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 Hanumovies.com. 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

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)  

IMG_6748

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
福建省福州市鼓楼区三界寺
Sanjie Temple, Gulou District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
38H6+MP Gulou District, Fuzhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/100BSlUbbWHryQbA3PJ3MQ9Fe2HKFrGEA?usp=sharing

IMG_6054

Temple Two
26°04’10.1″N 119°19’56.1″E
福建省福州市晋安区
Eastern District Shangquan, Jin’an, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
389J+QW Jin’an, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KIgsIyvIItRwX_iUYy6SWRW1GzW6BKSB/view?usp=sharing

IMG_6161

Temple Three
26°01’46.8″N 119°15’56.1″E
福建省福州市仓山区百花洲路
Baihua Zhou Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
27H8+V6 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1EJZ6mK7iSkWNjh0ny5F0PAK_fz2Iltye?usp=sharing

IMG_6298

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

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1CIgOcXGuN7e0hrAlic41O5ZGAbzZmoX7?usp=sharing

For more pictures, see this article.

IMG_6353

Temple Five
26°02’05.1″N 119°21’10.7″E
福建省福州市仓山区后坂路
Houban Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
29M3+W5 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1vlJwCKWkEQ56mREemn6dEqXFbj-6SIh2?usp=sharing

IMG_6427

Temple Six
26°06’23.6″N 119°14’30.2″E
福建省福州市闽侯县
Unnamed Road, Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
464R+JM Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1PzTl1fY4MSMnRzEpS1OsPTQBvZBhh4o9?usp=sharing

IMG_6662

Temple Seven: 慈恩寺
26°08’54.4″N 119°08’56.9″E
福建省福州市闽侯县军民路
Junmin Rd, Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
44XX+9M Ganzhezhen, Minhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1zYxDNCUwH31uqvX7YwTJo6y_LGR4sDMH?usp=sharing

IMG_6681

Temple Eight
26°04’26.2″N 119°11’25.5″E
福建省福州市闽侯县
G316 Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
35FR+H5 Shangjiezhen, Minhou, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1P08tT7thZ8WzEaEQTuvM_8qmidyAQh4u?usp=sharing

IMG_6742

Temple Nine
26°01’49.8″N 119°17’26.7″E
福建省福州市仓山区鹭岭路163号
163 Luling Road, Cangshan District, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China
27JR+68 Cangshan, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1ViwqZumbEqbfJ8ROfpeApsKRpfcwi27q?usp=sharing

IMG_6765

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.

https://journeytothewestresearch.com/2021/02/15/qitian-dasheng-monkey-king-temples-in-taiwan/

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subhuti:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.

[…]

Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).

37e2fc9cebe000bb1c76c73e7ad2963a-d5oas0h

Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subhuti observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing 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 (fig. 5). One passage from the tale reads: 

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
[…]
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subhuti. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subhuti teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.

Notes:

1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.

Sources:

Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

Mair, V. (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. (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.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/25076127.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307

The Sun Wukong Cult in Fujian

Last update: 08-17-19

Worshipers of the Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan believe their high god and oldest altar statue, the “Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage” (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 1), was transported to the island from the southern Chinese province of Fujian by a certain Lady Ruan (Ruan Furen, 阮夫人) during the Southern Ming/early Qing Dynasty (c. 1660). Fujian is home to a large number of temples dedicated to Sun Wukong. Monkey’s cult on the mainland may have some bearing on the history of his worship on the island. This is especially true since Taiwan was made a prefecture of Fujian in 1684 by the Qing. It was later granted provincehood in 1887 (Gordon, 2007). The cult was no doubt part of the cultural exchange that took place between these two areas during this time. In this paper I use modern demographics and historical records and stories to explore the history of Sun Wukong’s worship in Fujian. I suggest the existence of a historical 12th-century monkey cult explains why the Great Sage’s cult was so readily adopted in the province.

Important Great Sages 1 - small

Fig. 1 – The Wanfu Temple’s Laying the Foundation Great Great Sage altar statue, indicated by the letter A (larger version). B and C are lesser Great Sages within the temple’s pantheon.

I. Modern demographics and possible tie to historical trends

The plains of Putian (莆田) on the central Fujian coast hosts a cluster of Great Sage temples. Dean and Zheng (2009) show the Great Sage is the sixth of the forty most popular deities, his statue appearing in 332 temples, even beating out Guanyin (322 statues) in seventh place (p. 177). Additionally, they describe an interesting geographical correlation in their distribution:

Using GIS mapping, one can unearth many suggestive correlations in distributions of different cultural features across the plain. For example, certain gods such as Qitian dasheng 齊天大聖 (Sun Wukong 孫悟空) and Puji shenghou 普濟聖侯 (Zhu Bajie 豬八戒), the Monkey and the Pig of the classic Xiyouji 西游記 (Journey to the West), appear more often in poorer villages in the northern plain [fig. 2], often in higher elevations than in the low-lying, densely irrigated, wealthier villages of the southern plains. This suggests that the unruly natures of these gods appealed to poorer communities rather than to villages with established scholar-literati lineages (Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 38-39)

Fujian Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie Temple overlay Map - small

Fig. 2 – Left: Distribution of Sun Wukong temples (red) in the Putian plains of Fujian Province, China (larger version); Right: An overlay of Zhu Bajie Temples (light blue) with those of Monkey (red) (larger version). There is quite a bit of overlap. Adapted from Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 192-193.

Sun Wukong is one of several gods who never enjoyed state patronage in dynastic China due to their eccentric or rebellious nature (Shahar, 1996, p. 185). Regarding the latter, emperors had to deal with real world challenges to their own primacy, so paying homage to, say, a dissident monkey spirit probably didn’t seem too appealing. It’s interesting to note that Monkey is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan under his defiant title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, a name he chose during his rebellion with the celestial realm, instead of his Buddhist name Wukong (悟空, “Awakened to Emptiness”) (Shahar, 1996, p. 201). Therefore, Monkey may have historically appealed to poorer folks because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored rich literati over impoverished farmers. This could explain the demographics mentioned above. If true, such people could be responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

II. The connection between religion, myth, and popular literature

Emperors who officially recognized gods helped make them more popular or at least better known. [1] But, as Shahar (1996) explains, the state’s involvement rarely went beyond building temples and making offerings. Oral tales and popular novels were largely responsible for spreading the myth of a particular deity (p. 185). He continues:

In some cases the novel’s transformation of its divine protagonist was so profound, and its impact on the shape of its cult so great, that the novelist could be considered the deity’s creator. A notable example is Sun Wukong. The cult of this divine monkey in late imperial times cannot be separated from his image as shaped by the successive Journey to the West novels. In this respect he is indeed their author’s creation, and Pu Songling‘s complaint, voiced through his protagonist Xu Sheng [許盛], is justified: “Sun Wukong is nothing but a parable invented by [the novelist] Old Qiu [老丘]. [2] How can people sincerely believe in him?” (Shahar, 1996, pp. 193-194).

The tale referred to by Shahar, titled the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi, 聊齋誌異), a collection of popular tales recorded as early as 1679 by Pu Songling and later posthumously published in 1740 (Barr, 1984). The story follows the aforementioned Xu Sheng and his older brother, both merchants from Shandong, who travel to Fujian to sell their wares but are told to pray to the Great Sage when they fail to make any money.  They visit the monkey god temple and witness people burning incense and kowtowing to an image of Sun Wukong. The older brother takes part in the rituals, but Sheng simply laughs and leaves, resulting in a subsequent argument between the two during which Sheng ridicules adherents for worshiping a fictional character from a novel. Sheng later falls bedridden with agonizing leg sores that prevent him from walking, yet he refuses to accept the Great sage is punishing him. His brother begs him to repent, but he still refuses. The brother shortly thereafter falls ill and dies, prompting Sheng to go to the temple to beg for his brother’s life. That night, he dreams he is brought before Sun Wukong, who rebukes Sheng for his rude behavior and reveals the leg sores (the result of being stabbed by Monkey’s heavenly sword) [3] and his brother’s subsequent death to be heaven-sent punishments. The deity finally agrees to revive the brother and sends an order to King Yama in hell to release his soul. Sheng shows his thanks by kneeling. He then awakes to find his brother has revived but remains too weak to work. Days later, Sheng meets an old man who claims he can use “a little magic” to transport them to a beautiful place that will sap away the merchant’s depression wrought by the past events. The two travel by cloud to a celestial paradise where Sheng and the old man drink tea with an aged deity. The god rewards Sheng with twelve magic stones for taking the time to visit him. Upon returning to earth, the merchant realizes the old man is the Great Sage, for both use the “Somersault Cloud” (Jindou yun, 筋斗雲) as a means of conveyance. In the end, the magic stones are found to have melted, but this corresponds to a drastic increase in the brothers’ selling profits. The two return home but are sure to pay their respects to the Great Sage anytime they visit Fujian for business (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, pp. 2078-2085).

I’d like to point out the story includes an afterward that critiques the idea of Sun Wukong being a real god:

The collector of these strange tales remarks, “Once upon a time, a scholar who was passing a temple went in and painted a pipa on one wall, then left; when he checked on it later, its spiritual power was considered so outstanding that people had joined together there to burn incense to it. A god certainly doesn’t have to exist in order to be considered powerful in this world; if people believe it to be divine, it will be so for them. What’s the reason for this? When people who share the same beliefs gather together, they’ll choose some creature figure to represent those beliefs. It’s right that an outspoken man like Sheng should be blessed by the god; who else could believe for real that he’s protected by someone who keeps an embroidery needle inside his ear, who he can transform one of his hairs into a writing brush, or who ascends via cloud-somersault into the cerulean sky! In the end, Sheng’s mind must have deluded him, for what he saw simply couldn’t be true” (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2085)

This shows that, while the common folk believed in Monkey, the literati class scoffed at such an idea. This again may explain why, as mentioned above, more well-educated communities in modern Fujian do not widely worship Monkey.

III. Historical monkey cults in Fujian

Apart from Pu Songling’s story, there are two other 17th-century references to the worship of a monkey god in Fujian. Dudbridge (1970) explains:

According to You Dong [尤侗] (1618-1704) the citizens of Fuzhou worshiped Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] as a household god and built temples to the monkey-god Qitian Dasheng. Tong Shisi [佟世思] (1651-92) describes the monkey-headed god of Fujian as bearing a metal circlet about his forehead, brandishing an iron cudgel, wearing a tiger-skin and known as Sun Dasheng [孫大聖, Great Sage Sun]. Traditionally he had appeared in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates (p. 158). [4]

I find the last reference particularly interesting because it refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by Japanese pirates. It depicts the Great Sage as a benevolent god who intervenes to protect his chosen people, the Chinese.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 1237 stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian, that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). [5] Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a fillet, a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and a pair of bangles (Fig. 3). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet and the figure wearing it recall South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Walker, 1998, p. 70). I have suggested in a previous article that the accouterments worn by the warrior are instead based on Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century.

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 3 – The 1237 stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

The oldest known evidence for a cult based around a monkey is described in Hong Mai’s (洪邁, 1123-1202) the Record of the Listener (Yijian zhi, 夷堅志, c. 1160), a collection of supernatural tales from the Song Dynasty. The following story is said to take place in the Yongfu County of Fujian. Again, we turn to Dudbridge (2005):

The image [effigy], dubbed Monkey King 猴王, was shaped around a captured living monkey and worshipped as a ‘spirit protecting hills and woods’ (保山林神). [6] It afflicted the surrounding population with fevers and frenzy. Blood sacrifice won no relief. Shamans and monks assaulted the spirit by night with noisy ritual music, but to no effect. Only the Buddhist elder Zongyan 宗演 successfully admonished the resentful monkey spirit and wrought its deliverance by reciting in Sanskrit the dhāraṇī of the All-Compassionate (大悲咒). The grateful monkey appeared to him the same night, explaining that she was now able to rise to heaven. Later the image and its thirty-two attendants (all made from birds) were smashed, and the hauntings came to an end (p. 264; see also Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159).

Dudbridge (1970) is reluctant, however, to accept this as a precursor to Sun Wukong’s cult, especially since both this 12th-century monkey spirit and the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou Xingzhe, 猴行者) from the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, a 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West, bear little resemblance to the simian god mentioned in 17th-century records. He instead suggests the Great Sage’s cult could have grown up around stories connected to the publishing of the novel (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159). While Journey to the West certainly played a sizable role in the spread of Monkey’s cult, I think the above tale shows that the Fujian area was already primed for monkey worship by at least the 12th-century. Most importantly, the noted Song dynasty poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269), whose family hailed from the Fujian city of Putian (mentioned in section one) (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), referenced the Monkey pilgrim twice in his 13th-century work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old poet’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,
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

This shows the character’s story cycle was so well-known in Fujian at this time that no other specifics from the oral tradition had to be mentioned. Therefore, stories of the early monkey cult and those of Sun Wukong could have existed in Fujian around the same time. It’s not entirely impossible then that the historical monkey worship in the province gave the cult of the Great Sage, whenever it first appeared, a boost. This might explain why a so-called literary character would come to be so readily worshiped in the province.

IV. Conclusion

Taiwan has close ties to the southern Chinese province of Fujian because the former was made a prefecture of the latter during the 17th-century. The province is home to a large number of temples dedicated to the Monkey King, so this is no doubt connected to the spread of his cult to the island nation. Modern GIS mapping in Fujian suggests Sun Wukong’s temples mainly inhabit the northern highlands of the Putian plains where poorer villages reside. Monkey’s cult never received royal patronage in dynastic China due to his rebellious nature. The fact that he is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan by his rebellious title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven suggests Monkey may have historically appealed to the poorer class because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored the rich over the destitute. If true, these could be the people responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

The mythos of Monkey’s cult was spread thanks to oral tales and popular literature. His mythos became so inseparable from the novel that the scholar class looked upon him as a literary character that jumped from the pages of fiction to be worshiped as a god. An example of this viewpoint appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (written c. 17th-cent.) in which a skeptical merchant only becomes an adherent of the Great Sage after he and his brother are punished with painful sores and death, respectively. The author of the tale comments the merchant was probably delusional to fall for such a belief. This scholarly disdain for such literary gods may then explain why the more well-educated villages in Putian don’t widely worship Sun Wukong today.

Other 17th-century sources referring to Monkey’s Fujian cult portray him as a headband-wearing, cudgel-wielding benevolent god who comes to the aid of the Chinese people. A 13th-century stone relief located on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou depicts a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior wearing a fillet. While past scholarship has posited a South and Southeast Asian origin for the figure’s iconography, my research suggests it to be based on esoteric ritual accouterments known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century. The oldest evidence for such a cult appears in Hong Mai’s Record of the Listener, a 12th-century collection of supernatural tales. It refers to a malevolent simian god worshiped as the “Spirit protecting hills and woods” that spread fever and was eventually pacified by a Buddhist monk. This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship by the 12th-century, and the fact that the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Sun Wukong’s original name) is mentioned in the secular works of the Putian poet Liu Kezhuang in the 13th-century shows stories of this god and Monkey existed in Fujian around the same time. The historical existence of a Fujian monkey cult may have given Sun Wukong’s cult a boost, explaining how a literary character came to be so readily worshiped.


Updated: 07-26-19

The American missionary Justus Doolittle (1865) recorded information about the worship of the Great Sage in Fuzhou city, Fujian province, China during the 19th-century:

The Monkey. — It is represented as a man sitting, the face only being like a monkey. The image is usually made of wood or clay. Sometimes a picture of it is made on paper, or simply the title under which the monkey is worshiped is written on a slip of paper, and used instead of an image. There are several large temples at this place, erected for the worship of “His Excellency the Holy King,” one of the titles much used in speaking of the monkey as an object of worship. Oftentimes the niche holding the image or the written name is placed in a hollow tree, or in the wall at the corners of streets, or at the heads of alleys or lanes. Such places, in this city and vicinity, where the monkey is worshiped, reckoned together with the small temples or buildings dedicated to it, amount to several scores. The worship consists principally in the burning of incense and candles, sometimes attended with the presentation of meats, vegetables, and fruits. The monkey was first worshiped in return for some supposed services rendered the individual who went to India, by special command of an emperor of the Tang dynasty, to obtain the Sacred Books of the Buddhist religion — so some affirm. This emperor deified the monkey, or, at least, he conferred the august title of “the great Sage equal to Heaven” upon that quadruped. The birthday of “His Excellency the Holy King” is believed to occur on the twenty-third of the second Chinese month, when his monkey majesty is specially worshiped by men from all classes of society. The monkey is believed to have the general control of hobgoblins, witches, elves, etc. It is also supposed to be able to bestow health, protection, and success on mankind, if not directly, indirectly, by keeping away malicious spirits or goblins. People often imagine that sickness, or want of success in study and trade, is caused by witches and hobgoblins. Hence the sick or the unsuccessful worship the monkey, in order to obtain its kind offices in driving away or preventing the evil influences of various imaginary spirits or powers (vol. 1, pp. 287-288).

He continues, “Sometimes the image carried in procession while praying for rain represents a deified monkey, an object which is much worshiped by some classes of the people at this place” (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 2, p. 119).

It appears that Doolittle wasn’t aware of Journey to the West since he combines folklore with history, claiming a Tang emperor deified and/or bestowed Wukong with his Great Sage title. Sun’s image as an exorcist and healer, as well as his remuneration with incense and delicious foodstuffs, matches what I’ve previously written about in Taiwan. But his association with rainmaking is new, although not entirely a surprise. Also, his birthday is celebrated on a different day, the twenty-third day of the second lunar month, instead of the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month in Taiwan and the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore. Interestingly, unlike Fuzhou, his birthday is celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of the second lunar month in Putian (Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example). Such differences highlight that Monkey’s cult never received state patronage and therefore lacks standardization in beliefs and practices even in Fujian.

This information may have implications for the worship of the Great Sage by southern Chinese immigrants in 19th-century San Francisco.


Updated: 08-17-2019

The Japanese researcher Isobe Akira shows that, despite appearing in Song-era sources, the aforementioned story about the female monkey king can be traced to the late Tang period (Mair, 1989, pp. 694-695). This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship centuries prior to the development of Sun Wukong’s story cycle.

Additionally, Isobe points to one of the earliest known references to Sun Wukong. A tale appearing in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, 12th-13th century) Memoirs of a Traveling Official  (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞) tells of Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains literacy and clairvoyance after eating a magic peach. In the story, Zhang is asked to write a eulogy in honor of a newly built revolving sutra case. The resulting poem references the Monkey Pilgrim:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (punyaksetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duhkha-sagara),
the Monkey-disciple presses on 猴行復,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face
the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyaya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting,
sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

This eulogy is fascinating because it references additional elements that would appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, including the Buddhist master’s quest to India over many lifetimes, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance. Isobe dates Zhang the Sage’s tale to the late Northern Song to the early Southern Song (circa 1127) (Mair, 1989, p. 694). But what’s interesting for our purposes is that the original recorder, Zhang Shinan was known to have historically held a government post in Fujian (Zheng, Kirk, Buell, & Unschuld, 2018, pp. 644-645), meaning he could have picked up the tale in the southern province. This adds an additional connection between Fujian and Sun Wukong.

Notes:

1) One example of this connected to Journey to the West is Erlang. He was originally worshiped as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. But his cult became even more popular upon gaining state recognition. Wu (1987) writes: “The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country” (pp. 107-108).

2) This refers to Qiu Chuji (丘處機, 1148-1227), the founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism during the Song Dynasty. Qiu is known to have written a travel journal named Journey to the West, which Pu Songling confused with the novel of the same name (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2080 n. 1).

3) Literally “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

4) Source altered slightly. The Wade Giles was converted to pinyin and the Chinese characters from the footnotes were moved into the paragraph.

5) In act 10 of the early 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West, Guanyin gives Sun Wukong an iron headband, a cassock, and, most importantly, a sword. His depiction in the play and this relief then may have some connection.

6) The fact that the effigy was formed around a living monkey suggests it was killed in the process. This would explain its rage.

Sources:

Barr, A. (1984). The Textural Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44 (2), pp. 515-562.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2009). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume One: Historical introduction to the return of the gods. Leiden: Brill.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A survey of village temples and ritual activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social life of the Chinese: With some account of their religious, governmental, educational, and business customs and opinions. With special but not exclusive reference to Fuhchau. Volume 1 and 2. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Dudbridge, G. (2005). Books, tales and vernacular culture: Selected papers on China. Leiden: Brill.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the family in Chinese history. London: Routledge.

Gordon, L. H. D. (2007). Confrontation over Taiwan: Nineteenth-century China and the powers. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Mair, V. (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.

Pu, S., & Sondergard, S. L. (2014). Strange tales from Liaozhai. Volume 6. Fremont, Calif: Jain Pub.

Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (1996). Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, pp. 1-117.

Zheng, J., Kirk, N., Buell, P. D., & Unschuld, P. U. (2018). Dictionary of the Ben cao gang mu, Vol. 3: Authors and book titles. Berkeley: University of California Press.