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

Qitian Dasheng Monkey King Temples in Taiwan

Last updated: 02/27/2021

I recently returned from a trip exploring Great Sage temples in northern and central Taiwan. I’ve decided to mirror a former article by creating a list of Monkey King temples that I’ve visited on the island. This should not be considered comprehensive. I intend to update the article as I visit new locations. I will divide the list according to the closest city/municipality and provide the address if possible. If I’ve already written an article about a particular location, I will add a link to the name. All current listed temple ages are as of 2021.

Many temples recognize more than one Great Sage (usually three or more), with those worshiping a single figure being a minority. Like in Singapore, spirit-mediums (Hokkien: tangki, 童乩; Ch: jitong, 乩童) who channel the monkey god play an important role in the Great Sage’s religion. The “Third Prince” (Santazi, 三太子, a.k.a. Nezha, 哪吒) serves as his vanguard both in the temple and during religious processions. This is certainly interesting given that the two were once foes. [1]

(Note: Always consult Google before visiting these temples.)

I. Jilong (Keelung)

1) Shengji Gong (聖濟宮) – 72-years-old

Address: 202基隆市中正區中船路112巷30弄95號

I didn’t get any information about the temple during my visit as the caretaker appeared to be mute (or just didn’t want to talk to me). Online information states the temple was built in 1949. Legend has it that the Great Sage saved villagers from rampant fires plaguing Keelung at the time. Like Yilan’s Wujian Ziyu Temple (see below), Shengji’s Great Sage and his army of monkey soldiers are portrayed as martial monks (wuseng, 武僧) with a golden headband and long hair. The alcove housing his statue is called the Shuilian Grotto-Heaven (Shuilian dongtian, 水濓洞天) after Monkey’s home the “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He is flanked on his left and right by Shennong (神農) and Kai Zhang Shengwang (開漳聖王), respectively


2. Qitian Dasheng Miao (齊天大聖廟) – Unknown

Address: 203基隆市中山區中山二路89巷31號

No caretakers were present at the time of my visit, so I was unable to ask questions about history or names. All statues were locked inside of a glass display case, along with a blue booklet that caught my eye. It was titled “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven’s True Sutra of Awakening People and Enlightening the World” (Qitian Dasheng xingren jueshi zhenjing, 齊天大聖醒人覺世眞經) (a facsimile is apparently available here). Like in Shengji and Wujian Ziyu Temples, the Great Sage and his monkey army are depicted as martial monks. Also like Shengji, he is flanked, this time on his left, by Kai Zhang Shengwang. He is flanked on his right by Fude Zhengshen (福德正神).

(Note: I’ve been told by one informant that they saw the Great Sage sutra at a temple on “Five Fingers Mountain” (Wuzhi shan, 五指山) in Xinzhu. Also, the linked facsimile is hosted on the website of a temple in Tainan. This shows the sutra is present in both northern and southern Taiwan. Another told me they saw an exact copy in Singapore. The printer (新儷城印刷設計有限公司) is in Taipei. In addition, I’ve been told by a few informants that the sutra is likely the product of the “flying phoenix” (feiluan, 飛鸞), otherwise known as “planchette writing” or “spirit writing” (fuji, 扶乩 / 扶箕).)


II. Taipei

1) Shilin Zhengan Gong (士林正安宮) – 31-years-old

Address: 111台北市士林區士東路2巷5號

The Zhengan Temple of Shilin [2] is definitely the smallest Great Sage house of worship that I’ve yet visited. It appears to be a small, open-front store/apartment unit that has been converted into a temple. It recognizes at least seven Great Sages, each with his own name and purpose. I’m still gathering information on the temple, so I will post their names at a later date. While most such temples have one or two spirit-mediums, Zhengan has an astounding seven, each of whom reports to a respective Great Sage. During special occasions, the spirit-mediums perform self-mortification with swords, axes, swordfish noses, spiked clubs, and spiked balls.

I had the pleasure of joining the temple on a pilgrimage to the south of Taiwan back in November of 2020. I was even blessed with the opportunity to help carry the Third Prince’s palanquin, which led the way for a much larger vehicle containing Zhengan’s numerous Great Sage statues. I’ll write more about this in the future.


2) Shuilian Gong (水濂宮) – Unknown

Address: 108台北市萬華區環河南路一段344號

The temple attendants were unable to give me any history on the temple. But I did learn that they worship a trinity: “Great Sage Sun” (Sun Dasheng, 孫大聖), the large central figure (image 1 (27)); the “Black Great Sage” (Hei Dasheng, 黑大聖), the small figure holding the gourd and whip (image 1 (34)); and the “White Great Sage” (Bai Dasheng, 白大聖), the small figure shielding his eyes and holding a staff (image 1 (42)). These color-coded names remind me of the Black and White Spirits of Impermanence, death gods who summon the souls of the recently deceased to the underworld. The temple houses many monkey god statues apart from the trinity, likely soldiers. I’ll return to get more info and better pictures. The soot black figures and bright clothing make it hard to get detailed photos.


III. Xinbei (New Taipei)

1) Qitian Dasheng Dian (齊天大聖殿) – 20-years-old

Address: 249新北市八里區渡船頭路9號

I was told by the temple’s ritual master that she received a religious vision from the Great Sage to move from Gaoxiong in the south and look for land with good fengshui for a temple. After her third move, she founded her temple in the mountainous region of Bali. While the temple has several monkey statues, each is considered a different aspect of the singular “Lord Great Sage” (大聖爺) or “Great Sage Patriarch” (大聖祖師).

The area behind the temple features a garden with a colorful, life-sized statue of the Great Sage seated on a throne. He holds a peach of immortality in one hand and his staff in the other. His throne rests on an elevated rock outcropping painted with the characters for the “Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Huaguo shan, 花菓山). A series of concrete steps laid within the folds of the rocks takes you to a private heaven further into the mountain with flowers and guava, papaya, banana, and tangerine crops. It’s a great experience.

Be forewarned: The route that Google told me to take was NOT reliable. My GPS took me through a neglected cemetery up the side of a mountain. I had to cut a path through the forest, jump streams, and climb rocks before I finally arrived all sweaty and dirty. The temple personnel were amazed that I made such a trip because the route was completely unnecessary. They told me of a road leading directly to the temple! Apparently my GPS showed me the most direct route instead of the slightly longer, yet far more practical one. I highly suggest walking from the foot of Duchuantou Rd. (渡船頭路) and following the signs to the temple.

On the bright side, the caretakers were so thrilled to learn of my great interest in their god that they treated me to tea, fruit, and snacks. They are very welcoming people.  


2) 板橋雲聖宮 (Banqiao Yunsheng Gong) – Unknown

Address: 220新北市板橋區富山街84號

This temple was closed when I visited. I had to shoot pictures through two sliding glass doors. It is very small, possibly as small or even smaller than Zhengan Temple in Taipei.


3) Qitian Dasheng Miao (齊天大聖廟) or Qitian Dasheng Ye Miao (齊天大聖爺廟) – Unknown, possibly new

Address: 238新北市樹林區佳園路一段41巷6號

The caretaker told me that the temple had not yet been consecrated and therefore wouldn’t let me take any pictures inside. However, a Chinese comment on Google says the temple “isn’t open to the outside world”, suggesting that it’s closed to the public. Based on what little I could see, the building unit appears to be someone’s home/business/personal altar. Rows and rows of god statues packaged for sale lined shelves against a back wall.

(Left) The closed front of the temple (larger version). (Right) One of two lamps hanging out front (larger version).

IV. Yilan

1) Wujian Ziyu Si (五間紫雲寺) – 61-years-old (current temple)

Address: 263宜蘭縣壯圍鄉大福路三段449號

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, each portrayed as martial monks with a golden fillet and long hair. 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.


V. Xinzhu (Hsinchu)

1) Shenglong Gong (聖龍宮) – 5-years-old

Address: 310新竹縣竹東鎮中豐路三段187號

This temple is famous for its nine-meter-tall (29.52 ft.) statue of the Great Sage, which is apparently the tallest in Taiwan. I was told that it was shipped from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. The members appear to only revere a single monkey god, whom they call the “Buddha Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng Foye, 齊天大聖佛爺). The smaller statue in front of the taller one was the original focus of worship at a devotee’s home prior to the building of the temple.


VI. Taizhong (Taichung)

1) Yusheng Si (玉聖寺) – 62-years-old (current temple)

Address: 436台中市清水區頂湳路73號

Records for the original temple apparently go back to the Xianfeng (1850-1861) period. According to legend, Yusheng was built at the behest of a beggar who revealed himself to be the Great Sage. The current house of worship was built in 1959. The members appear to recognize at least five Great Sages (maybe more). I was told that they don’t have individual names; though, the members may have been apprehensive to share secrets with a random foreigner. They just refer to them as “Lord Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng Ye, 齊天大聖爺). One figure has a painted face similar to pestilence gods (wenshen, 瘟神). Perhaps this version of the Great Sage serves a similar purpose. It’s interesting to note that several statues are shown holding spiked balls like those used by spirit-mediums.


2) Wuji Tianyi Jiancha Gong Tiantan (無極天壹監察宮天壇) – Unknown

Address: 406台中市北屯區太原路三段1398號

This temple was closed when I visited. I had to shoot pictures of their lovely statue over the gate. I’m guessing it’s four to five-meters-tall based on the ding censor in front. I plan to go back at a later time to get pictures of the temple interior.

I did see a black command flag (Hokkien: or leng ki; Ch: hei leng qi, 黑令旗) out front, which signifies that a spirit-medium is active in the temple.


VII. Tainan

1) Wanfu An (萬福庵) – 350-something-years-old

Address: 700台南市中西區民族路二段317巷5號

Wanfu is touted as the oldest Qitian Dasheng temple on the island, originally serving as the home of an anti-Qing general’s wife during the Southern Ming (c. 1660s), which was later converted to a house of worship following her death. It was known for taking in orphans during the early-19th-century. The temple recognizes a trinity of Great Sages, followed by a small handful in administrative positions, and finally a plethora of soldier monkeys. The highest-ranking member of the trinity is a 300-plus-year-old Fujianese stone statue called “Laying the Foundations Elder Great Sage” (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖). The temple has a single spirit-medium. But the last time I checked, he was training a disciple, his nephew.

Great Sage temples from all over Taiwan look upon Wanfu as a fount of pure energy, visiting every year to procure its incense ashes in order to replenish their spiritual armies. Spirit-mediums are thought to direct these soldiers in battle while possessed by the monkey god. I personally witnessed this ash ceremony during the Shilin Zhengang Temple pilgrimage (as noted in the introduction). I saw at least three other temples waiting for their turn. I’m sure many more visited that day and the next.



1) See chapter four of Journey to the West.

2) Not to be confused with other Zhengan Temples in Taiwan.

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

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.