Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

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

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the suoyi / nisraya above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.


Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.

Mair, V. H. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei:

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

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

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


Archive #10 – Journey to the West 2012 Revised Edition

Here I present four PDFs comprising the complete four volume 2012 revised edition of Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu. Each has been converted from an EPUB into a PDF. The resulting PDF files do not match the exact page count for the published editions. This means they are not suitable for citing in research. However, they are still perfect for those looking to read THE most accurate translation of the tale available. I hope those who read and enjoy the digital version will support the official release.

Anthon C. Yu (October 6, 1938 – May 12, 2015) was Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature in the Chicago Divinity School. I shared a long email correspondence with Prof. Yu, during which we became friends. He was always quick to answer my many questions. His translation remains a treasure trove of explanatory notes and sources.

Information about the translation

Anthony C. Yu’s translation of The Journey to the West,initially published in 1983, introduced English-speaking audiences to the classic Chinese novel in its entirety for the first time […] With over a hundred chapters written in both prose and poetry, The Journey to the West has always been a complicated and difficult text to render in English while preserving the lyricism of its language and the content of its plot. But Yu has successfully taken on the task, and in this new edition he has made his translations even more accurate and accessible. The explanatory notes are updated and augmented, and Yu has added new material to his introduction, based on his original research as well as on the newest literary criticism and scholarship on Chinese religious traditions. He has also modernized the transliterations included in each volume, using the now-standard Hanyu Pinyin romanization system. Perhaps most important, Yu has made changes to the translation itself in order to make it as precise as possible (source).

2012 Vol. 1 book cover - small

The cover of volume one (larger version).

PDF Files

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4


These books have been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.

Archive #9 – The Magic White Ape of the Tang Dynasty

The brief Tang-era tale “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong Baiyuan Zhuan, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-century) tells how the beautiful young wife of General Ouyang He (歐陽紇, 538–570) is kidnapped by a seemingly invisible force while he is engaged in conquering minority groups of the south lands. The general and his men scour the surrounding area for hundreds of miles before discovering a mountain where she and other women are being kept by a magic white ape (baiyuan, 白猿) (fig. 1). The captives caution that his soldiers are no match for the powerful primate, and so the ladies devise a plan to get him drunk and incapacitate him long enough for a killing blow to be dealt. With their help, the general manages to fall the beast with a well-placed sword strike below the navel, his only weak spot. Before dying, the ape reveals the general’s wife is pregnant and begs him not to kill the child. Ouyang subsequently returns to the north with his wife, the other women, and the monster’s priceless treasures. The tale ends with the birth of an unnamed son a year later.

White Ape and General's Wife - small

Fig. 1 – A modern drawing of the white ape and General Ouyang He’s wife by Japanese artist Natsuki Sumeragi (皇名月) (larger version). Original image found here. The silken ropes around his wrists refer to those intertwined with hemp and triple-tied to ensure that he can’t break free in the story. 

I. Historical background

Chen (1998) explains the original Biography of a White Ape story, purportedly supplemented by the above tale, [1] never existed. The Supplement is actually a standalone piece anonymously published to slander the historical scholar Ouyang Xun (歐陽詢, 557–641), who was known for his legendary monkey-like ugliness and almost supernatural intellect. The tale implies that he was the unnatural offspring of the general’s wife and the magic white ape (p. 76-79).

These mischievous simian spirits are known for kidnapping young maidens in tales from the Han to the Song (fig. 2). The mythical creature is based on the Gibbon (fig. 3), a small, long-armed, arboreal ape present in Asia (see Gulik, 1967).

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 2 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88. Fig. 3 – A woodblock print of a “white ape” or Gibbon from a Ming version of the Shanhai Jing (larger version).

II. Parallels with Sun Wukong

The story’s unnamed primate antagonist shares many surprising similarities with Sun Wukong. Apart from being a supernatural primate capable of human speech, each:

  1. Is a one thousand-year-old practitioner of longevity arts.
  2. Is a master of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change his appearance.
  3. Is a warrior capable of single-handedly defeating an army.
  4. Has a fondness for armed martial arts.
  5. Has an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm him.
  6. Has eyes that flash like lightning.
  7. Lives in a verdant mountain paradise like Flower Fruit Mountain.
  8. Resides in a cave with stone furniture like the Water Curtain Cave.

The character and his home appear to be an early model for the Monkey King, his abilities, and Flower Fruit Mountain.

III. Translation

Chen (1998) provides a complete translation of the brief tale, along with an informative translator’s introduction. The following PDF was put together from smartphone photos as I don’t currently have access to a scanner.

IV. Analysis

Chen (2003/2004) followed up his translation with a detailed analysis of the story. The PDF was located freely on the internet.


These papers have been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


1) A supplement (bu, 補) is an addendum to an existing body of work, sort of like modern fan fiction. See, for example, A Supplement to the Journey to the West (1640).


Chen, J. (1998). A supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape. Renditions, 49, pp. 76-85.

Chen, J. (2003/2004). Revisiting the yingshe mode of representation in “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape”. Oriens Extremus, 44, pp. 155-178.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: Brill.

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Bin Steel: The Magic Metal of Journey to the West

Different mythologies and fictional universes have their own magical metals. For example, Marvel’s Asgardians have Uru and the elves of Middle-earth have Mithril. The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE) hosts a long list of magical weapons, armor, and objects made from all kinds of metal (steel, iron, brass, gold, silver, etc.). A specific type is called Bin iron or Bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) and it is mentioned several times in the narrative.

Chapter 19

When Zhu Bajie first faces Sun Wukong in combat, he recites a poem praising the celestial origin of his weapon (fig. 1).

This is divine ice steel greatly refined,
Polished so highly that it glows and shines.
Laozi wielded the large hammer and tong;
Mars himself added charcoals piece by piece.
Five Kings of Five Quarters applied their schemes;
Twelve Gods of Time expended all their skills.
They made nine prongs like dangling teeth of jade,
And brass rings were cast with dropping gold leaves.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382)

The “divine ice steel” (shen bing tie, 神冰鐵) is likely an error for “divine Bin steel” (shen bin tie, 神鑌鐵) as bing (冰) and bin (鑌) sound similar. This may also have something to do with the snowflake-like grain pattern of Bin steel (see sections one and two below). Take note that the metal is associated with Laozi and his furnace. We will see this association again.

Zhu Bajie In-Flames Action Figure- small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Zhu Bajie with his battle rake (larger version).

Chapter 34

On the cusp of his battle with the Monkey King, the demon King Silverhorn (Yinjiao wang, 銀角王) is described as wearing polished armor made from the material.

He wears a phoenix helmet white than snow
And armor made of bright [Bin] steel. [1]
The belt on his waist is dragon’s tendon.
Plum-flower shaped gaiters top his goat-skin boots.
He seems the living Lord of Libation Stream;
He looks no different from Mighty Spirit.
He holds in his hands the sword of seven stars,
Stern and imposing in a towering rage (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 127).

The monster is later revealed to be one of two young attendants of Laozi’s furnace sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145).

Chapter 75

The Monkey King recites a poem about his divine staff (fig. 2) prior to battling a lion demon.

The rod of [Bin] steel nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,”
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men.
Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly,
Emitting bright strands of five-colored most.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)

Here again we see Laozi is associated with the material.

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 2 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

I. The metal of heroes

I want to reiterate the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sun Wukong, two of Tripitaka’s three main disciples and bodyguards, have weapons made from Bin steel (Sha Wujing’s staff is made from a heavenly tree). Each is the product of Laozi refining Bin steel in his magic furnace and smelting the polearms by hand. Just like dwarves imbued Thor’s uru-metal hammer with magical abilities, so too did the high god of Daoism for Zhu and Sun’s weapons. Each has supernatural durability and the power of transformation. In fact, the Monkey King’s staff is one of the strongest weapons in the entire novel, making its association with Bin steel very important. After all, a great hero requires a great weapon.

Another example of a hero wielding a Bin steel weapon is Wu Song (武松) from the classic Chinese novel the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). The former constable-turned-outlaw comes into possession of a pair of Buddhist sabers (fig. 3) made from “snowflake [pattern] Bin steel” (xuehua bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) and housed in a sharkskin sheath. [2] They are described as being made from the “finest steel, and obviously hadn’t been made in a day” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 317). In addition, the blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magical, sentient longing for combat. Wu later sates this desire by using the sabers in a prolonged skirmish with an evil Daoist priest, eventually beheading the brigand with a single strike (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, pp. 352-353).

Wu Song with knives

Fig. 3 – A modern drawing of Wu Song with his Buddhist sabers (larger version).

II. Real world history

Wagner (2008) suggests the name Bin (鑌) is a transliteration of a foreign term, possibly the Sanskrit word Piṇḍa, meaning “steel” or “lump” (p. 270). The material is mentioned in Chinese records of the 6th and 7th-centuries as being imported from Persia (Bosi, 波斯) and Jaguda (Cao, 漕, modern day Ghazni) in Afghanistan. Mentions of the metal strangely disappear for centuries, only to reappear in early 10th-century records. This is possibly due to the disruption of Persian trade wrought by the Islamic conquest of Persia and the subsequent rise of Muslim trade with the east. Bin steel is believed to have originally been transported in a raw “lump” state prior to smelting in China. But the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom, for a 12th-century report shows the metal was produced in Inner Mongolia. The early Yuan government is known in 1275 to have established the “Office for Bin iron” (Bintie ju, 鑌鐵局), which possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Wagner, 2008, pp. 268-272).

13th-century Persian Damascus blades (detail) - small

Fig. 4 – Persian-made Damascus steel blades of the 13th-century (larger version). Take note of the intricate grain pattern. Bin steel was known to have various patterns (see below).

The best description of the material comes from Cao Zhao’s (曹昭) The Essential Criteria of Antiquities (Ge gu yao lun, 格古要論, 1368), an early guide for connoisseurs.

Bin iron: It is produced by the Western Barbarians. Some [types] have a spiral self-patterning, while others have a sesame-seed or snowflake patterning. When a knife or sword is wiped clean and treated with ‘gold thread’ alum, [the pattern] appears. Its value is greater than silver.

An ancient saying holds that “knowing the strength of iron is like knowing gold” [i.e., the ability to judge the properties of steel is as valuable as the ability to assay the purity of gold]. Forgeries have a black patterning. One should examine [a steel object] very carefully.

There are three rules for knives. The first is that in the blade there should be perfect control of fire, metal, and water [i.e., the blade should be correctly quench-hardened and tempered]. The second is that the haft should be of xichi wood from the Western Barbarians, and the third is that the sheath should be of Tatar birchbark.

I once had a pair of scissors of bin iron, of exquisite workmanship. It had a raised gilt pattern on the inside, and on the outside a silver-inlaid inscription in Islamic characters (Wagner, 2008, p. 271).

So we see Bin steel is comparable to Damascus steel (fig. 4), as both require quench-hardening and produce a number of intricate grain patterns visible after an acid treatment. One such pattern is the snowflake pattern associated with Wu Song’s sabers (and possibly Zhu Bajie’s rake). Most importantly, the metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). [3] I take this statement to be symbolic of his unbreakable resolve. At the same time, it shows Bin steel was considered exceptionally durable.

Highly durable Bin steel weapons could have seemed like magic in comparison to those made from lesser quality metal. Therefore, it’s interesting that Journey to the West presents the metal being smelted by a god in his magic furnace. It seems only natural that a magical forge would produce the finest steel. In fact, after the 10th-century, the very name Bin steel came to be used as a term for any type of exquisite steel (Wagner, 2008, p. 271). So the author/compiler of Journey to the West may have been using it in that sense instead of referring to imported Persian steel.


1) Anthony Yu’s original translation says “…bright Persian steel.” The historical origin is discussed in the second section of the article.

2) While the Water Margin presents them as sabers, Buddhist knives (jiedao, 戒刀, lit: “precept knife”) were historically small, unadorned, curved, finger-length blades used for cutting robes, trimming fingernails, opening wounds, or slicing food (Yifa, 2009, p. 250, n. 37).

3) Wagner (2008) states the story is listed as coming from the 9th-century but the housing source is from the 11th-century (p. 269, n. 103). Therefore, it likely originates after the reappearance of Bin steel in Chinese records during the early 10th-century.


Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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

Yifa. (2009). The Origins of Buddhist monastic codes in China: An annotated translation and study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i press.

Origins of the White Bone Spirit

The twenty-seventh chapter of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) features a mountain spirit who resorts to magic disguises in an attempt to eat Tripitaka. Commonly referred to as the “White Bone Spirit” (Baigujing, 白骨精), she is one of a family of ghouls active in White Tiger Mountain (Baihu ling, 白虎嶺) who have long told legends of the monk’s immortality-bestowing flesh. She resorts to subterfuge because alone she is not powerful enough to contend with the holy man’s present disciples, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing.

The spirit first disguises herself as a peerless beauty described as having “ice-white skin hid[ing] jade-like bones” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 18). She comes bearing a vegetarian meal, claiming it to be food intended for her pious husband toiling in the fields on the other side of the mountain. She instead decides to feed Tripitaka as this would allow her to keep her family’s vow of supporting monks. But before she can kidnap the monk, Sun Wukong returns from picking peaches for his master and sees through the magic facade, seemingly killing the young girl with his magic staff. The monster, however, is able to escape in spirit at the last second using the “Magic of Releasing the Corpse” (Jieshi fa, 解屍法), [1] leaving behind a fake body in her place. The innocent-looking food is then revealed to be bewitched frogs, toads, and maggots. Despite this, Zhu Bajie convinces their master that Monkey is trying to conceal the murder with magic, leading to the monk using the Tight-Fillet spell as punishment.

She subsequently disguises herself as the girl’s elderly mother searching the mountain for her daughter. Sun again sees through the disguise and seemingly kills her with his staff. This again leads to his punishment with the Tight-Fillet spell. The White Bone Spirit’s last disguise is that of the elderly father looking for his wife and daughter. But this time Monkey calls on local deities to guard any possible escape routes, and this time he succeeds in killing her. The spirit’s true form is revealed to be a “pile of flour-white skeletal bones” with the name “Lady White Bone” (Baigu furen, 白骨夫人) engraved on her spine (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 26).

White Bone Spirit drawing - small

Fig. 1 – A lovely cosplay of Lady White Bone (larger version). More pictures can be seen here

Origin in oral literature

The precursor of the White Bone Spirit can be traced to a demon appearing in chapter six of 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, c. late 13th-century), the earliest known printed edition of Journey to the West, which likely served as a prompt for ancient storytellers.

Chapter six: Passing Long Ditch and Great Serpent Peak (Guo changkeng dashe lingqu, 過長坑大蛇嶺處)

The pilgrims arrived at the valley of the fire-spitting White Tiger Spirit (Huo lei ao baohu jing, 火類坳白虎精). Coming closer they encountered a great ditch. The four steep entrances were pitch-black and they heard a roar of thunder. They could not advance. The Dharma Master [Fashi, 法師, i.e. Tripitaka] held up his [magic] golden-ringed staff and, flourishing it toward the distant heavenly palace, yelled: “Devaraja! Help us in our afflictions!” Suddenly a shaft of light shot out from the staff five tricents long. It slashed through the long ditch and soon they were able to get across.

Next they came to Great Serpent Peak. There they saw a gigantic serpent like a dragon. It likewise was not harmful to humans. Then they crossed the pit of the fire-spitters. Down, down into the fiery pit they looked and saw a pile of dry bones over forty tricents long. The Dharma Master asked Monkey Pilgrim [Hou xingzhe, 猴行者]: “What are those white withered bones piled up there like snow on a mountain?” Monkey Pilgrim replied: “This is the place where the Heir Apparent, Ming Huang…changed his bones.” [2] The Dharma Master, hearing this, joined his palms and bowed his head in reverence.

Next they suddenly came to a prairie fire which reached to the heavens. It sent off such a huge amount of smoke and sparks that the pilgrims could not proceed. The Dharma Master shone the light of his [magic] begging-bowl toward the fire and yelled: “Devaraja!” The fire died out immediately and the seven pilgrims crossed this pit. When they were halfway across, Monkey Pilgrim said: “Master, did you know this peak is inhabited by a white tiger spirit? It often appears as a vixen, demon, or goblin and even eats people.” The Master replied: “I didn’t know!” After a while they could see a spume of ominous-looking smoke rising behind the peak and from the cloud thus…fell a mixture of rain, snow, and sleet. In the cloudy mist there was a woman dressed all in white.

She wore a white bodice of gauze, a white gauze skirt with a white belt, and held in her hands a single white peony. [3] Her face was as pretty as a white lotus, her ten fingers like precious jades. Observing the form of the ogress, Monkey Pilgrim had his suspicions confirmed. “Master, don’t go any farther,” said Monkey Pilgrim. “It’s surely an ogress. Wait till I go up and ask who she is.” Monkey Pilgrim took one look at her and shouted in a loud voice: “What place are you from, demon? What shape is beneath your facade? If you are a sprite or goblin, why don’t you hurry back to your lair? If you are an ogress, hurriedly hid your traces. But, if you are the daughter of a human being, then tell me your name and surname. And be quick about it! If you procrastinate and don’t speak, I shall reduce you to dust and power!” Hearing the pilgrim’s ferocious tone of voice, the white-clad woman slowly advanced, smiled coyly, and inquired whither the master and his disciples were going. Monkey Pilgrim said: “Ask no more! We travel for the sake of the sentient beings of the Eastern Lands. And you must be none other than the White Tiger Spirit of the Fire-spitting Pit.”

Hearing this, the woman’s mouth gaped open and she screamed loudly, while at the same moment her skin burst open revealing claws, long fangs, a tail, and a feline head. She was fifteen feet long. In another instant the whole mountain was filled with white tigers. Monkey Pilgrim transformed his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yaksa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam shot forth a hundred yards long. At the same time, the White Tiger Spirit advanced with a roar to do battle, but she was repulsed by the Monkey Pilgrim. After a short while, Monkey Pilgrim asked if the tiger spirit was ready to submit. She replied, “Never!” Monkey said: “If you will not submit, you will find an old monkey in your stomach!”

The tiger spirit heard what he said yet did not surrender right away. But no sooner had he yelled “Monkey!” than a monkey in the White Tiger Spirit’s stomach responded. The tiger spirit was forced to open her mouth and spit out the monkey. When it landed on the ground in front of her, it became twelve feet long with flashing eyes. The White Tiger Spirit spoke: “I still will not submit!” Monkey replied: “Then you will find another in your stomach!” Again, he caused the tiger spirit to open her mouth and spit out another monkey which landed in front of her. And again the tiger spirit said: “I still do not submit!” Monkey replied: “There are countless old monkeys in your stomach now, and even if you spit them out all day today until the next, all this month until the next, all this year until the next, all this life until the next, you will not be rid of them!” This made the tiger spirit angry. She was again afflicted by the Monkey when he transformed himself into a great stone in her stomach which gradually grew in size. Though she tried to spit it out, she couldn’t. Her stomach split asunder and blood poured from her seven orifices. [4] Monkey called upon the yaksa to slaughter the big White Tiger Spirit ruthlessly, and the yaksa pulverized its bones and obliterated its last vestiges.

The [Monkey Pilgrim], having withdrawn [his] magic, rested for a time before [the group] continued the journey. They left a poem:

The pit of fire-spitters and the White Tiger Spirit,
All that lot are vanquished, and peace and safety reign.
Now, the supernatural power of Monkey Pilgrim is displayed,
Protecting the monkish pilgrims across the great ditch (Wivell, 1994).

The chapter has a number of details that naturally led to the development of the White Bone Spirit.

  1. The demon is a White Tiger Spirit, hence the White Tiger Mountain mentioned in the novel.
  2. The “piles” of the future emperor’s bones recall the “piles” of the White Bone Spirit’s bones (her true form) after she is killed by Wukong.
  3. The White Tiger Spirit’s hunger for flesh and ability to take on any form (like “a vixen, demon, or goblin”) recalls the White Bone Spirit’s pursuit of Tripitaka and use of magic disguises.
  4. The White Tiger Spirit’s initial disguise as a beautiful woman with a “white lotus” face and jade-like fingers recalls the White Bone Demon’s “ice-white skin” and “jade-like bones.”

Here is the full length animated feature Sun Wukong Three Times Fights the White Bone Demon (孫悟空三打白骨精, 1985), which was produced twenty years after the highly popular Uproar in Heaven (大鬧天宮, 1965).


1) This is related to an ancient Daoist concept called “Release by means of a corpse” (Shijie, 尸解). As far back as the Han, immortals are described as leaving a fake corpse (sometimes a magically disguised object) behind while they ascended in secret to heaven (Kirkland, 2008).

2) This changing of bones most likely refers to some type of realized spiritual cultivation that resulted in a new, pure body for the future emperor.

3) The color white is associated with death in Chinese culture.

4) Sun Wukong defeats several monsters in Journey to the West by invading their stomach. See, for example, chapters 59, 75, and 82.


Kirkland, R. (2008). Shijie In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 896-897). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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: Vol. 2. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

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 [ten] thousand 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).

There is a lot of information to unpack, so I’ll go through the important parts line by line.

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.


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 hardwon “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 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 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.


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 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 through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known 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 Heavenly 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 collection of herbs and administers the elixir with liquid. 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 (source). 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.

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.

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.