The Buddhist Monkey King

(Note: I originally wrote this in late 2020 but just now got around to cleaning it up and posting it.)

Following his birth, the Stone Monkey (Shi hou, 石猴) comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The Stone Monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious:

Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] [fig. 1] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

In this article, I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as a primate monarch is based on “The Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka; Ch: Houwang bensheng, 猴王本生, “Birth Story of the Monkey King”; “The Great Monkey” hereafter), an ancient story about the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king, which appears in various collections of moralistic birth tales (Sk: jakata; Ch: bensheng jing, 本生經) in Buddhist literature. After summarizing the tale, I will briefly discuss 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art depicting the story at important religious sites, thereby showing its intense popularity. Next, I will demonstrate that the tale traveled the Silk Road to China, where it was represented in Buddhist art and literature. Finally, I will highlight similarities between “The Great Monkey” and a 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as similarities with the standard 1592 edition of the novel.

Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).

1. Story of the Great Monkey

Buddhist literature contains different versions of the tale. I will describe two of them here. The first is story no. 27 in the Garland of Birth Stories (Sk: Jatakamala, 4th-century) by the monk Arya Sura. [1] The tale opens with the following epigraph: “Those who make a practice of good behavior can win over the hearts even of their enemies” (Khoroche, 1989, p. 186). According to the story, the bodhisattva was born a virtuous monkey king in the verdant paradise of the Himalayas, which abounded in fruits and flowers, crystal clear streams, and choirs of singing birds. He and his tribe lived near an unnamed river and ate from a mountainous banyan tree that produced figs larger than palmyra nuts. The monkey king feared that the fruit would cause trouble for his people, so he gave instructions to regularly clear them from a branch overlooking the river. However, one season a fig escaped the monkeys’ attention and it grew to maturation, dropping into the water, drifting downstream, and lodging in the fence of a pool where an unnamed human king played with his consorts. The smell and color of the fruit entranced the women, and after the king tasted it, he became obsessed with its flavor and led an army in search of the tree. The ruler and his entourage cut a path upstream and followed a sweet scent directly to the massive banyan, which rose high above all the surrounding trees like the lord of the forest. When he saw the monkeys eating figs, the enraged ruler ordered his men to shoot them down with arrows, spears, and rocks. Seeing the dire situation of his tribe, the monkey king made a tremendous leap to the summit of a nearby mountain, a feat that would have required any other monkey a series of jumps. On the mountain, he found a strong-rooted cane of the appropriate length needed to span the gap and tied it to his feet. But his return jump to the tree was hampered by the binding, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch and use his body as a bridge so that his tribe could escape. But the monkey king was mortally wounded as throngs of the panicked primates clawed their way across his body to safety. The human king took note of this selfless deed and ordered his men to relieve the suspended monkey by placing a canopy beneath him and simultaneously shooting the branch and cane. After his wounds were tended and he regained consciousness, the monkey king spent the last few moments of his life teaching the human king the virtue of putting his people’s needs before his own (Khoroche, 1989, pp. 186-192).

The second is story no. 407 [2] in Commentary on the Birth Stories (Pali: Jatakatthakatha, a.k.a. Jatakatthavannana, 5th-century), which is attributed to the monk Buddhagosa. The narrative opens with the Enlightened One talking to a large assembly of monks in Jetavana. He tells them of a previous life when he helped his relatives. Here, the story is quite similar to the first, with slight differences in certain details, such as the monkey king leading a specified number of 80,000 primates, the river is the Ganges, the fruit is water pot-sized mangoes, the specimen that floats downstream is caught in a fisherman’s net, and the human ruler is named King Brahmadatta of Benares. [3] Instead of leaping to a nearby mountain, the monkey king jumps one hundred bow lengths across the Ganges. The cane is tied to his waste instead of his feet, and the cause of falling short on the return jump is not hindrance but miscalculating the length of cane needed to span the gap. And instead of being seriously injured by his people during their escape, a rival of the king—a previous incarnation of the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta—mortally wounds his heart by jumping onto his back from a high branch. Brahmadatta instructs his men to build a tower so that he can retrieve the primate and tend to his wounds in his last few moments of life. And just like before, the monkey king teaches the human monarch the value of his people’s needs prior to dying. But this time the discussion is much shorter, being presented as a poem of seven stanzas. Brahmadatta then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king and worships the skull as a religious relic. In the end, the Buddha reveals that the ruler was the past incarnation of his disciple Ananda, the 80,000 monkeys were incarnations of the assembled monks, and the monkey king was himself (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, pp. 225-227).

2. The tale in Indian and Chinese Buddhist art

This birth story is over 2,000 years old as it appears among the stone carvings of the Bharhut Stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (fig. 2 and 3) and the western torana (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 3 and 4) (Marshall, Foucher, Majumdar, 1902, vol. 1, pp. 224-225, vol. 2, plate 64). I should note that the story is one of 547 such tales appearing in the Pali canon (Robert & David, 2013, p. 381). So the fact that it was one of only a few past life narratives chosen to appear at these religious sites speaks volumes to its popularity. This explains why the story spread beyond India.

Fig. 2 – “The Great Monkey” medallion from Bharhut stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – Key: A) The monkey king leaps and grasps a banyan tree, making a bridge with his body; B) attendants hold a canopy to catch the injured monkey; and C) The human king sits with the monkey discussing the actions of a good ruler prior to the latter’s death (larger version). Fig. 4 – “The Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 5 – Key: A) Brahmadatta travels with a retinue to the tree; B) he orders his archer(s) to shoot the monkeys; C) He watches as the monkey king leaps across the Ganges and grasps a banyan tree to make a bridge with his body; and D) Brahmadatta’s discussion with the monkey king (larger version).

The tale is known to have traveled east to China along the northern silk road. This is demonstrated by murals appearing in the Kizil cave complex (5th to 7th-century), one of the earliest and most popular Buddhist centers in Kucha, in what is now Xinjiang, China. Zhu (2012) describes the murals, noting that they lack the detail of their Indian counterparts and are therefore more mnemonic than narrative:

[I]n Kizil Cave 38 [fig. 5], a very large monkey is depicted in the center, stretching his body and holding a tree on the other side of a river. Two other smaller monkeys are stepping on his body to cross the river. In the foreground, a kneeling archer is shooting at them. In Kizil Cave 17 [fig. 6] this story is represented even more simply, with the archer omitted. However the stretching monkey, the river, and the trees are enough for anyone who knows the story to recognize it […] Compared to the Indian representations that are more explicitly narrative, the Kizil paintings are more like a reminder of the story. They communicate with the viewers as if they already know the story well” (pp. 59-60).

Fig. 5 – The Kizil cave no. 38 mural (larger version). Found here. Fig. 6 – Kizil cave no. 17 mural (larger version). Found here. Both are circa 5th to 7th-century. Zhu, 2012, p. 61 includes black and white line drawings of the murals.

3. The tale in Chinese Buddhist literature

The Kizil murals are predated by a brief story appearing in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, 3rd-century, The Collection hereafter), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). [4] The 56th story in this collection is an adaptation of the original Indian version with several noticeable differences: The Bodhisattva was formerly a monkey king (mihou wang, 獼猴王) who frolicked with 500 primates. At that time a drought made the various kinds of fruit scarce. Only a river separated their mountain from a nearby kingdom, so the monkey king led his tribe to eat fruit in the royal garden. The human king ordered that they be secretly captured, but the monkey called for his tribe to gather cane to make a rope. One end was tied to a tree and the other to the king, who leaped from a branch across the river. Unfortunately, the rope wasn’t long enough, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch on the other side and create a bridge with his body. After the 500 monkeys crossed to the other side, the king’s body split in two under the strain. When the human king came upon the scene, the dying primate begged that his tribe not be hurt and offered up his own flesh as payment for his bad judgment. However, the king admired the monkey’s superior, sage-like virtue and questioned his own willingness to sacrifice his body for his people. He then issued a proclamation that all monkeys were to be fed throughout the kingdom, and those who refused would be punished as thieves. Upon his return to the palace, the king recounted the events to his queen, touting the monkey’s kindness and comparing it to the height of Mt. Kunlun. She then suggested that the monkeys be fed and the king confirmed that he had already given the order. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the monkey king was himself, the human king was Ananda, and the 500 monkeys were the monks at the assembly (CBETA, 2016a). [5]

Instead of the original 80,000 monkeys, this version reduces the number to only 500. Instead of the king traveling to the banyan/mango tree in the monkey’s mountain territory, the monkeys travel from their mountain to the royal fruit garden in the king’s territory. Instead of being trampled by his people/a rival, the monkey king’s body breaks in two from the strain. And instead of giving the monkey royal funeral rights and worshiping his skull as a relic, the king enacts a law that all monkeys should be fed.

This version is different enough from the originals to suggest a separate Chinese tradition, one that had circulated for some time. This fits with Chavannes’ (1910) suggestion that The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas is not an original Indian text but one compiled in China by Kang Senghui, who likely selected and edited the stories himself (vol. 1, p. 1 n. 1).

Story no. 56 finds parallels with another tale from Chinese Buddhist literature. [6] It appears in the Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (Za baozang jing, 雜寶藏經, mid-5th-century), which was translated into Chinese by the monk Tan Yao (曇曜). According to the 12th story in this collection: The Buddha was in Rajagrha when the monks commented on the woes faced by those who rely on Devadatta, while celebrating the happiness, positive rebirth, and eventual deliverance of those who rely on the Enlightened One. The Buddha confirmed this by telling a brief tale about two monkeys, each with 500 members in their tribe. A prince of Kashi (a.k.a. Benares) was on a hunting excursion when he surrounded the monkeys. The good monkey (shan mihou, 善獼猴) suggested that they cross the river to escape, but the evil monkey (e’mihou, 惡獼猴) wavered. The good monkey instructed his tribe to cross by using the long branches of a nearby tree. But the evil monkey and his tribe were captured due to inaction. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the good monkey was himself and Devadatta was the evil monkey. He used this story to advocate following the virtuous over the evil, for the former would lead others to safety and happiness, while the latter would lead others to suffering over numerous incarnations (CBETA, 2016b). [7]

This version does away with the fruit element altogether. The monkeys are in danger not because a king is protecting his fruit but because a prince is out hunting. The most noticeable difference here is the addition of a second monkey, one who is labeled as “evil” (e, 惡) (no connection to the Six-Eared Macaque). But like story no. 56, the monkey king is said to lead 500 primates.

It is clear that both Chinese tales were influenced by the later Indian version, story no. 407 from Commentary on the Birth Stories, as they specify a number for the troupe size (500 vs. 80,000), state the monkey king leaps over a river (as opposed to jumping to a nearby mountain top), and characters are revealed in the end to have been the past lives of Buddhist personages (the Buddha, Ananda, Devadatta, monks, etc.). Story no. 12 even opens in a city associated with the Enlightened One’s historical lectures (Rajagrha vs. Jetavana), where he discusses philosophical matters with monks; and an unnamed prince who poses a threat to the monkey king and his people is said to hail from Kashi, another name for Benares, the seat of King Brahmadatta.

4. The Chinese Monkey King

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century, The Story hereafter), a 17 chapter storytelling prompt that predates the Ming Journey to the West by 300 years. In chapter two, our hero’s literary antecedent, a white-clad scholar called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), meets the Tang monk Tripitaka on the road to the west and warns the monk that his two previous incarnations have died trying to procure the Buddhist scriptures. When asked how he knows events of the past, the scholar replies: “I am none other than the bronze-headed, iron-browed [8] king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. I have come to help the reverend monk procure the scriptures” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182).

The Story‘s depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim was influenced by Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana) (fig. 7), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late-9th to early-10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment. For example, both are depicted with occult powers enabling them to fly between heaven and earth (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098); both visit a realm ruled by a deity named Brahma, the Mahabrahma devaraja Vaisravana in the case of Monkey and Brahma in the case of Mulian (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, p. 1098); both are bestowed magic weapons by heaven, a golden-ringed monk staff and alms bowl for Monkey and a matching staff for Mulian (he enchants his own alms bowl) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); the power of said weapons are tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name, Vaisravana and the Buddha, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); and both use said weapons with the expressed purpose of saving someone important, Tripitaka and Mulian’s mother, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189, for example; Mair, 1994).

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 7 – A painting depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

If The Story borrows from Mulian’s tale, it’s not a stretch to suggest that it also appropriated material from other Buddhist tales, including “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the massive, fruit-bearing banyan/mango tree. Additionally, both The Story and the “The Great Monkey” describe the respective monkey kings leading a similar number of primates, 84,000 in the former and 80,000 in the latter. [9] While the Chinese variants drastically reduce the number to 500, it’s interesting that both tales would display such similar counts. This is because said numbers are significant to Buddhism. For example, 84,000 generally denotes a very large number, hence the belief that the body contains this many atoms. Other examples include the 84,000 stupas of Asoka, the 84,000 bodily relics of the Buddha, the Amitabha‘s 84,000 rays of illumination, the 84,000 bodily signs of a Buddha, the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, etc. In addition, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) can be shorthand for 84,000. It can also refer to separate Buddhist concepts, such as the “bodhisattva’s 80,000 duties” (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2006, p. 39). It’s certainly possible that both stories independently chose similar numbers due to their demonstrated connection to Buddhism. But maybe the storytellers who developed The Story had access to some non-Chinese version of the tale, perhaps by way of Buddhist monks, for Buddhism has a long history of proselytizing through oral literature. [10]

Furthermore, in chapter 11 of The Story, the pilgrims enter the earthly paradise of the Daoist goddess Queen Mother of the West, home to the famed peaches of immortality. Tripitaka asks Monkey to steal the group a few fruits, but the latter refuses, stating:

Because I stole ten peaches to eat when I was eight hundred years old, I was captured by the Queen Mother and given eight hundred blows on my left side and three thousand blows on the right with an iron cudgel. Then I was exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits. Even today my sides hurt and now I definitely don’t dare to steal any more peaches!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195).

This event was surely influenced by the fabled meeting of Emperor Wu and the Queen mother, during which she reveals his jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔), formerly the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), was exiled from heaven for stealing her peaches (Campany, 2009, p. 126). However, a monkey king running afoul of an earthbound monarch for raiding their imperial fruit garden mirrors story no. 56 in The Collection. As mentioned above, the tale recalls the Buddhist monkey king leading his tribe out of the mountains to eat fruit in a human sovereign’s garden during a time of drought. The ruler orders the primates captured, leading to the monkey king’s sacrifice. Therefore, this portion of The Story could be a combination of Buddhist and Daoist sources.

“The Great Monkey” could have also influenced the 1592 edition. In chapter one, the monkeys following the stream to find its source in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is reminiscent of the human king’s trek up the Ganges to find the source of the fruit in the Himalayas. Also, recall that the Indian and Chinese versions place great emphasis on the monkey king leaping over a river. For example, story no. 407 reads: “[H]e ascended a branch that rose up straight, went along another branch that stretched towards the Ganges, and springing from the end of it, he passed a hundred bow-lengths and lighted on a bush on the [other] bank” (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, p. 226). This could have influenced the competition to leap through the waterfall. It’s interesting that Wukong alone is successful in the jump, leading to his kinghood:

The monkeys said to each other, “We don’t know where this water comes from. Since we have nothing to do today, let us follow the stream up to its source to have some fun.” With a shriek of joy, they dragged along males and females, calling out to brothers and sisters, and scrambled up the mountain alongside the stream. Reaching its source, they found a great waterfall.


All the monkeys clapped their hands in acclaim: “Marvelous water! Marvelous water! So this waterfall is distantly connected with the stream at the base of the mountain, and flows directly out, even to the great ocean.” They said also, “If any of us had the ability to penetrate the curtain and find out where the water comes from without hurting himself, we would honor him as king.” They gave the call three times, when suddenly the stone monkey leaped out from the crowd. He answered the challenge with a loud voice, “I’ll go in! I’ll go in!” 


Look at him! He closed his eyes, crouched low, and with one leap he jumped straight through the waterfall (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 103-104).

This takes us back to where we started from in the introduction.

5. Conclusion

I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as the Monkey King is based on the “The Great Monkey”, a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a primate monarch, which appears in various Indian Buddhist sources, such as the 4th-century Garland of Birth Stories (no. 27) and the 5th-century Commentary on the Birth Stories (no. 407). The tale describes the monkey king’s efforts to save his tribe from a human monarch who seeks to claim a massive banyan/mango tree in the Himalayas by killing all of the monkeys inhabiting it. After leaping to a mountain top or over the Ganges River to retrieve a length of cane needed to span the gap, his return jump is hindered, forcing him to make a bridge with his body. He is mortally wounded in the process, though, when throngs of clambering monkeys run across his back or a rival primate assaults him from a high branch. In the end, the human monarch takes note of this selfless act and learns from him the value of putting the needs of his people first moments prior to the monkey king’s death.

The popularity of the tale, as evidenced by 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art at the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas, explains why it spread beyond Bharata and traveled the Silk Road to the Middle Kingdom, where it was represented in Chinese Buddhist literature and art. Simplistic mnemonic depictions of the tale in Xinjiang’s Kizil Cave complex (no. 17 and 38) (5th to 7th-century) are predated by stories in the 3rd-century Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (no. 56) and the mid-5th-century Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (no. 12). The first tells how the monkey king leads his people down from the mountain to raid an imperial fruit garden and ultimately sacrifices his life so the tribe can escape punishment. The second involves the decisions of two monkey kings, one good and one evil, whether or not to cross a river to escape capture at the hands of a prince on a hunting trip. It serves as a parable warning of the consequences of putting one’s faith in those of evil character.

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is the late-13th-century tale The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures. This story borrows from the Mulian story cycle, so it’s possible that it selected from other Buddhist tales, including Indian and Chinese versions of the “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the banyan/mango tree. The 84,000 primates led by the Chinese Monkey King could be based on the 80,000 from an Indian version. Likewise, Monkey stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West in chapter 11 could be based on the Chinese version in which the monkey king and his people raid an imperial fruit garden. In addition, the emphasis on leaping over a river in the various versions of “The Great Monkey” could have influenced the waterfall jumping contest in the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West.


1) Little is known about Arya Sura’s life. Based on various Indian and Chinese sources, the monk has been estimated to have lived somewhere between the 2nd to the 5th-century, with the 4th-century being the best guess (Khoroche, 1989, pp. xi-xiii).

2) This should not be confused with the similarly named Mahakapi jataka (no. 516). See Cowell, 1895, vol. 5, pp. 37-42.

3) This page (see #3) explains Brahmadatta is the name of several kings from jataka tales.

4) See Nattier, 2008, pp. 149-155 for more information about Kang Shenghui and his work, including the Liudu jijing.

5) See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 1, pp. 216-218 for a French translation of the story. Click here for an English translation by Edward P. Butler (@EPButler).

6) Thank you to Eric Greene of Yale university for bringing this story to my attention.

7) See Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, 1994, pp. 40-41 for a full English translation. As of 03/02/21 the book can be downloaded here for free. See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 3, p. 13 for a partial French translation.

8) According to Mair (1989), “‘Bronze-headed, iron-browed’ is a conventional Chinese epithet for boldness and bravery” (p. 701).

9) Interestingly, the number of primates led by Wukong in the final Ming edition of the novel is 47,000 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). I don’t know if this number holds any significance.

10) Mair (1988) explains Indian Buddhist prosimetric oral literature was very popular in China during the Tang but rapidly became secularized and Sinicized during Song (when The Story was published) due to past anti-Buddhist pogroms, Muslim incursions in Central Asia cutting off fresh Buddhist material, and the reemergence of Confucianism as a state power. But I suggest material that influenced The Story may predate this shift. For example, the Monkey Pilgrim appears with Xuanzang in an 11th-century (Western Xia) mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province (see this article). Xuanzang is shown worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while our hero stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The fact that Monkey appears in religious art at an important stop along the Silk Road shows his association with Xuanzang’s journey was well-known even during this early period. And since story cycles take time to form and become cemented in the public psyche, it’s not a stretch to suggest Monkey’s tale goes back to the previous century or even before the Song. Therefore, it’s possible that these earlier storytellers may have had access to some non-Chinese version of “The Great Monkey”.


Campany, R. F. (2009). Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China. University of Hawaii Press.

Chavannes, E. (1910). Cinq Cents Contes et Apologues, Extraits du Tripitaka Chinois et Traduits en Français: Tome 1 [Five Hundred Tales and Apologues: Extracts from the Chinese Tripitaka Translated into French: Vol. 1]. Paris: E. Leroux.

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016a). T03n0152_006 六度集經 第6卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitās, scroll no. 6]. Retrieved from

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016b). T04n0203_002 雜寶藏經 第2卷 [Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures, scroll no. 2]. Retrieved from

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births: Vol. 1-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Khoroche, P. (Trans.). (1989). Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mair, V. H. (1988). The Buddhist Tradition of Prosimetric Oral Narrative in Chinese Literature. Oral Tradition, 3(1-2), 106-21. Retrieved from

Mair, V. H. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Marshall, J., Foucher, A., & Majumdar, N. G. (1902). The Monuments of Sāñchī: Vol. 1-3. Bhopal: Indra Publishing House.

Nattier, J. (2008). A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations: Texts from the Eastern Han 東漢 and Three Kingdoms 三國 Periods. Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, X. (1994). The Storehouse of Sundry Valuables (C. Willemen, Trans.). Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Zhu, T. (2012). Reshaping the Jātaka Stories: from Jātakas to Avadānas and Praṇidhānas in Paintings at Kucha and Turfan. Buddhist Studies Review, 29(1), 57-83. Retrieved from

My Qitian Dasheng Monkey King Talisman Block

In August of 2020 I happened upon an online listing for a carved wooden talisman block bearing Sun Wukong’s divine, rebellious title Qitian Dasheng (齊天大聖) (fig. 1). The seller was located in Singapore, so I asked my local friend to meet with them to make sure it was legitimate. Two weeks later I had the block in hand (thank you Antz). It measures 8.5 x 2.125 x 1 in (21.59 x 5.397 x 2.54 cm) and is made from some kind of light-colored, smooth-grained wood. The face contains a series of intricately carved Chinese characters and magic symbols.

Fig. 1 – The talisman block and a print (larger image). The image has been enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 2 – The talisman legend (larger version). See here for a version without the numbers.

I. Meaning

Here I will explain the various symbols as I understand them (fig. 2). I am by no means an expert, so I am open to comment. I’d like to thank members of the “Talismans of Asia” Heritage Group (亞洲符咒文化資訊網) on Facebook for their suggestions.

1. 齊天宮 (Qitian gong) – The “Equaling Heaven Temple”, a house of worship in Singapore dedicated to Monkey. The characters are written backwards according to traditional fashion.

2. These three checkmark-shaped symbols refer to the 三清 (Sanqing, “Three Pure Ones“), the three highest gods of Daoism. An informant also told me that they can represent heaven, earth, and man.

3. 奉齊天大聖 (Feng Qitian dasheng) – “Revere the Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, the main deity of the Qitian Temple.

4. These barbwire-like designs may represent symbolic weapons of some kind. [1]

5. 六甲 (Liujia) – Refers to the “Six Jia“, protector spirits of Daoism. They are grouped with the Six Ding (Mugitani, 2008).

6. 六丁 (Liuding) – Refers to the “Six Ding” spirits.

7. 令雷 (Ling lei) – “Commanding thunder” refers to the 雷法 (Leifa, “Thunder Ritual”), a corpus of ritual magic that enables the user to command heavenly beings to exorcize malevolent forces (Reiter, 2010). These characters are usually reversed, 雷令 (Lei ling). This essentially commands the Ding and Jia spirits to execute the order (see #9).

8. 甲將軍 (Jia jiangjun) – “Jia generals”, a reference to the Six Jia spirits.

9. 扶身保命 (Fushen baoming) – “Support the body and save life” is the order to be executed by the Ding and Jia spirits.

10. 爪 (zhao/zhua) 罡 (gang) 卩(jie) – Two halves of the character for 印 (yin, “print”), referring to the talisman, sandwich that for “firm”. 罡 (gang) increases the intensity of the command (#9).

11. This angular symbol is the 符胆 (fu dan), the talisman’s locus of power. [2]

II. Use

Unlike Western stamps which are pressed face down onto paper, the paper itself is pressed onto the face of the talisman block like Japanese woodblock prints (Leffman, 2020). This enables a popular temple to mass produce protective talismans without having to handwrite each one. The talisman is then consecrated with a spell and/or blood from a tangki (童乩) spirit-medium.


1) See #17 in Chan, 2014, p. 35.

2) Again, see #17 in Chan, 2014, p. 35.


Chan, M., Goh, R., Choo, P., & Tan, B. (2014). Tangki War Magic: The Virtuality of Spirit Warfare and the Actuality of Peace. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 58(1), 25-46. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

Leffman, D. (2020). Paper Horses: Woodblock Prints of Chinese Gods from 1930s Beijing. [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from

Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol. 1 & 2 (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.

Reiter, F. C. (2010). Taoist Thunder Magic (五雷法), Illustrated with the Example of the Divine Protector Chao Kung-ming 趙公明. Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 160(1), 121-154. Retrieved from

Archive #18 – Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018)


An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.

Book link


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Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

The Monkey King Temples of Fujian

Last updated: 02/15/2021

The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Saie Surendra of During the summer of 2019, he was lucky enough to visit several Great Sage Equaling Heaven temples in Fujian, including those dedicated to him and those hosting small shrines in his honor. This entry will serve as a list of such temples. – Jim


Saie admiring a Monkey King statue at the Wong Tai Sin temple in Kowloon, Hong Kong (larger version).

I. My journey

So how did my journey to the various Great Sage Equalling Heaven temples in Fujian begin? I guess I’ll start from the beginning. Growing up, I would often see images or figurines of the Hindu Monkey God Hanuman in fellow Sri Lankan and Indian homes. For those who don’t know, Hanuman is the Indian counterpart of Sun Wukong and potentially the first known Monkey God. I was curious and intrigued and wanted to know more, but I didn’t get many answers from the people I asked. “He protects us and can revive us from bad health” was the most common reply. I researched the many translations of the Ramayana (one of two great Indian epics within which Hanuman appears) and became enchanted by his many amazing feats and achievements. I was a huge film fan growing up, so I became obsessed with the idea of making films based on him. There have been TV adaptations of Hanuman’s story—I wasn’t a fan of the more human-like portrayals—but, sadly, major Indian studios have yet to make a proper movie about him.

Fast-forward to 2008. Jet Li and Jackie Chan star in the kung fu fantasy The Forbidden Kingdom. Looking back now, it isn’t the greatest film ever, but this is when I first met … Sun Wukong (cue the “Dagger House Prelude”). This was a turning point for me, my obsession multiplied tenfold. Since then I have watched tens, if not hundreds, of film and TV adaptations of Sun Wukong. I’ve also read endless articles and books (one example) in an effort to connect the dots between our (Hindu and Buddho-Daoist) ancestors’ worship of monkey deities. I’ve found there are just too many similarities to ignore.

At first, I had never heard of Sun Wukong’s worship. So when I found the one vague article online describing the Monkey King Festival (the 16th day of the 8th lunar month) in Hong Kong, I decided I would go! I didn’t know what to expect when Jim and I met at the Great Sage Treasure Temple (大聖寶廟) in Kowloon in September of 2018, but it was a big moment for me. Crowds of young and old gathered to worship the Great Sage Equalling Heaven; Daoist priests chanted from prayer books; rows of important businesspeople bowed in unison; martial arts schools performed colorful lion dances, each kwoon paying respect to the altar as they passed; giant paper effigies were burnt. It was a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. Through our interviews with the locals, we not only learned that the festival was considered a time for strengthening community bonds and to help those in need, but also that many adherents believed their faith originated in Fujian, more specifically the city of Fuzhou. This of course agrees with what past scholars have written about Sun’s worship in Fujian.

I have a question: If you ever found yourself in heaven, what would you do? You’d take some good videos to show your friends back on Earth, right? So that was the idea; I started making a documentary (video 1) based on the real people I met and the places I visited, saving my film ambitions for later.

Video 1 – Legends of a Monkey God: Episode 1 – Hong Kong

I was restless some months after returning from the Hong Kong Monkey God Festival. It was like experiencing Heaven for a week and then falling back to Earth like a meteor with many unanswered questions. I was unable to sit around in my miserable London life any longer, so I finally decided to travel where Sun’s worship supposedly began … Fuzhou.

Arriving in Fuzhou was like a pilgrimage in itself. Let me say, this was not an easy journey for me, nor for the translator friend I hired due to my poor Mandarin. The Hokkien accent of Fuzhou gave her a hard time. In addition, the many places I had researched and mapped online seemingly didn’t exist. We visited one after another, with the locals appearing clueless about the temples we inquired about. It was almost as if Sun Wukong’s worship was a secret and only initiated members were allowed access to his houses of worship. Now, there is a saying in India that goes: “You can’t just find Him, He has to invite you”. This saying holds true, for when we finally found one of the locations (see temple one below), a person inside told us about a man who could help me on my journey. I thought, “Hang on a minute … was this guy the savior goddess Guanyin? Was he going to introduce me to my … Sun Wukong?”

I was later introduced to Mr. You, the head of several temples, the Pingshan theatre, and the greatest Sun Wukong follower I have ever met. He set aside two whole days to drive us to several Monkey King temples around Fuzhou, during which time I shot video for another documentary (video 2). I wondered whether or not he wanted anything in return. I mean, no one does anything for free, right? It turns out he was more than happy just to share his Sun Wukong with me and invite me into his secret club! He would not accept any gifts from me. I felt like I was the Tang Monk! And here is the thing: Mr. You and his friends didn’t speak a single word of English—in fact, my Mandarin was unbearable to them—yet we somehow managed to communicate and establish a strong friendship between us, “Brothers bound by the love of Monkey”. I promised myself then that I would return with better Mandarin in a Fujian dialect.

Video 2 – Legends of a Monkey God: Episode 3 – Monkey King Temples of Fujian, China

What I took away from this trip was the fact that Sun Wukong is a deity that sits at the intersection of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. I saw effigies of him in temples of all the “Three Religions”, sometimes shared, sometimes strictly one faith. But the idea of religion in the East is not the same as that in the West. In the East, you find your own path, follow it to your goal; you don’t need to be on the same path as everyone else and no one judges you for making your own way. It’s just like the Indians say: “The destination is the same, paths are many. God is one, names and forms are many”. This ties in with the works of famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, who would call this the many “masks of God”.

II. Temple list

Note: This list is not exhaustive and will be updated periodically. Most importantly, the following GPS coordinates should ONLY be used as a general guideline. It is highly recommended that those wishing to visit these places should hire the services of a knowledgeable guide. I recommend contacting Mr. You (WeChat id: you410631621)  


A shrine in Mr. You’s house (larger version).

Temple One: 玉封齐天府屏山祖殿
26°04’45.0″N 119°18’42.6″E
Sanjie Temple, Gulou District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
38H6+MP Gulou District, Fuzhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Two
26°04’10.1″N 119°19’56.1″E
Eastern District Shangquan, Jin’an, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
389J+QW Jin’an, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Three
26°01’46.8″N 119°15’56.1″E
Baihua Zhou Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
27H8+V6 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Four:霞江清泉庵 (齊天大聖殿)
26°02’41.4″N 119°18’34.7″E
28V5+WV Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China


For more pictures, see this article.


Temple Five
26°02’05.1″N 119°21’10.7″E
Houban Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
29M3+W5 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Six
26°06’23.6″N 119°14’30.2″E
Unnamed Road, Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
464R+JM Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Seven: 慈恩寺
26°08’54.4″N 119°08’56.9″E
Junmin Rd, Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
44XX+9M Ganzhezhen, Minhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Eight
26°04’26.2″N 119°11’25.5″E
G316 Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
35FR+H5 Shangjiezhen, Minhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Temple Nine
26°01’49.8″N 119°17’26.7″E
163 Luling Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
27JR+68 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China



Update: 02/15/2021

Jim here. I have mirrored this article by creating a list of Monkey King temples that I’ve visited in Taiwan.

The Worship of Sun Wukong in 19th-century America

I by chance happened upon an old magazine article that mentions the worship of Sun Wukong in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1892. The piece is written by one Frederic J. Masters, D.D., a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about the area’s Chinese community. Not surprisingly, the article is dripping with condescension towards Chinese religion, condemning the Great Sage’s worship as “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness.” Below is the section discussing the Monkey King.

In the Spofford-alley temple are found the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses, the principal being the Grand Duke of Peace, the God of Medicine, and Pan Kung, a celebrated Prime Minister of the Sung Dynasty. The funniest discovery in this temple was that of Tsai Tin Tai Shing [Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖]. He is a beatified monkey in the image of a man. Hatched from a bowlder [sic], this animal is said to have proclaimed himself king of the monkeys. At last he learned the language of men, and finding himself possessed of supernatural powers, he obtained a place among the gods. Such is the legend. Chinese idolatry thus reaches the acme of absurdity and sinfulness in the canonization of a monkey. Thoughts of Darwin’s descent of man at once flashed across our mind as we looked at this image. It was disappointing at one’s curiosity to find that the old temple keeper who cared more for a pipe of opium than for speculations in theology and anthropology could not tell us what part natural selection played in the evolution of Chinese deities, or whether monkey worship was the newest phase of Chinese ancestral worship. Finding him lamentably ignorant upon the great question of the descent of man, we astonished with him with a complete history of his monkey god.

There was an ape in the days that were earlier;
Centuries passed and his hair became curlier;
Centuries more and his tail disappeared,
Then he was man and a god to be feared (Masters, 1892, pp. 736-737).

So what can we learn from this brief entry? Given the time, place, and use of Cantonese, the worshipers were most likely immigrants from Guangdong province. Refo Mason (1994) explains, “When news of the discovery of gold in California reached South China in 1849, thousands of labourers in Guangdong and Fujian provinces left their villages to seek work in the gum shan ([金山] ‘Gold Mountain’) … Emigration from South China to California…peaked in 1852, when 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco” (p. 200). Monkey‘s adherents may have counted among these men or their descendants (or possibly among those from later periods of immigration). Either way, belief in the Great Sage came with those who traveled from southern China to America.

Monkey King Bust - American Gods - Instagram 1 - small

Fig. 1 – A photomanipulation of Sun Wukong above the title logo from the ongoing American Gods television show (larger version). By the author. The program is based on the 2001 novel of the same name.

Somebody please get Neil Gaimon on the phone and tell him that he can now include Monkey in American Gods (fig. 1). What do you think the character would look like? Maybe a short old man with a cane?

Spofford Alley, home to 19th-century temple with Monkey King shrine - small

Fig 2 – A modern Google satellite image of Spofford Alley (larger version). It is only a few hundred feet long.

During the 19th-century, Spofford Alley (fig. 2), where the temple housing the Great Sage shrine was located, was home to the Chee Kong Tong (Zhigongdang, 致公堂, “Chamber of High Justice Society,” a.k.a. the “Chinese Freemasons”), the secret Chinese society-turned-criminal organization running Chinatown’s illicit opium, gambling, and prostitution trade (Risse, 2012, p. 37). The Chee Kong Tong were originally an offshoot of anti-Manchu rebels who wanted to overthrow the foreign-ruled Qing dynasty (Cassel, 2002, pp. 218-219). [1] Therefore, Sun Wukong’s worshipers may have included gangsters and rebels. As mentioned in this article, the Great Sage was venerated by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). This makes sense as the divine primate is famous for his rebellion against heaven in Journey to the West.


1) Sun Yatsen, the “Father of modern China,” made contact with the Chee Kong Tong several times and even used their no. 36 Spofford Alley office as his own while raising money for his revolution in China (United States, 1993, pp. 45-46; Lum & Lum, 1999, p. 57).


Cassel, S. L. (2002). The Chinese in America: A history from Gold Mountain to the new millennium. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

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.

Lum, Y. M., & Lum, R. M. K. (1999). Sun Yat-sen in Hawaii: Activities and supporters. Honolulu: Hawaii Chinese History Center.

Refo Mason, S. (1994). Social Christianity, American feminism, and Chinese prostitutes: The history of the Presbyterian mission home, San Francisco, 1874-1935 In M. Jaschok and S. Miers (Ed.) Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude, and Escape (pp. 198-220). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Risse, G. B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

United States. (1993). An introduction to organized crime in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Organized Crime/Drug Branch, Criminal Investigative Division.

Sun Wukong and the Qiang Ethnic Group of China

Last updated: 08/02/2019

The Qiang (Chinese: 羌; Qiangic: Rrmea) ethnic group have been mentioned in Chinese records as far back as the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th-century BCE). Originally inhabiting the northern reaches of China, these sheepherders and warriors were driven southwest over many centuries of conflict with neighboring ethnic groups, as well as the Chinese. Many Chinese dynasties attempted to assimilate them, but the Qiang have resisted up to the present. Today, they live in western Sichuan near the Tibetan border and are listed among the 56 recognized ethnic groups of China (Yu, 2004, pp. 155-156; Wang, 2002, pp. 133-136).

What’s interesting about the Qiang for the purposes of this blog is that both magic monkeys and heavenly stones, and even Sun Wukong himself, play a part in the people’s religious mythology.

Map of China showing location of Sichuan Province, home to Qiang ethnic group, some of whom worship Sun Wukong

Fig. 1 – A map of China showing the location of Sichuan province in red. Larger version available on wikicommons.

I. Monkeys and Qiang shamanism

Shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi; Chinese: Duan gong, 端公 or Wu, 巫) are the heart of Qiang religious life. During special ceremonies, they wear three-peaked hats (fig. 2 and 3) made from the fur of golden monkeys (fig. 4), each peak respectively representing the deities of heaven, earth, and shamanism (more on the latter below). [1] These hats are especially worn during exorcisms because the monkeys are considered “the purest of animals, [which stand] in extreme contrast to the vilest of beings—the demons” (Oppitz, 2004, p. 13). There are several legends, with many variants, explaining the origins of the headdress. One version states:

[T]he Qiangs used to have a written language, and their patriarch recorded the scriptures he obtained from the gods and other important writings on human affairs on the bark of birch trees. One day when he took out the pieces of bark to be aired, a mountain sheep came and ate them all. With the help of a golden monkey the patriarch captured the guilty sheep and made its skin into a drum. When he beat on the drum he was able to recall the words written on the birch bark. To prevent future mishaps to these precious documents, he memorized them by heart (Yu, 2004, p. 160).

So in essence the hats are worn to commemorate the assistance of the golden monkey. Interestingly, another version replaces the patriarch and golden monkey with Tripitaka and Sun Wukong:

A long time ago, in the Tang period, there was a monk by the name of Tang Seng [唐僧, “Tang Monk”], who undertook a journey to the western skies in the company of a monkey named Sun Wukong, in order to collect sacred scriptures. On their way back, they encountered a sheep ghost who ate all the newly acquired scriptures. The monkey got very angry, killed the sheep ghost, and used its skin to fabricate a drum. Thereupon Tang Seng and the monkey met with the Eighteen Arhats … Listening to their teachings, Tang Seng picked up the sheep-skin drum and repeated all that he heard through their mouths. Since then all shamans use a drum when reciting their knowledge from memory (Oppitz, 2004, p. 23).

Qiang shaman hat and goldn monkey

Fig. 2 – The three-peaked golden monkey skin shaman hat. From the Sichuan University Museum. Larger version on wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A shaman wearing the headdress and playing the ritual sheep skin drum (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. From Oppitz, 2004, p. 14. Fig. 4 – A golden monkey with child. Larger version on wikipedia.

The golden monkey is closely associated with the Qiang’s pantheistic worship of sacred white stones, each one representing the gods of heaven, sun, fire, mountains, rivers, and trees. [2] Yu (2004) provides another legend for the origins of the Shaman’s hat, describing how the monkey is the offspring of the sacred stone and noting parallels with the birth of Sun Wukong:

Another legend depicts the golden monkey as a Prometheus-like figure who stole fire from heaven. The first two attempts failed because the god of wind and the god of rain extinguished the fire, but the monkey succeeded the third time by concealing the fire in a white stone. It is worth noting that in this legend the golden monkey is closely related to the white stone. In the Qiang language, the first syllables in the names of the monkey’s mother and father mean respectively “stone” and “fire.” “This implies that fire is produced by stone and hidden inside the stone, and that the half-human, half-simian golden monkey was an offspring of the union between stone and fire”. The white stone and the golden monkey, as the source of fire and the messenger who brought it to the human world, became the totems of the Qiang people. To commemorate the recovery of the lost scriptures, wearing the monkey hat and playing the sheepskin drum also became an indispensable part of Sacrifice to the Mountain[, a Qiang ceremony]. However, the monkey legend is not particular to the Qiang people. The Yi minority people of northwestern Guizhou province have a nuo drama known as bianren xi (changing-into-people drama) based on a legend that people derived from monkeys. Actors wear monkey masks for this performance. There is also the famous monkey, Sun Wukong, who was born from a stone in the Han Chinese novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West, 1592) by Wu Chengen (ca. 1506-1582). [3] The novel was first published in 1592, but the monkey lore included in it was of much earlier time (p. 160).

A celestial, stone-born monkey who steals from heaven certainly sounds like the Monkey King. As noted here, stories about Sun Wukong have been circulating in Asia for a millennia. So it seems only natural that the Qiang’s reverence for heavenly stones and monkeys would lead to some of them worshiping the beloved cultural figure.

Graham (1958) notes Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing figure among the Chinese patron deities of the “red” shamans (p. 53). [4] What’s interesting is that the red shamans are said to speak a special demon language and use their skills to exorcise demons (p. 54). Therefore, their worship of the Monkey King should come as no surprise considering Sun Wukong is the exorcist par excellence.

As noted above, one of the peaks of the ritual headdress represents the patron deity of shamanism. Known among other names as the Abba mula (“father god”), this is the title given to the shaman’s main focus of worship. For instance, Sun Wukong is the Abba mula of those who revere him. Most importantly, the chosen deity is further represented by a small bundle that the shaman carries with him and guards jealousy, as it is the source of his knowledge and power. Graham (1958) describes the sacred bundle’s importance, construction, and use:

He is the patron or guardian deity and instructor of the Ch’iang priest, and without him the priest could do nothing. It consists of a skull of a golden-haired monkey wrapped in a round bundle of white paper. Its eyes are old cowry shells or large seeds. Inside are also dried pieces of a golden-haired monkey’s lungs, intestines, lips, and fingernails. It is so wrapped that the face of the skull is visible at one end, and the other end is closed [fig. 5 and 6]. After each ceremony in the sacred grove, [5] the priest wraps another sheet of white paper around it, so that it gradually increases in diameter. Some priests will not allow another person to touch his Abba Mula and only the priest worships this god (pp. 51-52).

I mention this because there are no doubt sacred bundles representing Sun Wukong, which are used under his supernatural guidance.

Qiang abba mula bundle and shaman holding one

Fig. 5 – The Abba mula bundle. Note the visible monkey skull with cowry shell eyes (larger version). Original photograph by Wolfgang Wenning. Fig. 6 – A Qiang shaman carry a bundle and sacred cane (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. Both images are from Oppitz, 2004, p. 41.

Oppitz (2004) explains stories alluding to Sun Wukong appear in Qiang pictorial divination books. Furthermore, he suggests the ritual of wrapping the Abba mula bundle with additional paper represents the lost written knowledge saved by the Monkey King / golden monkey, which is now passed on orally.

In Qiang divination books the monkey features in various passages. In one book the picture of a monkey alludes to a story in which he destroys a heavenly palace; another book addresses a monkey’s trip to a western land, where he acquires written texts. In both cases the monkey Sun Wukong of popular literature and protagonist of the novel Xi yu ji [sic], who escorts the Tang pilgrim Xuanzang, stands as the model. This character’s association with the acquisition of books and the role a golden-haired monkey plays in a Qiang myth as the inventor of the drum replacing the lost scriptures, suggests that the paper which is wrapped around the venerated monkey skull may also be interpreted as a hint to the conflict between scriptural versus oral tradition at the intersection of which the monkey stands as a mediator (p. 42).

II. Monkeys and the Qiang origin myth

Called “Mutsitsu and Tugantsu” (Mujiezhu yu Douanzhu, 木姐珠與斗安珠), the Qiang origin myth centers around the romance of Mutsitsu, the daughter of the supreme god Abamubi (or Mubita), and the earthbound monkey Tugantsu. The latter saves the goddess from a ferocious tiger when she visits the mortal world and both instantly fall in love. She brings him to the celestial realm, where Abamubi only agrees to their marriage if Tugantsu can successfully complete a series of impossible herculean tasks. These include falling the trees of ninety-nine mountains, burning the trees, and using the arable land to plant a crop of corn (other sources say grain); but each time Mutsitsu secretly enlists the aid of fellow gods to insure the tasks are completed on time. During the burning of the forest, Tugantsu’s fur is singed, revealing him to be a handsome man. In the end, the supreme god agrees to their marriage and Mutsitsu and Tugantsu become the progenitors of mankind. [6]

Academia Sinica (n.d.) comments that some Qiang communities who revere Chinese gods often equate Abamubi with the Jade Emperor of Daoism and Tugantsu with Sun Wukong. I find this especially fascinating as the Monkey King then becomes a sacred protoplast.

Tibetan origin myth painting - Monkey and Ogress - small

Fig. 7 – A modern painting showing the monkey and rock ogress of Tibetan myth (larger version). Original from Wikipedia.

In addition, Academia Sinica (n.d.) explains this “monkey transforming into human” motif (i.e. Tugantsu becoming a man) has similarities with Tibetan mythology, for the Qiang live in close proximity to the people of Tibet. This refers to the Tibetan origin myth in which the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (the Indo-Tibetan variant of Guanyin) and Tara are respectively reborn on earth as a monkey and his wife, a rock ogress (fig. 7). (Again, the association between the monkey and rock reminds one of Sun Wukong.) The union produces six half-human half-monkey children, from which originate the six original tribes of Tibet. These children and their offspring eventually evolve human features (Stein, 1972, pp. 37 and 46).

III. Conclusion

The religious mythology of the Qiang ethnic group of China pays reverence to both heavenly monkeys and sacred stones. Examples include stories about a golden monkey born from a stone who both bestows fire on man and creates the sheepskin drum needed to recover lost scriptural knowledge. Qiang communities that revere Chinese deities often replace the golden monkey with Sun Wukong, no doubt due to his birth mirroring the former’s origins. The same holds true for the Qiang origin myth in which a goddess and monkey-turned-man become the progenitors of mankind. The Monkey King is sometimes equated with the father, transforming him from a literary character and cultural figure into a sacred protoplast. Interestingly, the monkey-rock and monkey-to-man motifs have connections to a wider myth cycle present in Tibet.

Some shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi) specializing in exorcism worship our hero as their patron deity, or Abba mula (“father god”). Such deities are given form as a bundled monkey skull successively wrapped in white paper. This sacred object is considered the source of the shaman’s power. It’s possible the wrapping paper references the lost scriptural knowledge that Sun Wukong/the golden monkey helped recover.

To my knowledge, most of what has been written about the Qiang, and by extension their connection with Sun Wukong, was collected by ethnographers during the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the Qiang have no written language (hence the importance of oral knowledge), it’s impossible to say how far back this connection goes. But as noted in this article, the Monkey King has been worshiped by the Chinese since at least the 17th-century. So the Qiang reverence for Sun Wukong could also be centuries old.

Update: 04/19/2019

Sun Wukong also appears in the folklore of the neighboring (and related) Miao ethnic group. The Miao also believe man derives from monkeys.

Update: 08/02/2019

Rockhill (1891) provides a complete translation of the Tibetan monkey-ogress origin myth taken from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century), a collection of Tibetan Buddhist texts centered around Avalokitesvara. [7] The translation is too long to transcribe here, so I have made a PDF of the relevant pages. It’s interesting to note that the Bodhisattva Hilumandju, the protagonist, is a monkey king with magic powers. 

Archive link

Click to access the-land-of-the-lamas-notes-of-a-journey-through-china-mongolia-and-tibet-1891-by-william-woodville-rockhill-rock-ogress-and-a-monkey-info-pages-extracted.pdf

Hilumandju and Hanumanji are quite similar, as noted by other writers (Chattopadhyaya & Chimpa, 2011, p. 152). The Tibetologist Per K. Sørensen notes “the idea of an ape-gestalt in this myth is directly associated with or inspired by the ape-king … and champion … Ha-lu ma-da = Hanümän, the resourceful figure and protagonist known from Välmlki’s Rämäyana, a tale of considerable popularity already in the dynastic period in Tibet” (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 127, n. 329).

Additionally, the Chinese of Sichuan also have stories regarding primates fathering human children. A body of Han and Tang dynasty tales that heavily influenced the creation of Sun Wukong describes magic white apes (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnapping and impregnating young woman. One example appears in both Zhang Hua’s Encyclopedic Records of Things (Bowuzhi, 博物志, c. 290) and the Records of Spirits (Soushenji, 搜神記, c. 340):

In the high mountains of southwestern Shu [Sichuan and Tibet] there is an animal resembling the monkey. It is seven feet in height, it can imitate the ways of human beings and is able to run fast in pursuit of them. It is named Jia-guo 猳國 or Ma-hua 馬化; some call it Jue 貜. It watches out for young women travelling on the road and seizes and bears them away without anyone being aware of it. If travelers are due to pass in its vicinity they lead one another by a long robe, but even this fails to avert disaster. The beast is able to distinguish between the smell of men and women and can thus pick out the women and leave the men. Having abducted a man’s wife or daughter it makes her its own wife. Women that fail to bear its children can never return for the rest of their lives, and after ten years they come to resemble the beast in appearance, their minds become confused, and they no longer think of return. Those that bear sons return to their homes with the infants in their arms. The sons are all like men in appearance. If any refuse to rear them, the mothers die. So the women go in fear of the beast, and none dares refuse to bring up her son. Grown up, the sons are no different from men, and they all take the surname Yang 楊, which is why there are so many people by that name now in the south west of Shu: they are mostly descended from the Jia-guo or Ma-hua (Wu, 1987, pp. 91-92).

I find the last part fascinating because it states the inhabitants of the Sichuan-Tibet region were fathered by the ape. This recalls the Tibetan, Qiang, and Miao tales of humans descending from monkeys. It also suggests the aforementioned ethnic stories about a primate progenitor stretch back to the early part of the first millennium.


1) Graham (1958) notes the headdress is one of eleven sacred implements of the Qiang shaman. He provides a detailed description of the hat’s significance.

This is made of a golden-haired monkey skin and is believed to be very efficacious, greatly adding to the dignity and potency of the priest and his ceremonies. The eyes and ears of the monkey are left on, and the tail is sewed on at the back. The eyes enable the hat to see and the ears to hear, and add to the efficiency of the hat. The tail also adds to its efficiency. The front of the hat is ornamented with old cowry shells arranged in ornamental designs, one or two polished white bones that are said to be the kneecaps of tigers, and sometimes with carved sea shells. These ornaments improve the looks of the hat and also add to its efficiency. Other ornaments believed to add efficiency when used are two cloth pennants, one or two small circular brass mirrors, and one or two small brass horse bells much like sleigh bells, on which the Chinese character wang 王 meaning king is carved. Near Wen-ch’uan the priests sometimes assist the magistrate in praying for rain and in turn are presented with a small, thin silver plaque to be worn on the hat, on which is stamped the Chinese word shang 賞, or “reward.” This plaque also adds dignity and efficiency (pp. 55-56).

2) The Qiang reverence for these stones is tied to the aforementioned conflict with neighboring tribes. For example, legend states the great heavenly ancestor of the Qiang sent them three white stones to aid in their battle with a neighboring tribe, transforming them into mountains from which weapons were made. Another legend claims these stones help the Qiang make fire (Yu, 2004, pp. 156-157). These white stones often appear on buildings (both temples and houses), walls, altars, and graves in Qiang society (Graham, 1958, p. 103).

3) The original paper reads, “…in the Han Chinese novel Xiyu ji (Journey to the West, 1982)…” I have corrected the typos.

4) The colors red, white, and black signify the class of magic (good vs. dark), though shamans often inhabit all three roles (Graham, 1958, p. 54).

5) Sacred groves are home to a village’s temple and white stone altar, where many rituals are performed at night and in the early morning (Graham, 1958, p. 64).

6) A Chinese version of the tale can be read here. This forum has scans of an illustrated bilingual book presenting a different version of the tale.

7) Another version of the tale appears in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, 14th-century). An annotated translation can be read in Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, pp. 125-133.


Academia Sinica. (n.d.). A Brief Introduction to the Qiang People – Religion. Retrieved from

Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, & Sørensen, P. K. (1994). The mirror illuminating the royal genealogies: Tibetan buddhist historiography : an annotated translation of the XIVth century Tibetan chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Chattopadhyaya, A., & Chimpa. (2011). Atīśa and Tibet: Life and works of Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (alias Atīśa) in relation to the history and religion of Tibet, with Tibetan sources. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Graham, D. C. (1958). The customs and religion of the Ch’iang. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from

Oppitz, M. (2004). Ritual objects of the Qiang shamans. Res: Anthropology and aesthetics, 45, 10-46. Retrieved from

Rockhill, W. W. (1891). The land of the lamas: Notes of a journey through China, Mongolia and Tibet with maps and illustrations. New York: Century Co.

Stein, R. A. (1972). Tibetan civilization. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Wang, M. (2002). Searching for Qiang culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Inner Asia, 4(1), 131-148. Retrieved from

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yu, S. (2004). Sacrifice to the Mountain: A Ritual Performance of the Qiang Minority People in China. TDR 48(4), 155-166. Retrieved from

The Great Sage Purple Cloud Temple of Yilan, Taiwan: A Photo Essay

I recently visited another Great Sage temple, this time the Wujian Purple Cloud Temple (Wujian Ziyu si, 五間紫雲寺) of Yilan (宜蘭), Taiwan. The temple was bustling with people during the Chinese New Year celebrations, so I didn’t have time to ask many questions. This entry will serve more as a picture essay until I return to conduct proper research.

1. History

Legend has it that around 1899 a man found a monkey-shaped stone and enshrined it in a thatched shed. This was eventually converted to a temple a few years later. It was destroyed by a typhoon in 1960 but subsequently rebuilt. The temple appears to recognize a trinity, with countless monkey soldiers beneath them. The Great Sage has two aspects: the “Martial Great Sage” (Wu Dasheng, 武大聖) (standing statues), who exorcises evil, and the “Civil Great Sage” (Wen Dasheng, 文大聖) (seated statues), who insures the safety of people and animals.

2. How to get there

(Note: Always consult google if you are directionally challenged like myself)

Address: No. 449, Section 3, Dafu Road, Zhuangwei Township, Yilan County, Taiwan, 263

I took bus #1571 (google calls it #1571A) from gate 15 of the Taiwan City Hall Bus Station. This heads towards the Yilan Bus Station. (If you plan to take this route, please note that buses headed to different areas of Yilan will board from this gate. So pay very close attention to the calls of the bus station attendant. For example, they called “Jiaoxi” (礁溪) (bus #1572), a small township in Yilan, and those waiting for another destination had to stand off to the side while those from different sections of the line made their way to the front. If you aren’t careful, you might end up on the wrong bus.) My destination was the first stop, the Zhuangwei (壯圍) bus stop, a small shelter by an overpass. My short walk to the temple took me passed rows of flooded rice fields and small patches of buildings.

(Click images for larger versions)


Gate 15 at the Taiwan City Hall Bus Station.


The Zhuangwei bus stop shelter (as seen from the opposite outgoing bus stop).

1a - Map to Purple Cloud Temple

The route map from the Zhuangwei bus stop to the temple.


Random rice fields along Gonglao Road (see map).


A panorama of a rice field next to Lane 423, Sect. 3, Dafu Road (see map). 

3. The Outside

The temple is located on the side of a busy road. It appears almost out of nowhere since the face of the holy structure is in line with the buildings on either side. The first thing that caught my eye was the highly ornate roof of the furnace covered in mythical creatures, divine heroes, and gods, features typical of South Chinese and Taiwanese temple architecture. Each face of the hexagonal body was covered with beautiful carvings on black marble, two of which included the pilgrims from Journey to the West.


The furnace visible on the left side of the temple (as seen from the road).


A marble carving of Guanyin, the White Dragon Horse, Monkey, and Tripitaka.


A detail of Monkey.


Monkey, Sha Wujing, Tripitaka on the White Dragon Horse, and Zhu Bajie.


A detail of the group.

The front of the temple houses an ornate statue of three brightly colored dragons enclosed in a fence. Looking up, I noticed beautiful hand-painted dragons and Qilin on the ceiling, along with paintings of events from Chinese mythology and Journey to the West on the cross beams. Walking towards one of the five entrances, I noticed the facade was covered in highly detailed stone carvings, some depicting events from the novel.


The front of the Purple Cloud Temple.


The front of the temple. Three of the five entrances are visible behind the dragons.


A detail of the three dragon statues.


Five hand-painted dragons on the ceiling. The Eight Immortals grace the crossbeam below. 


A pair of Qilin on the ceiling. The cross beam below portrays an event from Prince Nezha‘s life.


Zhu Bajie protecting his master from the ogre that will become Sha Wujing.


Monkey escaping from Laozi’s furnace.

24 - BW

A stone carving on the facade showing Monkey (top right), Zhu bajie (top center right), and Sha Wujing (center left) battling a monster (top left). The image has been enhanced for clarity.

25 - BW

Monkey (center) battling the heavenly army. Enhanced for clarity. 

26 - BW

Monkey (center) leaping from Laozi’s furnace. Enhanced for clarity. Apologies for the blur. 

28 - BW

A detail of Monkey leaping.

29 - BW

The Great Sage (top center) and his monkey army battling heaven. Enhanced for clarity. These are just a few of the many carvings covering the temple facade. 

4. The Inside

The interior hall is wide yet shallow in depth and split between three altars, Folk religion to the right, the Great Sage in the Center, and Daoist to the left. I must admit in my zeal to photograph anything Monkey-related, I completely forgot to take pictures of the other two sections. This online image shows the folk section includes Mazu, Budai, and other deities. This image shows the Daoist section includes the Jade emperor, the Earth god, and others. Surprisingly, the incense burner in front of the main entrance was not marked with the name of the Great Sage (unlike what I’ve seen at other such temples) but that of the Jade Emperor, 玉皇上帝 (Yuhuang shangdi).


The main hall.


The incense burner bearing the name of the Jade Emperor (visible from the hall looking out the main door).

Upon entering the right side of the main hall, the first thing that caught my eye was a large wooden sculpture of a tree-bound monkey holding onto a branch with one hand and a pair of peaches in the other. Immediately behind him was a stone carving of a vague monkey with two children. (I’m not sure of the ritual importance of either statue. I’ll report on this later. However, I will say the stone statue recalls Sun Wukong’s origins as a stone monkey.) Next to both statues is one of two cylindrical towers, one positioned on each end of the hall. Each is topped by a Great Sage statue and the towers themselves are comprised of hundreds of small compartments, each filled with a small Great Sage figure. These represent a donor who has given money to the temple.


The wooden monkey statue.


A detail of the monkey holding peaches.


The stone monkey with children.


The tower of donor Great Sages.


The Great Sage topping each tower. He holds a fly whisk in one hand and a peach of immortality in the other.


The many compartments.


A mini Great Sage donor figure. He sits on a throne with his staff held over head in one hand and a calabash gourd held to his front in the other. 

4.1. The Great Sage Altar

The central offering table to the Great Sage was covered in all sorts of fruits, candies, and flowers. Also included were an incense burner, offerings of wine, and a pair of crescent moon-shaped wooden blocks. These blocks are used in tandem with fortune sticks and oracles revealed on slips of paper, all of which are housed in a metal cylinder to the left of the table (see section three of this article on how these items are used).


The table laden with offerings. Take note of the young woman praying to the Great Sage. She told me that she was from Vietnam and that Monkey was not a common deity there.


The incense burner (back center), tea offerings (three cups visible in the center) and wooden blocks (front right).


The metal cylinder housing the fortune sticks (top), with the corresponding oracles located in each of the surrounding drawers.

Like in other parts of Taiwan and Singapore, this temple appears to recognize a plethora of Great Sages, from a holy trinity to an army of soldier monkeys. (I don’t yet know their individual names. I will report on this later.) All of the Great Sage figures are portrayed with golden armor, red-painted humanoid faces, golden fillets, and long, dark hair. The headband and long hair are no doubt influenced by depictions of Military Monks (Wuseng, 武僧) from Chinese opera (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328). Red face paint is also associated with such characters (Bonds, 2008, p. 211). While the red paint of the statues references the red faces of macaque monkeys, it definitely plays into the military monk personna. Portraying Monkey as such defines him as a divine warrior and a guardian deity.

Military Monk - Beijing Opera (Bonds, 2008)

A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (Bonds, 2008, p. 178).

I was pleasantly surprised to see statues of Zhu Bajie appear among the Great Sage’s army. It’s quite appropriate given this is the year of the pig according to the Chinese zodiac. Also included were statues of Ksitigarbha and Nezha.


The three main Great Sages visible in front of the ornate dragon statue. Note the long hair.


Statues of Zhu Bajie among Monkey’s soldiers.


More soldier monkeys. Take note of the Ksitigarbha (front right).


Nezha figures mixed in with the monkey soldiers (left).


This soldier monkey holds a calabash gourd at the ready.


More Nezha figures among the soldiers (right).

I have more pictures of the interior but I’ll leave those for a later article. Lastly, I want to share one of the temple flags stationed opposite the main building.


(Left) “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”. (Right) “(Yi)lan Wujian Purple Cloud Temple”.


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

Archive #8 – Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey

I previously posted a paper that explores the evidence connecting Sun Wukong with the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Here, I present a wonderful book that explores Hanuman’s origins, worship, and popular image.


This book offers a comprehensive introduction to one of the most beloved and widely worshiped of Hindu deities: the “monkey-god” Hanuman. It details the historical expansion of Hanuman’s religious status beyond his role as helper to Rama and Sita, the divine hero and heroine of the ancient Ramayana storytelling tradition. Additionally, it surveys contemporary popular literature and folklore through which Hanuman’s mythological biography is celebrated, and describes a range of religious sites and practices that highlight different aspects of his persona. Emphasizing Hanuman’s role as a “liminal” deity who combines animal, human, and divine qualities, and as a “middle-class” god within the Hindu pantheon, the book argues that such mediatory status has made Hanuman especially appealing to upwardly-mobile social groups as well as to Hindus of many sectarian persuasions.

Book link

Hanuman's tale


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

My Sun Wukong Art – “The Buddha has Awakened”

At the end of chapter 100, Tripitaka and his disciples are elevated in spiritual rank as a reward for their hardwon quest to retrieve scriptures from India. Pigsy becomes an altar cleaner, Sandy becomes a Luohan (Buddhist saint), and the priest and Sun both become Buddhas. This paragraph describes what the Buddha says to Monkey upon his ascension:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife” [Dou zhangsheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

Despite this promotion, Sun still dreads the magic golden headband might be used on him. But he soon learns the heaven-sent punishment has disappeared once he became an enlightened being, denoting the internalization of self-restraint:

As the various Buddhas gave praise to the great dharma of Tathagata, Pilgrim Sun said also to the Tang Monk, “Master, I’ve become a Buddha now, just like you. It can’t be that I still must wear a golden fillet! And you wouldn’t want to clamp my head still by reciting that so-called Tight-Fillet Spell, would you? Recite the Loose-Fillet Spell quickly and get it off my head. I’m going to smash it to pieces, so that that so-called Bodhisattva can’t use it anymore to play tricks on other people.”

“Because you were difficult to control previously,” said the Tang Monk, “this method had to be used to restrain you. Now that you have become a Buddha, naturally it will be gone. How could it be still on your head? Try touching your head and see.” Pilgrim raised his hand and felt along his head, and indeed the fillet had vanished (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 382-383).


Fig. 1 – Wooden sculpture of the monk Baozhi, 12th-century, Saiho Temple, Kyoto, Japan.

I’ve always wanted to create a piece of digital art portraying Monkey’s ascension and loss of his headband but never knew how to depict both events in the same picture. That is until a few days ago when I came across a beautiful 12th-century Japanese wooden sculpture of the Chan Buddhist monk Baozhi (Jp: Hoshi; K: Poji, 保志/寶志, 418–514) (fig. 1). The piece depicts “the monk’s face in supernatural corporeal transformation, splitting open to reveal the face of the numinous Eleven-Headed Kannon [Guanyin],” symbolizing his enlightenment (Levine, 2005, p. 72). I felt the statue was the best expression of enlightenment that I’ve ever seen. I later discovered the historical Baozhi was known for his ever youthful appearance, carrying a fanciful staff, and working magical miracles (Robert & David, 2013, p. 98; Ebrey, 1993, pp. 100-102), much like our hero. I therefore knew this piece would be the model from which I’d create my art.

This is the final product created in Photoshop CS6 (fig. 2). The piece is comprised of 15 layers using eight different pictures. It took roughly two days working on and off during free time. The screaming face of the angry immortal splits open, giving way to the serene Buddha beneath. The sparks at the top represent the headband violently snapping open since it is no longer needed. Rays of spiritual light shine from the urna on Monkey’s forehead.

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – The Buddha has Awakened (larger version). By the author.


Ebrey, P. B. (1993). Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd Ed. New York: Free Press.

Levine, G. P. A. (2005). Daitokuji: The visual cultures of a Zen monastery. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 4. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

The Story of the Original Golden Headband in the Great Sage Treasure Temple, Kowloon, Hong Kong

I recently attended the birthday of Sun Wukong on September 25th (the 16th day of the 8th lunar month) in Kowloon, Hong Kong (I’ll write more about this later). While the festivities took place at an alternate location with a secondary altar, I later visited the main altar in the Great Sage Treasure Temple (Dasheng bao miao, 大聖寶廟) on the Po Tat Estate. The altar stage includes a large gilded statue of Wukong, flanked on either side by those of his religious brothers Sha Wujing and Zhu Bajie. Strangely enough, a glass box is conspicuously placed in front of the Monkey King’s visage (fig. 1). Inside is a rusted metal band held together with a single chain link (fig. 2). An accompanying text panel labels it the “Golden Headband” (Jingang gu, 金剛箍) and claims the piece to be the original band worn by the Great Sage during his adventures. This same text is echoed in the Kowloon Great Sage Buddha Hall: Special Inaugural Ceremony Issue of the Sixteenth Year Council Association (Jiulong Dasheng Fo tang: Di shiliu jie lishi hui jiu shi dianli tekan, 九龍大聖佛堂: 第十六屆理事會就識典禮特刊) (2014), a booklet handed out during this year’s festivities. [1]


Fig. 1 – The glass box is visible between the food offerings and the Great Sage’s statue (larger version). Photo by the author.

From Childhood, I believe that everyone has read the story of the golden headband from Journey to the West. Everyone is familiar with the tale. A few decades later [after the events took place], some Buddhists were invited to a Buddhist statue workshop in Shanwei [City, Guangdong Province, China] to see if the Buddha statue they ordered was finished. But when they saw the statue they found it full of flaws. Suddenly, one among them spoke up and said it wasn’t made well enough. The Buddhist statue workshop master asked not to be chastised and said he instead wanted to give them a treasure. They asked him what it was. When he handed it to them they saw it was the Great Sage Buddha’s [original] golden headband.

People say that when Sun Wukong would not accept the Buddhist teachings, Guanyin put the band on his head. Sun Wukong ran side to side while yelling, trying to take it off and throw it far away to some unknown place [but couldn’t].

Many years later, maybe until ten years ago, a virtuous man purchased a sandalwood tree in order to build a Great Sage Buddha statue. He gave it to a Buddhist statue workshop master, who started to saw the tree but soon discovered the golden headband inside and decided to keep it for himself. Two years later, he decided to return it so everyone could behold this sacred treasure. Today, we asked the Buddhist workshop master to make a glass box to display the band in the Great Sage Temple for everyone to worship (p. 45). [2]


Fig. 2 – The glass box with the headband. The accompanying text panel can be seen in the back (larger version). Photo by the author.

Chapter 100 of the original novel describes the headband disappearing once Monkey internalizes self-restraint and becomes a Buddha (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 383). The ultimate fate of the band is never commented on thereafter. The above story presents a continuation of the tale, thereby linking the Great Sage Treasure Temple with the original events of the novel. The band is lost and discovered twice over the centuries, eventually coming to rest in Hong Kong.

Similarities with Shaolin art

The displayed headband appears to be quite old given the level of rust damage. In addition, the style is different than any band I’ve written about before. That being said, the style is somewhat similar to a 17th-century mural from the famed Shaolin Monastery. The mural depicts a muscular luohan wielding a staff and standing next to a ferocious tiger (possibly the Tiger-Taming Luohan). His crown is adorned with a headband held together by a single chain link (fig. 3) similar to our aforementioned band. I am by no means claiming a connection to Shaolin, but it shows there may have been some style of linked headband associated with protector deities in late dynastic China.

17th-Century Shaolin Fresco

Fig. 3 – The 17th-century Shaolin mural (larger version). Take note of the linked headband. From Shahar, 2008, p. 90.


1) The presented folk story is as told by the Kowloon Great Sage Buddha Hall First Vice-Chairperson Qian Peiqun (錢佩群).

2) Thank you to Kelly Black Lin for helping me with the translation.


Kowloon Great Sage Buddha hall: Special inaugural ceremony issue of the sixteenth year Council association (2014, Sept. 9). Published by the Hong Kong Shanwei General Commerce Association Limited.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #2 – The Great Sage chapter from Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore (1955)

Here I present a chapter about the worship of the Great Sage from the ethnography Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore (1955) by Alan J. A. Elliott. Aspects of the cult are similar to those mentioned in my previous article about the Wanfu Temple (Tainan, Taiwan), while others are different. For instance, body mortification appears to be a normal aspect of the Spirit Medium’s process. The chapter contains images of mediums with skewers through their cheeks, for example. Mortification in Wanfu is only on special occasions. For instance, here is a video where Wanfu’s spirit medium draws blood by lightly pummeling himself with spiked clubs. This took place during the “opening doors” ceremony when the temple was reopened after renovations were completed in 2014.

PDF Link:

The pdf was put together quickly to aid a friend in need of research material. It is comprised of quick smartphone photos. I currently do not have access to a scanner.

Click to access chinese-spirit-medium-cults-in-singapore-great-sage-chapter.pdf


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese spirit-medium cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

What Does Sun Wukong Look Like? A Resource for Artists and Cosplayers

Last updated: 02/02/2021

Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.

1. Ancient Depictions

Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century. [1] But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling, [2] records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains an 11th-century (Xixia dynasty) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2, 11th-c. - Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim praying to Guanyin - small

Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.

Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains an 11th to 12th-century wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).

Yulin Cave 3 full with detail for article - small

Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the 11th to 12th-century Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).

Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 11th-century. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.

A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河],
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.

I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).

The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted this size could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.

2. What the novel says

2.1. Physical appearance

The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subhuti, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].” [3] After he returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).

In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [the Rhesus macaque]” (fig. 6) (p. 148).

Male macaques during mating season (for What Does Sun Wukong Look Like article)

Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.

In chapter 20, the reader learns that Monkey’s head is bald (fig. 7). An old man asks him: “…why did you shave your hair to become a monk?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).

In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)

His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)

Baby baboon with goldedn fillet - small

Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).

Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).

In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:

A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing;
A round head and a hairy face jowl-less;
Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly;
He looks more strange than [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).

In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).

In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:

A hairy face, a thunder god beak,
An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s;
Two forked ears on a big, broad head,
And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:

“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

In chapter 77, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:

You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).

We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).

Macaque features and skinny body for article

Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.

2.2 Clothing and accessories

The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.

The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:

“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).

Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).

Armor pics

Fig. 10 – Ming chainmail from the Wubei zhi (1621) (larger version). Fig. 11 – A woodblock print of Sun wearing mountain pattern armor while fighting the heavenly army (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century, “Mr. Li’s Criticism” hereafter). Fig. 12 – A detail of halberd-bearing soldiers wearing mountain pattern armor and feather caps from The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (16th-century) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 13 – Monkey as portrayed in Beijing Opera (larger version). Photo by TAO Images Limited via Alamy. Fig. 14 – A 16th-century brass statue of Skanda (larger version). This blog has photos from all sides. Fig. 15 – A modern example of a Purple Gold Cap (larger version). 

Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:

Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)

Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One sixteenth-century woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).

Monkey escaping from Laozi's 8 trigrams furnace - from Mr. Li Zhuowu's Literary Criticism of Xiyouji, later 16th-early 17th-c. - small

Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late 16th-c.).

The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 17). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:

[Slit] the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece … He cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

Monkey King Kicking - small

Fig. 17 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.

Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 11th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 18). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 19). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 and Yulin Cave no. 3 - Heads

Fig. 18 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 19 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237) (larger version).

As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:

His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).

This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.

There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.

2.3. The staff

Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:

Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [hei tie, 黑鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,550 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). [4]

A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:

The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself. [5]
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍]
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒],
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)

So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.

Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 20 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.

sun_wukong_staff_inscription___enlarged_by_ghostexorcist-d7681eb - small

Fig. 20 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).

As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.

3. Popular depictions

The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.

3.1. The least accurate

1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 21). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.


Fig. 21 – “Do you even lift?” Wukong (larger version).

2) Warriors Orochi video game – Mutton chops, frosted tips, and an outfit borrowed from Prince’s wardrobe (fig. 22). Words fail me.


Fig. 22 – “Backup Dancer” Wukong (larger version).

3) The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) – Jet Li has a blond ponytail, mutton chops, and a soul patch (fig. 23). Need I say more?


Fig. 23 – “L’Oréal Paris” Wukong (larger version).

3.2. The most accurate

1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 20).

116.19L - small

Fig. 24 – Wukong salutes Xuanzang (larger version).

2) Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) – This dark comedy depicts the Great Sage as a short, ugly primate wearing golden armor (fig. 25).

Conquer monkey - small

Fig. 25 – Wukong prior to becoming Xuanzang’s disciple (larger version).

3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 26).

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Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).

4. Conclusion

The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.

I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.

Update: 08/31/2018

My friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information (fig. 27). As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.

Fig. 27 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Slightly modified by the author to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here.

Update: 02/02/2021

As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact”. I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.

Fig. 28 – Size chart (larger version).


1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.

2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.

3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

4) Anthony Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “13,500 pounds”. However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty”. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs.

5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).


Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Dubue, C., Allen, W. L., Maestripieri, D., & Higham, J. P. (2014). Is Male Rhesus Macaque Red Color Ornamentation Attractive to Females? Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 68(7), 1-10. Retrieved from

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Elvin, M. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of how the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Worship of Sun Wukong in Wanfu Temple: Initial Findings

Last updated: 07/21/2020

As a historian of the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592), much of my time researching is spent flipping through piles of books or searching the internet. Rarely do I get the opportunity to conduct field research on living traditions connected with the novel. That’s why I was excited to learn of the Buddho-Daoist Wanfu temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵) (fig. 1 and 2) in Tainan, Taiwan where they worship Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖). This happened to coincide with a short break from school, allowing me time to travel. I left Taipei where I live and stayed in the West Central District of the southern municipality. My afternoon was spent independently touring both floors of the recently renovated temple and taking numerous photos, all of which can be seen on my google drive. I had originally planned to catch the train home that evening, but was so intrigued by what I saw that I delayed my return another day. After making introductions, my second afternoon was spent asking questions about pantheon structure, rituals, general beliefs, etc. I was invited back that evening to record their spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage.

Below I present my initial findings. I realize a day is obviously not enough time for observation, so the following information should be looked upon as an informal survey. However, I still feel this material is important, not only because few scholars writing in English have published on the worship of Sun Wukong, but also because it helps flesh out the ongoing history of his veneration going back to at least the 17th-century. [1]

Exterior and entrance

Fig. 1 – Wanfu temple exterior (larger version). Fig. 2 – The entrance (larger version).

1. Temple History

Wanfu is touted as the oldest temple dedicated to the Great Sage in all of Taiwan. It was originally a mansion built during the early 1660s for Ruan Jun (阮駿), a subordinate of the famous Southern Ming Dynasty General Koxinga. His widow Lady Ruan (阮夫人) is said to have lived out the rest of her days there in religious piety, and following her death, the mansion was converted into a house of worship called the Lady Ruan Temple (Ruan Furen si, 阮夫人寺). The name was subsequently changed to “Myriad Blessings” (Wanfu, 萬福) in the 11th year of the Jiaqing reign (1806) during a time when the temple was known for taking in orphans. The change was made by nuns who believed the children benefited from the blessings of an old stone Great Sage statue thought to have been brought over from Fujian by Lady Ruan when she and thousands of other people fled the invading Qing forces to Taiwan. Sun Wukong’s influence over the temple grew to the point that, while still officially known as Wanfu, (fig. 3) it came to acquire the additional name of Taiwan’s Laying the [Religious] Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven Temple (Quantai Kaiji Qitian Dasheng miao, 全臺開基齊天大聖廟) (fig. 4). A second level was added to the building in 1971, and further renovations were completed in 2014.


Fig. 3 – The “Wanfu Temple” sign over the main templer doors (larver version). Fig. 4 – The neon sign on the facade reads “Wanfu temple Laying the Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (larger version).

2. Pantheon of Great Sages

One of the most interesting aspects of the temple is that it recognizes more than one Great Sage, each with his own function. Their pantheon consists of a trinity, followed by a small handful in administrative positions, and finally a plethora of soldier Monkeys. The highest-ranking is the aforementioned 300-plus-year-old stone statue named Laying the Foundations Elder Great Sage (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 5A and 8). His central importance is signified by his position atop a chair on the altar stage. He is alternatively known as the Great Sage Lord (Dasheng Ye, 大聖爺). The second and third ranking members of this trinity, respectively named Laying the Foundations Second Great Sage (Kaiji Er Dasheng, 開基二大聖) and Laying the Foundations Third Great Sage (Kaiji San Dasheng, 開基三大聖) (fig. 5B, 5C, and 8), sit to his right and left. The Elder Great Sage and the Second Great Sage remain in heaven unless some important matter requires their direct participation. The Third Great sage alternates with the administrative Tour Inspector Great Sage (see below) to see to external temple business on Saturdays.

Trio and most of admins

Fig. 5A – The Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage, the 300-year-old stone statue; 5B – The Laying the Foundation Second Great Sage; and 5C – The Laying the Foundation Third Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 6 – The Tour Inspector Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 7 – The Internal Affairs Great Sage (larger version). 

The administrative Monkeys include the large Tour Inspector Great Sage (Chuxun Dasheng, 出巡大聖) (fig. 6 and 8), who oversees activities outside the temple. He is located to the right of the trinity; the slightly larger, staff-wielding Internal Affairs Great Sage (Neiwu Zongguan Dasheng, 内務總管大聖) (fig. 7 and 8) serves as a manager to lower-ranking Monkeys. He is located to the left of the trinity; and the Sergeant Great Sage (Shiguan Dasheng, 士官大聖) (fig. 9) serves as the temple director. This comparatively small statue sits behind a magistrate’s bench below the altar stage, just behind the offerings table.

altar statues and sergeant great sage

Fig. 8 – The altar stage layout, with the most important Great Sages labeled (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Sergeant Great Sage sitting at a magistrate’s bench (larger version). 

In addition, the Elder Great Sage has at his disposal a group of powerful commanders known as the Five Camps Celestial Generals (Wuying Bingjiang, 五營兵將), who protect the five cardinal directions. These are the black Northern Camp Sage Lian Gong (Beiying Lian Gong Shengzhe, 北營連公聖者); the blue/green Eastern Camp Sage Zhang Gong (Dongying Zhang Gong Shengzhe, 東營張公聖者); the red Southern Camp Sage Xiao Gong (Nanying Xiao Gong Shengzhe, 南營蕭公聖); the white Western Camp Sage Liu Gong (Xiying Liu Gong Shengzhe, 西營劉公聖者); and the golden Central Camp Marshal of the Central Altar (Zhongying Zhong Tan Yuanshuai, 中營中壇元帥) (fig. 10). Each general in turn leads a vast heavenly army comprised of tens of thousands of soldiers. Such generals are very common to Daoist temples across Taiwan and find their origin in the 36 protector generals of Daoism (Sanshiliu Tianjiang, 三十六天將), who funny enough are led by Zhu Bajie’s previous incarnation Marshal Tianpeng (Davis, 2001, p. 78).

The position of the Great Sage pantheon in relation to the wider Buddho-Daoist pantheon mirrors that from Journey to the West. Despite his central position in Wanfu’s religious life, the Great Sage is still considered subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音), whose birthday was being celebrated on the second day of my visit with a vegetarian meal open to all. In fact, the temple’s second floor Three Jewels Hall (Sanbao Dian, 三寶殿) contains statues of the Buddha and flanking Bodhisattvas raised on an altar stage, with a statue of Guanyin placed in front of and almost at the same level as the Enlightened One (fig. 11). This shows her great importance.

Soldiers and Guanyin

Fig. 10 – Two sets of the Five Camps Celestial Generals can be seen. Their colors of black, blue/green, red, white, and gold help distinguish each one (larger version). Fig. 11 – The statue of Guanyin sitting in front of and almost at the same level of the Buddha (larger version). The goddess Mazu sits in front of Guanyin. From the second floor Three Jewels Hall.

3. Worshiping the Great Sage and requesting blessings

When the faithful come to pray, they often stand directly in line with the center of the altar, (fig. 12) with hands pressed and set against their forehead (or chest), or they light a grouping of three incense sticks, kneel on the praying couch, and hold the sticks up to their forehead (or chest) with elbows level, often rhythmically bobbing their arms or upper torso (fig. 13). The procedure for making a request has three steps. First, adherents greet the Great Sage and say their full name, lunar birthday (and time if known), and their address. This is done because many people have names spelled with the exact same Chinese characters. The step insures the Great Sage answers the right prayers for the right person. Second, they wish for health, wealth, good luck, removal of a negative influence, etc. Third, they later burn spirit money to repay Monkey’s generosity. This form of prayer is for those who don’t mind waiting for a response.

For those seeking an immediate response, the temple employs a pair of crescent moon-shaped wooden blocks known as “bamboo cups” (jiaobei, 筊杯) (fig. 8) for divination purposes. The procedure starts the same with the greeting and personal information, but the cups are grasped between the hands during the prayer and then dropped to the ground after a 10 minute waiting period. Like rolling spiritual dice, the faithful take note of the orientation in which the blocks fall. One side of the blocks is flat, while the other is curved. If one cup falls with the flat side upwards (open) and the other flat side down (closed), this means “yes” (shengjiao, 聖筊). If both fall upwards, this means the Great Sage is happy or “laughing” at the request (xiaojiao, 笑筊). If both fall facedown, the Great Sage is “angry” and unwilling to fulfill the request (nujiao, 怒筊) (fig. 14). The cups are thrown three times and the best two of three results are accepted as the answer.

Worship pics

Fig. 12 – The offering table and altar (larger version). Fig. 13 – A young couple praying to the Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Bamboo cups, both sitting in the “angry” response (cup down) (larger version).

Often times adherents will want more clarification, so the blocks are used in tandem with “fortune sticks” (qiuqian, 求籤). The traditional procedure is to shake the cylinder full of sticks, each marked with a number, until one falls out. (I, however, saw one young man with long, dyed hair randomly reach into the cylinder without shaking it. He also didn’t wait the required period after his prayer to drop the cups. He must have been in a hurry!) The adherent then looks up the corresponding oracle in a booklet kept on the temple’s front desk. These oracles are also available on slips of paper that can be taken and read later. The use of the bamboo cups and fortune sticks is common in other temples.

I asked one young couple associated with the temple about the exact number of members. They were unsure of the core members and especially of the number of outside worshipers. It appears the veneration of the Great Sage is so entrenched in Tainan religious society that people from other temples will come from time to time to pay their respects to Monkey.

3.1. Great Sage Spirit-Medium

The second day of my visit coincided with one of the twice weekly (Wed. and Sat.) rituals in which the temple’s spirit-medium (Hokkien: tangki, 童乩; Chinese: jitong, 乩童, lit: “divining youth”) calls down the spirit of the Great Sage to possess his body (video 1). Prior to the ritual, red ropes were used to demarcate a sacred space within the center of the altar hall. The ropes were tied to either side of the main central temple doors and stretched diagonally to the respective left and right walls of the hall, forming a V-shape, or a sort of spiritual bottleneck. Only the medium and the temple workers were allowed to inhibit this sacred space shortly before and during the ritual. The faithful seeking blessings and spectators were asked to wait on the other side of the ropes, entering through secondary doors located to the respective left and right of the main set.

Video 1 – The spirit-medium ritual.

I witnessed the medium chewing an herbal substance that was removed prior to the ritual. [2] He then proceeded to purify himself with a small pot of (psychoactive?) incense, first bathing his hands and arms in the smoke, before passing it around his head, waist, and calves. Taking hold of the pot’s handles, he began belching. This gave way to a moving trance in which he marched in place for several minutes. The arrival of the Great Sage was signaled by an audible growl and the medium lifting high one knee, taking on a martial pose like esoteric protector deities (fig. 15). After an attendant removed his shirt, he squatted low to the ground and struck another pose with arms flexed like said deities (fig. 16). Such postures serve to mark the medium’s transition from a human to a god.

The medium-turned-Great Sage displayed jovial feet clapping, followed by feats of strength, including elevated push ups and a handstand. Finally, he stood atop a wooden bench and used his weight to rock it side to side, slamming the feet down in rapid succession, producing a sound similar to firecrackers. The sound is used to scare away evil influences. I was told in advance that the medium would “do exercise” and use the bench “to make noise”, so these appear to be common aspects of the ritual.


Fig. 15 – The stance announcing the Great Sage’s arrival (left) is similar to esoteric guardian deities, such as the temple’s depiction of Wangling Tianjun (center left) (larger version). Fig. 16 – His next stance (center right) is also similar to said guardians, especially this statue based on a famous 14th-century carving of a Japanese Nio (right) (larger version).

The Great Sage welcomed the first of many children and blessed each the same with the following procedure. First, he touched the top of the incense pot and then transferred his hand to the child’s crown, doing this three times. Second, he dipped his finger into the incense and drew a line down the center of the child’s face from the forehead to the chin and onto the neck. Third, after dipping his fingers in the incense again, he traced a rectangular form on the child’s torso, possibly a symbolic fu (符) talisman, before pushing on the stomach several times to release, as I was told, “bad air” (negative qi). The same rectangle was traced on the child’s back. Fourth, the Great Sage dipped his finger in the incense and turned to the table to write out three fu talismans on yellow strips of paper, his finger often floating above the surface. One was packaged to be later burnt and the ashes combined with an included tea leaf and cold (yin) and hot (yang) water to be given to the child as a magical brew. The second was folded and put inside of a red pouch to be worn as a good luck charm (fig. 17-19). The third was lit and waved over the child’s head and around their body.

Package and charm

Fig. 17 – A baggy containing a loose fu talisman, a folded talisman inside of a red charm, and a tea leaf (larger version). This baggy was given to me when I participated in similar ritual for adults. Fig. 18 – The front of the charm reading “Tainan Wanfu Temple, safety and peace” (larger version). Fig. 19 – The back reading “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, “Guanyin/Shakyamuni”, and “Multitude of Gods and Buddhas” (larger version). 

The large number of children taking part in the ritual (many of which were not shown in the video) is, as mentioned above, tied to the temple’s history. Adherents believe the Great Sage bestows blessings on children, as well as cures them of illnesses when they are sick. [3] Additionally, they believe those taken as the Great Sage’s godchildren will be well-behaved and become well-tempered adults. [4] For those who have read the novel, this may at first appear to be a paradox—Monkey, a paragon of good behavior?!—but this no doubt refers to his internalization of self-restraint after becoming a Buddha at the end of the novel. This coincides with the disappearance of his restraint-inducing golden headband.

Numerous adults also sought the Great Sage’s blessing. Having already provided their personal information on salmon-colored prayer sheets to Temple personnel, each person in turn greeted the medium and then made their request (health, wealth, good luck, etc.). The blessing procedure was the same regarding fu talismans, complete with the third being lit and waved around the head and body. I even saw the Great Sage bless a shirt in place of an adherent who could not come in person. When interacting with the faithful, the medium spoke to them in a high-pitched voice, [5] often making people laugh with his responses. I was later informed that the language used was Taiwanese, which explains why I couldn’t understand what was being said. I too took part in the ritual and noted that the medium’s eyes were rolled back into his head. Apart from the poses at the beginning, the voice and eyes serve to mark the possessed state.

The medium has held his position at the temple for 20 years. But it should be noted that he has a normal job during the week and volunteers his time at the temple. His path to mediumship began as a young man when he started displaying certain behavior signifying he had been chosen by the Great Sage to be his earthly representative. While many mediums go through a period of training under a “Red Hat” Daoist (Hongtou Daoshi, 紅頭道士), a master of religious ceremony (Clart, 2008), I was told the methods of mediumship were revealed to him in his dreams by the Great Sage while he slept in the temple for 49 days.

3.2. Celebrating the Great Sage’s Birthday

The Monkey King’s birthday is recognized as the 12th day of the 10th lunar month and is celebrated over the course of three days. This year the birthday will correspond to November 19th. The first day of celebrations is undertaken by core temple members, while the subsequent days are undertaken by sister temples. Below is a video showing a time-lapse of a past celebration. Many people crowd the temple to pay their respects, as well as to laden the offering table with all kinds of delicious fruits and sweets. I can picture the Great Sage rolling around on the ground and laughing in delight!

Video 2 – The celebration of the Great Sage’s birthday.

His offerings are later shared with his five celestial generals in the Rewarding Soldiers ritual (Kao jun, 犒軍). This too is common in other temples.

4. Conclusion

The Buddho-Daoist Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan worships Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, who is venerated as a powerful exorcist and healer, as well as a sort of patron saint of children. The main focus of worship is a 300-plus-year old stone statue believed to have been brought over from Fujian during the turmoil of the late Ming dynasty. The temple recognizes an entire pantheon of Great Sages, from a trinity (headed by the aforementioned statue) and administrative managers down to an army of lowly soldier monkeys. Furthermore, the Great Sage has at his disposal five cardinal celestial generals and their respective armies to insure his will is done. The position of the Great Sage within the greater Buddhist pantheon is the same as in the novel. He is subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin, who is considered by Wanfu to be almost equal to the Buddha in terms of importance.

The Great Sage-adherent dynamic involves two forms of interaction, impersonal and personal. The former involves the adherent praying to the deity in heaven, sometimes using bamboo cups, fortune sticks, and corresponding oracle booklets to divine the Great Sage’s response to their request. The latter involves personal interaction with the deity via a spirit-medium. The Wanfu medium twice-weekly (Wed. and Sat.) holds a ceremony where he calls down the Great Sage and, after taking possession, the deity personally interacts with those seeking blessings. He employs magic fu talismans to bless both children and adults, the paper slip being burnt and waved around their body. The ritual for children is more involved as incense is first used to draw talismans on their body and then negative qi is released by pushing on the stomach.

I plan to revisit the temple at a later date to conduct more in-depth research into the particulars of the pantheon, as well as the ritual of the spirit-medium. Visiting during the Great Sage’s birthday, the 12th day of the 10th lunar month, would be an ideal time since it’s no doubt a time of much fanfare.

Update: 07/21/2020

Wanfu Temple’s “black command flag” (Hokkien: or leng ki; Mandarin: hei leng qi, 黑令旗) (fig. 20) is located just outside the rightmost front entrance. Elliott (1955/1990) writes command flags advertise the presence of a spirit-medium, while also serving as a warning to ghosts and demons (p. 51). Chan (2014) explains such flags are imbued with the power of the Dark Emperor of the North, considered the greatest exorcist god in Daoism, and act as a covenant between the deity and the tangki spirit-medium who leads his heavenly armies against evil (p. 34).

Fig. 20 – The Wanfu Temple black command flag (larger version). Fig. 21 – The flag legend (larger version).

Each flag is covered with arcane symbols that are usually only intelligible to the initiated. With some help, [6] I have made a near complete translation of the Wanfu black command flag (fig. 21):

  1. 雨漸耳 (yu jian er) – “Rain soaks the ears”, likely referring to a commandment from heaven.
  2. 六? (Liu ?) – The mystery character likely refers to the Six Ding (六丁), protector spirits of Daoism. They are often grouped with the Six Jia (Mugitani, 2008). This is likely connected to no. 11 below.
  3. 六甲 (Liu Jia) – Refers to the Six Jia. This is likely connected to no. 12.
  4. 北極 (Bei ji) – The “Northern Ultimate”, referring to the Dark Emperor of the North. Here, the character for “north” is split in half and “ultimate” is inserted in the middle.
  5. ?富? – Two unknown characters sandwich that for “wealth” (fu).
  6. Sun – A symbol for 陽 (yang) energy.
  7. Moon – A symbol for 陰 (yin) energy.
  8. Big Dipper – A seven-star pattern associated with Daoist ritualistic dances and purification ceremonies. See section one of my article here for more info.
  9. 風調雨順 (feng tiao yu shun) – A common Chinese idiom meaning “the wind and rain are seasonal” (i.e. the weather is good).
  10. 國泰民安 (guo tai min an) – Another common idiom. It means “the country is prosperous, and the people are secure”.
  11. 敺邪 (qu xie) – “Expel evil/disease”. This is likely connected to no. 2 above. Together it would read the “Six Ding expel evil/disease”.
  12. 押煞 (ya sha) – “Stop malicious spirits”. This is likely connected to no. 3. Together it would read the “Six Jia stop malicious spirits”.
  13. This angular symbol is the 符胆 (fu dan), the talismanic flag’s locus of power (Chan, 2014, p. 35).


1) One report from the 17th-century describes the Great Sage appearing in the clouds over the Fujian coast and beating back invading Japanese pirates during the preceding century.

2) This appears to be a common practice. In his study of Singaporean spirit-mediums, Elliott (1955/1990) writes: “Before their performances many dang-ki have been seen to chew some sort of root or sip from a cup, but it has been impossible to ascertain whether these contain stimulating substances” (p. 64).

3) The Great Sage after all is a trained doctor. His medical skills are described in chapters 68 and 69.

4. Such youths are known as “dedicated children” (khoe-kia) in Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 83).

5) Elliott (1955/1990) references the tangki‘s “shrill, artificial voice” and notes it’s “supposed to be ‘shen [神, god] language'” (p. 64).

6) I am indebted to Kelly Black Lin for helping me decipher some of the cryptic characters.


Chan, M. (2014). Tangki War Magic: The Virtuality of Spirit Warfare and the Actuality of Peace. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 58(1), 25-46. Retrieved from

Clart, P. (2008). Tang-ki (or jitong) In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 964-966). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Davis, E. L. (2001). Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

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

Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.