The Worship of Sun Wukong the Monkey King: An Overview

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

Warning: Self-mortification and blood below!

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

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

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

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

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

The 3 monkey gods

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

As mentioned, various soldier monkeys serve in the Great Sage’s spiritual army. He leads five heavenly generals, representing the Chinese cardinal directions, each with their own armies. The demon queller, the “Third Prince” (San taizi, 三太子; a.k.a. Nezha), serves as his vanguard. The Third Prince can often be seen positioned on a table in front of the main altar, or riding a palanquin and leading the way during religious processions. At least in Taiwan, the power of this spiritual army needs to be replenished during a yearly trip south to the island’s oldest monkey god house of worship, Wanfu Temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵), which is considered a fount of pure energy. This is done by retrieving scoops of holy incense ashes from the main incense pot and bringing them back to the home temple pot. I saw one temple protect the ashes in a small, metal, building-shaped altar sealed with blood-consecrated paper talismans (fig. 3). It was then shaded with two processional flags and an eight trigrams umbrella (fig. 4). I was told exposing the ashes/soldiers to sunlight was considered highly disrespectful.

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

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

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

Religious statues of the Great Sage are generally portrayed as a seated or standing protector deity wearing golden armor, a feather cap, and sometimes the golden headband. The seated and standing postures are taken to represent his defensive and offensive functions, respectively. The former sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed, holding a golden staff or fly-whisk in his right hand and a hu-gourd or immortal peach at chest or waist-level with his left (refer back to fig. 1). The latter stands on his left leg (sometimes supported by clouds) with the other bent high at the knee, while holding a staff in his right hand. The left holds a gourd (sometimes overhead and pointed at the viewer), or it shields his eyes like a sailor searching the horizon. This hand is positioned with the thumb near the left eye, or the arm wraps under the chin and the hand bends at the wrist to shield the eyes in a contorted manner. (Of course there will always be variations on these patterns.) The gaze of the monkey god is generally fierce, sometimes with golden pupils, and his likeness ranges from human-like to generally more primate-like. Baring white, black, and red examples based on the aforementioned Fujian trinity, the Great Sage’s face is generally flesh-toned with kisses of red but can sometimes be painted with a red, three leaf clover-like design similar to Wukong’s depictions in Chinese opera (fig. 5). But I’ve seen a few rare examples in Taiwan with harsh face patterns similar to plague gods (Stevens, 1997, p. 114). Many statues are carved with horn-like “ear-pressing tufts” on the sides of his head, giving him a wild appearance. This can be accentuated with carved and painted or applied hair on the head and sides of the face. Some statues acknowledge the link between Chinese religion and theater by depicting him as a martial monk (wuseng, 武僧) with long hair that hangs down to his chest (refer back to fig. 5). [2] While such examples generally portray him in the aforementioned armor, I’ve seen at least one figure from Singapore wearing a golden monk’s robe open at the chest. In contrast to the brightly-colored and gilded statues mentioned above, some Great Sage figures are dark and ashen. These tend to be decorated with ornate metal headdresses and flashy imperial capes and sashes (fig. 6). The rarest statue I’ve ever seen depicts the Great Sage with six arms wielding a staff in each hand (fig. 7).

Fig. 5 – (Top left) Detail of a Great Sage statue with the red, three leaf clove-like face pattern and the long hair and golden fillet of a martial monk (larger version). See the full version here. Fig. 6 – (Top Right) Dark, wooden Great Sage statues with bright ornamentation (larger version). Photos by the author. Fig. 7 – (Bottom left) A three-headed, six-armed monkey god (larger version). Seen on Facebook. Fig. 8 – (Bottom right) A spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage. He smiles in defiance after flogging his head with a spiked ball (larger version). Original photo by Cai Zhizhong (蔡志忠) (used with permission).

Spirit-mediums (Taiwanese Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; literally: “Divining Child”) play a large part in the Great Sage’s religion. They are believed to channel his spirit to interact with believers, generally answering their questions, blessing them or their belongings with paper talismans, or prescribing medicine. On special occasions, they also perform a complex self-mortification ceremony; for instance, the mediums of one Taiwanese temple walk a pattern in between five ritual fires representing heavenly generals of the five directions, while flogging themselves with the “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (jitong wubao, 乩童五寶): a seven-star sword (qixing jian, 七星劍), a crescent moon ax (yue fu, 月斧), a spiked club (tong gun, 銅棍; a.k.a. lang ya bang, 狼牙棒, “wolf-tooth club”), a sawfish nose sword (shayu jian, 鯊魚劍), and a spiked ball (ci qiu, 刺球) (fig. 8). However, I’ve found that self-mortification tends to be more extreme in Southeast Asia, with mediums piercing their cheeks and bodies with lances, swords, hooks, and even bicycles! The ritual serves several purposes. First, hacking, skewering, and poking the body with various weapons is considered a form of self-sacrifice. Second, the weapons that pierce the flesh are believed to imbue the mediums with spiritual power needed in their battle with demonic forces that pervade every corner of daily life. Third, the resulting blood is believed to have demonifugic properties, hence the reason it is smeared on paper talismans and clothing. Overall, the ritual is performed to exorcize evil spirits that cause bad luck and mental and physical illnesses.

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

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

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

Video 1 – This video depicts the preparations and celebration of the Monkey King’s birthday (16th day of the 8th lunar month), complete with competitions of self-mortification by spirit-mediums. It was shot in the Sau Mau Ping area of Hong Kong during the 1980s. Subtitles added by Haiyan Wang.

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

Interestingly, Sun Wukong is even revered in Korea. While not officially worshiped as a deity (at least not by people of non-Chinese descent), he appears with a host of other mythological animals on the roof-hips of royal palaces to guard such important structures against fires and evil spirits (fig. 9). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). [5]

Fig. 9 – Drawings of the japsang effigies of Korea. The first four figures are commonly associated with Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing (larger version). However, contemporary sources sometimes named the first figure Wukong. This would make since as he’s wearing armor.

Note:

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

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

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

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

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

Source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Sage Detecting “Ping-Pong” Bottle

Last updated: 06/26/21

Elliott (1955/1990) describes a curious glass bottle used in the worship of Sun Wukong in Singapore. Filled with “twelve o’clock water” and topped with a consecrated bulbous glass stem, it is said to make a pinging noise to signal the arrival of the monkey god in a home or temple:

There are, also, sometimes other pieces of apparatus, apart from images, which devotees like to keep in their own homes. An outstanding example is an article of equipment almost exclusively associated with the ‘Great Saint’ [大聖] which goes by the onomatopoeic name of ‘ping-pong’ [乒乓]. It consists of an ordinary bottle filled with ‘twelve o’clock water’, water drawn from a tap or well at midday. Into the neck is fitted a funnel-like piece of glass-ware open at the lower end of the funnel, which dips into the water but completely closes the top [fig. 1 and 2]. Everyday at noon, and sometimes at other hours as well, this apparatus gives off a sudden ‘pinging’ sound, as if bubbles were rising and forcing up the funnel in the bottle’s neck. When this occurs, the shen [神, god] is supposed to be revealing his presence in the temple or the home, and an immediate act of worship must be carried out by the persons there. These ‘ping-pong’ are invariably found in temples associated with the ‘Great Saint’. Devotees will purchase their own funnels and bring them to the temple for the dang-ki [童乩, spirit-medium] to consecrate them with a lick of his blood (p. 58).

Fig. 1 – The ping-pong bottle, a.k.a. “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶), fitted with the bulbous stem, which is closed at the top and open at the bottom (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of the stem (larger version). Images found on google.

The device was also used in Hong Kong according to one personal account shared with me:

I believe the apparatus was used not just in Singapore. My mom told me that as a kid in HK in the 1940s/50s, her aunt also had something similar on the altar where she worshipped the [Great] Saint. And when the apparatus made a noise which signified his arrival, they would light up a joss stick.

I don’t know when the bottle was first associated with Sun Wukong, but the above information points to its active use in Asia as far back as the 1950s. It’s my understanding that the bottle is a rarity in modern practice, suggesting it flourished prior to mid-century.

Why the bottle was associated with the Great Sage is also a mystery to me. But the significance of twelve o’clock water may provide some clues. Astrological theory associates noon with wu (午), the seventh of twelve earthly branches, which is in turn identified with horses, the heart, fire yang, the summer solstice, and the direction south (Wu & Taylor, 2014, pp. 133-134). Readers may remember that Sun Wukong is appointed the keeper of the heavenly horses (bimawen, 弼馬溫) in chapter four of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149). Additionally, Chinese philosophy considers the heart to be the seat of the mind (xin, 心; alternatively translated “heart-mind”). This is important as Sun is called the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿; alternatively translated “Mind Ape”), which is a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted, transient thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). 

(Before I continue, I must warn that using the 16th-century novel as a source for modern folk religion surely overlooks beliefs that I am not aware of. The above info should therefore be considered purely speculative.)

A naturalistic explanation for the pinging noise is air escaping from the bottle due to changes in atmospheric pressure. However, I’d like to speculate on a possible esoteric reason. As mentioned above, noon is identified with fire yang, which is considered the height of yang power. In fact, the hours before wu and after zi (子, midnight) are considered the best time to practice Daoist exlixir cultivation. [1] And since heaven is the embodiment of yang, [2] it’s possible worshipers believe water collected at noon is infused with strong yang energy, thereby giving it the ability to detect the presence of celestial deities like the Great Sage.


Update: 08/11/20

J.D. Martinsen contacted me and noted that “drawing noon water” (da wushi shui, 打午時水) is a common practice in coastal China during the Dragon Boat Festival. The water is apparently known for its demonifugic and medicinal properties. In fact, this custom is even practiced in Taiwan where there is a common saying: “A sip of noon water is better than three years of herbal medicine” (wushi shui yin yi zui, jiao hao buyao chi san nian, 午時水飲一嘴,較好補藥吃三年) (Chen, 2011, p. 210). Therefore, this association with warding malevolent influences/sickness may explain why Sun Wukong is connected with noon water. He is after all the exorcist par excellence, as well as a healer.


Update: 06/23/21

An informant from Singapore, who is the head of a monkey god temple, shared with me some wonderful folk knowledge about the ping-pong bottle. The words below are gently edited for readability:

He fl[ies] at a high speed which generates high heat [and] causes the ping pong to sound. The water inside the bottle where you place the ping pong [is] changed on 五月初五 (端午節) [i.e. the Dragon Boat Festival]. Every year, the replacement water is collected from your rain water. The former water will [be] use[d] to bath[e] to purify our well-being. I have pour[ed] it into a large [pail]. And bottle it and give [it] to devotees to bath[e]. Talisman[s are] issued [when we change the water at noon] (fig. 3), [we] will paste [them] on the bottle on 端午節. [W]hen urgent or danger[rous] matters [happen], we will use the [ping pong holy] water to ward off bad omen[s].

My informant said some of this knowledge was revealed to him by the monkey god.

I was also told by a collector-seller that there are different-sized glass stems (fig. 4), though he believes their hand-made nature means no two are exactly the same. My informant states the stems with the “larger diameter will sound louder” when the Great Sage arrives.

Fig. 3 – Talismans on a ping-pong bottle (larger version). Photo taken at the Wallich Street “Tai Seng Yah” (Dasheng ye) temple in Singapore during the 1970s. Courtesy of Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project. Fig. 4 – The different sizes of ping-pong stems (larger version). Photo from a private collector.


Update: 06/26/21

My informant tells me that a beer bottle can be used to hold the pingpong stem. It must be washed and all labels removed. The preparation for the stem is a little more involved. The stem must be washed along with five kinds of flowers. The types of flowers do not matter, but no white flowers are permitted. Also, slices of green lemon can be included, but no yellow lemons are permitted. This washing must be done on the first or the 15th of the lunar month. The holy water is gathered in a pail between 11am and noon from rain the day before the Dragon Boat Festival, for it is believed that it always rains on this day. This water is poured one index finger length from the rim. This ensures it will not overflow once the pingpong stem is inserted. Then triangle-folded joss paper (jin zhi, 金紙) (fig. 5-8) is waved three times around the pingpong (nuo pingpong, 挪乒乓) while prayers are said. Finally, the paper is left atop the pingpong bulb for a given time. The pingpong bottle must be placed next to a statue of the Great Sage.

Fig. 5-8 – The process of folding the joss paper into triangles (larger version). Photos by my informant.

Notes:

1) This is noted as early as the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄) (Kohn, 2008, p. 84).

2) See, for example, Clearly (2003), p. 391.

Sources:

Chen, X. (2011). Taiwan li shi shang de yi min yu she hui yan jiu [The History of Taiwanese Immigration and Social Studies]. Beijing: Jiu zhou chu ban she.

Cleary, T. F. (2003). The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Volume Two. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

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

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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

Wu, Z., & Taylor, W. K. (2014). Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches – TianGan DiZhi: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom Traditions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.