The Worship of Sun Wukong the Monkey King: An Overview

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.

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, 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” (fozu, 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 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).

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 discovered 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 (fig. 3). It was then shaded with two processional flags and an eight trigrams umbrella (fig. 4). I was told exposing the ashes/soldiers to sunlight was considered highly disrespectful.

Fig. 3. – The metal altar housing the Great Sage’s spirit soldier incense ashes (larger version). Fig. 4 – Protecting the incense ashes from sunlight (larger version). Photos by the author.

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 some 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.

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 a sword, an ax, a spiked club, a sawfish nose sword, and a spiked ball (fig. 5), respectively. 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.

Fig. 5 – 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).

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. [2] 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 (sometimes a soda 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 vessel’s use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The Great Sage’s religious birthday is celebrated on different dates according to the location. It is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore, the 23rd (Fuzhou) or 25th day (Putian) of the 2nd lunar month in Fujian (sources vary), and the 12th day of the 10th lunar month in Taiwan. 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.

Fig. 6 – 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.

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. 6). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). [3]

Note:

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

3) I’m currently writing an article on the japsang. I will post it in the coming weeks.

Source:

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

Archive #23 – Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons (1997) by Keith Stevens

The novels Journey to the West (1592) and Investiture of the Gods (1620) are good representations of the syncretic pantheon from Chinese Folk Religion. The number of Buddhas, sages, gods, immortals, spirits, guardians (etc.) revered by people of Chinese descent is enormous, and new figures are being added to the list even to this day. Needless to say, laymen and researchers who visit temples and wish to correctly identify a particular deity need a resource with images, names, and listed attributes. Luckily there is one such source. Keith Stevens (1926-2015), a veteran of the British Army and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, traveled East and Southeast Asia for 40 years collecting information on the folk pantheon. He produced an invaluable monograph titled Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons (1997). The book is unfortunately out of print and available copies are expensive to buy. So I am pleased to host a PDF of this wonderful work on my site.

The scan was produced with an overhead document camera. The glossy pages made scanning somewhat difficult. I had to use a soft, indirect light source. Therefore, not all pages are crisp due to the low light levels. The original file was quite large at 520 mb. I compressed it to a smaller file. I can provide the larger file upon request.

Dust Jacket Description

China is a land full of gods and goddesses, ranging from the Creators of the World to Worthies local to only one or two villages.

This book introduces the reader to the most important figures of Chinese folk history, and those of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Intensely pragmatic in their religion, Chinese people hold all gods in reverence, but it is only the ones who answer prayers with concrete results that are exceptionally praised. Many gods have particular specialities, for instance, there are different Wealth Gods for success in business and for gambling. There are also individual gods for each trade, from those for removal men in Hong Kong to students at Beijing University.

In addition, there are the City Gods and Kitchen Gods, the Earth Gods who protect a specific piece of land, and myriad spirits who protect wells, mountains or bridges, distribute rain or snow, control flooding or protect humanity from disease and epidemics.

Keith Stevens has spent a lifetime researching the subject, travelling extensively in China, Taiwan and throughout South-East Asia. He has gathered information from hundreds of temple keepers, god-carvers and religious specialists and collected details of images and their stories – providing glimpses into the sometimes little-known folk history of China. The author also provides pointers on how to identify images, together with invaluable background information including chronology of Chinese history, a map of the area covered, a glossary and detailed index with the names of deities in Chinese characters.

Book Link

Disclaimer

This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you like the digital version, please support the official release.

Citation

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

Archive #22 – “Pagan Temples in San Francisco” (1892)

I’ve previously written an article on the worship of Sun Wukong in 19th-century America. My source was Frederic J. Masters’ (1892) “Pagan Temples in San Francisco”, which appears in a collected edition of The Californian. He discusses the legends of Guan Gong (“Kwan Kung”), Hau Wong (a.k.a. “How Wong”), Mazu (“Queen of Heaven”, a.k.a. “Tin Hau”), Guanyin (“Kwan Yum”), our monkey god Qitian Dasheng (“Tsai Tin Tai Shing”), and Kum Fah, as well as mentions various other deities, such as Tudi Gong (“Earth God”), Kum Fah’s attendants, Chenghuangshen (“City God”), Heidi (“god of the North Pole”), Zhurong (“God of Fire”), and the “Holy Abbot” (Ksitigarbha?). Much of the information covered in the article isn’t new for anyone familiar with Chinese religion. But it’s easy to forget that Masters is talking about the religious practices and beliefs of immigrant Chinese workers living in 19th-century San Francisco, and this is where the article’s true value lies. Many of the temples (“Joss Houses”) are said to be the property of immigrant businesses.

Masters was a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about Chinatown. While he comments at length about the beauty of temples and the respectability of keeping the stories of noble heroes alive for centuries, he shows a marked Western Christian condescension for many Chinese beliefs. For example, he calls the worship of the monkey god “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness” (Masters, 1892, p. 737). In the beginning of the article, he makes the mistake of equating the ancient god Shangdi with the Judeo-Christian god, believing that Chinese worship of the Almighty was perverted over the millennia by outside influences. He closes the piece by saying the Chinese will return to this ancient worship with proper guidance: “The nation [China] will one day return to the worship of the Highest and the faith in the True. In the dawn of a clearer light shall vanish all that is extravagant, foolish and false” (Masters, 1892, p. 741).

The attached PDF has been cut from the original collection, which has a whopping 853 pages.

Article link:

Citation

Masters. F. J. (1892). Pagan Temples in San Francisco. In C.F. Holder (Ed.). The Californian Illustrated Magazine: June to November, 1892, vol. 2 (pp. 727-741). San Francisco, Calif.: Californian Pub. Co.

The Great Sage Monkey King Scripture: A Brief Analysis

The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Edward White (his blog). The following is a reformatted and lightly edited version of his brief but insightful analysis of 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) posted on Twitter (see here). He was gracious enough to give me permission to post it here. – Jim

Analysis

This book alone is extremely interesting, because it shows the sheer amount of syncretism that is found in Chinese popular religion: It freely combines Buddhist and Daoist elements. The first text in this book is not actually the Great Sage scripture itself, but rather The Thousand-Handed and Thousand-Eyed Bodhisattva Guanshiyin’s Great Compassion Heart Mantra (Qianshou qianyan Guanshiyin pusa dabbixin tuoluoni, 千手千眼觀世音菩薩大悲心陀羅尼), better known as the Great Compassion Mantra (Dabei Zhou, 大悲咒), followed by the celebrated Heart Sutra (Xinjing, 心經), here called by its full name the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (Bore boluomi duo xinjing, 般若波羅蜜多心經) (pp. 9-13). Both are quintessentially Buddhist texts. These are, however, followed by a set of mantras for cleansing the body and the surroundings, which are associated with Daoist rites (starting from p. 13).

This is followed again with a “Precious Admonition of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng Baogao, 齊天大聖寶誥) (p. 25). This format—effectively a hymn—is a liturgical form that is associated exclusively with Daoist scriptures (Cf. the set phrase 志心皈命禮 on p. 26). [1] Then, you have a list of salutations of four Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and five Heavenly Worthies (Tianzun, 天尊) (Daoist deities), all of which are equally saluted by the Sanskrit “Namo” (南無) (pp. 28-30).

The scripture itself starts on page 30, and has five chapters in total. Chapter one is titled “Cultivating the Body and Rectifying Fate” (Xiushen liming di yi zhang, 修身立命第一章) (p. 30). Chapter two is titled “Entering Sagacity and Transcending Ordinariness” (Ru sheng chaofan di er zhang, 入聖超凡第二章) (p. 33). Chapter three is titled “Returning to the Origin of Brilliance and Kindness” (Mingshan fu chu di san zhang, 明善復初第三章) (p. 40). What is interesting in this text, however, is that between chapters two and three, there is a lengthy section titled “True Words of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng zhenyan, 齊天大聖眞言) (p. 36). [2] This is absent in the online edition. Chapter 4 is titled “Cause, Effect, and Retribution” (Yinguo baoying di si zhang, 因果報應第四章) (p. 44). The fifth and final chapter is titled “Cultivating Both Internally and Externally” (Neiwai shuangxiu di wu zhang, 內外雙修第五章) (p. 52). In this particular edition of the Great Sage Scripture, between chapters four and five are found a long list of evils that reciting this scripture can resolve (this is also not found on the online edition) (pp. 48-52). Our Daoist readers may find this similar to a list found in the very, very Daoist “Big Dipper Scripture” (Beidou jing, 北斗經), which I translate here.

Fig. 1 – Weituo standing guard at the end of the scripture (larger version). Fig. 2 – Examples of percussion marks (larger version).

The text ends with a hymn called “In Praise of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng zan, 齊天大聖讚) (p. 56), followed by a text called “The Essentials of Cultivating the Dao” (Xiudao shouyao pian, 修道首要篇) (p. 57). This is immediately followed by the “Mantra of the Seven Buddhas to Extinguish Offences” (Qi fo miezui zhenyan, 七佛滅罪眞言) (p. 59). Syncretism indeed. On the last page we have a picture of the Buddhist god Weituo (韋馱) (fig. 1), who stands guard on the last page of scriptures to protect them (p. 65). Thus we have an extremely Daoist text literally bookended by Buddhism.

We are hence immensely grateful to Jim for uploading scans of this scripture. As even from this preliminary reading shows, it preserves liturgical texts that are not found in online editions of the scripture. The online presence of non-Buddhist Chinese religious works is extremely poor and patchy; we have nothing like the Taisho Tripitaka to work on; every scripture uploaded advances our knowledge greatly. By observing not just the scripture itself, but also its front and back matter that is printed along with it, we can tell how the scripture was used by the religious communities that produced it—something again that gets lost in transmission.

Some words should be said about the format of the book. The book is clearly bound in what is called in the west the “Concertina format”. This format is unique to religious books, thereby increasing its authenticity as a holy work. But also more importantly, makes the book very easy to use in a liturgical context: it lays absolutely flat, and is easy to turn—valuable features if you are chanting off the scripture. In turn, on some pages, you see little dashes and dots besides the characters (fig. 2) (p. 13, for example). These are indications of the percussion—when the various gongs and bells are to be struck. These factors—along with the inclusion of several hymns inserted between chapters of the scripture—would lead me to conclude that this book represents not just a scripture to be contemplated, but a scripture prepared for public performance as a ritual (refer back to “True Words of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” between ch. 2 and 3). The appended mantras, percussion, and inserted hymns, would only make sense in a context where people would chant the scripture in a grand ceremony: they would be irrelevant if the text was produced with quiet study and contemplation in mind. I could be wrong, though.

Notes:

1) For a Chinese example of another “Precious Admonition”, see here. My translation of another can be seen here.

2) “True Words” 真言 is one of the names by which mantras are known in Chinese. Thus, the term “True Words of the Great Sage” might just as well be read as “Mantra of the Great Sage”.