Beginning life as a manga in 1984 created by Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball became a massive hit in Japan and soon spun into a popular anime series starting in 1986. Over the next decade, Toriyama turned out hundred of chapters in his story about Goku, his friends, and the powerful Dragon Balls. The animated series followed suit before jumping ahead to Dragon Ball Z, where our heroes were a good bit older. The success of the anime eventually caught the attention of other countries, with production company FUNimation bringing the series to English audiences and igniting a whole new fanbase.
Though most of the buzz surrounding the franchise focuses on Goku and his fellow Saiyans, what’s made the series so great is its vast ensemble of interesting villains and heroes. One of the longest-running and most powerful characters from Dragon Ball is the three-eyed Tien, often seen with his floating friend Chiaotzu. While Tien, by nature, doesn’t prefer the spotlight, he’s still helped his fellow Z Fighters defend the Earth more times than we can count thanks to his interesting biology, unique set of skills, and relentless determination. Here are 15 Things You Didn't Know About Tien!
15 He Used To Be An Assassin and Con Artist
Long before Tien Shinhan was fighting next to Goku and saving the Earth from monstrous threats, he and Chiaotzu were con artists and assassins in training. While most of the Z Fighters were trained by Master Roshi at his Turtle School, Tien and his little friend attended Master Shen’s Crane School. This difference in mentors is the reason Tien and Chiaotzu wear green Hanfu robes, while many of the other characters have the iconic orange Manchu-style outfits.
Though Roshi was hardly a saint, Shen preferred to teach his students in much more nefarious ways. His younger brother was the famous Mercenary Tao, and he led Tien and Chiaotzu along a similar path. The two eventual heroes were never shown to have completed their journey to becoming assassins, but they pulled plenty of cons.
In one instance, they attempted to convince an entire village they were saving it from the beast InoShikaCho, who they were actually in cahoots with. Goku himself tried to reveal their con, but the two turned it around on him by forcing the Saiyan to save the creature's life and make it seem as if Goku controlled it. While the two gave up this way of life shortly after, it adds some interesting shading to two crucially underused characters from Dragon Ball.
14 Tien’s Mentor Was Master Roshi’s Rival—And Former Friend
Part of what helped Goku recognize Tien’s and Chiaotzu’s con was the fact that InoShikaCho used to be the pet of Masters Roshi and Shen. Long before they chose separate teaching paths, Roshi and Shen both studied at Master Mutaito’s Training Academy. Though the two were friends for years, Shen’s heart grew dark and full of shame after he watched his master get defeated by King Piccolo. Even though Mutaito returned and was able to achieve victory over the despot, he lost his life in the process, further pushing Shen into darkness.
From there, he and Roshi parted ways and formed their own opposing schools. There, they each trained their students and prepared them for the upcoming 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament. Despite the skill of his students, Shen and his group still used a number of cheats and deceptive tactics to influence the tournament. His lust for victory at any costs would eventually drive his prize pupils away.
13 Tien Fought Master Roshi and Goku in the World Martial Arts Tournament
After years of rivalry and training, the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament proved the ultimate testing ground between Shen’s Crane School and Roshi’s Turtle School. It also proved to be the undoing for Shen, as Roshi’s influence eventually moved Tien and Chiaotzu off the path of evil. Before that, though, Tien actually faced off against Roshi in battle.
Disguised as Jackie Chun (a reference to Toriyama and Jackie Chan's friendship), Roshi had actually won the previous Tournament. Shen and his student soon learned the fighter’s true identity, and Tien proceeded to use Roshi’s infamous Kamehameha move to battle the old man. Though hardly outmatched, Roshi still conceded the fight, and attempted to dissuade Tien from following Shen’s ways.
Tien’s next match was against Roshi’s star student, Goku (then still a child). Young as he may have been, he still proved a worthy adversary. Little did Tien know, Shen was actually commanding Chiaotzu to paralyze Goku using his mental powers. Tien delivered a vicious beating to Goku, but upon learning of the deception, refused to continue fighting and following Shen’s path.
Wanting a truly fair fight, Tien allowed Goku to wallop him for a bit in repayment, before the two continued their fight. They both exchanged some powerful blows, but Tien was able to eke out a win and redeem himself with Roshi and his students.
12 He’s One of the Most Powerful Humans
One of the biggest downsides of the transition from Dragon Ball to Dragon Ball Z is that many of the human characters were significantly weakened as the series became obsessed with the power of the Saiyans. When Tien first battled against Roshi’s students at the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament, his power level was at 180, rising to 250 by the time DBZ started. He even managed to pull it up to an impressive 1,830 after training with Kami, but it never seemed to stack up against Goku, Trunks, and the gang. Still, Tien has managed to pull off some impressive feats using his signature moves.
His most well-known attack is also his most powerful: the Tri-Beam. Aside from being visually interesting, the Tri-Beam is the move Tien turns to the most. He’s hardly the only character who employs it, but he’s made it into something of an art. Tien even uses a lightning-fast barrage of Tri-Beams to hold off Semi-Perfect Cell during the Z Fighters' brawl against the villain. Though it sadly doesn’t put much of a dent in the overpowered rogue, it still proves Tien can hold his own in this new world of gods.
11 Tien’s Only Half Human
One of the reasons Tien is so powerful for a human being may be that only half of his DNA is homo sapien. The other half comes from the Three-Eyed People, a humanoid species of aliens that share Tien’s literal third eye. While almost nothing is known about this alien race, it’s clear that their influence in Tien’s makeup is what grants him so many extraordinary abilities. The third eye, however, isn’t a given for Tien just because of his ancestry.
Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama has stated that those with a third eye have god-like powers and are capable of seeing through the illusions of the world. Tien, however, sacrificed many of these skills when he chose to follow Master Shen’s dark path. We also learn that Tien once possessed only two eyes, and achieved his third through intense meditation. Given his youthful deviations, we may never know the true power that Tien possessed or what the Third-Eye People are fully capable of unleashing.
10 Tien and Dragon Ball Were Inspired by Journey to the West
It’s no secret that when Toriyama was first crafting the Dragon Ball manga, he drew a lot of inspiration from Journey to the West. Also known as Monkey, the legendary tale is often presented as Chinese mythology. In fact, it’s more folklore, deriving from a 16th century story about a group of monks on a pilgrimage to India. As they search for Buddhist texts, the heroes encounter a number of adventures involving gods and demons in the Chinese pantheon. It’s a source of constant inspiration for many forms of media and has been adapted countless times.
For Toriyama, it served as the jumping off point for a tale of martial arts, incredible journeys, and dragons. There are also direct analogues to a number of his characters. Tien is most definitely inspired by Erlang Shen, the three-eyed god from the tale that Son Wukong (the inspiration for Goku) must battle. Even more interesting, Erlang is served by a white-skinned child, the inspiration for Chiaotzu. Talk about some deep cuts.
9 He Has Some Truly Unique Abilities
While Tien is often associated with the Tri-Beam, he actually has a number of even more unique abilities. Thanks to his Three-Eyed People lineage, Tien can execute a number of moves that are impossible (at least in the manga) for regular humans to employ. The most visually interesting of these, and one that would certainly come in handy, is the Four Witches Technique.
Translated from the manga to literally mean “Four Supernatural Fists,” the technique allows Tien to grow two extra arms out his back. It debuted in the puntastic manga chapter “The Arms Race,” and popped up on the anime during the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament when Tien used it against Goku. Sadly, Goku countered it using his Eight Arm Technique (what a show off). Later on, Tien was seen using the move to help him farm, proving it’s got many uses.
Tien is also capable of splitting himself into multiple fighters using the Multi-Form Technique. More than just mere mirages, this move allows Tien to fight as four separate entities, proving to be one of his most useful skills. He also used this unique ability against Goku in the next tournament they fought in, but the young Saiyan outmaneuvered it once again. Nevertheless, it’s just one more example of how powerful Tien truly is.
8 Tien and Chiaotzu Were the First Z Fighters Who Could Fly
Further evidence in the case that Dragon Ball Z significantly weakened the human character is in the ability to fly. Back in Dragon Ball, most characters could only accomplish this feat using a rad flying car or Goku’s amazing flying cloud. While the flying car was a great means of transportation (one we’re still waiting for here in a real life) and the cloud gave Goku a unique advantage, neither are a substitute for the power to fly yourself. Long before every powerful character in the franchise could accomplish this feat, however, Tien and Chiaotzu were the only two heroes that could manage it.
Okay, they weren’t always heroes, but Tien’s ability to fly was one of his key advantages during his World Martial Arts Tournament fights. Chiaotzu, of course, prefers to float around at all times, but Tien reserved the skill for transport and battle. Back then, it was a fairly impressive feat for both warriors, but was sadly rendered less impressive when Dragon Ball Z established that just about everyone could manage flight.
7 Tien Can Fuse with Yamcha in the Video Games
As the Dragon Ball franchise has grown in popularity and moved beyond the manga written by Toriyama, a number of deviations from the original source material have been introduced. One such example is the 2003 game Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2, the sequel to the popular fighting game on Sony and Nintendo platforms that allowed players to control their favorite heroes and villains from the franchise. In the game, you’re able to use the Fusion Dance to combine friends Tien and Yamcha into the bizarre looking Tiencha, a feat that was never shown in the manga or anime.
The dance is one of the more popular elements of Dragon Ball lore, with Gohan and Trunks famously using it in the anime to become Gotenks. Tiencha actually wears that exact same Metamoran uniform as the young fusers, but the blend of Tien’s and Yamcha’s appearances is rather odd. The final look features Yamcha’s spiky hair coming out of the back of Tien’s bald head, with Tien’s third eye rotated sideways on Tiencha’s forehead and Yamcha’s facial scar included.
Still, the result is pretty cool as they can use Tien’s Tri-Beam, Yamcha’s Wolf Fang Fist, and Dodohameha, a combination of the Dodon Ray and the Kamehameha. It’s likely only a matter of time before this and other crazy fusions make their way into the anime, and we certainly won’t be complaining when they do.
6 Tien Savagely Defeated Yamcha Back in the Day
Long before Tien and Yamcha were comfortable enough with each other to fuse bodies, they were rivals. In Dragon Ball Z, Tien’s friendship with Yamcha is second only to his relationship with Chiaotzu. Their history, however, is quite contentious. Back in Dragon Ball during the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament, the first member of Roshi’s school that Tien faced was Yamcha. In fact, even though Tien objected to cheating during his battle with Goku later on, he had no problem with fixing the tournament brackets to help himself.
Tien had quite a hankering to take on Yamcha, so he had Chiaotzu use his mental powers to alter the lineup of the fights so that he could face Yamcha in the quarter-finals of the tournament. After verbally sparring for much of the event, Tien was keen to face Yamcha in the ring. Though his future friend put up a fight, Tien easily defeated the Turtle student, knocking him unconscious. Tien proved his viciousness, however, by breaking Yamcha’s leg while he was passed out. Somehow, Tien’s change of heart at the end of the tournament lead to the two sparking a friendly rivalry, even while Yamcha hobbled around on crutches he had to use thanks to Tien’s brutality.
5 He Was Born the Same Year as Yamcha and Bulma
Both Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z operate on their own unique timeline. We know the Earth that the Z Fighters inhabit isn’t exactly like our own, as the fashion is obviously from the ‘80s while the tech and proliferation of aliens suggests an alternate reality from our own. That’s also evident in the timeline of the world, which works based on the zero point of the Age. Events Before Age are part of the prehistory of things, and generally involve the birth of ancient and powerful entities like Majin Buu and the Super Saiyans.
Millions of years later, many of our heroes start popping up, like the hundreds-of-years-old Master Roshi, born in Age 430. One year after Vegeta is born, Tien and future couple Yamcha and Bulma all come into the world in Age 733. The next decade will see most of the other Z Fighters and their friends (and enemies) appear, making Tien one of the oldest in the group. The recent Dragon Ball Super and Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods occur in the ‘70s, meaning most of our core heroes are in their 40s. Considering how old Roshi is, however, it’s likely that the powers they’ve mastered mean they’ve got a few hundred years left in them.
4 Tien Used to (and May Still) Date Launch
Launch is a character who got quite the short shrift in the move from Dragon Ball to DBZ. In the original anime and manga, she was a sweet, blue-haired girl who dated Tien. She lived with Roshi and his students, and was often subjected to Roshi’s lecherous advances. What made her interesting is that whenever she sneezed, she’d transform into an evil version of herself. This side of Launch had a surly attitude, a great deal of strength (she was once shown fighting a bear person by herself), and a fondness for artillery. Using capsules, she was able to carry around everything from machine guns to rocket launchers, often employing them on her friends.
Despite being one of the odder elements of the series, Toriyama says he simply forgot about her later on, explaining her absence from Dragon Ball Z. More likely, her transformation into a powerful blonde was probably confusing given the proliferation of Super Saiyans. She was around in a number of episodes of DBZ, however, appearing to still live with Tien. FUNimation and Saban, though, scrubbed her and any reference to her when they made their dubs of the series for English audiences. Like many of the non-powered characters in the franchise, she was sadly lost to time.
3 Tien, Like Many Dragon Ball Characters, Is Named After Food
Despite the somewhat lofty inspiration from Journey to the West that Akira Toriyama used when he was crafting Dragon Ball, there was plenty of silliness when it came to naming his various characters. Goku’s name comes from his analogue in the tale, while Master Roshi’s name translates to "Invincible Old Master," befitting his character. Bulma, however, draws from the more bizarre end of the naming spectrum, as her name is essentially "Bloomers," a type of large undergarment.
Other characters, like Tien, Chiaotzu, Launch, and Krillin, have culinary inspirations. Launch’s name in Japanese is literally "Lunch," while Chiaotzu takes his name from dumplings. Krillin’s name combines "Shaolin," given his look, with "chestnut," referencing his bald head. Tien’s name, meanwhile, is a play on tenshindon, a Japanese and Chinese rice dish topped with a crab omelet. It’s like the old saying goes: never invent fantastical universes and characters on an empty stomach.
2 The Three-Eyed Cowboy’s Last Ride
Like with the names, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the Dragon Ball franchise thanks to the difficult work of translating it for other audiences. Not only are certain cultural references lost, but the people who rework the original material often throw in their own stuff. One of the most hilarious cases of this comes from the Ocean Group dub. Back when FUNimation and Saban were first translating the anime series for English audiences, they employed Ocean Group for the task. One of their unique additions is an amazing line spoken by Tien as he uses his lifeforce in an attempt to destroy the villainous Saiyan Nappa. Right as he initiates his final attack, he screams the line “This three-eyed cowboy is going for ONE LAST RIDE!”
Luckily, like many Dragon Ball characters, Tien eventually comes back to life. There have been a number of dubs for the franchise over the years, meaning a ton of people have voiced Tien. Sadly, his original voice actor, Hirotaka Suzuoki, died while the series was still going. This led to Tien’s noticeable absence from the reunion special Dragon Ball: Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return!! as the creators wanted to honor Suzuoki’s death by not replacing him.
1 Tien Is One of Akira Toriyama’s Favorite Characters
Tien’s absence from Yo! Son Goku is an even bigger deal when you know that Akira Toriyama considers him to be one of his favorite characters. Like virtually everyone who’s ever watched the series, he loves Future Trunks, but besides the purple-haired Saiyan, his biggest soft spot is for the humans Krillin, Mr. Satan (Hercule to most English audiences), and Tien. While his love for the buffoonish Mr. Satan is highly enjoyable, it’s also telling that so many of the characters he relates to are the humans. This makes it even odder that they were pushed aside in future installments of the franchise, but sometimes an artist’s creations gain a life and popularity of their own.
Still, it’s undeniable that Toriyama created one of the great, modern works of fiction with his Dragon Ball universe. It’s helped to inspire a number of other animators, from the people behind Naruto and Bleach, to the American love letter to anime that is Avatar: The Last Airbender. Toriyama is so influential, in fact, that he’s the namesake for the legendary Akira. Now that’s quite a legacy. Though Tien might not always get the attention Goku and his fellow Saiyans do, having Toriyama name him as a favorite character is a pretty good consolation.
Any interesting facts about Tien you think we missed? Who’s your favorite Dragon Ball character? Let us know in the comments.