The gibbon, a small, arboreal ape endemic to East and Southeast Asia, is known for its ethereal song and spectacular displays of acrobatics. Anyone who studies this primate, be they primatologist or scholar of history, mythology, or art, should own a copy of Robert van Gulik‘s (1910-1967) The Gibbon in China (1967). Though brief, this work is an amazing survey of historical references, poems, folktales, and art spanning over 3,000 years from the Zhou to Qing dynasties. Originally called a “white ape” (baiyuan, 白猿), the primate was thought to possess Daoist magic and secret knowledge (such beliefs influenced Sun Wukong). The Gibbon in China is out of print and hard to find, and available copies are prohibitively expensive. So I am thrilled to share a PDF of this wonderful piece of scholarship.
I would have included a digital file of the original “grammophone record” of gibbon calls, but I don’t have the know-how or equipment necessary to digitize it. I may add the file in the future.
The scan was produced with an overhead document camera. The glossy pages made scanning somewhat difficult. I had to use a soft, indirect light source. In addition, the print on numerous pages was already really faint due to the book being a photocopy of the original typescript. Therefore, sections of some pages appear blurry but still readable. The original file was 247 mb. I compressed it to a smaller file. I can provide the larger file upon request.
A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.
Description from the preface
The gibbon … was the traditional, purely Chinese symbol of the unworldly ideals of the poet and the philosopher, and of the mysterious link between man and nature. The gibbon initiates man into abstruse sciences and magic skills, and it is his calls that deepen the exalted mood of poets and painters on misty mornings and moonlit nights.
From the first centuries of our era on, Chinese writers have celebrated the gibbon in prose and poetry, dwelling in loving detail on his habits, both in the wild and in captivity. Great Chinese painters have drawn the gibbon in all shapes and attitudes; till about the 14th century from living models, and when thereafter the increasing deforestation had reduced the gibbon’s habitat to S.W. China, basing their pictures on the work of former painters and on hearsay. So important was the gibbon in Chinese art and literature, that he migrated to Japan and Korea together with the other Chinese literary and artistic motifs, although Japan nor Korea ever belonged to the gibbon’s habitat.
The gibbon thus occupies a unique place in Far Eastern culture, it being possible to trace the extent of his habitat, his appearance and his mannerisms for more than two thousand years. Therefore I thought it worth while to try to assemble these literary and artistic data, for the reference of orientalists, zoologists, and animal lovers in general. The results are embodied in the present essay.
The book begins with an introduction, describing gibbons and their habitats as I came to know them during many years of daily association. I have illustrated my observations with photographs of a few of my own gibbons; a key to those will be found at the end of the volume. It is hoped that these introductory remarks will supply the reader with the general background, and provide him with the material for comparison with the Chinese literary and artistic data contained in the body of this book.
The main text is divided into three parts, treating the subject-matter in chronological order. Part I describes the earliest data available, from ca. 1500 B.C. till the beginning of the Han dynasty, 202 B.C. Part II deals with the early centuries of our era, and gives a general picture of the gibbon as he appears in the literature of the T’ang dynasty which ended in 907 A.D. Part III is mainly concerned with pictorial representations of the gibbon in the art of the Sung, Yuan and Ming dynasties. The survey ends with the beginning of the Ch’ing dynasty, in 1644 A.D.; for after that date the gibbon became so rare in China that what is written about him is largely repetitious. An appendix gives a brief account of the gibbon in Japan.
From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins.
During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數).  It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:
The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).
They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)
Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).
In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.
1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).
The following story sketch was originally posted on my external blog on the Historum website. The site recently switched to a new server but the blogs have yet to be migrated. I’m posting it here for posterity. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
I. Story Idea #1
As a lover of Chinese mythology and a former primatology major, I’ve always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Sun Wukong. I originally wanted him to be the son of Monkey or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Sun and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of the character; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [A] a small, long-armed, arboreal ape native to Asia (fig. 1), I thought the character could be an ape immortal. It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons generally mate for life.
Fig. 1 – A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.
A rough sketch of the story is presented below. The tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes contain important information on the texts I used and why particular plot choices were made.
The Dao (道, the way) gives birth to the One (yiqi, 一氣, the first breath); The One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang, 陰陽); The Two gives birth to the Three (San qing, 三清, the Three Pure Ones); The Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things. The Ten Thousand Things carry the Yin and enfold the Yang; Kneading gently, they create harmony. [B]
In the beginning of the universe, the Three Pure Ones, the manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. Among the first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female (fig. 2). They become the progenitors of all apes and monkeys, just like the phoenix and his mate, the next to be created, are the progenitors of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (氣), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. And Like modern apes, the pair shows a propensity for observation, watching the cyclical movement of the stars and planets and becoming aware of the ebb and flow of qi, studying the energy and cultivating its mysteries over endless eons.
Once their family grows to titanic proportions, the gibbons wield their arcane knowledge to create an island home, raising up Flower-Fruit Mountain (Huaguo shan, 花果山) from the ocean. There, they construct the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) from which they continue to plumb the depths of the Dao. [C] Their exploration takes them to the heights of the mountain where heaven meets earth, using the corresponding yin (earth/female) and yang (heaven/male) energy to fuel their reenactment of the creation of the cosmos through sexual union. By chance, these powerful, creative sexual energies are absorbed by a boulder atop the mountain. [D]
As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [E] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the ages. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, their song inadvertently topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the deviNuwa (女媧) is forced to mend the heavens with five magic stones. [F] The primordial devas and spirits fear what might happen if the couple continues, so they plead with the gibbons to separate in order to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.
The immortal lovers reluctantly agree and isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [G] the male becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (東猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (Yuan jiazhang, 猿家長), while the female becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (Xi yuan xian, 西猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (Yuan nu jiazhang, 猿女家長). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. [H]
The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [I] The August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost to time.
It is during the interim when the previously mentioned boulder, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, births a stone embryo that is eroded by the elements into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of his kin had forgotten long after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under Subodhi, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, Monkey Awakened to Vacuity) (fig. 3), and achieving great magical powers with which he later uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a full-fledged god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for 600 years, Sun redeems himself by escorting the monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) to India, and for this he is rewarded with Buddhahood, becoming the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛).
Fig. 3 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (larger version). A photomanipulation by the author.
After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the primordial gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses due to the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. [J] In addition, their individual songs have grown in power, now capable of destroying anything by separating the yin and yang forces therein (fig. 4).
Fig. 4 – A gibbon yawning. Imagine powerful sound waves emanating from its mouth. A larger version can be found here.
The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the Enlightened One, the Tathagata sends their spiritual son, the Victorious Fighting Buddha, to ask them to pacify their rage instead of using trickery to halt the onslaught. [K] After a brief reunion, the pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to the Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine the great injustice done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.
After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (Da jie, 大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element. There are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm, where they can frolic with the Victorious Fighting Buddha. This way the gibbons will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [L]
II. Background information
A) The Chinese viewed the gibbon (Yuan, 猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi. This resulted in long lives and occult powers (Geissmann, 2008).
B) This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德經), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and Wilson, 2012, p. 197. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals. See Stevens, 1997, pp. 68-70.
C) JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.
D) JTTW states the following about the boulder: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love atop of the mountain, thereby impregnating the boulder with powerful, creative energies. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (Wile, 1992, pp. 11-12 and 28-29). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.
E) Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It’s interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Lougheed, 2014).
F) The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.
G) I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey’s imprisonment and the pair’s exile, both of which are connected to mountains.
H) The Buddha’s tutelage under the gibbons happens in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subodhi because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of Sun Wukong’s spiritual parents are transmitted to him by their former student.
I) This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演義), or Investiture of the Gods. In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, 1997, p. 60).
J) The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. The pair rebels like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. That’s why I present them as living embodiments of yin and yang. Wile (1992) states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (p. 29).
K) An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to make Monkey think that he has left his palm in the seventh chapter of JTTW.
L) Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). For more information on the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind, see my article here.
II. Story idea #2
Last year I wrote an article that explored other stone-born figures from world mythology. In the conclusion I cautiously suggested that Wukong’s birth and later rebellion was influenced by the Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE), which appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. For example, one scholar noted similarities between Ullikummi and a later figure from Greek mythology: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (see the linked article). Anyone who has read Journey to the West will no doubt notice the striking similarities with Monkey’s tale. Therefore, I think Ullikummi’s story would be a solid basis for a more authentic origin story for the Monkey King.
While the ancient tale is named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya”, foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home.
Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When the goddess Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads seventy deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with his vizier and brother Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. One scholar suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (again, see the linked article).
Fig. 6 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.
Now, I’ve previously written a story sketch in which Master Subodhi’s school is actually a training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the Shaolin Temple. I speculated that Wukong’s skill in martial arts and troop movement would come from his time serving as a soldier and eventual officer in this army. Additionally, I suggested that the baddie whom the army faces is the headless monster Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 6), who originally battled the supreme god Shangdi for control of the universe and was beheaded after his defeat. Perhaps he or a figure like him follows in Kumarbi’s footsteps and beds a stone, in this case the rock on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, in an effort to create a powerful son to finish what he started. Then, he works in the shadows, influencing the direction of Monkey’s life, leading to his famous rebellion against heaven. Wukong’s defeat of the seventy-two major gods in the heavenly army  would mirror Ullikummi routing the seventy gods led by Astabi. Likewise, the Jade Emperor’s call to the Buddha, leading to Monkey’s defeat, mirrors Tesub’s plea to Ea and the eventual downfall of the stone monster. Thoughts?
I’ve posted a piece about a folk Taoist white ape god. His story overlaps with Sun Wukong just like the spiritual parents I presented above.
If viewed through the lens of modern Chinese folk religion, Monkey’s stone egg would be an extension of the earth goddess Houtu (后土, “Sovereign[ess] of the Earth”), also known as Dimu niangniang (地母娘娘, “Mother Earth Goddess”) (fig. 7), making her his mother. Her name was mentioned as far back as the Zhou Dynasty, but her feminine form (Houtu is a gender neutral term) didn’t become popular until after the Sui Dynasty (Yang, An, & Turner, 2011, pp. 135-136). Houtu also has a mythic connection to Yu the Great (Da Yu, 大禹), an ancient demigod who conqeured the world flood during times immemorial. It is said that she took pity on him during his toils and drew a map of the Yellow River, suggesting that he dredge eastward in the opposite direction to both ease his burden, as well as to ensure that he completed his monumental task. She is also said to have, along with her daughter, made food for Yu and his workers when they did not have enough to eat (Yang, An, & Turner, 2011, p. 137). The reason that this mythic connection is important is because Monkey also has ties to Yu the Great. One, as I show here, both figures are born from stone in their respective stories. Two, Sun’s magic staff was originally a tool used by Yu to drill holes and set water depths. And three, both are mythic kings and cultural heroes. I’ve noted here that Monkey has had past lives, so Yu the Great is definitely a contender.
Fig. 7 – The “Mother Earth Goddess” idol in the author’s personal collection (larger version).
I also note here (and above) that rebellious, stone-born figures often have a heavenly father. After all, even the novel mentions that the rock from which the stone egg emerged was “nourished…by the seeds of Heaven and Earth” (meishou tianzhen dixiu, 每受天真地秀) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 101). So I imagine his pater would be a primordial sky god like Shangdi (上帝, “Supreme Deity”). This is a good choice as the deity also has ties to Yu the Great. The story goes that Shangdi was angry that the demi-god Gun (鯀), Yu’s father, had stolen magic growing earth from heaven to help combat the world flood. So he had an official execute Gun. Three years later, Yu emerged from the corpse and continued his father’s work (Yang, An, & Turner, 2011, pp. 127 and 237).
Perhaps Houtu and Shangdi reward Yu for his meritorious service by reincarnating him as the Stone Monkey on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The initial plan is to allow him to frolic in a carefree land until peacefully passing in his sleep at the ripe old age of 342.  But the Monkey King eventually becomes aware of death and sets out to escape it. This subsequently leads to his famous adventures.
1) Koss (1981) writes: “Adding up the number of gods listed here [see Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 169] from the Twenty-Eight Constellations through the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the number arrived at is seventy-three, if 東西星斗 [dongxi xingdou, the “Stars of East and West”] is counted as two, which Yu does in his translation, or seventy two, if the latter is taken as one, which is another possible interpretation” (p. 84).
2) This is how old the ledger of life and death lists Monkey as in chapter 3: “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).
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.
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 (鈀) 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. 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!
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).
Fig. 5 – Ming-era Shide tang print of Pigsy vs Sandy (larger version).
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).
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.
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,  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.
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).
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).
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.
I’ve written an article on Zhu’s literary description.