The Worship of Sun Wukong the Monkey King: An Overview

Last updated: 04-18-2022

I’ve written several articles on the worship of the Monkey King. I’ve decided to post a succinct overview for those not familiar with the subject. Unless cited here, all information is cited in the respective linked articles below.

Warning: Self-mortification and blood below!

Sun Wukong is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, and areas of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, and even Thailand and Vietnam, as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (fig. 1). Variations of this title often include “Lord” (ye, 爺) or “Buddha Patriarch” (fozu, 佛祖) (e.g. Dasheng ye, 大聖爺; Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖). He is very rarely addressed as the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛), which is taken from the end of Journey to the West (1592) when our hero is bestowed Buddhahood for protecting the monk Tripitaka. This is the name of a real world deity (and member of the 35 Confession Buddhas) that was only later associated with Monkey in literature. I’ve even seen one temple that mixed such titles to call him the “Fighting Sage Buddha” (Dou zhan sheng fo, 鬥戰聖佛).

Fig. 1 – An awesome gourd-bearing Great Sage statue from Taiwan (larger version). It is one of a trinity. Photo by the author.

The Great Sage’s worship can be traced to Fujian province, China, from where it spread out to other countries, including 19th-century America. Published references to his worship in Fujian go back to at least the 17th-century, though one 13th-century stone pagoda depicts Monkey as a sword-wielding protector deity, among other heavenly guardians, bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks, suggesting that he may have been revered in earlier times. His worship was so well-known in Fujian during the early Qing-period that it was criticized in the famed Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi, 聊齋誌異, 1740), a collection of popular stories.

My friend has visited several Great Sage temples in Fujian. I’ve visited 14 temples in Taiwan (so far). I even learned of a holy scripture associated with the monkey god titled The Great Sage Equaling Heaven’s True Scripture of Awakening People and Enlightening the World (Qitian Dasheng xingren jueshi zhenjing, 齊天大聖醒人覺世眞/真經). A brief analysis of the scripture by my friend can be seen here.

Much like Sun Wukong can multiple his body, his religion recognizes multiple Great Sages, each with their own holy and/or administrative function. Although, temples apparently believe each Great Sage is an emanation of the singular deity. This multiplicity of usually 3 to 5 figures (with dozens of soldier monkeys) may be traced to different sources. For instance, an early 15th-century play predating the novel describes Monkey as one of three brothers and two sisters. It surprisingly refers to Wukong, the middle brother, as the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖), while the older brother is called the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. The youngest, the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎/爽爽三郎), appears as a white-faced figure among a color-coded trinity in one Fujian tradition (fig. 2). The Great Sage Reaching Heaven graces the trinity with a black face. Rounding out the group with a red face, the Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage (Danxia dasheng, 丹霞大聖), a separate figure not from the play, appears in a 17th to 18th-century pious novel which describes his evil deeds, punishment, and rehabilitation by a Fujian goddess. Therefore, the multiple Great Sages share a connection to theater and religious literature.

The 3 monkey gods

Fig. 2 – An example of the Three Great Sages (larger version). Image found here.

As mentioned, various soldier monkeys serve in the Great Sage’s spiritual army. He leads five heavenly generals, representing the Chinese cardinal directions, each with their own armies. The demon queller, the “Third Prince” (San taizi, 三太子; a.k.a. Nezha), serves as his vanguard. The Third Prince can often be seen positioned on a table in front of the main altar, or riding a palanquin and leading the way during religious processions. At least in Taiwan, the power of this spiritual army needs to be replenished during a yearly trip south to the island’s oldest monkey god house of worship, Wanfu Temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵), which is considered a fount of pure energy. This is done by retrieving scoops of holy incense ashes from the main incense pot and bringing them back to the home temple pot. I saw one temple protect the ashes in a small, metal, building-shaped altar sealed with blood-consecrated paper talismans. It was then shaded with two processional flags and an eight trigrams umbrella (video 1). I was told exposing the ashes/soldiers to sunlight was considered highly disrespectful.

Video 1 – A video of the incense ash-gathering ceremony. Shot by the author on November 7th, 2021.

While considered a full-fledged god or even Buddha, the Great Sage is not a supreme deity. In fact, Buddho-Daoist folk religion considers him to be an intermediary for higher-ranking figures. For example, in most traditions he is a subordinate of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. [1] One temple in Taiwan even believes he answers to the martial god Guan Yu. Either way, he is considered the exorcist par excellence and a protector of children. The little ones whom he takes as his godchildren are known in Singapore as “dedicated children” (khoe-kia). Those under his protection are believed to grow up to become well-behaved adults.

One Singaporean almanac lists the Great Sage as the “patron deity of athletes” (yundong ye de zushi, 运动业的祖师/運動業的祖師).

Religious statues of the Great Sage are generally portrayed as a seated or standing protector deity wearing golden armor, a feather cap, and sometimes the golden headband. The seated and standing postures are taken to represent his defensive and offensive functions, respectively. The former sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed, holding a golden staff or fly-whisk in his right hand and a hu-gourd or immortal peach at chest or waist-level with his left (refer back to fig. 1). The latter stands on his left leg (sometimes supported by clouds) with the other bent high at the knee, while holding a staff in his right hand. The left holds a gourd (sometimes overhead and pointed at the viewer), or it shields his eyes like a sailor searching the horizon. This hand is positioned with the thumb near the left eye, or the arm wraps under the chin and the hand bends at the wrist to shield the eyes in a contorted manner. (Of course there will always be variations on these patterns.) The gaze of the monkey god is generally fierce, sometimes with golden pupils, and his likeness ranges from human-like to generally more primate-like. Baring white, black, and red examples based on the aforementioned Fujian trinity, the Great Sage’s face is generally flesh-toned with kisses of red but can sometimes be painted with a red, three leaf clover-like design similar to Wukong’s depictions in Chinese opera (fig. 3). But I’ve seen a few rare examples in Taiwan with harsh face patterns similar to plague gods (Stevens, 1997, p. 114). Many statues are carved with horn-like “ear-pressing tufts” on the sides of his head, giving him a wild appearance. This can be accentuated with carved and painted or applied hair on the head and sides of the face. Some statues acknowledge the link between Chinese religion and theater by depicting him as a martial monk (wuseng, 武僧) with long hair that hangs down to his chest (refer back to fig. 3). [2] While such examples generally portray him in the aforementioned armor, I’ve seen at least one figure from Singapore wearing a golden monk’s robe open at the chest. In contrast to the brightly-colored and gilded statues mentioned above, some Great Sage figures are dark and ashen. These tend to be decorated with ornate, metal headdresses and flashy imperial capes and sashes (fig. 4). The rarest statue I’ve ever seen depicts the Great Sage with six arms wielding a staff in each hand (fig. 5).

Fig. 3 – (Top left) Detail of a Great Sage statue with the red, three leaf clove-like face pattern and the long hair and golden fillet of a martial monk (larger version). See the full version here. Fig. 4 – (Top Right) Dark, wooden Great Sage statues with bright ornamentation (larger version). Photos by the author. Fig. 5 – (Bottom left) A three-headed, six-armed monkey god (larger version). Seen on Facebook. Fig. 6 – (Bottom right) A spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage. He smiles in defiance after flogging his head with a spiked ball (larger version). Original photo by Cai Zhizhong (蔡志忠) (used with permission).

Spirit-mediums (Taiwanese Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; literally: “Divining Child”) play a large part in the Great Sage’s religion. They are believed to channel his spirit to interact with believers, generally answering their questions, blessing them or their belongings with paper talismans, or prescribing medicine. On special occasions, they also perform a complex self-mortification ceremony; for instance, the mediums of one Taiwanese temple walk a pattern in between five ritual fires representing heavenly generals of the five directions, while flogging themselves with the “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (jitong wubao, 乩童五寶): a seven-star sword (qixing jian, 七星劍), a crescent moon ax (yue fu, 月斧), a spiked club (tong gun, 銅棍; a.k.a. lang ya bang, 狼牙棒, “wolf-tooth club”), a sawfish nose sword (shayu jian, 鯊魚劍), and a spiked ball (ci qiu, 刺球) (fig. 6). However, I’ve found that self-mortification tends to be more extreme in Southeast Asia, with mediums piercing their cheeks and bodies with lances, swords, hooks, and even bicycles! The ritual serves several purposes. First, hacking, skewering, and poking the body with various weapons is considered a form of self-sacrifice. Second, the weapons that pierce the flesh are believed to imbue the mediums with spiritual power needed in their battle with demonic forces that pervade every corner of daily life. Third, the resulting blood is believed to have demonifugic properties, hence the reason it is smeared on paper talismans and clothing. Overall, the ritual is performed to exorcize evil spirits that cause bad luck and mental and physical illnesses.

Mediums wear ritual bibs normally associated with babies in Asian culture. As noted above, the Hokkien/Chinese word for spirit-medium means “Divining Child”. This refers to the centuries-old belief that children were the mouthpieces of gods. In fact, the mediums are known to speak in a shrill voice known as “shen (神, god) language”. The fact that their back is bare refers to ancient ShangZhou period rituals in which a sacrificial victim was exposed to the elements. However, it should be noted that, since the 1980s, more and more mediums in Singapore have taken to wearing flashy, Chinese opera-inspired costumes, including the golden fillet. [3] I’ve seen one such medium that even wears a faux fur cowl and gloves during performances.

When not consulting a spirit-medium, the presence of the Great Sage can be determined by a glass vessel called the “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶). It comprises a normal glass container (a tall beer bottle or something more elegant) filled with “noon water” (wushi shui, 午時水) and topped with a special bulbous glass stem. The bottle is believed to make a characteristic “ping-pong” (乒乓) chime upon the deity’s arrival in a temple or home, usually around 12 noon but also other times. I’ve heard of the vessels use in Taiwan and Hong Kong but mostly Singapore.

The Great Sage’s religious birthday is celebrated on different dates according to location. It is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month in Hong Kong [4] and Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 82), the 23rd (Fuzhou) or 25th day (Putian) of the 2nd lunar month in Fujian (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 288; Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example), the 12th day of the 10th lunar month in Taiwan (though, I’ve seen one HK source that lists this date as well), and the 16th day of the 1st lunar month in Malaysia. The celebration usually involves gifts of fruit, sweets, and liquor; self-mortification rituals by spirit-mediums; chanting performances by Daoist associations (see this video by me, for example); the burning of effigies and spirit money; group prayer; and sometimes lion/dragon dance performances by local martial arts clubs. (Regarding this last note, martial artists have revered Wukong for centuries. He was even channeled by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion during the 19th-century.) The Great Sage’s birthday was once the occasion for Olympic-like competitions for his spirit-mediums. For instance, one event from 1980s Hong Kong involved the medium washing his face and hands with boiling oil, biting ceramic bowls in half, and climbing a ladder of knives (video 1). But such practices have since been outlawed due to injury or death. I’ve been told this is the same in Singapore.

Video 2 – This video depicts the preparations and celebration of the Monkey King’s birthday (16th day of the 8th lunar month), complete with competitions of self-mortification by spirit-mediums. It was shot in the Sau Mau Ping area of Hong Kong during the 1980s. Subtitles added by Haiyan Wang.

I should point out that Great Sage worship is not unique to people of Chinese descent. He was at some point absorbed into the religion of the Qiang ethnic group. The Qiang people revere a golden, stone-born monkey that is believed to have both stolen fire from the celestial realm and helped recover lost religious knowledge by creating a drum from the skin of a goat that had eaten their sacred scriptures. Wukong is sometimes equated with the monkey deity given the similarities in their respective lithic origins and penchant for stealing from heaven. The Great Sage is particularly worshiped by the red shamans as their patron deity, or “father god” (abba mula), for his skills in exorcizing evil. He is also sometimes equated with the ancestor from Qiang myth, who is believed to be a monkey-turned-man who married a heavenly goddess and fathered the human race.

Interestingly, Sun Wukong is even revered in Korea. While not officially worshiped as a deity (at least not by people of non-Chinese descent), he appears with a host of other mythological animals on the roof-hips of royal palaces to guard such important structures against fires and evil spirits (fig. 7). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). 

Fig. 7 – Drawings of the japsang effigies of Korea. The first four figures are commonly associated with Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing (larger version). However, contemporary sources sometimes named the first figure Wukong. This would make since as he’s wearing armor.


Update: 12-10-21

I’ve just posted an article about a Taiwanese folk Taoist deity whose iconography is shockingly similar to the Great Sage. The “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人) is depicted as a long-haired primate wearing a golden fillet and golden armor and bearing a fly whisk and (sometimes) and immortal peach.

This figure interests me as both he and the Monkey King have a centuries-long association with each other in popular literature. This likely led to the White Ape Perfected Man borrowing from the Great Sage’s religious imagery.

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double


Update: 12-26-21

I learned that the Teo Chew Vietnamese Buddhist Temple of the Houston, Texas, USA, Chinatown has an altar to the Monkey King. An image from Twitter (fig. 8) is labeled “Tề Thiên Đại Thánh” (“Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, 齊天大聖). I have contacted the temple to learn more information.

Image

Fig. 8 – The Monkey King altar of the Teo Chew Temple of Houston, Texas, USA (larger version). Take note of the Vietnamese words at the top. Image found on Twitter.

A Facebook friend shared information about Sun Wukong’s worship in Vietnam.

The Monkey God is worshipped by some of the Chinese community in Vietnam alongside other popular deities like MaZu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The Hoa-Viet immigrants probably brought his worship over during the war. Also interesting to note that in my mothers home province of Huế there are Vietnamese Lên Đồng medium shrines that channel the monkey god but it is not popular among Vietnamese since some of us see him as a fictional character, but his TangKi worship is more common within Chinese shrines in the southern regions.

They also shared this video of a 106-year-old monkey god temple in Bac Lieu City, eastern Ca Mau Peninsula, southern Vietnam (video #3).

Video #3 – The century old monkey god temple of Southern Vietnam.


Update: 01-09-22

I was looking through US newspaper archives and was surprised to find a brief report on a Great Sage spirit-medium from Hong Kong (fig. 9). The medium is said to be Chung Kam, a 42-year-old construction worker from Guangzhou who has served as the monkey god’s vessel for 20 years. Mr. Chung is said to take part in an Olympic-like event in the the Sau Mau Ping area of Hong Kong (Robbins, 1982). So, this might be the very same medium from video #2.

Fig. 9 – The article explaining Mr. Chung’s exploits as the monkey god (larger version).


Update: 03-09-22

I’ve archived the Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang Baojuan, 二郎寳卷, 1562), which mentions Sun Wukong in a religious context 30 years before the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) was even published.

Archive #32 – The Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang baojuan) (1562)

Also, my friend Edward White told me about another Monkey King-related religious work titled the Scripture of Patriarch Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian dasheng fozu jing, 齊天大聖佛祖經) (fig. 10 & 11). This brief work appears in the Heavenly Classic Precious Scroll (Tianjing baojuan, 天經寶卷) (source). This is likely the product of modern spirit writing.

Fig. 10 – Page one (larger version). Fig. 11 – Page two (larger version).


Update: 03-20-22

I’ve previously discussed the place of tangki self-mortification in the Great Sage’s religion. Here (fig. 12) is a photograph showing five skewers through a tangki’s arm. They are Monkey King versions of the five camps generals. From bottom to top, they are Sun Wukong (孫悟空, green – east), the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖; red – south), the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛; gold/yellow – center), the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖; white – west), and the Black-Faced Great Sage (Heilian dasheng, 黑臉大聖; black – north). I’ve only seen these monkey-headed skewers in Singapore, which is exactly where they are from.

Fig. 12 – The five Great Sage skewers (larger version). Courtesy of the photographer Fang Terrance on Facebook.


Update: 03-27-22

I’ve written an article about a Southeast Asia tradition that depicts the Monkey King as a supreme deity representing Buddhism. He sits between others representing Confucianism and Daoism. 

The Monkey King and the “Three-Teachings” (三教) Trinity of Southeast Asia


Update: 04-15-22

The “Equaling Heaven Palace” (Qitian Fu, 齊/齐天府), an ancestral monkey god temple in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China, recognizes five Great Sages:

  1. The Great Sage Sun, the Victorious Fighting Buddha (Douzhan shengfo Sun dasheng, 鬥戰勝佛孫大聖).
  2. The Black (Faced) Great Sage [Reaching Heaven], the Demon-Subduing Buddha (Fumo tuofo hei [Tong tian] dasheng, 伏魔陀佛黑[通天]大聖). [5]
  3. The White (Faced) Great Sage [Third Son Shuashua], the Luolisha Buddha (Luolisha fo bai [Shuashua sanlang] dasheng, 囉哩沙佛白[耍耍三郎]大聖). [6]
  4. The (Red-Faced) Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage, the Sands of the Ganges River Buddha (Henghesha fo Danxia dasheng, 恆河沙佛丹霞大聖). [7]
  5. The Red Cloud Great Sage, the River-Inspecting Sage Buddha (Jianhe shengfo chixia dasheng, 監河聖佛赤霞大聖) (fig. 13) [8]

Fig. 13 – The Equaling Heaven Palace pantheon painting (larger version). Originally posted here.

Khmer worshipers appear to recognize four of the five:

  1. The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the Fighting Buddha of Certain Victory (Qitian dasheng Zhandou bisheng fo, 齊天大聖戰鬥必勝佛) (ព្រះមហាទេពស្មើមេឃ)
  2. The Demon-Subduing Buddha (Great Sage Reaching Heaven) (Fumo tuofo, 伏魔陀佛; Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖) (ស្វាខ្)
  3. The Luolisha Buddha” (The Third Son Shuashua) (Luolisha fo, 曪理沙佛; Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎) (ស្វាស)
  4. Horizontal/Chaotic River Buddha” (Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage) (Henghe sha fo, 横河沙佛; Danxia dasheng, 丹霞大聖) (ស្វាក្រហម) (fig. 14)

Astute readers will notice that the main Great Sage’s name was slightly altered. The douzhan (鬥戰, “to fight or battle”) of Douzhan shengfo (鬥戰勝佛) was switched around to the more common zhandou (戰鬥), and the character bi (必, “certain”) was further added to embellish the name.

Two other Monkey Buddhas have changes to their names. Number three, Luolisha fo (曪理沙佛), uses a different luo (曪 instead of 囉) and li (理 instead of 哩). And number four, Henghe sha fo (横河沙佛), misspells the heng (横 instead of 恆), changing the original meaning of the name.

Fig. 14 – The four Great Sages recognized by the Khmer (larger version). Originally posted here.


Update: 04-18-22

I’ve written an article about Thai Great Sage worship.

The Monkey King’s Worship in Thailand

Notes:

1) I’ve had a few people ask me how a Buddha can be below a Bodhisattva. Normally, this isn’t the case, but Guanyin is just so incredibly popular in Asia. Her adoration in the east predates the Monkey King’s cult by many hundreds of years.

2) Martial monks in Chinese opera are portrayed with long hair and a golden fillet with an upturned crescent-shaped accent in the middle (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178).

3) For more info on Asian spirit-mediums, see Chan (2006).

4) I attended the Great Sage’s birthday in Hong Kong on this date.

5) The last two characters, tuofo (陀佛), appear in the Buddha Amitabha‘s Chinese name: Amituofo (阿彌陀佛).

6) I’m not sure how to translate this. It reads like a foreign term that I’m not familiar with.

7) “Sands of the Ganges River” (henghe sha, 恆河沙) is a popular phrase used in Buddhist literature to designate a very large number (examples from the Lotus Sutra). It’s also interesting to note that the Rhesus macaque is sometimes referred to as a “Ganges monkey” (henghe hou, 恆河猴). This might explain the origin of the primate deity’s name. Thanks to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.

8) Apart from the original Victorious Fighting Buddha (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛), the other four names do not appear among the 35 Confession Buddhas.

Source:

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Chan, M. (2006). Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki – Chinese Spirit Medium Worship. Singapore: Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual Alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A Survey of Village Temples and Ritual Activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social Life of the Chinese: With Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions. With Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau (vol. 1 and 2). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

Robbins, N. (1982, October 3). The Monkey King runs through flames. Brownsville Herald, p. 14A.

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.

 

5 thoughts on “The Worship of Sun Wukong the Monkey King: An Overview

  1. This is an amazing article son….!
    It is what you do best……
    You would be a great professor on this and many other topics.

  2. He’s technically considered a Dharmapala, guardian deity of the dharmic path, which would be underneath a Bodhisattva but still considered to have attained enlightenment.

    I have seen scholars trace him back to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Considering how strikingly similar their personalities are, this makes sense.

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