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 (Pregadio, 2008, p. 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 Taiwan. Journal 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.
Pregadio, F. (2008). The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volumes 1 and 2. London [u.a.: Routledge.
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 https://greatmingmilitary.blogspot.com/2015/03/tang-ba.html
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.