the Spring and Autumn period. Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-ccentury) described them as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).
16) See Luo (n.d.). The original source says “po bintie dadao” (潑鑌鐵大刀). This is likely a transcription error. I have corrected it above.
Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Børdahl, V. (2013). Wu Song fights the tiger: The interaction of oral and written traditions in the Chinese novel, drama and storytelling. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.
Ch’en, K. (1956). The sale of monk certificates during the Sung dynasty: A factor in the decline of Buddhism in China. The Harvard Theological Review 49(4), pp. 307-327.
Chen, P., & Petersen, V. (2016). The development of Chinese martial arts fiction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Chlumsky, N. (2015). Inside kungfu: Chinese martial arts encyclopedia. [n.p.]: Lulu.com.
Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Wang, J. (1992). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin, and the journey to the west. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.
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. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Different mythologies and fictional universes have their own magical metals. For example, Marvel’s Asgardians have Uru and the elves of Middle-earth have Mithril. The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE) hosts a long list of magical weapons, armor, and objects made from all kinds of metal (steel, iron, brass, gold, silver, etc.). A specific type is called Bin iron or Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) and it is mentioned several times in the narrative.
I. Mentions in the novel
When Zhu Bajie first faces Sun Wukong in combat, he recites a poem praising the celestial origin of his weapon (fig. 1).
This is divine ice steel greatly refined, 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; Twelve Gods of Time expended all their skills. They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade, And brass rings were cast with dropping gold leaves. […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382)
The “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) is likely an error for “divine Bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. This may also have something to do with the snowflake-like grain pattern of Bin steel (see sections one and two below). Take note that the metal is associated with Laozi and his furnace. We will see this association again.
Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie with his battle rake (larger version).
On the cusp of his battle with the Monkey King, the demon King Silverhorn (Yinjiao wang, 銀角王) is described as wearing polished armor made from the material.
He wears a phoenix helmet white than snow And armor made of bright [Bin] steel.  The belt on his waist is dragon’s tendon. Plum-flower shaped gaiters top his goat-skin boots. He seems the living Lord of Libation Stream; He looks no different from Mighty Spirit. He holds in his hands the sword of seven stars, Stern and imposing in a towering rage (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 127).
The monster is later revealed to be one of two young attendants of Laozi’s furnace sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145).
The Monkey King recites a poem about his divine staff (fig. 2) prior to battling a lion demon.
The rod of [Bin] steel nine cyclic times refined Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself. King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth. In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars, Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold. Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts; On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn. Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang, Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men. Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly, Emitting bright strands of five-colored most. […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)
Here again we see Laozi is associated with the material.
Fig. 2 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).
II. The metal of heroes
I want to reiterate the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sun Wukong, two of Tripitaka’s three main disciples and bodyguards, have weapons made from Bin steel (Sha Wujing’s staff is made from a heavenly tree). Each is the product of Laozi refining Bin steel in his magic furnace and smelting the polearms by hand. Just like dwarves imbued Thor’s uru-metal hammer with magical abilities, so too did the high god of Daoism for Zhu and Sun’s weapons. Each has supernatural durability and the power of transformation. In fact, the Monkey King’s staff is one of the strongest weapons in the entire novel, making its association with Bin steel very important. After all, a great hero requires a great weapon.
Another example of a hero wielding a Bin steel weapon is Wu Song (武松) from the classic Chinese novel the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). The former constable-turned-outlaw comes into possession of a pair of Buddhist sabers (fig. 3) made from “snowflake [pattern] Bin steel” (xuehua bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) and housed in a sharkskin sheath.  They are described as being made from the “finest steel, and obviously hadn’t been made in a day” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 317). In addition, the blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magical, sentient longing for combat. Wu later sates this desire by using the sabers in a prolonged skirmish with an evil Daoist priest, eventually beheading the brigand with a single strike (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, pp. 352-353).
Fig. 3 – A modern drawing of Wu Song with his Buddhist sabers (larger version).
III. Real world history
Wagner (2008) suggests the name Bin (鑌) is a transliteration of a foreign term, possibly the Sanskrit word Piṇḍa, meaning “steel” or “lump” (p. 270). The material is mentioned in Chinese records of the 6th and 7th-centuries as being imported from Persia (Bosi, 波斯) and Jaguda (Cao, 漕, modern day Ghazni) in Afghanistan. Mentions of the metal strangely disappear for centuries, only to reappear in early 10th-century records. This is possibly due to the disruption of Persian trade wrought by theIslamic conquest of Persiaand the subsequent rise of Muslim trade with the east. Bin steel is believed to have originally been transported in a raw “lump” state prior to smelting in China. But the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom, for a 12th-century report shows the metal was produced in Inner Mongolia. The early Yuan government is known in 1275 to have established the “Office for Bin iron” (Bintie ju, 鑌鐵局), which possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Wagner, 2008, pp. 268-272).
Fig. 4 – Persian-made Damascus steel blades of the 13th-century (larger version). Take note of the intricate grain pattern. Bin steel was known to have various patterns (see below).
The best description of the material comes from Cao Zhao’s (曹昭) The Essential Criteria of Antiquities (Ge gu yao lun, 格古要論, 1368), an early guide for connoisseurs.
Bin iron: It is produced by the Western Barbarians. Some [types] have a spiral self-patterning, while others have a sesame-seed or snowflake patterning. When a knife or sword is wiped clean and treated with ‘gold thread’ alum, [the pattern] appears. Its value is greater than silver.
An ancient saying holds that “knowing the strength of iron is like knowing gold” [i.e., the ability to judge the properties of steel is as valuable as the ability to assay the purity of gold]. Forgeries have a black patterning. One should examine [a steel object] very carefully.
There are three rules for knives. The first is that in the blade there should be perfect control of fire, metal, and water [i.e., the blade should be correctly quench-hardened and tempered]. The second is that the haft should be of xichi wood from the Western Barbarians, and the third is that the sheath should be of Tatar birchbark.
I once had a pair of scissors of bin iron, of exquisite workmanship. It had a raised gilt pattern on the inside, and on the outside a silver-inlaid inscription in Islamic characters (Wagner, 2008, p. 271).
So we see Bin steel is comparable to Damascus steel (fig. 4), as both require quench-hardening and produce a number of intricate grain patterns visible after an acid treatment. One such pattern is the snowflake pattern associated with Wu Song’s sabers (and possibly Zhu Bajie’s rake). Most importantly, the metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269).  I take this statement to be symbolic of his unbreakable resolve. At the same time, it shows Bin steel was considered exceptionally durable.
Highly durable Bin steel weapons could have seemed like magic in comparison to those made from lesser quality metal. Therefore, it’s interesting that Journey to the West presents the metal being smelted by a god in his magic furnace. It seems only natural that a magical forge would produce the finest steel. In fact, after the 10th-century, the very name Bin steel came to be used as a term for any type of exquisite steel (Wagner, 2008, p. 271). So the author-compiler of Journey to the West may have been using it in that sense instead of referring to imported Persian steel.
I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.
1) Anthony Yu’s original translation says “…bright Persian steel.” The historical origin is discussed in the second section of the article.
2) While the Water Margin presents them as sabers, Buddhist knives (jiedao, 戒刀, lit: “precept knife”) were historically small, unadorned, curved, finger-length blades used for cutting robes, trimming fingernails, opening wounds, or slicing food (Yifa, 2009, p. 250, n. 37).
3) Wagner (2008) states the story is listed as coming from the 9th-century but the housing source is from the 11th-century (p. 269, n. 103). Therefore, it likely originates after the reappearance of Bin steel in Chinese records during the early 10th-century.
Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: vol. 1-4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.
Yifa. (2009). The Origins of Buddhist monastic codes in China: An annotated translation and study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i press.