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I came across the word 变形金刚 in a short children's story that I read and Pleco dictionary states that it refers to either shape-shifting warriors protecting the Buddha, or Transformers (which Google displays almost exclusively if you search the term). Obviously the connection between the 2 meanings is clear.

But I'm unsure what is the meaning of 刚 in this phrase. I asked my wife but she even believed the character is 钢 so didn't have a suitable answer.

Is there a historic meaning of 刚, or a historical transformation (!) from another character to this current one, which would enlighten me as to why this character is used in this phrase?

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「剛」originally meant unyielding/stubborn/strong. 金剛 is a traditional phrase which is also used to translate a Buddhist word from Sanskrit (वज्र, vajra).

Vajra (PIE root: *weǵ-, English descendants: watch, wake, vigor, vigil) is seen by Buddhists as variously a thunderbolt or diamond, symbolising extreme hardness/power/indestructibility, and by semantic extension a kind of symbol or weapon, and further extension a guardian (spirit) which holds this weapon.

As you’ve already seen, 變形金剛 is a reference to Buddhist temple guardian statues (see 四大金剛) which each hold a kind of vajra (the weapon).

  • I think a full answer must explain why 金刚 was used to refer to a warrior defending the Buddha. – James Hill Jun 27 '18 at 16:29
  • @JamesHill I hope I clarified what I wrote before. Let me know otherwise. – droooze Jun 28 '18 at 10:57
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The name 变形金刚 is created / translated when the origin transformer cartoon series (トランスフォーマー) was bought from Japan. As with other answers, 金刚 is a common references from the four protector deities - 四大金剛 - that guards the gate of heaven (China) or Buddhist temple (India).

As to your question, 剛 have a implication of indestructible / unyielding. 金, as a commonly known hardest metal at the time being, is added to the phase to enhance its meaning. Thus it is widely used such as:

金剛狼 - wolverine
金剛戰士 - Power Rangers

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According to baidu baike, 金刚 refers to 金刚石 diamond, which is very hard/firm/tough to break.

So, figuratively, 金刚 can refer to someone whose body is as hard/strong/firm as 金刚石, implying he is very strong and powerful. For example, 四大金刚,金刚不坏之身, etc.

变形金刚 is '金刚' whose body can shift and form different objects.

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Nothing to do with "钢". Agree with @droooze, just one comment that @droooze is using traditional Chinese. 變形金剛 is just 变形金刚 in simplified Chinese. BTW, there is another translation of 金刚, in English -- King Kong. :)

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