When it comes to shonen titles, dragon ball is one of the demographic’s most important works. Nevertheless, even the greatest storytellers need something to influence them. In the case of Akira Toriyama, many fans might be surprised to learn that his magnum opus was based on a quintessential piece of Chinese literature.
In fact, many elements, themes and even characters from this story, known as Journey to the Westwere borrowed and creatively adapted to serve as the basis for dragon ball. This novel may have preceded its anime descendant by almost four centuries, but it’s every bit as impressive an adventure as Toriyama’s modern adaptation.
What Is Journey to the West?
Journey to the West is a 16th-century Chinese novel following the exploits of a group of pilgrims on an exciting escapade to collect sacred Buddhist texts from across Asia. During this harrowing campaign, they face countless challenges in the form of demons, spirits and other magical creatures. It’s often considered one of the greatest works of Chinese literature and is well-beloved among Japanese audiences as well.
While its connection to dragon ball might not be immediately obvious, there are many ideas that made their way into Toriyama’s loose adaptation. The quest for Buddhist sutras was simplified into the more easily accessible form of the seven Dragon Balls, and the art style and setting of the early series often invoked a Chinese aesthetic. However, the most apparent aspect that the two works share is their central cast of characters.
Son Goku – Sun Wukong the Monkey King
Many of dragon ball‘s original main cast were adapted straight from the protagonists of the Journey to the West. Chief among these is Goku, heavily based on the Sun Wukong the Monkey King. Sun Wukong was a supernaturally strong monkey born from a mystical stone in the mountains. Although he earned a position as a member of the gods, he was cast back down to Earth and imprisoned as a result of his hubris and rowdiness. He ultimately joins the pilgrimage to earn his freedom and find enlightenment.
Goku’s similarities to Sun Wukong are easily apparent, with his monkey-like tail and destructive Great Ape form. Aside from his superhuman strength, his later origins from him as a Saiyan sent to Earth in a rock-like pod resemble those of the Monkey King. Sun Wukong also had a number of magical artifacts, including a staff that can stretch to any length and a cloud on which he soared through the skies — dead ringers for Goku’s signature Power Pole and Flying Nimbus.
Bulma – Tang Sanzang the Wise Monk
The leader of the group in Journey to the West was a monk named Tang Sanzang, who recruited Sun Wukong after freeing him from isolation. In addition to being the spiritual pillar of the team, Sanzang was usually the most cerebrally minded of the party. Although Sanzang was originally male, as he was based on the historical monk Xuanzang, many depictions in Japan make the character a woman.
As the person who found Goku in the wilderness, Bulma fits this role well. While her morals de ella were sometimes dubious, as the successor to Capsule Corp’s innovations, she was definitely the brains of the early dragon ball cast. Since she was the one who invented the Dragon Radar and kickstarted the search for the Dragon Balls, she parallels Sanzang, who had the most personal investment in seeking out the sutras.
Yamcha & Oolong – Zhu Bajie ‘Pigsy’ and Sha Wujing ‘Sandy’
While most of the series’ initial crew would fade into obscurity from Dragon Ball Z onward, Yamcha and Oolong were extremely important to the early narrative of dragon ball. This is probably because of their resemblance to the characters for Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing from Journey to the West. These two figures originated as celestial beings who fell from glory and became demons, although they both ended up reforming and joining Sanzang and Sun Wukong on their quest.
Both Yamcha and Oolong debuted in dragon ball as adversaries to Goku and Bulma. Just like Zhu Bajie, who took the form of a pig demon and kidnapped the daughter of a village elder, Oolong made a name for himself by abducting young ladies. On the other hand, Sha Wujing manifested as a sand demon in a quicksand river, which is thematically similar to Yamcha’s start from him as a desert bandit. While Yamcha’s best friend Puar has no direct equivalent, there are many creatures throughout the Journey to the West with shapeshifting abilities.
Ox King and Chi-Chi – The Bull Demon King & Princess Iron Fan
Among the many adversaries that Sanzang and company would face, the most notorious was the Bull Demon King and his consort Princess Iron Fan. Along with other members of their court and family, they opposed the pilgrims from continuing their mission. The group would fight the pair’s son Red Boy as they approached his mountain of flames, and later, Sun Wukong would get into hijinks regarding a banana leaf fan that Princess Iron Fan possessed.
Although the relationship of the characters changed, this storyline was utilized for an early side quest in dragon ball, where Goku met the Ox King and his daughter Chi-Chi in their palace atop a fiery mountain. Despite the Ox King’s fierce demeanor, the two became Goku’s trusted allies before eventually becoming his family when Goku and Chi-Chi got married. A couple of minor plotlines in the series also had Goku and Chi-Chi attempting to find a tool called the Bansho Fan, which resembled Princess Iron Fan’s item and could control the weather.
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