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

Last updated: 04-01-2022

Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project recently introduced me to the Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) [1] folk religion sect of Malaysia and Singapore. It features an intriguing trinity with the Monkey King as the Great Sage Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) in the center, the aforementioned deity to his left, and the Most High Elder Lord (Taishang laojun, 太上老君; a.k.a. Laozi, 老子) to his right. Combined, they respectively represent Confucianism, Buddhism, and DaoismThis is shocking as Sun Wukong replaces the Buddha himself as a representative of the “Three Teachings” (sanjiao, 三教). Needless to say, his inclusion here elevates the Monkey King from a mid-tier god to a supreme one.

I. History?

There doesn’t appear to be any concrete information about when the trinity first appeared. The oldest photograph (fig. 1) that I can find hails from 1970s Singapore (per an informant). But this page states that Chee Chung Temple (慈忠庙), followers of the sect, was founded in 1960, showing that it was flourishing as early as this time. However, an informant tells me that the sect is more rare in Singapore these days. Conversely, Ronni notes it’s more common in Malaysia and that the trinity from the photograph looks similar to “twenty or thirty examples” he’s seen while visiting temples in the south. 

Fig. 1 – The 1970s photograph (larger version). Image in a private Malaysian collection.

I’d like to add that the three-person grouping follows precedent in Chinese religion, with examples including the “Three Pure Ones” (Sanqing, 三清) of Daoism and the “Three Bodies” (Sk: Trikaya; Ch: Sanshen, 三身) of Buddhism. These likely influenced the trinity (see below).

I’ll update this section as new information becomes available.

II. Iconography

The Great Sage Patriarch is portrayed with a small guan cap (xiao guan, 小冠) crowning a furry, simian head, and the face is sometimes painted similar to his Chinese opera depictions. He wears a (sometimes golden) suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed and his hands on his legs. One hand loosely cups the handle of an “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) scepter, with the mushroom head resting near his shoulder. As noted here, this scepter is a symbol of some Buddhist and Daoist gods, most notably the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao tianzun, 靈寶天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, and Guanyin (觀音). 

The Immortal Master Yellow Elder is portrayed with a small guan cap crowning a smiling, elderly man with drawn back white hair and a long, white beard and mustache. He wears bagua robes (of various colors) and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed. And he either holds a fly whisk or command flag in one hand, while the other is sometimes held in a mudra.

The Most High Elder Lord is quite similar to the former (including the guan cap, hair and beard, and bagua clothing), but he’s instead seated cross-legged on a lotus throne. One hand holds a traditional palace fan (gong shan, 宮扇), while the other might delicately hold a pearl.

All three are sometimes depicted in a cave-like alcove over which hangs a sign reading “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (Zhong xian dong, 眾/衆仙洞) or “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (Xian fo dong, 仙佛洞) (fig. 2 & 3).

Fig. 2 – The “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (larger version). This is likely a painting of the idols from figure one. Found on Facebook. Fig. 3 – The “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (larger version). Found on Facebook.

The trinity appears to have borrowed from depictions of the Three Pure Ones. Take for example this painting (fig. 4). Two of the three figures include the As-you-will scepter and the palace fan.

Fig. 4 – A print of the Three Pure Ones from Werner, 1922, p. 124 (larger version).

III. The Immortal Master Yellow Elder

This is not a common deity, so I’ve chosen to quote the BOXS article on the subject. I’ve changed the Wade Giles to pinyin. The information was gathered by Keith Stevens:

[…] His images have been seen on altars in Singapore in Balestier Road, also in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, in Seremban and Muar, and in southern Thailand, where in each temple he is known as one of the Supreme Trinity .

In Kuala Lumpur where he is regarded as a deity who possesses the spirit mediums of his cult, the Huang jiao [黃教], he is known as an avatar of Laozi. He is said to have first appeared and became popular during the Han dynasty as the Governor of the World but without interfering with its day to day running. […] He was identified as Huang Shigong [黃石公], a patron of Zhang Liang [張良] who in about 200 BC was a trusted counsellor of Liu Bang [劉邦] and is said to have written a work on military tactics, the Sanlue [三略, “Three Strategies”].

Zhang Liang was one of the Three Heroes of China, said to have been a governor of a province during the Han, and according to Taoist legend was one day crossing a bridge of a river when a poor old man on a mule passed by. One of the old man’s sandals fell off into the river and in one version Zhang picked up the sandal of his own volition whilst in another, told by devotees, the old man asked him to pick it up. Zhang feeling a great sense of indignity but moved by pity for the old man picked it up. Then, after several tests Zhang Liang was told by the old man that with the book he had just given to Zhang he would become an adviser to the king. In years to come it came about exactly as foretold, and the old man on the mule turned out to be Huang Lao xianshi.

In these temples Huang Lao xianshi’s annual festival is celebrated on the double sixth [i.e. 6th day of the 6th lunar month]. His image has not been noted in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau.

In most temples he is revered for his healing powers, with one sip of water blessed by him curing sickness; it also provides stamina and nerve, and wrestlers and boxers visit his altars to drink his tonic before their matches.

Huang is also known as:

Huang Lao zushi [黃老祖師]

Huang Lao jun [黃老君] (RefNo. W3015).

The article goes on to suggest a possible connection to the Yellow Emperor-Elder Master (Huang Lao, 黃老) school of philosophy.

The Huang Lao school combines the teachings of Huang Di, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Buddhist[s], as well as Confucian[s], developed over the centuries into its own particular form (RefNo. W3015).

This philosophical connection is interesting as one scholar suggests that the Sanlue “was written around the end of the Former Han dynasty, probably by a reclusive adherent of the Huang-Lao school who had expert knowledge of military affairs” (Sawyer & Sawyer, 2007, p. 283). This would explain why the Yellow Elder’s story is associated with Huang Shigong (“Old Man Yellowstone”). Also, his name might imply that he’s considered an embodiment of this philosophy.

One thing not noted in the BOXS article is that some statues alternatively spell his name as 黃老先師 (Huang Lao xianshi), meaning the “First Teacher Yellow Elder” (see the third section on this page). The term 先師 is a reference to one of Confucius‘ titles (Chin, 2007, p. 13).


Update: 04-01-22

Ronni shared with me a source explaining the birth of Master Yellow Elder’s sect. One webpage claims it came about in 1937 at No. 38 Beer Village of Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, Peninsular Malaysia (马来西亚半岛森美兰州马口三十八啤农村). This might explain why the sect is more popular in Malaysia than Singapore:

At that time, Liao Jun [廖俊] was alone in the hall near the Daoist altar when he became curious about learning spirit-mediumship and spirit-writing. All of a sudden, a spirit entered his body, causing him to sit solemnly while stroking his whiskers and mumbling incomprehensively. He didn’t know what spirit had taken hold of his body or what was being said. Afterwards, Liao woke up but didn’t know anything. After that he requested the spirit to descend everyday but wasn’t able to speak. Later, Mr. Dai Zhao [Dai Zhao xiansheng, 戴招先生], the original owner of the Daoist temple, consecrated him as a new spirit-medium with a seal. He was then able to write messages and finally speak. Until that day when Liao Jun called the spirit, he opened his mouth and preached with strict principles and profound meaning. He said that the Immortal Master came to teach disciples in order to help the world. But he did not reveal his origin.

After a period of Liao calling down the spirit, the gathered crowd questioned the deity. He finally revealed that the Immortal Master Yellow Elder was actually Oldman Yellowstone [Huang shigong, 黃石公], known from legends passed down through the generations. According to the Jade Emperor’s decree, he was to open the dharma gate [famen, 法门] by preaching his teachings for the universal deliverance of the people.

Those who wish to enter the dharma gate first have to fast for 30 days and then complete the dharma hall ceremony to become a formal disciple. This dharma transforms according to one’s heart and can be used as one desires. Only when it is used in the right way (zhengdao, 正道) will it be effective. One cannot harbor any evil desires.

All of Immortal Master Yellow Elder’s disciples can worship at home by arranging their own shrine. A memorial tablet [paiwei, 牌位] must be set up in the center, and the following words must be written: mercy [ci, 慈], loyalty [zhong, 忠], faith [xin, 信], righteousness [yi, 义], rituals [li, 礼], relationships [lun, 伦], continence [jie,节], filial piety [xiao, 孝], honesty [lian, 廉], and right virtue [de 德]. A sign on the left side must say, “Obey the Way of Heaven with Loyalty” [Shuntian xingdao zhong, 顺天行道忠], and on the right, “From the Earth Return to Ceremony” [Congdi fu liyi, 从地復礼仪].

Apart from the aforementioned ten precepts [shi xundao, 十训道], the disciples of the Immortal Master can also draw talismans [fu, 符] to exorcise evil spirits from residences. At the same time, they can practice a boxing method to protect oneself in case of emergency.

At that time, more than 40 people were attracted to join. They worshiped the Immortal Master Yellow Elder and were diligent in practicing the dharma and martial arts. Later, the number of disciples increased. After the Immortal Master made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. After the Immortal Master Yellow Elder made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. And after they went before him and asked for instructions, he ordered that the first temple be built in Malacca. Because Malacca is a holy place of Buddhist temples, the sect spread throughout Malaysia and into Singapore (source).

This passage is interesting because it mixes Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist terminology. Examples include “dharma gate” and “right way”; the list of the ten precepts, which are similar to the Four Cardinal Principles and Eight Virtues; and the evil-warding talismans.

It still amazes me, though, that the Great Sage is given such a prominent position in the center when he’s not even the main focus of the sect.

Note:

1) The BOXS catalog explains that there’s actually some confusion between two similarity named deities in different versions of the trinity. One is the aforementioned Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) and the other is the Immortal Master Kingly Elder (Wang Lao xianshi, 王老仙師). This is because Huang (黃) and Wang (王) “are almost homophones” (RefNo. W6675 & W3015).

Sources:

Chin, A. (2007). Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. United Kingdom: Yale University Press.

Sawyer, R. D., & Sawyer, M. (2007). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Werner, E. T. C. (1922). Myths & Legends of China. New York: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.

 

 

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