Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of tens of thousands of arms. [1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

I. Explanation

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this pattern to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the Big Dipper pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping, three pace-style walking pattern. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.

(Note 06/15/19: Feng Dajian of Nankai University notified me via Twitter that he disagrees with Anthony C. Yu’s 2012 revised translation (cited above) associating the “True Sayings” with the Buddhist Dharani. This is because he feels the ritual is overtly Daoist, noting that the religion also has its own True Sayings.)


Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hard-won “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of hours or minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008).

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few hours or minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.

II. Conclusion

This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few hours or minutes.

Despite the ritual’s relationship to internal cultivation and the attainment of immortality, the process only bestows the princes with new, adamantine bodies capable of superhuman strength. They in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. The princes gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods and sages through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known colloquially as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.


1) The original English translation says “a thousand arms”, but the Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation has been corrected

2) Andersen (2008) notes the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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

Master Subhuti’s Curriculum

Last updated: 11/27/2018

This entry will explore the curriculum that Sun Wukong follows while studying under the immortal sage Master Subhuti in India. Monkey stays in the immortal’s monastery for a total of ten years, the first seven living as a junior Daoist monk and the last three as a close disciple of Subhuti. Apart from menial tasks like fetching firewood and water, tending the garden, and cleaning the monastery grounds, Monkey first receives lessons on human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and minor ritual procedures like incense burning. These are taught to him by his senior religious brothers, thereby freeing up the Sage to teach higher level lessons on philosophy, internal alchemy, magic, and other skills to his more advanced students.

I should point out that Sun’s greatest asset during his training appears to be a supernatural mental acuity. Upon becoming Subhuti’s close disciple, Monkey rapidly masters skills that even his more senior religious brothers cannot grasp. The novel therefore refers to our hero as “someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122). Monkey’s intellect allows him to outsmart many opponents and bypass many obstacles during his later adventures.

I. Overtly stated

These subjects are overtly mentioned in chapter two.

1) Chinese Philosophy – One poem best describes the philosophical lessons taught by Subhuti:

With words so florid and eloquent
That gold lotus sprang from the ground.
The doctrine of three vehicles he subtly rehearsed,
Including even the laws’ minutest tittle.
The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance:
His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven.
For a while he lectured on Dao;
For a while he spoke on Chan–
To harmonize the Three Parties is a natural thing.
One word’s elucidation filled with truth
Points to the birthless showing nature’s mystery
(Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122).

This poem is a prime example of the Ming syncretic philosophy of the Three Teachings (Sanjiao, 三教): Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. “The doctrine of the three vehicles” could refer to the three main branches of Buddhism, namely Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, but could also be referring to the Three Teachings (the same as the “Three Parties” mentioned further down the poem). “The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance” refers to the bingfu (秉拂), or “to take hold of the whisk”, a metonym for a sermon by a learned Chan (Zen) master conducted from a high chair. The phrase derives from the fly whisk (Sk: vālavyajana; Ch: fuzi, 拂子; Jp: hossu, 払子), a symbol of religious authority held in hand during a lesson (Robert & David, 2013, p. 120). “His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven” refers to the Nine Heavens (jiutian, 九天) of Daoism (Pregadio, 2008, pp. 593-594). And of course the poem goes onto mention Subhuti lecturing on both Chan and the Dao, thereby identifying him as a teacher of unparalleled knowledge.

An immortal lecturing on Buddhism may come as a surprise to some readers. However, it should be remembered that Subhuti is based on one of the Buddha’s historical disciples.

Sun Wukong and Subhuti

Sun Wukong and Master Subhuti. Take note of the fly whisk in the sage’s hands. Photomanipulation by the author (larger version). The original photo of the monk can be found on this blog about the fly whisk.

2) The Secret of Immortality – As I’ve explained in this article, Sun achieves immortality via breathing exercises designed to absorb yang energy during prescribed times (after midnight and before noon), the retention of chaste semen and transformation into qi energy, and the purification and circulation of the resulting spiritual energy throughout his body. While these practices are traditionally associated in Daoist internal alchemy with the formation of an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.

Immortal Awakened

Monkey achieves immortality. Photomanipulation by the author (larger version).

3) The 72 Transformations – This series of oral formulas allows Wukong to change his physical appearance into anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. Subhuti teaches this skill to Monkey with the expressed purpose of escaping three heaven-sent calamities meant to destroy immortals for defying their fate. Despite the intended use, this skill becomes one of his greatest strengths.

Because of Monkey’s mental acuity he is able to instantly remember all of the oral formulas imparted to him and, after some practice, he quickly masters the transformations.

Sun’s heated battle of transformations with the god Erlang. From the 1965 animated classic Havoc in Heaven.

4) Cloud-Somersaulting – The combination of a hand mudra and an oral formula allows Monkey to rise above the ground and travel at immense speed by somersaulting from cloud to cloud, each leap being 108,000 li, or 33,554 miles (54,000 km) long.

This skill is mastered in a single night.


Monkey flying on clouds. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

II. Implied

Sun Wukong’s tutelage in these subjects are never stated but are understood to have taken place.

5) General Daoist Magic –  This skill allows him to call forth gods and spirits, grow or shrink to any size, part fire and water, create an impassable barrier, conger a wind storm, cast illusions, freeze someone in place, unlock any lock, give human disciples superhuman strength, etc.

What’s interesting is that, during his training, Monkey expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests simply because the skill won’t result in his immortality. Instead, after achieving eternal life, Sun is just so powerful he can command the very gods themselves to do his bidding. His lack of ritual knowledge is highlighted in chapter 45 when he agrees to engage in a rain-making competition with an animal spirit disguised as a Daoist priest. The spirit relies on an established liturgy involving a ritual sword and tablet, as well as the burning of a written note. This elaborate ritual initiates a bureaucratic chain in which the request is sent to heaven, the Jade Emperor agrees to the appeal, and then heavenly officials, namely the gods of wind, clouds, lightning, and rain, are dispatched to fulfill the application. But Monkey rises into the clouds above to bully the respective deities into helping him instead, noting: “I don’t know how to burn charms, issue summons, or strike any tablet. So all of you must play along with me” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).

Likewise, Monkey is so powerful that he can bring the dead back to life by simply fetching a person’s soul from the underworld (like he does for an elderly benefactor in chapter 97).

123 magic

Sun casting a magic spell. Drawing by Poppindollars on deviantart (larger version).

6) The Art of War – I’m including military and civilian martial arts in this section as both are related.

Weaponry – After returning home in chapter 3, the young immortal teaches his children how to wield a plethora of weapons, including swords, spears, axes, bows and arrows, etc. Of course, he shortly thereafter acquires his magic staff, the weapon most commonly associated with him. Monkey’s skill with the staff is so great, in fact, that his supernatural technique is likened in chapter 33 to two of the Seven Military Classics of China.

Monkey’s broad knowledge of weapons implies that he learns the famous “Eighteen Martial Arts” (Shiba ban wuyi, 十八般武藝). A vague list of these war implements first appeared during the Song Dynasty, but a later definitive list became “a standard shorthand for complete martial arts knowledge” in Yuan-period stage plays (Lorge, 2012, p. 146). One version of the list appearing in the great Chinese classic The Water Margin (c. 1400) includes everything from chains, clubs, and whips to axes, halberds, and even early firearms (Lorge, 2012, p. 147). Variations on the eighteen weapons remained a staple of Chinese stage plays, oral literature, and written fiction. Therefore, it’s no wonder a great warrior like Monkey would come to be associated with the mastery of so many weapons.


Monkey assaults heavenly forces with his magic staff. Drawing by JeremyBLZ on deviantart (larger version).

Military Maneuvers – Monkey goes onto train his children how to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat, turning the tangled mass of monkeys into an elite army.

Sun’s children engaging in mock battles during their training. From Havoc in Heaven. 

Boxing – Sun displays a mastery of unarmed boxing in chapters one and 51, the former against a demon who takes over his mountain home in his absence and the latter against a Rhinoceros demon who steals his staff. Both chapters describe Monkey using techniques akin to short fist, a style known for quick, compact punches. Learning this close range style may be out of necessity, though, considering Sun is so short (he’s less than 4 ft (122 cm) tall).

In his wonderful book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Prof. Meir Shahar of Tel Aviv University shows Shaolin kungfu developed during the Ming-Qing transition from a synthesis of Daoist gymnastics (stretching and breathing exercises), religious rituals, and fist techniques. This new form of spiritual cultivation ushered in the era of so-called “internal martial arts“, Taiji boxing being the most famous among them.

Interestingly, some of the real world techniques used by Monkey and his opponent in chapter 51 appear in Taiji boxing.

Journey to the West (1592) was published during the late Ming when this synthesis was in full swing. Therefore, Sun’s study of martial arts in a religious institution is an accurate snapshot of one facet of 16th-century monastic life.


Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).

7) Chinese Medicine – This skill is displayed only once in the novel. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long-standing malady of a foreign emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, he is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. Sun deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a recipe of herbs, kettle soot, and dragon horse urine and administers the elixir with dragon king saliva. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowls, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.

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

TCM hand chart

The spots analyzed during pulse diagnosis. Picture originally found here.

III. Conclusion 

Monkey stays in Subhuti’s monastery for a total of ten years, the first seven living as a junior Daoist monk and the last three as a close disciple of Subhuti. During his time as a junior monk, he learns human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and incense burning. These foundational skills are taught to him by his senior religious brothers. During his time with Subhuti, Sun learns Chan and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine.

The skills learned by Sun are varied, straddling the religious, the literary, and the martial. Therefore, Monkey is a perfect example of what Deng Mingdao (1990) calls the “Scholar Warrior”:

Skill is the essence of the Scholar Warrior. Such a person strives to develop a wide variety of talents to a degree greater than even a specialist in a particular field. Poet and boxer. Doctor and swordsman. Musician and knight. The Scholar Warrior uses each part of his or her overall ability to keep the whole in balance, and to attain the equilibrium for following the Tao. Uncertainty of the future inspires no fear: whatever happens, the Scholar Warrior has the confidence to face it (p. 10).

Update: 11/27/2018

I’ve written a continuation of this article where I use the above info to speculate Sun Wukong is a warrior monk in Master Subhuti’s immortal monastic army. It’s good fodder for fanfiction. I even suggest a mythological baddie for the warrior monks to fight, the headless deity Xingtian.


Deng, M. D. (1990). Scholar warrior: An introduction to the Tao in everyday life. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

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

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pregadio, F. (2008). Jiutian 九天 Nine Heavens In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 593-594). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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.

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

Monkey and the Summoners of Hell: The Story and Origins of the Heibai Wuchang

Last updated: 10/29/2018

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West happens in chapter three after Sun Wukong returns from the undersea palace with his magic staff and is chosen as lord of the 72 monster kings. Following a lavish banquet in his honor, the Monkey King falls asleep and his soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld by two spirits:

In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach with a summons with the three characters “Sun Wukong” written on it. They walked up to him and, without a word, tied him up with a rope and dragged him off. The soul of the Handsome Monkey King was reeling from side to side. They reached the edge of a city. The Monkey King was gradually coming to himself, when he lifted up his head and suddenly saw above the city an iron sign bearing in large letters the three words “Region of Darkness [You mingjie, 幽冥界].” The Handsome Monkey King at once became fully conscious. “The Region of Darkness is the abode of Yama, King of Death,” he said. “Why am I here?” “Your age in the World of Life has come to an end,” the two men said. “The two of us were given this summons to arrest you.” When the Monkey King heard this, he said, “I, old Monkey himself, have transcended the Three Regions and the Five Phases [1]; hence I am no longer under Yama’s jurisdiction. Why is he so confused that he wants to arrest me?” The two summoners paid scant attention. Yanking and pulling, they were determined to haul him inside. Growing angry, the Monkey King whipped out his treasure. One wave of it turned it into the thickness of a rice bowl; he raised his hand once, and the two summoners were reduced to hash (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 139).

The two unnamed psychopomps are simply referred to in the story as “[those who] arrest the dead” (Gou siren, 勾死人). Modern media sometimes portrays these two wearing contrasting black and white uniforms with tall hats (fig. 1).

Heibai Wuchang summon Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – The summoners taking Sun Wukong’s soul in his sleep (larger version). From episode 7 of the Little Fox ESL Journey to the West series.

The Heibai Wuchang

The specific color-coded deities are known in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore as the Heibai wuchang (黑白無常), or the “Black and White [spirits of] Impermanence.” Tan (2018) describes their mythic background and religious importance:

[A] good deal of importance attaches to the worship in Malaysia and Singapore of Heibai Wuchang … popularly known as Da Er Ye (大二爺, Eldest and Second Uncles). In charge of policing the netherworld and protecting humans from evil, they are believed to be two soldiers of the Tang dynasty, General Xie [謝] and General Fan [范]. The former was tall and was hanged by the enemy, while the latter was shorter and was drowned while fighting enemies. General Xie’s image is that of a tall person with a protruding long tongue; he’s wearing a white shirt, and his high hat has the characters yijian daji ([一見大吉] “big luck on seeing me”) or yijian shengcai ([一見生財] “getting wealth on seeing me”). General Fan’s image has a dark face, and his square hat bears the characters tianxia taiping [天下太平], or “peace in the world.” Also called Qiye (七爺) and Baye (八爺), the two generals are in charge of rewarding good people and punishing evil ones. General Xie is more popular among worshippers; frightening as he is, the Elder Uncle benefits from his association with blessing wealth (p. 58).

Chen (2014) provides a different background for the two, which is commonly told in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou in Fujian province:

The Seventh Lord (七爺) and Eighth Lord (八爺) are frequently seen and are well-known in Taiwanese religious parades. These two deities were originally two brother-like friends in Fuzhou (福州). One was called Xie Bian (謝必安), and the other one was named Fan Wujiu (范無救; 范無咎). On a rainy day, they had an appointment to meet under the Nan Tai Bridge (南臺橋). Fan Wujiu was short with a dark complexion, but Xie Bian was tall with a light complexion. Fan Wujiu arrived at the meeting place earlier, waited there in spite of the heavy rain, and was drowned. Xie Bian tried to bring umbrellas for Fan Wujiu and was therefore late. When he arrived at the bridge, Fan Wujiu was already dead, so he decided to commit suicide because of his friendship and guilt. According to legends, the Heavenly Emperor (玉皇大帝) was touched by this pair of brother-like friends, and promoted their ghosts to supernatural officers from the underworld. The Seventh Lord is Bai Wuchang (白無常), and the Eighth Lord is Hei Wuchang (黑無常). Their mission is to bring dead people’s ghosts from the ordinary human world to the underworld at the moment of their deaths (p. 220).

Heibai wuchang statues - small

Fig. 2 – A depiction of the spirits taking a soul to the Chinese underworld (larger version). From the Haw Par Villa theme park in Singapore. Original picture from Baike.

Stevens (1997) goes into more detail about their function and veneration:

The pair are despatched on orders from the City God when the due date of a person’s death arrives, to seek out and identify the correct human through the local spiritual official, the Earth God [fig. 3]. They appear before the human and the Tall Demon [the white spirit] announces that the time has come. The Short Demon [the black spirit] binds the soul and drags it before the City God. The Short Demon carries the tablet of authority and the chains to arrest the soul whose due date of death has arrived [fig. 2].

The Tall Demon … receives considerable attention from devotees, often relatives of the very sick, and in a few temples he is provided with cigarettes which are to be seen continually burning having been forced in between his lips. More popularly, his mouth is smeared with a black substance to win his favour and bribe him to keep away. This used to be opium and is still said to be opium, though the substance appears to be more of a sweet sticky mess. In northern and central China, only the Tall Demon is found (p. 173).


Fig. 3 – A monumental statue of an Earth god in Taiwan (larger version).


The sources above provide two backgrounds for the spirits, historical generals or brother-like friends, all of whom died unnatural deaths. Both origins involve the tall, white figure being hanged, while the short, black figure was drowned. Both of these backgrounds have respective ties to religious beliefs of the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties. It was common practice during the Han for generals, especially those slain by the enemy, to be deified as gods. This concept of deified mortals carried over into the Song Dynasty when tutelary gods were popular. Those deified were often pious or loyal people who died unnatural deaths. But most importantly, these individuals were deified by the very communities in which they lived, meaning they were worshiped as the protector of the specific locale and its people (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 164).

These tutelary cults find their origin in earth gods (tudishen, 土地神) worshiped as early as the Han. Just like people of the Song worshiped the worthy among their fallen community members, people of the Han worshiped the gods believed to inhabit the very earth on which their communities were established. Considering the dead were buried underground, these earth gods also served the function of “escort[ing] the deceased to the world of the afterlife” (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 165). Remember above that Stevens described the tall and short spirits relying on the local earth god to help locate the correct soul being summoned. Therefore, our spirits appear to be a combination of deified mortals (generals/worthy citizens) and earth gods who escorted the deceased to the afterlife. But there may be more to the story.

Wuchang (無常), or “impermanence”, is the Chinese term for the sanskrit Anitya. This is one of the “Three Marks” (Sk: Trilaksana) of existence in Buddhism, the other two being suffering (Duhkha) and non-self (Anatman) (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 47-48). The fact Wuchang is associated with these spirits suggests there is an added Buddhist influence. As I’ve written before, the Chinese underworld presented in Journey to the West is an amalgam of local Chinese and foreign Buddhist beliefs. In short, the Chinese Underworld consists of ten courts in which a soul is punished and sent on to the next until their karma is cleansed. The concept of purgatory and the Ten Kings or Judges of hell are products of 7th-century Chinese Buddhism. Prior to this, souls of the dead were kept en masse in a sort of Daoist city of the dead. So our two summoners were no doubt absorbed into this new Buddhist worldview. The spirits in effect could be viewed as personifications of Buddhist impermanence.

The contrasting black and white color scheme has at least two origins. One, it may have evolved from the belief that each performed duties at different times. Maspero (1981) writes, “The most famous of [the City God’s] subordinates are Master White (Bai laoye [白老爺]) and Master Black (Hei laoye [黑老爺]), who perceive everything that goes on within the constituency, the former during the day and the latter during the night” (p. 110). Two, it may draw from the dualistic nature of Chinese philosophy. Baptandier (2008) comments their color is a “personification of the yin and yang principles of life” (p. 146).

20180916_131548 - small

Fig. 4 – A wall mural depicting the Ba Jiajiang (Eight Generals), including General Xie (white) with the phrase “Big Luck” (daji, 大吉) on his hat (larger version) and to his left General Fan (black) with a square hat. Taken by the author in Taipei, Taiwan.


Both General Xie (the tall, white spirit) and General Fan (the short, black spirit) figure among the Ba Jiajiang (八家將), or “Eight Generals” (fig. 4). These spirit generals are considered protectors of the City God (as well as other popular folk deities) and destroyers of evil. They consist of our two spirits, two more underworld figures called Generals Gan (甘) and Liu (柳), as well as four other figures known as the Four Seasons (Siji, 四季). These generals are personified during festivals by temple parade dance troupes called Jiajiang (家將). Members paint their faces according to the prescribed wrathful iconography for each general (fig. 5) and perform all sorts of choreographed militaristic dances while wielding weapons (video 1). These performances serve to exorcize evil spirits.

National Akau Mazu’s Cup of Youth Ba-Jia-Jang and Guan-Jang-Shou Competition, Ci Feng Mazu Temple, Pingtung City, Taiwan

Fig. 5 – The facepaint of General Xie, the tall, white spirit. A larger version can be seen on this blog. Original picture by Rich J. Matheson.

The tradition originated in Fuzhou but later spread to Taiwan by the 1870s, making it a rather recent phenomenon (Sutton, 1996).

Video 1 – A Ba Jiajiang performance.

Update: 10/29/2018

Sutton (1996) explains the ceremonial procession of the Eight Generals is modeled after yamen officials making an arrest in dynastic China. In this case, the otherworldly generals would be sent to arrest evil spirits:

The performers seen on the march—excluding the Four Seasons—represent a process, though it is never ritually played out: arrest by yamen underlings. In principle the punishment bearer warns, the messengers search out, the stave bearers pursue, Erye and Daye [the Black and White Spirits] take into custody, and the justices at the rear interrogate and record (p. 215).

In video 1, the man dressed in civilian attire and carrying the strange, yoke-like device on his shoulders (visible at 00:26) is performing the part of the punishment bearer, which I take to mean a symbol of those previously arrested and used as warnings to the evil spirits being pursued.


1) The Three Realms are Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and the Five Phases are the elements of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. The point being that he is beyond the control of the three realms and the effects of the elements because he has achieved immortality.


Baptandier, B. (2008). The lady of Linshui: A Chinese female cult. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Chen, Y. (2014). Cinematic visualization of spiritual lesbianism in Monkia Treut’s Ghosted: countering essentialist concerns about Li Ang’s literary works In Y. Chen (Ed). New modern Chinese women and gender politics: The centennial of the end of the Qing Dynasty (pp. 210-222).

Maspero, H. (1981). Taoism and Chinese religion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Sutton, D. S. (1996). Transmission in Popular Religion: The Jiajiang Festival Troupe of Southern Taiwan in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (Ed.) Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 212-249). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Tan, C. B. (2018). Chinese religion in Malaysia: Temples and communities. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Von Glahn, R. (2004). The sinister way: The divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Sun Wukong and Martial Arts

Last updated: 09/06/2018

The Monkey King is well known for his prowess with the staff, but the first seven chapters detailing his early life, attainment of immortality, and rebellion against heaven surprisingly do not mention him training in martial arts. It’s generally understand, however, that he learns the art of combat while studying under the immortal sage Subhuti. Beyond the staff, Sun Wukong comes to master boxing, a skill he displays only a few times in the novel. A poem appearing in chapter 51 describes his unarmed battle with a rhinoceros demon. Martial historian Meir Shahar (2008) notes it “[gave] the author an opportunity to display his familiarity with the contemporary jargon of ‘postures’ (shi and jiazi), ‘Long-Range Fist’ (changquan), and ‘Close-Range Fist’ (duanquan)” (pp. 131-132).

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)

Interestingly, many of these techniques are still known to this day, some better known by slightly different names. I consulted with martial artist Joshua Viney to learn what each technique involves. Joshua has lived and studied folk martial arts from village masters around the noted Shaolin Monastery (少林寺) for ten years. He currently maintains the Shaolin Yuzhai Youtube channel where he posts instructional videos. Please check it out.

The techniques

1) Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture” (Zhuai kaida siping, 拽開大四平) – An open fighting posture where the boxer stands in the horse stance (Mabu, 馬步) with arms outstretched to his sides. Also known as “Single Whip Horse Stance” (Mabu danbian kai siping, 馬步單鞭開四平) (fig. 1), which is often associated with Taiji boxing (太極拳).

Wide open stance
2) The double-kicking feet fly up (Ti qi shuangfei jiao, 踢起雙飛腳) – Also known as “Double kicking feet” (Er qi jiao, 二起腳), this technique involves lifting up one knee to build upward momentum and then kicking high with the other (fig. 2). It is reminiscent of the “crane kick” from the Karate Kid (1984).

double jump kick

3) They pound the ribs and chests (Tao xie pi xiong dun, 韜脅劈胸墩) – Possibly referring to the “Pushing palm” (Tui zhang, 推掌) or “Splitting palm” (Pi zhang, 劈掌), which is delivered into the solar plexus and up into the rib cage (fig. 3).

Pushing - splitting palm

From Joshua’s APPLICATION of Xiao Hong Quan video.

4) “The Immortal pointing the Way” (Xianren zhilu, 仙人指路) – A double finger attack aimed at the eyes (fig. 4). The stance is often seen used in tandem with a sword.

Immortal points the way

5) “Lao Zi Riding the Crane” (Laozi qihe, 老子騎鶴) – Most likely another name for the Crane stance (fig. 5).

crane stance

6) “A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” (E hu pu shi, 餓虎撲食) – This name has been applied to many techniques. One variation known as “Fetching the moon from the seabed” (Haidi lao yue, 海底撈月) involves a powerful hip and/or palm strike to the groin/lower midline of the body (fig. 6). The force of the hip strike is powerful enough to send someone flying backwards.

Hip bump 1

Left: Setting up the attack. Right: The hit (from Joshua’s 13 Hammers of Shaolin video).

7) A Dragon Playing with Water (Jiaolong xi shui, 蛟龍戲水) – Also known as “Dragon puking water” (Jiaolong xi shuineng xiong’e, 蛟龍戲水能兇惡), this technique involves fluid, sweeping arm movements (most likely blocks or fake strikes) followed by simultaneous double fist blows (fig. 7). The technique is associated with Shaolin and Chang Family Fist (Changjia quan, 萇家拳), a martial art that influenced the development of Taiji boxing.[1]

Dragon puking water

8) “Serpent Turning Around” (Mang fanshen, 蟒翻身) – Also known as “Python turns over” (Guai mang fanshen, 怪蟒翻身), this technique involves a simultaneous chop to the throat and a pulling leg sweep, effectively knocking the opponent backwards (fig. 8).

Pythong turns

9) “Deer Letting Loose its Horns” (Lu jie jiao, 鹿解角) – A series of elbow strikes to the torso (fig. 9). One variant called “Plum blossom deer lies on a pillow” (Meihua lu wo zhen, 梅花鹿臥枕) places the fist of the attacking arm against the temple, looking as if the practitioner is propping his head up in a resting posture.


10) The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned (Qiao gen cui dilong, 翹跟淬地龍) – A shooting maneuver using the Falling stance (Pubu, 仆步) to dip below the opponent’s defenses and attack the lower extremities (fig. 10). Also known as Qiao dilong zou xiapan zhao (雀地龍走下盤找).

dragon drops

11) The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag (Niu wan na tiantuo, 扭腕拿天橐) – UNKNOWN. Mostly likely a headlock.

12) A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge (Qingshi zhangkou lai, 青獅張口來) – More commonly known as “Lion opens mouth” (Shizi dazhang zui, 獅子大張嘴), this technique has two variations. The large frame version involves shooting in low, pulling up the opponent’s knee with one hand, while simultaneously pushing on their head with the other hand, knocking them over (fig. 11). This can be used for throwing an opponent as well. The small frame version involves cupping the hands to intercept strikes.

lion opens mouth

From APPLICATION of Xiao Hong Quan

13) A carp’s snapped-back flip (Liyu die ji yue, 鯉魚跌脊躍) – This can refer to both throwing an opponent and a move commonly referred to as a “kip-up”. The latter involves the practitioner flipping up from a supine position to a standing fighting stance (fig. 12).

14) Sprinkling flowers over the head (Gai ding sa hua, 蓋頂撒花) – Also known as “Double cloud over peak” (Shuang yun ding, 雙雲頂), this technique involves flourishing the hands above the head as a means of blocking, twisting an opponent’s arm, or disengaging from combat (fig. 13).


15) Tying a rope around the waist (Rao yao guan suo, 遶腰貫索) – UNKNOWN. Possibly a circling step similar to one later used in Bagua Palm Boxing (Bagua zhang, 八卦掌) (fig. 14).

16) A fan moving with the wind (Yingfeng tie shan er, 迎風貼扇兒) – Crossed hands shooting out to intercept an opponent’s punch (fig. 15).

fan against the wind

17) The rain driving down the flowers (Ji yu cui hua luo, 急雨催花落) – Most likely a rapid succession of punches.

18) “Guanyin Palm” (Guanyin zhang, 觀音掌) – A style of palm strikes. It is listed as number 70 of the “72 Training Methods of Shaolin” (Shaolin qishi’er yi lian fa, 少林七十二藝練法) (Jin & Timofeevich, 2004, p. 229).

19) “Arhat Feet” (Luohan jiao, 羅漢腳) – A style of kicking.

20) Long-Range Fist (Chang quan, 長拳) – A family of Northern style martial arts known for their long-range punches and kicks and acrobatic movements.

21) Close-Range Fist (Duan quan, 短拳) – A family of Northern style martial arts known for their compact, short-range, yet quick attacks.

Battle reconstruction

What follows is Joshua’s reconstruction of the fight. He makes an interesting observation that the fight may in fact be a theatrical stage combat version of known techniques.

I think what we are seeing here is a Chinese Opera like performance of a fight that the author saw and perhaps asked about the names or recognised. I expect it would be very contrived. After this we are not told explicitly who does what and it may not be a one for one exchange. Nevertheless looking at the wording we can make a guess.
It begins with a large fighting stance, probably the ‘single whip’ posture of holding the arms straight to the sides. Then both performers do a jumping kick towards each other to enter striking range. Given it uses the phrase 劈胸 ‘pi xiong’ (split chest) I expect they begin by using the chest splitting palm at one another and so cross hands in the center of the arena [fig. 16].
cross hands
Once they have crossed hands I think the demon grasps Monkey’s hand and attacks with the fingers of the other hand at his eyes, doing the ‘immortal points the way’ technique. Monkey defends against this by shielding his face with his forearms, then spreading his hands and kicking at the monster’s stomach. This pushes the monster away and Monkey is left with one knee suspended and arms spread to the sides in the ‘Lao Tzu rides a crane’ posture.
The Demon takes advantage of this unstable posture by rushing at him with the ‘hungry tiger pounces on prey’ technique, striking Monkey with his hips and grasping hold of him. Monkey uses the ‘dragon puking water’ technique, which erupts from below the demons arms and casts them aside, then rushes forwards again to attack with both hands. The Demon defends this by sticking close to the monkey and uses the ‘python turning its body’ technique to trip him up. But Monkey is strong and keeps his footing, counter attacking with a headbutt and multiple elbow strikes which form the ‘Deer-Horn’ technique. 
The Demon jumps away but Monkey pursues with the ‘ground dragon’ technique and attacks the demons groin, causing him to buckle over, whereby Monkey grasps his head with the ‘twisting heavens sack’ technique. The Demon defends by using the ‘Lion opens mouth lunge’ to stop Monkey and throw him down. The monkey recovers by flipping his body in the ‘carp jump’ technique. Then he withdraws from the center by a few steps ‘covering his head with the flowers’ overhead technique. The Demon similarly disengages from the center and puts up a guard, prowling slowly around Monkey with the ‘turning waist’ technique.
I think the rest is describing more how they are evenly matched and face each other down rather than any other moves. ‘Iron fan stands against the wind’ is a common technique, a guard, and ‘rain falling on flowers’ is perhaps an eye strike but could also mean the intensity of the fight is like an urgent rain of punches. ‘Guanyin palm’ and ‘Luohans feet’ are both style names. Long fist vs short fist, how can they overcome one another? 10 rounds without a victor.

He goes onto describe the physical and psychological aspects of Long-range and Close-range fist:

Long fist and Short fist are the classic methods of Shaolin shenfa [身法, “Body postures”]. In order to strike the opponent one needs momentum, both physical AND psychological. Momentum is achieved by moving the dantian [2] as the centre of mass. In Short fist the dantian is rotated to add to power. In Long fist the whole dantian is thrown in the direction of the strike instead of rotated–much more powerful but also more wild and uncontrollable. In Shaolin philosophy, mind and matter are not severed, so physical momentum and psychological momentum are intertwined; when one has physical forward momentum, one simultaneously feels more confident.

Similarities with other literary combat

A poem similar to that from Journey to the West appears in the 120 chapter version of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1594) by Yu Xiangdou (余象斗, c. 1560–c. 1640). The poem describes unarmed combat between a young man and woman.

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“Phoenix Elbow” to the heart;
“The Guard Head Cannon Stance” strikes the temples;
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag;
This girl, sprinkling flowers over the head;
This boy, tying a rope around the waist;
Two fans moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.[3]

We can see many named techniques from Monkey’s battle appear in this poem. There are only two years between the publishing of Journey to the West (1592) and this version of the Water Margin. However, I am unsure if either source borrowed from the other, especially since Journey to the West wasn’t in its final form upon its initial publishing. But it’s very well possible that both authors drew upon common source material. Joshua discovered two techniques from the Water Margin poem, namely “Phoenix Elbow” (Aoluan zhao, 拗鸞肘), and “The Guard Head Cannon Stance” (Dang toupao shi, 當頭砲勢), appearing together in the same print of an edition of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 17). This suggests Yu Xiangdou borrowed these moves from similar boxing or military manuals. Likewise, given “his familiarity with the contemporary jargon”, as noted earlier by Shahar, the author of Journey to the West may have also borrowed from such literature.


Fig. 17 – The plate mentioning “Phoenix Elbow” and the “Guard the Head Cannon Stance”.

Update: 05/02/2018

The available evidence suggests Short fist is Monkey’s fighting style. As mentioned above, the poem in chapter three reads: “The ‘Long-Range Fist,’ stretching, is more slack, of course. How could it compare with the ‘Close-Range Fist’s’ sharp jabs?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 13). Furthermore, after facing the rhino monster, Sun Wukong asks heavenly warriors to critique his boxing skills: “‘[H]ow did the fiend’s ability compare with Old Monkey?’ ‘His punches were slack’, said Devaraja Li, ‘and his kicks were slow; he certainly could not match the Great Sage for his speed and tightness'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 14).

Earlier in chapter one, Monkey faces a demon who had taken over his Water Curtain cave in the immortal’s absence. The two resort to boxing since Monkey is unarmed.

The Monstrous King shifted his position and struck out. Wukong closed in on him, hurtling himself into the engagement. The two of them pummeled and kicked, struggling and colliding with each other. Now it’s easy to miss on a long reach, but a short punch is firm and reliable. Wukong jabbed the Monstrous King in the short ribs, hit him on his chest, and gave him such heavy punishment with a few sharp blows that the monster stepped aside, picked up his huge scimitar, aimed it straight at Wukong’s head, and slashed at him (Wu & Yu, 2012, Vol. 1, p. 128). (emphasis mine)

I initially thought Sun Wukong used Short fist out of necessity as he is described being less than four feet tall. But the novel’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range “is typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature”, as noted by Shahar (2008). 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])” (p. 117).

Wing Chun (Mandarin: Yong Chun, 詠春) is an example of Short fist. Although the style postdates the novel by at least two centuries, it showcases the quick, compact punches associated with Short fist. Take this video of Jackie Chan, for example. Now imagine Monkey using similar techniques in a fight with a much larger opponent, blocking or ducking to avoid attacks and replying with sharp punches targeted at vulnerable areas.

Update: 08/07/2018

I have found a few more instances of martial arts terms, this time related to weapons. Joshua was again kind to lend his knowledge to the subject.

Chapter 17:

The compliant rod,
The black-tasseled lance.
Two men display their power before the cave;
Stabbing at the heart and face;
Striking at the head and arm.
This one proves handy with a death-dealing rod;
That one tilts the lance for swift, triple jabs.
The “white tiger climbing the mountain” extends his paws;
The “yellow dragon lying on the road” turns his back.
With colored mists flying
And bright flashes of light,
Two monster-god’s strength is yet to be tried.
One’s the truth-seeking, Equal-to-Heaven Sage;
One’s the Great Black King who’s now a spirit.
Why wage this battle in the mountain still?
The cassock, for which each would aim to kill! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 354) (emphasis mine)

22) “White tiger climbing the mountain” extends his paws (Baihu pashan, 白虎爬山來探爪) – Mountain climbing stance is synonymous with Gong bu (弓步), or the bow stance. The white tiger denotes an overt attack of sorts. I imagine it would look similar to this spear technique.

Gong Bu thrust

23) “Yellow dragon lying on the road” turns his back (Huanglong wo dao zhuanshen mang, 黃龍臥道轉身忙) – Possibly a retreating maneuver.

Chapter 31:

Dear Monkey King! He raised the rod above his head, with both hands, using the style “Tall-Testing the Horse.” The fiend did not perceive that it was a trick. When he saw there was a chance, he wielded the scimitar and slashed at the lower third of Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] body. Pilgrim quickly employed the “Great Middle Level” to fend off the scimitar, after which he followed up with the style of “Stealing Peaches Beneath the Leaves” and brought the rod down hard on the monster’s head. This one blow made the monster vanish completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 83).  (emphasis mine)

24) “Tall-Testing the Horse” (Gao tanma, 高探馬) – Tanma (探馬) refers to a military scout, so a better translation would be the “High Scout”. This is a double-handed thrust aimed at the opponent’s face as a high fake. A corresponding fist technique, essentially a jab, is associated with Taiji boxing.

25) “Great Middle Level” (Da zhong ping, 大中平) – Holding the staff level at the navel while in the horse stance. This allows for quick defense below the waist.

26) “Stealing Peaches Beneath the Leaves” (Ye di tou tao shi, 葉底偷桃勢) – UNKNOWN. The name of this technique is normally associated with an attack to the groin, not the top of the head as implied in the quoted battle.

Based on the sequence of events described above, it seems like Monkey fakes high, blocks the strike to his body, and then attacks the top of the stooping opponent’s head (since the latter ducked the high fake and attacked low).

Here is Joshua’s interpretation:

The two weapons are stuck together: the monkey is forcing down, the demon up. The monkey releases the pressure, circling his staff below the opponents weapon, so with the release of pressure, the opponent’s weapon flings upwards but with no control. The monkey circles from this lower position, then turns over in a big circle and strikes the opponent downwards on the head.

Chapter 56:

The Great Sage walked forward and picked up the rod with no effort at all. Assuming the style of the Python Rearing its Body, he pointed at the bandits and said, ‘Your lucks running out, for you have met Old Monkey! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 81). (emphasis mine)

27) Python Rearing its Body (Mang fanshen, 蟒翻身). UNKNOWN. This is a differently translated version of a similarly titled technique mentioned above. See number eight (“Serpent Turning Around”). The previous listing referred to a boxing technique, while this again is for a weapon.

In closing, I would like to quote a particular passage. While it doesn’t list a given technique, it highlights Monkey’s mastery of the staff.

“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat”. Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as be walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts [六韜三略, Liu Tao San Lue]. What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105). (Emphasis mine)

The portion that Anthony Yu translates as “manuals of martial arts” actually lists the names of two noted military manuals, both of which are listed among the Seven Military Classics of China. The first, the Six Secret Teachings (Liu tao, 六韜), was published during the Warring States period (c. 475 – 221 BCE) but possibly contains information from as far back as the Qi state (1046 – 221 BCE). The second, the Three Strategies (San lue, 三略), was most likely published during the Western Han period (206 BCE – 9 CE) (Sawyer, 1993). Associating Monkey’s martial arts skill with ancient and historically important manuals serves to further elevate his status as a great warrior and cultural hero.

Update: 09/06/2018

The only reference to Monkey actually studying martial arts that I know of appears in a poem in chapter 67:

Purvavideha was my ancestral home,
I did cultivation on Mount Flower-Fruit.
I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mind
and perfected with him the martial arts.
I can tame dragons, stirring up the seas;
I can tote mountains to chase down the sun.
In binding fiends and demon’s I’m the best;
Moving stars and planets, I scare ghosts and gods.
Stealing from heav’n and Earth gives me great fame,
Of boundless change, Handsome Stone Monkey’s my name (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243). (emphasis mine)

Readers may think the Ancestor of Heart and Mind (Fangcun zu, 方寸祖) is referring to Sun’s teacher, Master Subhuti. However, the supreme immortal threatened Monkey with eternal torment if he ever revealed the sage had been his teacher. A more literal translation of the aforementioned figure is “Ancestor Square Inch”. Square Inch (fangcun, 方寸) is a common metaphor for the “heart / mind” (xin, ), a broad concept written with a small character. This is just an interesting way of saying Monkey learned martial arts on his own via self-cultivation, thereby not revealing his true master. At the same time, it is a veiled admission of studying martial arts under the sage.

The above passage uses the term Wuyi (武藝), which was used to refer to Chinese martial arts as far back as the third-century CE. The term predates the more familiar Wushu (武術) by some three centuries (Lorge, 2012, p. 10).


1) For more information on Chang Family Fist and its progenitor Chang Naizhou, see Wells (2005).

2) The dantian (丹田, “cinnabar field”) is an area near the navel believed to be the body’s storehouse of spiritual energy.

3) Adapted from the original Chinese text: 拽開大四平,踢起雙飛腳。/ 仙人指路,老子騎鶴。/ 拗鸞肘出近前心,當頭砲勢侵額角。/ 翹跟淬地龍,扭腕擎天橐。/ 這邊女子,使個蓋頂撒花;/ 這裏男兒,耍個遶腰貫索。兩個似迎風貼扇兒,無移時急雨催花落 (水滸傳 (120回本)/第104回, n.d.)。


Jin, J. Z., & Timofeevich, A. (2004). Training methods of 72 arts of Shaolin. USA: Shaolin Kung Fu Online Library. Retrieved from…ts-shaolin.pdf

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Sawyer, R. D. (1993). The seven military classics of ancient China. New York: Basic Books.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press.

水滸傳 (120回本)/第104回本. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2018, from…AC104%E5%9B%9E

Wells, M., & Chang, N. (2005). Scholar boxer: Chang Naizhou’s theory of internal martial arts and the evolution of Taijiquan. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

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

The Historical Origins of Zhu Bajie’s Previous Incarnation and his Battle Rake

Last updated: 09-01-2019

The novel depicts Zhu Bajie as a reincarnation of the Marshal of the Heavenly Reeds (Tianpeng Yuanshuai, 天蓬元帥) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 212). But did you know that this general was actually venerated as a deity? His very name suggests the god can be traced to early shamanistic beliefs about magico-religious medicine, for a better translation of Heavenly Reeds is “Heaven’s Mugwort”. Van Glahn (2004) explains this “curious name…alludes to the plant’s demonifugic properties” (p. 121). This suggests the ancient belief that mugwort exorcised demons/illnesses was eventually anthropomorphized and deified as the general.

Sui Dynasty (581-618) sources describe him serving under the Northern Emperor (Beidi, 北帝), the Hades of Daoism, as a powerful exorcist. This is best exemplified by the “Northern Emperor’s Method of Killing Demons” (Beidi shagui zhi fa, 北帝殺鬼之法), a sixth-century rite which contains a prayer invoking Tianpeng by name (Davis, 2001, p. 75; Pregadio, 2008, p. 979). Another text identifies him as one of nine stellar gods associated with the Big Dipper constellation and “assign[s him] the function of security and protection” (Davis, 2001, p. 75; see also Andersen, 1989, pp. 35-36). Early Song Dynasty (960-1279) sources expand on Heavenly Reed’s position under the Northern Emperor and describe him as head of the thirty-six generals of the Department of Exorcism (Andersen, 2008, pp. 991-992). Most importantly, this is when he was associated with two other powerful exorcist deities, namely Black Killer (Heisha, 黑煞) and Dark Warrior (Xuanwu, 玄武), to form the trinity of the “Three Great Generals of Heaven” (Davis, 2001, p. 75). This was later expanded to a quaternity known as the “Four Saints” (Sisheng, 四聖), which included Heavenly Reed, Black Killer, the True Martial God (Zhenwu, 真武, a variant of the Dark Warrior), and Heavenly Scheme (Tianyou, 天猷) (Pregadio, 2008, p. 479; Little, Eichman, & Ebrey, 2000, p. 298).

Tianpeng‘s position as a protector and association with the military led to his worship by soldiers. Davis (2001) writes, “The cult of Tianpeng remained popular among military circles into the Southern Song, when [legend has it] he aided various generals in their battles with the Jin” (p. 75). The Song also happened to be when he was bestowed the military rank of Marshal (Yuanshuai, 元帥) (Pregadio, 2008, p. 979), the name by which he is called in Journey to the West. During the Ming, a martial arts style (Tianpeng’s Fork, 天蓬釵) and a weapon technique (Tianpeng’s Spade, 天蓬鏟) were named in his honor.

Tianpeng is described in one Song dynasty source as a multi-armed god “dressed in black clothes and a dark hat” (Davis, 2001, p. 75). The names of his trinity companions also reveal their connection with black (i.e, “Black Killer” and “Dark Warrior”). This is because the color is associated with the direction north and thereby the Northern Emperor, whom the three serve (Davis, 2001, p. 75; Welch, 2008, p. 223). A circa 1460 painting of the aforementioned Four Saints actually portrays the Marshal of Heavenly Reeds with black Skin (fig. 1). Why is this important? Because Journey to the West describes Pigsy as having a black face (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 375, for example). I therefore suggest Zhu Bajie is described as such because of his previous incarnation’s association with the color.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) The circa 1460 painting depicting the Four Saints (Sisheng, 四聖) (larger version). Heavenly Reed is the black-skinned figure in the upper left. Fig. 2 – (Center Left) A modern Zhu Bajie action figure with an ornate silver-headed rake (larger version). Fig. 3 – (Center Right) A pair of Pa () military rakes from the San Cai Tu Hui (三才圖會, 1609) (larger version). Fig. 4 – (Right) A Yundang (耘盪hand harrow) from a Ming Dynasty agricultural treatise that borrows heavily from the Nongshu (農書) (larger version). 

JTTW describes Pigsy’s rake as being a polearm with nine teeth (fig. 2). But did you know that, despite serving as a general in heaven, his weapon is not the kind that was historically used by the Chinese military. Those of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when the book was written, “were [two] meters in length and used to unseat enemy riders and hook and grab enemy weapons” (Swope, 2009, p. 78). The Pa (鈀, rake) (fig. 3), for example, was covered with hooks in place of teeth to aid in the aforementioned hooking action.[1] But noted Ming General Qi Jiguang (戚繼光, 1528-1588) considered it useless in his battle against Japanese pirates (Tang Pa (钂鈀), 2015).

Pigsy’s weapon more closely resembles agricultural tools that were traditionally used by peasant farmers as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Book of Agriculture (Nongshu, 農書, 1313) by the Confucian scholar and inventor Wang Zhen (王禎, fl. 1290-1333) includes descriptions and woodblock prints of several manual and water-powered farming implements. The book itself was written in response to the devastation that the Mongols had wrought on China over decades of war. So the featured tools were meant to help make life easier for farmers toiling away in the fields (Bray & Needham, 2004, pp. 59-60). One such innovation to come from the book was the Yundang (耘盪, hand harrow) (fig. 4), a bamboo-handled rake with metal teeth designed to weed rice crops (Bray & Needham, 2004, pp. 61-62). I suggest this and other tools like it most likely influenced Zhu Bajie’s weapon.

I also posit the hog spirit was given such a weapon because it added to his image as a country bumpkin. Whereas Monkey wields a magic iron staff once used by Yu the Great to tame the world flood, Pigsy brandishes a gardening tool. The weapon itself is comical in that it is said to have been handcrafted by Laozi (老子) from “divine ice steel” and etched with arcane symbols (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 382-383). That’s one fancy rake!

Update: 05-15-2018

Feng Dajian of Nankai University was kind enough to direct me to this Ming-era woodblock print (fig. 5) by Shide tang (世德堂本), the original publisher of Journey to the West. Check out Pigsy’s war rake! Again, his weapon from the novel is the agricultural type, but this print is an interesting change of pace. Also, notice how Sandy’s staff doesn’t have any metal blades (as normally shown in pop culture).

Shide tang print (Sandy vs Pigsy) - Small

Fig. 5 – Ming-era Shide tang print of Pigsy vs Sandy (larger version).

Update: 12-21-2018

A beautiful rendering of Marshal Tianpeng (fig. 6) appears in the Ink treasures of [Wu] Daozi (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶), a collection of ink drawings traditionally attributed to the noted 7th/8th-century artist Wu Daozi but likely hails from the 13th-century. Tianpeng is portrayed as an esoteric protector deity with multiple arms holding implements of both war and religion. The military arms include a halberd and a sword, while the religious items include a vajra bell, a mirror, and two orbs adorned with a rabbit and a rooster, respectively (fig. 7). These animals represent the moon and the sun, being zoomorphic symbols of yin and yang forces. Interestingly, the rabbit is seen mixing the elixir of immortality, a common motif in Chinese art (fig. 8).

Zhu Bajie Origin pics #2
Fig. 6 – Tianpeng from the 13th-century Ink Treasures of Wu Daozi (larger version). The original drawing can be seen here. Fig. 7 – Details of the Moon Rabbit and Sun Rooster (larger version). Fig. 8 – The Moon Rabbit motif from an 18th-century court robe (larger version).

What’s most interesting to me about the drawing is the obvious esoteric Buddhist influence. In this article I mention a 13th-century stone relief carving of Sun Wukong in which he is portrayed with a headband, arm ornaments, bangles, a bone rosary, a girdle, a tiger skin apron, and anklets. These items are listed among an 8th-century source as ritual adornments worn by Buddhist yogis, each one representing a different esoteric Buddha or philosophical aspect of the religion. Many of these same ritual items appear on Tianpeng, pointing to a borrowing of esoteric Buddhist motifs by Daoism.

Update: 01-28-2019

Brose (2018) suggests Zhu Bajie may ultimately be based on an esoteric Buddhist sun goddess worshiped in China known as Marici (Molizhi, 摩利支), or Doumu (斗母/斗姆, “Mother of the Dipper”) in Daoism, [2] who is often depicted as a fearsome, multi-armed guardian astride a boar or aloft a boar-driven chariot, and among whose multiple faces is a boar (fig. 9). This is because a stage play that predates the Ming novel represents Pigsy as the goddess’ mount come to earth (Brose, 2018, p. 174). This would mean Zhu Bajie’s connection to Marshal Tianpeng is a later addition to the story cycle. Both Tianpeng and Marici are associated with the stellar bodies of the Big Dipper constellation and share similar exorcistic duties (Brose, 2018, pp 175-176). This may explain why Pigsy was later associated with the general.

marci goddess, martial aspect, modern shenxiang

Fig. 9 – A modern altar statue showing Marici’s martial aspect riding a boar (larger version). Take note of the boar-like face on the right.

Regarding the origin of Marici’s boars, Getty (1988) explains Riksha, the Sanskrit word used to denote the bright stars of the Big Dipper, sounds just like the term for bear. Therefore, one hypothesis states this confusion may have resulted in the sun goddess’ mount being a bear, but due to the scarcity of the animal in South Asia—or just plain iconographic confusion, in my opinion, since both animals are dark-furred quadrupeds—the iconography was changed to a boar over time. If true, this means Zhu Bajie could have been a bear! Furthermore, the seven boars shown to be pulling her chariot in some religious art are most likely based on the seven steeds of the Hindu sun god, Surya (pp. 117-118).

Update: 09-01-2019

Huang (2010) describes the common Daoist practice of visualizing gods residing in an adept’s body (shenshen, 身神, lit: “body gods”). The presence of these deities was thought to bring health and aid in the quest for immortality. She notes that the Ming edition of the Perfect Scripture of the Great Cavern (Dadong  zhenjing, 大洞真經), originally collected by the Supreme Clarity patriarch Jiang Zongying (蔣宗瑛, d. 1281) during the Southern Song, includes fifty illustrations of groups of gods standing on clouds emanating from the top of a seated Daoist’s head. Most importantly, these deities include protective guardians (lishi, 力士), “[o]ne particular trinity [of which] consists of a general ‘who resembles the Great General of Heavenly Mugwort (Tianpeng dajiang 天蓬大將)'” (Huang, 2010, p. 65 n. 12). An example of this illustration appears in the first scroll of the work (fig. 10).

Marshal Tianpeng from the first scroll of the Dadeng zhengjing, or the Perfect Scripture of the Great Cavern, Southern Song - small

The illustration of the trinity of protective deities, including a general that looks like Marshal Tianpeng (larger version). Image found here.

Again, I would like to highlight the fact that the general’s name, Heavenly Mugwort (Tianpeng, 天蓬), recalls the historical use of the plant as a magic medicine to ward off the evil spirits of illness (see the top of the article). Therefore, Tianpeng’s use in this form of Daoist meditation likely served a medical purpose.

See also:


1) Other kinds of military rakes included the pitchfork-like Yi Pa (㑥耙), the trident-like Tang (钂) and Tangpa (钂鈀), and the more rare halberd-like Mao Lian Tang (茅鐮钂) (Tang Pa (钂鈀), 2015).

2) For information on Marici, see Getty (1988), pp. 117-119. For Doumu, see Esposito, 2008, pp. 282-283.


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. 15-53.

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

Bray, F. & Needham, J. (2004). Science and civilisation in China: Volume 6, biology and biological technology; part 2 – agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.

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

Davis, E. L. (2001). Society and the supernatural in Song China. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaií Press.

Getty, A. (1988). The gods of northern Buddhism: Their history and iconography. New York: Dover Publications.

Huang, S. (2010). Daoist body and cosmos, Part I: Body gods and starry travel. Journal of Daoist Studies 3, 57-90.

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

Swope, K. (2009). A dragon’s head and a serpent’s tail: Ming China and the first great East Asian war, 1592-1598. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Tang Pa (钂鈀). (2015, March 24). Retrieved November 02, 2017, from

Von, G. R. (2004). The sinister way: The divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Welch, P. B. (2008). Chinese art: A guide to motifs and visual imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub.

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

Modern Depictions of Sha Wujing’s Weapon and its Origins

Last updated: 05/15/2018

Sha Wujing (沙悟淨), or “Sandy” for short, is commonly portrayed in modern media wielding a Crescent Moon Spade (Yueya chan, 月牙鏟, a.k.a. “Monk’s Spade“), a wooden polearm capped with a sharpened spade on one end and a crescent-shaped blade on the other (fig. 1). But did you know that the character never wields such a weapon in the novel? Chapter 22 contains a poem that describes his actual weapon and its pedigree. A section of it reads:

For years my staff has enjoyed great fame,
At first an evergreen tree in the moon.
Wu Gang [1] cut down from it one huge limb:
Lu Ban [2] then made it, using all his skills.
Within the hub [is] one solid piece of gold:
Outside it’s wrapped by countless pearly threads.
It’s called the treasure staff for crushing fiends
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, Vol. 1, p. 428)

As you can see it is described as a wooden staff devoid of any metal blades. So how did Sandy become associated with the Monk’s spade? It can be traced to a common motif appearing in late Ming Dynasty woodblock prints. Sha Wujing is just one of a number of famous literary staff-wielding monks to be portrayed brandishing a polearm topped with a small crescent shape (fig. 2). Others include Huiming (惠明) from the Story of the Western Wing (Xixiangji, 西廂記, c. 1300) (fig. 3) and Lu Zhishen (魯智深) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (fig. 4) (Shahar, 2008, p. 97).

#12 - Sha Wujing pics for blog entry

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sandy wielding a Monk’s Spade (larger version). Fig. 2 – A late Ming Dynasty print of Sha Wujing with the crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 3 – A 1614 woodblock print of Monk Huiming with a crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 4 – A late Ming woodblock of Lu Zhishen with a crescent staff (larger version). Fig. 5 – Sha Wujing from Ehon Saiyuki (circa 1806) (larger version). Fig. 6 – Sha from Xiyou yuanzhi (1819) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail from a Long Corridor painting (circa 1890) (larger version).

The exact origin or purpose of the blade is unknown, however. Martial historian Meir Shahar (2008) comments:

Future research may determine the origins of the crescent shape, which is visible in some Ming period illustrations of the staff. Here I will mention only that an identical design is common in a wide variety of twentieth-century martial arts weapons, whether or not they are wielded by Buddhist clerics. The crescent’s significance in contemporary weaponry can be gauged by its appearance in the names of such instruments as the “Crescent-Shaped (Yueya) [Monk’s] Spade,” “Crescent-Shaped Spear,” “Crescent-Shaped Battle-ax,” and “Crescent-Shaped Rake” (pp. 97-98).

A woodblock print appearing in the first section of Journey to the West Illustrated (Ehon Saiyuki, 画本西遊記), published in 1806, depicts Sandy holding a staff with a large crescent blade (fig. 5), showing how the once small accent had been enlarged by this time to become a more prominent feature of the polearm. This same weapon is echoed in a print from The Original Intent of The Journey to the West (Xiyou yuanzhi, 西遊原旨, 1819) (fig. 6), as well as in multiple circa 1890 JTTW-related paintings from the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace in Beijing (fig. 7, for example). So Ming depictions of Sha Wujing wielding a crescent-tipped staff were most likely associated with the Monk’s Spade due to their physical similarities, and this probably took place no earlier than the early 20th-century.

Update: 02-25-2018

Unlike Sha Wujing, there is a monster in the novel who wields a Crescent Moon spade. Chapter 63 describes the Nine-Headed Beast (Jiutou chong, 九頭蟲), [3] the son-in-law of a dragon king, using such a bladed polearm in a battle against Monkey:

Enraged, Pilgrim shouted, “You brazen thievish fiend! What power do you have that you dare mouth such big words? Come up here and have a taste of your father’s rod!” Not in the least intimidated, the son-in-law parried the blow with his crescent-tooth spade; a marvelous battle thus broke out on top of that Scattered-Rock Mountain (Wu & Yu, 2012, Vol. 3, p. 183).

There existed during the Ming Dynasty a military spade with a crescent blade on the top and a dagger-like blade on the bottom (武備志 (四十三) , n.d.) (fig. 8). This is most likely the weapon used by the monster. Notice the similarities with figures five to seven. It’s easy to see how the crescent-tipped staff from the Ming woodblock prints could have later been associated with this military weapon. The difference is one of degree and not kind. This polearm was later modified into the modern Monk’s Spade, leading to depictions of Sha Wujing wielding the weapon.

Ming Era Crescent Moon Spade

Fig. 8 – A Crescent Moon Spade from the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (larger version).


Update: 05-15-2018

Feng Dajian of Nankai University was kind enough to direct me to this Ming-era woodblock print (fig. 9) by Shide tang (世德堂本), the original publisher of Journey to the West. Sandy’s staff is more evident in the piece. It even lacks the aforementioned crescent shape.

Shide tang print (Sandy vs Pigsy) - Small

Fig. 9 – Ming-era Shide tang print of Sandy vs Pigsy (larger version).


1) An Immortal of the Han Dynasty.

2) The god of builders.

3) Anthony Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the name as “Nine-Headed Insect”, but the creature’s true form is that of a monstrous reptilian bird (vol. 3, p. 184). While chong (蟲) usually means “insect, worm, or pest”, it can also mean “tiger”. Da chong (大蟲, “great beast”) is the name of the tiger killed by Wu Song in the Water Margin (c. 1400) (Børdahl, 2007). So a better name for our villain would be “Nine-Headed Beast”.


Børdahl, V. (2007). The Man-Hunting Tiger: From “Wu Song Fights the Tiger” in Chinese Traditions. Asian Folklore Studies, 66(1/2), 141-163. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press.

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

武備志 (四十三) . (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2018, from

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

Last updated: 02/06/21

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

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

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

Click the image to open in full size.

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


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

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 201)

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

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

Update: 02/06/21

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciphering the Inscription on the Monkey King’s Staff

Last updated: 02/06/21

This is the third and final installment in my investigation of the history of the Monkey King’s staff from the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The previous two articles discussed historical staves and an imperial monument that may have influenced the weapon. The current piece will focus on the name of the staff, the “As-you-wish gold-banded cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒). This title comes from an inscription appearing on the pole. As the novel states: “There was a line of inlaid writing near the end which said that it was ‘The As-you-wish Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 13,500 Catties’” (17,550 lbs / 7,960 kg) (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). [1] The significance of the gold bands (jinggu, 金箍) was discussed in the first article, so it will not be covered here. This leaves “As-you-wish” (ruyi, 如意) and “Weight: 13,500 catties” (zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 重一萬三千五百斤). In this paper, I will trace the origin of each concept and tie them back to Chinese literature, history, and religion. As always, I hope this will be of interest to layman and researchers.

Stating the weight of a weapon follows a tradition in Chinese Military Romance literature in which great heroes brandish heavy polearms and blades. For example, in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi, 三國演義, 14th-century), General Guan Yu (關羽) is said to have a glaive weighing 82 catties (107 lbs. / 48.5 kg). [2] This is referenced in a subsequent novel set hundreds of years later entitled the Water Margin (Shuihu Zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). In the story, the bandit-turned-Buddhist monk Lu Zhishen (魯智深) asks a blacksmith to make him a monk’s staff (chanzhang, 禪杖, lit: Chan staff) weighing 100 catties (130 lbs. / 59 kg). But when the latter refuses on the grounds that not even the legendary general would be able to lift it, Lu asks for a staff weighing just as much as Guan’s polearm (here stated as 81 catties) to prove his equal. After some minor bickering, the two finally settle on a more reasonable 62 catties (81 lbs. / 37 kg). [3] The ability of these heroes to efficiently wield such weapons sets them apart from normal humans. Likewise, the extraordinary weight of Monkey’s staff sets him apart from his lowly human counterparts. He is after all a transcendent immortal capable of supernatural feats of strength. This then might explain the number appearing on the staff. Thirteen thousand five hundred is divisible by nine, which Chinese numerology considers to represent “infinity”. [4] So it’s possible the number (infinity multiplied) was meant to convey that the staff was heavy beyond comprehension, something that only a divine hero such as Monkey would be able to wield.

Fig. 1 – Ruyi scepter from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) (larger version). Image found here.

“As-you-wish” (ruyi如意), originates with a ritual scepter of that name shaped like an arching snake with a head in the form of a lingzhi mushroom (靈芝, a.k.a., “fungus of immortality”) (fig. 1). They are often seen carried by emperors and Buddhist and Daoist deities in Chinese art. Prior to the 10th-century, the scepter was closely associated with the Bodhisattva Manjusri (Wenshu, 文殊) and his famous debate with the householder Vimalakirti (Weimojie, 維摩詰). [5] Engravings of the event show him holding the object in the form of a tanbing (談柄), or “discussion stick”, an elongated, shoe horn-shaped wand historically used by religious and secular groups to designate the right to speak before an assembly (similar in function to the Native American “talking stick”) (fig. 2). [6] This implement was sometimes portrayed with vegetal features. For instance, a Chinese stele from the 6th-century shows Manjusri debating while holding a sprig (fig. 3). [7] J. Leroy Davidson suggests that this type of scepter has its origin in an Indian Buddhist Jataka tale in which a group of royal sisters use branches to initiate debates with suitors and Buddhist priests. [8] The term ruyi comes from the “wish-fulfilling” Kalpavriksha tree of Hindu mythology. [9] This is suggested by a Chinese source from the 7th-century which notes that, during the celebration of Upavasatha, [10] lay hosts often gifted “ruyi shu” (如意樹), or “As-you-wish trees” (no doubt saplings or branches), to Indian Buddhist priests [11]. It’s possible that these gifts served as unofficial symbols of the priests’ authority and combined with the aforesaid tradition of debating with branches. This would explain why an instrument of debate would carry the ruyi title.

Upon entering China with Buddhism, this symbol of authority was adopted by the upper echelons of society. [12] Early records describe emperors, generals, and ministers wielding the object as a means to assert or signify their power. For instance, during the Jin Dynasty (265–420), the court official Shi Chong (石崇, 249–300) used a metal ruyi to smash a coral tree, an imperial gift belonging to a rival aristocrat. [13] Jin General Xie Wan (謝萬, 320–361) used the object to point at his captains and direct his orders to them. [14]. General Wei Rui (韋叡, 442–520) of the Liang Dynasty (502–557) took this one step further and directed his troops in battle with a bamboo scepter. [15] Legend states that Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535) Emperor Xiaowen (孝文, 467–499) placed a bone ruyi (among other items) before his sons; the boy who chose it became his heir because it signified the right to rule. [16] During a time of war, Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝, 464–549) gave one of his generals a ruyi because, as one scholar suggests, it was sure to bring him victory in battle. [17]

Fig. 2 – Examples of tanbing-style ruyi from 8th-century Japan (larger version). Due to slow culture transmission, these could be reminiscent of early Chinese scepters. Fig. 3 – Manjusri holding a sprig while debating Vimalakirti. Detail from a Chinese Buddhist stele dated 533–543 (larger version).

Due to its historical association with military command, Literati ignorant of the scepter’s original function as an instrument of religious debate and authority came to consider the ruyi a type of weapon. For example, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) archaeologist Zhao Xigu (趙希鵠, c. 1195–post 1242) described the object as an iron club used for self-defense: “The men of old used the Ruyi for pointing or indicating the way, and also for guarding themselves against the unforeseen. It was made of wrought iron, and was over two feet in length…” [18] Zhao’s words were later echoed by the art collector Wen Zhenheng (文震亨, 1585–1645) during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). [19] The concept of an “As-you-wish” iron club used for self-defense no doubt influenced monkey’s staff. This is especially true since Wen shows the idea was current during the time that the Ming version of the novel was published.

So how did the scepter come to have its signature serpentine curve and ornate head? J. Leroy Davidson believes this is a simple case of misidentification. He cites material from the Song Dynasty concerning people digging up a “a bronze box in which was a white ruyi decorated with motives of a dragon and tiger”. [20] Davidson suggests this archaeological artifact was actually a belt hook commonly worn during the Zhou and Han Dynasties (11th-c. BCE to 3rd-c. CE). Said hooks have an S-shaped curve and the accompanying buckles are often decorated with real and imagined creatures like those mentioned above (fig. 4 and 5). [21] It’s easy to see then how ancient belt buckles—perhaps the features weathered by time—could have been confused with a mushroom.

Fig. 4 – A profile comparison of a Han-era belt hook (top) and a ruyi (bottom) (larger version). Fig. 5 – A Han belt buckle featuring a dragon (larger version).

Just like the Vedic Soma and the Greek Ambrosia, the Chinese also had a magical, life-prolonging substance which they called Zhi (芝). [22] The Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji, 史記, c. 90 BCE) mentions that the emperors Qin Shihuangdi (秦始皇帝, 260–210 BCE) and Han Wudi (漢武帝, 156–87 BCE) sent thousands of men over many years in search of magical islands housing this immortal herb. [23] It was during the time of the latter that the substance was equated with lingzhi (靈芝, Ganoderma), a genus of spade-shaped mushroom with a lacquered appearance (fig. 6). [24] This fungus became the subject of esoteric texts starting from the Han Dynasty, many of which are now lost. Drawing on these extinct texts, the Daoist adept Ge Hong (葛洪, 283–343) was the first to classify the lingzhi into five major types. [25] Methods For Planting the Zhi Plants (Zhong zhicao fa, 種芝草法), a late Six Dynasties (220–589) text attributed to the Daoist god Laozi (老子), details how to seed this magical fungus by burying precious substances, such as gold or cinnabar, on a mountain side during solstices and equinoxes. [26] Originally written during the Song Dynasty, a Ming edition of Classification of Supreme Numinous Treasure Mushrooms (Taishang lingbao zhicao pin, 太上靈寶芝草品) lists one hundred twenty-six different kinds of immortality-bestowing fungi. It’s important to note that this text became part of the official Daoist Canon (Daozang, 道藏) during the mid-15th-century. [27] This means immortal mushrooms are a central tenet of Daoism.

Fig. 6 – A lingzhi mushroom (larger version).

Daoism adopted the ruyi centuries prior to the Song Dynasty when the lingzhi mushroom was associated with the scepter. [28] It was one of the few ritual objects permitted Daoist monks living in medieval Chinese monasteries. [29] In fact, one early Tang Dynasty text states that it is among the items that “are essential for all Daoists, whether male or female, when they present offerings”. [30] Possibly taking a cue from Buddhist depictions of Manjusri, Daoists of the Tang began to depict some of their supreme deities with the scepter. For example, a late 7th- or early 8th-century statue of Laozi depicts him holding a straight tanbing-style ruyi (fig. 7). [31] After the lingzhi imagery was absorbed into the scepter, it became closely associated with the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao Tianzun, 靈寶天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing, 三清), a trinity representing different aspects of the Dao (道). A 14th-century woodblock print depicts this deity holding a large mushroom ruyi—called by one scholar “his principle attribute”—while sitting on a heavenly throne surrounded by a sea of celestial beings (fig. 8). [32] The scepter was later associated with other Daoist deities during the Ming. [33] Therefore, the long association of the ruyi with Daoist immortals explains why Monkey would come to wield such an instrument with that name.

Fig. 7 – A late-7th- or early-8th-century statue of Laozi holding a straight tanbing-style ruyi (larger version). Fig. 8 – A 14th-century woodblock print depicting the Celestial Worthy holding a linzhi ruyi (larger version). Fig. 9 – Detail of a Cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl” (larger version).

Unlike their Daoist counterparts, Buddhists during the Tang looked upon the scepter as a somewhat base object. For example, although he listed it as a “lecture baton”, the monk Daoxuan (道璿, 702–760), an expert on monastic law, placed the ruyi in the same category as non-ritual items like satchels and spittoons. Furthermore, he described it as being one of the objects not among the “tools of the way”. [34] Sources from this time and the Song Dynasty equate the object with a simple backscratcher. [35] This shows that the ruyi lost any association that it may have had with wish-granting (as the term implies) upon entering China. So how did it regain its magic properties? This probably happened because it was equated with the Buddhist Cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl” (fig. 9). [36] This is suggested by the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term, Ruyi zhu (如意珠). [37] The association between the two was surely established by the Ming as Monkey’s staff has the magical ability to grow or shrink according to his wishes. [38] This is best exemplified by a poem appearing in Chapter seven of Journey to the West:

A spirit beam filling the supreme void—
That’s how the rod behaves accordingly.
It lengthens or shortens as one would wish;
Upright or prone, it grows or shrinks at will. [39]

The magic powers of the staff may be based on a weapon appearing in the earliest version of the novel, 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). In this 13th-century adaptation, our protagonist changes a ringed monk’s staff into a “gigantic yaksha whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth”. [40] This means that the Song and Ming Dynasty versions of the staff both have the ability to change their size and shape as Monkey wishes. I suggested in the second article that the initial description of the weapon in chapter one as a giant pillar of black iron is based on the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi, a religio-political Indian monument of the 4th-century. A warrior wishing to wield such a pillar would naturally need to shrink it down. Therefore, the “wish-granting” ruyi concept was probably associated with the shape-changing abilities of the ringed monk’s staff and applied to monkey’s signature iron weapon.

In conclusion, the inscription on Monkey’s staff stands as a microcosm of Chinese literature, history, and religion. The weight harkens back to Yuan and Ming (13th-c. to 17th-c. CE) Military Romance literature in which great heroes are distinguished from normal humans by their ability to brandish extremely heavy weapons. Monkey’s ability to wield a staff weighing nearly nine tons elevates him above his human counterparts as a divine hero with herculean strength. The ruyi (如意) concept is much older and can be traced back to ancient India. The term is based on the Kalpavriksha, or “wish-granting” tree, of Hindu mythology. This element of Hindu culture was absorbed by Indian Buddhism and mixed with a separate tradition to become a symbol of religious debate and authority. Upon entering China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), this branch was stylized into a tanbing (談柄), or “Discussion Stick”, which later became the emblem of the Bodhisattva Manjusri. It was simultaneously adopted by aristocrats and military commanders in subsequent dynasties as a sign of their secular power. The object attained its current S-shape and ornate head during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) when historical archaeologists happened upon ancient Chinese belt hooks and buckles from the Zhou and Han Dynasties (11th-c. BCE–3rd-c. CE) and confused them for such scepters.

There are three reason for the ruyi term being applied to Sun Wukong’s magic weapon. First, due to its historical association with military commanders, literati during the Song and Ming Dynasties came to look upon the object as an iron club used for self-defense. This would be perfect for protecting Monkey’s Buddhist master Xuanzang (玄奘) during their journey to India. Second, the head of the scepter was associated with the immortality-bestowing lingzhi mushroom (靈芝) during the Song Dynasty and became the emblem of the highest gods of Daoism, most notably the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (靈寶天尊). This makes the ruyi an excellent weapon for an immortal macaque possessed of Daoist magic. Third, the scepter was equated with the Buddhist Cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl”; this was associated with the magic, shape-changing abilities of a literary precursor of the weapon. Hence, the Ming version of Monkey’s pole gained the ability to magically shrink or grow according to his wishes. So, in the end, we see that both Monkey and his staff straddle the Buddhist and Daoist religions.

Update: 01/05/2015

I suggested in the above entry that the ruyi may have been equated with the Buddhist cintamani, or “wish-granting pearl”. Well, I just noticed that the lingzhi-style scepter held by the Celestial Worthy from figure 8 appears to have a flaming pearl attached to it (fig. 9).

Fig. 9 – Enhanced version of the Celestial Worthy’s lingzhi ruyi scepter with a flaming pearl (larger version).

If it really is a Cintamani, this shows the association between the two happened by at least the 14th-century. This probably happened earlier considering iconography takes time to become standardized. I’ve found at least one other Chinese painting featuring a flaming pearl ruyi. A Ming work titled “The Lady of the Highest Primordial and the Empress of Earth” (c. 1600) features an attendant of the second deity holding the object (fig. 10).

Fig. 10 – Detail of the attendant (larger version).

Update: 01/06/2015

A prime example of the relationship between the ruyi and the cintamani comes in the form of a 16th-century statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音). The deity is usually associated with the flaming pearl, but this statue depicts her holding a scepter (fig. 11). H.A. van Oort comments: “In the mind of the artist, the scepter could well have replaced the cintamani, the “wish-fulfilling jewel”; in that case the statue is a very free interpretation of the Ju-i Kuan-yin [Ruyi Guanyin, 如意觀音], or Cintamani Avalokitesvara, the Kuan-yin with the wish-fulfilling pearl”. [41]

Fig. 11 – Guanyin holding a ruyi scepter (larger version).

Update: 08/16/2020

I’ve written an article suggest the ruyi/lingzhi mushroom influenced the shape of Wukong’s curlicue-style headband.

Update: 02/06/2021

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


[1] Wu Cheng’en and W.J.F. Jenner, Journey to the West (Vol. 1). [S.l.]: Foreign Languages Press, 2001), 56. Text altered slightly. Compare with Anthony C. Yu’s translation: “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod” (Wu Cheng’en and Anthony C. Yu, The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 135). I prefer the former. Both translations use the word “pounds”; however, the Chinese version of the novel uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (New Haven (Conn.): Yale University P, 2004), 491 n. 133). This means 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs.
[2] Luo Guanzhong and Moss Roberts, Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 27.
[3] Shi Naian, Guanzhong Luo, and Sidney Shapiro, Outlaws of the Marsh (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1988), 94-95.
[4] Patricia Bjaaland Welch, Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub, 2008), 230.
[5] The Vimalakirti Sutra (c. 100) tells of how the Buddha chose Manjusri to call upon the malingering householder whom no other disciple wanted to visit due to his supernatural intellect. He and Vimalakirti debate Buddhist doctrine before a crowd of celestial onlookers until they realize that they are both equally versed in the dharma (Burton Watson, The Vimalakirti Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)). For Manjusri’s association with the Ruyi scepter, see J. Leroy Davidson, “The Origin and Early Use of the Ju-i,” Artibus Asiae 13, no. 4 (1950): 240. The aforementioned sutra was not translated into Chinese until the 5th-century, so this means the ruyi became associated with the deity rather quickly.
[6] Davidson, 241-242. Medieval Chinese dictionaries refer to the ruyi as a type of backscratcher, the idea being that it can reach the areas that “one wishes” (Ibid, 239; John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 142).
[7] Ibid, 245. See plate IV for examples of 8th-century ruyi scepters from Japan shaped like Bamboo stalks.
[8] Ibid, 246. Davidson cites a hard to find book that is long out of print. I located an archived scan of the publication online. See “A Manual of Buddhism, in Its Modern Development (1853).” Internet Archive. Accessed December 17, 2014. The story appears on page 255.
[9] Davidson, 246. Various Puranas state that such trees arose during the churning of the ocean of milk. The gods allowed humans to wish for whatever their hearts desired until they started asking for evil things. The trees were then transported to heaven beyond the reach of man (Roshen Dalal, Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2010), 189).
[10] A day of religious observance in which the Buddhist lay community renews their commitment to the Eightfold Path. Buddhist priests are invited into homes to help with this process (Yijing, F. Max Müller, and Junjirō Takakusu, A Record of the Buddhist Religion As Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), 35 n. 1).
[11] Davidson, 246-247.
[12] John Kieschnick believes the ruyi is a strictly Chinese invention (Kieschnick, 138-152). I, however, find Davidson’s arguments for an Indian origin more compelling.
[13] Joseph Edkins. “The Ju-i, or, Sceptre of Good fortune”. The East of Asia Magazine III (1904), 238. For a complete translation of the story, see John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau, Classical Chinese Literature: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 671-672.
[14] Edkins, 238.
[15] Ibid, 239.
[16] Ibid. See also Kieschnick, 144. Kieschnick refers to him by his temple name Gaozu. I have used his reign name to avoid confusion with other similarly named emperors from subsequent dynasties.
[17] Edkins, 239.
[18] Berthold Laufer, Jade: A Study in Chinese Archaeology and Religion (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1912), 336 n. 1. Text altered slightly. Laufer describes the ruyi as a blunt sword, but the available information makes the object sound more like a club.
[19] He writes: “The ruyi was used in ancient times to give directions or to protect oneself from the unexpected. It was for this reason that it was made of iron, and not on the basis of strictly aesthetic considerations…” (Kieschnick, 151).
[20] Davidson, 249. Text altered slightly.
[21] Ibid.
[22] R. Gordon Wasson and Joseph Needham both suggested that Zhi was actually based on Indian stories of Soma (Paul U. Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 112.
[23] Sima Qian and Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian (Vol. 2) (Hong Kong: Columbia University Press, 1993), 14-15 and 45-46. Despite its association with mushrooms, some texts refer to it as a type of grass or herb (Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), 173-174.
[24] Xiao Tong, Wen Xuan or Selections of Refined Literature (Vol. 3) (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), 201.
[25] These are stone zhi (石芝), wood zhi (木芝), plant zhi (草芝), flesh zhi (肉芝), and mushroom zhi (菌芝) (Fabrizio Pregadio, The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 2) (London: Routledge, 2008), 1273).
[26] Ibid.
[27] Stephen Little and Shawn Eichman, Taoism and the Arts of China (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000), 340.
[28] The association with the lingzhi, however, may have been as early as the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Yan Liben’s (閻立本, 600–673) “The Thirteen Emperors” painting features a monarch holding a straight tanbing-style ruyi with the head in the shape of a lingzhi. Although, the scalloped perimeter could denote a cloud. See “The Thirteen Emperors.” Digital Scrolling Paintings Project. Accessed December 23, 2014.
[29] Livia Kohn, The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao Kejie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 122.
[30] Ibid, 119.
[31] See image #39 in Little and Eichman , 183. Little suggests this could instead be a depiction of the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (靈寶天尊) (Ibid, 187 cat. nos. 39-42 n. 9). On the contrary, Silvio A. Bedini mentions an incense burner of Laozi carrying a ruyi on his famous journey to the Western Paradise (Silvio A. Bedini, The Trail of Time: Time Measurement with Incense in East Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), 113). This suggests that Laozi was indeed associated with the scepter.
[32] This illustrates a scene from an important Song Dynasty text in which the Celestial Worthy is said to reveal heavenly secrets to mankind (Little and Eichman, 237-238).
[33] See, for example, Cao Guojiu (曹國舅) (Welch, 259).
[34] Kieschnick, 148-149.
[35] Ibid, 1414-142 and 149-150.
[36] Erik Zürcher has suggested that the only way the lowly back scratcher could have become a symbol of lofty knowledge was via an association with the wish-granting pearl (Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 407 n. 59). It seems only natural that an affiliation between the scepter and the pearl would have sparked the idea that the former had magical properties.
[37] I’m not sure when the term was first translated into Chinese, but it appears in the Scripture on the Ten Wheels, a 6th-century sutra centered around the Bodhisattva Dizang (地藏, a.k.a., Ksitigarbha) (Ng Zhiru, The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva Dizang in Medieval China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 29-30). This shows the association between the ruyi and the wish-granting pearl could be quite old. For more information on the Cintamani, see Alice Getty, The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), 186-187.
[38] Wu and Yu, 135.
[39] Ibid, 190.
[40] Victor H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1189. For the complete story, see pages 1181-1207.
[41] H. A. van Oort, The Iconography of Chinese Buddhism in Traditional China (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 22.


“A Manual of Buddhism, in Its Modern Development (1853).” Internet Archive. Accessed December 17, 2014.

Bedini, Silvio A. The Trail of Time: Time Measurement with Incense in East Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994.

Dalal, Roshen. Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2010.

Davidson, J. Leroy. “The Origin and Early Use of the Ju-i.” Artibus Asiae 13, no. 4 (1950), 239-49.

Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Edkins, Joseph. “The Ju-i, or, Sceptre of Good fortune”. The East of Asia Magazine III (1904), 238-240.

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

Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography. New York: Dover Publications, 1988.

Kieschnick, John. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Kohn, Livia. The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao Kejie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004

Laufer,Berthold. Jade: A Study in Chinese Archaeology and Religion. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1912.

Little, Stephen, and Shawn Eichman. Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000.

Luo, Guanzhong, and Moss Roberts. Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

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

Minford, John, and Joseph S. M. Lau. Classical Chinese Literature: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Ng, Zhiru. The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva Dizang in Medieval China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.

Oort, H. A. van. The Iconography of Chinese Buddhism in Traditional China. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 2). London: Routledge, 2008.

Shi, Naian, Guanzhong Luo, and Sidney Shapiro. Outlaws of the Marsh. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1988.

Sima, Qian, and Burton Watson. Records of the Grand Historian (Vol. 2). Hong Kong: Columbia University Press, 1993.

“The Thirteen Emperors.” Digital Scrolling Paintings Project. Accessed December 23, 2014.

Unschuld, Paul U. Medicine in China: A History of Ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Watson, Burton. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub, 2008.

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

Wu, Cheng’en, and W.J.F. Jenner. Journey to the West (Vol. 1). [S.l.]: Foreign Languages Press, 2001.

Xiao, Tong. Wen Xuan or Selections of Refined Literature (Vol. 3). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996.

Yijing, F. Max Müller, and Junjirō Takakusu. A Record of the Buddhist Religion As Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896.

Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

A Historical Source for Monkey’s Staff?

Note: Since writing this article, I have come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the iron pillar. Please see the entry for 09/26/16 below. I am keeping this article up for posterity so other scholars may see my thought process.

Last updated02/06/21

Much of my recent work has focused on the origins of Monkey’s magic staff. This is because scholars have not attempted to trace the influences of the weapon beyond the earliest version of the story from the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). The most recent blog entry traces the staff to the ringed and metal staves carried by religious and martial Buddhist monks, respectively. The Song-era version sees Monkey using these two kinds of staves in defense of his master Xuanzang (玄奘) (Mair 1994: 1189-1190). Over time these were combined into a single weapon; the rings from the former were fused at the ends of the latter. This could have been the invention of Yuan/Ming storytellers or the author of the final Ming version (the novel was actually published anonymously) (Wu and Yu 2012: 21).

However, this doesn’t explain all aspects of the weapon. Take for example the initial description of the staff as a black iron pillar with an inscription:

[Sun] Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,550 lbs.” (Wu and Yu 2012: 135). [1]

If the weapon is based on historical objects, could it be possible that this description is based on something real? I believe I have found the object that may have influenced Monkey’s treasure: the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – The Iron Pillar of Delhi (4th-cent. CE) (larger version).

This Hindu monument was erected by King Chandragupta II (r. 380–413) of the Gupta Empire and dedicated to the deva Vishnu (Balasubramaniam 2005: 14). It is nearly 24 feet long, 21 feet of which is sticking out of the ground (“an iron rod more than twenty feet long”). The shaft has a very wide diameter, 24 inches at the base and 17 inches at ground level (“as thick as a barrel”) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 30). It has an ornamental bell capital that was originally topped by a chakra disc (“He found a golden hoop at each end”) (fig. 2)(Balasubramaniam 2005: 36-42). [2] And it also carries an inscription describing the military feats of the king (“Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription…”) (fig. 3) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 6-8).

Fig. 2 – (Left) A reconstruction of the chakra disc (larger version) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 42). Fig. 3 – (Right) The inscription (larger version).

What’s most interesting is the fact that the pillar is famous for resisting corrosion over the last 1,600 years. Scientists have analyzed its composition to find that it has a high phosphorous content, which forms a protective barrier against corrosive agents (Balasubramaniam 2005: 3 and 50-51). This means that the metallurgists of ancient India were far more advanced than originally thought. In addition, a local tradition in Delhi associates the pillar with Bhima, a supernaturally strong warrior from the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (4th-cent. BCE). A legend circulating from at least the 19th-century (maybe earlier) claims that he wielded the monument as a club in his ancient war against a rival army (Chunder 1869: 152). Therefore, a black iron rod that defies time and is associated with martial heroes would surely make a fine weapon for an immortal monkey, no?

I unfortunately don’t know of any Chinese sources mentioning the pillar, so connecting it directly to Xiyouji is difficult. However, the pillar was around for 1,200 years prior to the final Ming version, and Buddhist monks such as Faxian and the historical Xuanzang made pilgrimages to northern India were the monument is located. Not to mention there is the possibility that Indian and Chinese merchants traveling back and forth between the two countries could have spread tales about the marvelous iron rod to China. These oral tales could have then reached the ear of the novel’s author during the Ming. I’ve contacted experts in Chinese history, religion, and literature to determine whether or not I’m on the right path. I’ll make a sister entry in the future if I happen upon any more information.

Update: 06/04/14

I recently learned that famed Muslim sojourner Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) referenced the pillar in his travel log:

In the center of the [Mosque of Delhi] is the awe-inspiring column of which [it is said] nobody knows of what metal it is constructed. One of their learned men told me that it is called Haft Jūsh, which means ‘seven metals’, and that it is composed of these seven. A part of this column, of a finger’s length, has been polished, and this polished part gives out a brilliant gleam. Iron makes no impression on it. It is thirty cubits high, and we rolled a turban round it, and the portion which encircled it measured eight cubits (Ibn 2002: 622). [3]

Ibn Battuta traveled to China after his time in India, so this is just an example of how stories of the pillar could have come to the Middle Kingdom.

Update: 12/30/14

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

Update: 09/26/16

Since writing the top entry, I’ve come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the staff’s depiction as an iron pillar. This entry serves as an addendum until I can write a longer blog on the subject…

Update: 12/09/16

I recently learned about the origins of Monkey’s birth from stone, which may have influenced the hero’s connection with Yu’s ruler.

Update: 02/06/21

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


[1] Emphasis added. Anthony Yu’s original translation states ” thirteen thousand five hundred pounds.” However, Chinese versions of the novel use jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin 2004: 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show the more accurate weight.

[2] Balasubramaniam (2005) states that the discus was probably removed during the Muslim era for iconoclastic reasons (43). I’m not sure when (if it all) stories of the pillar made it to China. Whether before or after the Muslim conquest, the ornamental nature of the discus and/or the remaining bell capital could have influenced the fusion of the rings from the religious staff to the ends of the martial iron staff.

[3] A big thanks to Historum member Jinit for bringing the reference to my attention.


Balasubramaniam, R. 2005. Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar. Delhi: Foundation Books.

Chunder, Bholanauth. 1869. The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India (Vol. 2). London: N. Trübner.

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

Ibn Batuta, and H. A. R. Gibb. 2000. The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325-1354 (Vol. 3). London: Hakluyt Society.

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

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

Last updated: 02/06/21

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

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

1. Literary description

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

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

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

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

ringed monks staff - small

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

1.1 Literary antecedent

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

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

2. Origin

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

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

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

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

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

3. Conclusion

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

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

Update: 06/4/14

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

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

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

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

Update: 12/30/14

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

Update: 09/10/16

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

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

Update: 02/06/21

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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