The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Magic Hairs

I’ve written at length about Monkey’s staff, armor, golden headband, and tiger skin kilt, but the one thing that has puzzled me the most is the origin of his magic hair. His ability to create anything he wants from his fur first appears in chapter 2 when he is forced to fight a demon who has taken control of his Water Curtain cave in his absence.

Seeing that his opponent was growing fiercer, Wukong now used the method called the Body beyond the Body [shen wai shenfa, 身外身法]. Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides [fig. 1]. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 128).

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Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).

I was pleased to find the answer while finishing work on my most recent article. The following material appears in Mark Meulenbeld’s (2007) wonderful study on Sire Thunder:

This peculiar technique was not an invention of the author of Xiyouji; it existed in ritual practice as performed by Daoist priests to produce martial proxies. In an example from the late fourteenth century [the Song Lian quanji, 宋濂全集], recorded by Song Lian, we read about a certain Daoist that his “steps of Yu formed a Heavenly Paladin, pulling out hair to make soldiers” 禹步成罡, 拔髮為兵. A ritual manual from the Heavenly Reed tradition [the Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元], written at least one and a half centuries before Xiyouji (and probably much earlier even), mentions that in the practice of summoning forth divine troops “the spiritual agents, generals and scribes come out through the pores” 靈官, 將吏, 自毛竅出. Consistent with the Golden Glow of self-incineration practices I have described in chapter 3, the pores could radiate with the same Golden Glow, and make the gods manifest: “From all the holes and pores in the body of down and hair burst forth ten-thousand rays of Golden Glow; […] the ten-thousand gods all manifested themselves inside this Golden Glow” 一身毛髮孔竅都迸出萬道金光 […] 萬神俱現於金光中. In Daoist literature generally, the pores were regarded to be the “source of transformations” 造化之源 (pp. 294-295).


Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

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


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