I first learned of Great Sage worship in Thailand when Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project showed me a Monkey King statue on a Thai Facebook group. Since then, I’ve noticed an explosion in social media posts (mainly on Facebook and Instagram) highlighting his veneration in the “Land of Smiles”. Here, I’d like to record what I’ve learned so far.
Please revisit the page for future updates.
I. Names for the Monkey King
เห้งเจีย (Hêng jiia, or just “Heng Jia/Chia” = Xingzhe, 行者, “Pilgrim”).  This appears to be the most popular of his Thai names. This should come as no surprise, though, as Xingzhe (行者) is used FAR more to refer to Monkey in Journey to the West (4,335 times) than Wukong (悟空) (512 times). 
ซุนหงอคง (Sun ngŏr kong, or just “Sun Ngokong” = Sun Wukong, 孫悟空) (see here).
ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow” = same as above)
Various Thai Facebook groups post pictures of the same kinds of monkey god statues found in East and Southeast Asia. These range from armored warriors wielding the magic staff to serene buddhas on lotus thrones (consult the third paragraph after video one here for a description of Monkey’s traditional iconography). But I’ve noticed that one flavor of Thai Great Sage statue is almost entirely gilded (or draped with gold cloth) except for a pink/red mask around the eyes, the latter being similar to his Chinese opera depictions. Said statues tend to feature a golden headband with very tall curlicues (fig. 1).
Fig. 1 – An example of a golden Thai monkey statue with a pink mask and a high curlicue headband (larger version). Originally posted here.
I’ve also noticed an abundance of Dizang-like Monkey Buddha statues, similar to those found in Singapore (I haven’t seen many such depictions in Taiwan). This may be of Fujian influence (see here). He is sometimes portrayed wearing an ornate crown (with or without the golden headband) and monk’s robes and seated on a lotus throne. One hand is held in a mudra, while the other clasps a ruyi scepter (or more rarely a fly whisk). I recently purchased such a statue with an amulet pressed in the bottom (fig. 2 and video #1).
Fig. 2 – My 20cm colored resin Thai Monkey Buddha statue (larger version). Take note that the lotus throne sits on a pile of gold coins and ingots. Picture by the original seller.
Video #1 – Video by the original seller.
Buddhist amulets (Th: prá krêuuang, พระเครื่อง) are immensely important to Thai devotees. Marcus (2018) explains that they are believed to “endow wearers with supernatural faculties”. He continues: “Some amulets are thought to bring success and happiness. Others are believed to protect the wearer against disease, witchcraft, and misfortune” (Marcus, 2018). It’s no different for worshipers of the Monkey King. I’ve seen countless examples on Facebook ranging from Monkey Buddhas to Monkey warriors. See four examples below (fig. 3-6).
Like East and Southeast Asia, Thailand also has Great Sage spirit-mediums (Ch: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; lit: “Divining Child”) (consult the paragraph after figure six here for more information about these ritual specialists). One temple medium seen on the ไปดีมาดี Channel1928 YouTube channel employs white, black, and gold headbands with the aforementioned high curlicue design. The color used appears to depend on which monkey god takes over the medium. I can’t comment on any rituals particular to the Thai religious sphere. But I have seen the medium perform self-mortification in order to create paper talismans (video #2). This is a normal function of spirit-mediums even in East and Southeast Asia. See my twitter post for pictures of a similar Taiwanese ritual.
I’m hoping to gather more information on Thai Great Sage spirit-mediumship in the future.
Video #2 – HEADPHONE WARNING!!!The Thai Great Sage medium cuts his tongue to create paper talismans.
I just learned from this webpage that there is a Thai language book about the history of the Monkey King. Here’s the citation:
Also, I’ve learned the name and location of a small monkey god temple in Bangkok, Thailand (fig. 8-10 and video #3). It is claimed to be at least 200 years old(!), suggesting that Heng Jia has been worshiped by Chinese-Thai for several centuries:
ศาลเจ้าพ่อเห้งเจีย (Săan-jâo-pôr Hêng-jiia) – “Shrine of Heng Jia”
66 Rama IV Rd, Talat Noi, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10500, Thailand
A fellow member of the Taoism Singapore and the Local Gods and their Legends Facebook groups was kind enough to let me post pictures of a Thai Monkey God amulet that he received in San Francisco around the year 2000. The top notes that it’s from the Tanglai Temple (Tanglai gong, 唐來宮), the first two characters being a term used in Journey to the West to indicate that the pilgrims have “come from China” in the east. The characters on the left and right sides combine to read “I submit to the Buddha Amitabha” (Namo Amituofo, 南無阿彌陀佛). The Thai at the bottom reads “Reverend Monk Heng Jia” (lŭuang bpòo hêng-jiia, หลวงปู่เห้งเจีย) (fig. 11). The reverse depicts the eight trigrams encircling a Taiju symbol (fig. 12), indicating that the amulet is Buddho-Daoist.
Ellis (2017) mentions a “monument” to Heng Jia in Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (ศาลเจ้าพ่อเขาใหญ่) (p. 86). Mr. Ellis told me in a personal communication that the cave “is on Ko Si Chang island off the coast of Pattaya“. The address is:
5R94+7MM, Tha Thewawong, Ko Sichang District, Chon Buri 20120, Thailand
The small Monkey shrine is located in the interior, and it is surrounded by a forest of red prayer sheets (fig. 13). See here for a video touring the cave. The section featuring Heng Jia starts around minute 3:16.
Munier (1998) notes that this cave is the “only one” dedicated to Monkey in Thailand (p. 170). A big thank you to Mr. Ellis for providing this information. Please check out his blog.
Also, here’s a Thai prayer to Hengjia (video #4). It’s called “Prayer to the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Bòt sùuat mon dtâi sìia húk-jôh, บทสวดมนต์ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว), and the video labels it in Chinese as “Scripture of the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu jing, 大聖佛祖經).
This page mentions the benefits of worshiping Heng Jia (based on Google Translate):
If anyone worships Lord Tai Sia Huk Zhou, it will make everything smooth, turning bad into good, making it possible to do anything without obstacles. This includes family and friends, doing business, selling progress, keeping anything bad from coming into our lives. The believer must behave well, think positively, and never think ill of others. All blessings will bear fruit. Life will be truly happy and business will progress more and more.
If worshipers are free from evil and have health, intelligence, tact, and courage, they will be able to always find a solution to their problems. Therefore, [Heng Jia’s faith] is very popular among business operators that need to find a solution to every obstacle and problem.
My friend posted a picture of a Thai Great Sage shrine to Facebook. It shows a stone monkey statue, behind which is a large silver and gold staff. Whereas the literary weapon is “如意金箍棒” (Ruyi jingu bang), the “As-you-will Gold-Banded Staff”, the shrine version is labeled “如意金剛榜” (Ruyi jingang bang), “As-you-will Vajra staff” (fig. 17 and 18).  The Vajra (jingang, 金剛) is a heavenly weapon closely associated with the Buddhist guardian deity Vajrapāni (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩, lit: “The Vajra-Bearing Bodhisattva”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955). Therefore, the name change strengthens Sun Wukong’s association with Buddhism.
Fig. 17 – The Great Sage shrine with a stone monkey statue and the silver and gold staff (larger version). Fig. 18 – Detail of the Chinese characters on the staff (larger version).
Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project recently introduced me to the Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師)  folk religion sect of Malaysia and Singapore. It features an intriguing trinity with the Monkey King as the Great Sage Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) in the center, the aforementioned deity to his left, and the Most High Elder Lord (Taishang laojun, 太上老君; a.k.a. Laozi, 老子) to his right. Combined, they respectively represent Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. This is shocking as Sun Wukong replaces the Buddha himself as a representative of the “Three Teachings” (sanjiao, 三教). Needless to say, his inclusion here elevates the Monkey King from a mid-tier god to a supreme one.
There doesn’t appear to be any concrete information about when the trinity first appeared. The oldest photograph (fig. 1) that I can find hails from 1970s Singapore (per an informant). But this page states that Chee Chung Temple (慈忠庙), followers of the sect, was founded in 1960, showing that it was flourishing as early as this time. However, an informant tells me that the sect is more rare in Singapore these days. Conversely, Ronni notes it’s more common in Malaysia and that the trinity from the photograph looks similar to “twenty or thirty examples” he’s seen while visiting temples in the south.
Fig. 1 – The 1970s photograph (larger version). Image in a private Malaysian collection.
I’d like to add that the three-person grouping follows precedent in Chinese religion, with examples including the “Three Pure Ones” (Sanqing, 三清) of Daoism and the “Three Bodies” (Sk: Trikaya; Ch: Sanshen, 三身) of Buddhism. These likely influenced the trinity (see below).
I’ll update this section as new information becomes available.
The Great Sage Patriarch is portrayed with a small guan cap (xiao guan, 小冠) crowning a furry, simian head, and the face is sometimes painted similar to his Chinese opera depictions. He wears a (sometimes golden) suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed and his hands on his legs. One hand loosely cups the handle of an “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) scepter, with the mushroom head resting near his shoulder. As noted here, this scepter is a symbol of some Buddhist and Daoist gods, most notably the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao tianzun, 靈寶天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, and Guanyin (觀音).
The Immortal Master Yellow Elder is portrayed with a small guan cap crowning a smiling, elderly man with drawn back white hair and a long, white beard and mustache. He wears bagua robes (of various colors) and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed. And he either holds a fly whisk or command flag in one hand, while the other is sometimes held in a mudra.
The Most High Elder Lord is quite similar to the former (including the guan cap, hair and beard, and bagua clothing), but he’s instead seated cross-legged on a lotus throne. One hand holds a traditional palace fan (gong shan, 宮扇), while the other might delicately hold a pearl.
All three are sometimes depicted in a cave-like alcove over which hangs a sign reading “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (Zhong xian dong, 眾/衆仙洞) or “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (Xian fo dong, 仙佛洞) (fig. 2 & 3).
The trinity appears to have borrowed from depictions of the Three Pure Ones. Take for example this painting (fig. 4). Two of the three figures include the As-you-will scepter and the palace fan.
Fig. 4 – A print of the Three Pure Ones from Werner, 1922, p. 124 (larger version).
III. The Immortal Master Yellow Elder
This is not a common deity, so I’ve chosen to quote the BOXS article on the subject. I’ve changed the Wade Giles to pinyin. The information was gathered by Keith Stevens:
[…] His images have been seen on altars in Singapore in Balestier Road, also in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, in Seremban and Muar, and in southern Thailand, where in each temple he is known as one of the Supreme Trinity .
In Kuala Lumpur where he is regarded as a deity who possesses the spirit mediums of his cult, the Huang jiao [黃教], he is known as an avatar of Laozi. He is said to have first appeared and became popular during the Han dynasty as the Governor of the World but without interfering with its day to day running. […] He was identified as Huang Shigong [黃石公], a patron of Zhang Liang [張良] who in about 200 BC was a trusted counsellor of Liu Bang [劉邦] and is said to have written a work on military tactics, the Sanlue [三略, “Three Strategies”].
Zhang Liang was one of the Three Heroes of China, said to have been a governor of a province during the Han, and according to Taoist legend was one day crossing a bridge of a river when a poor old man on a mule passed by. One of the old man’s sandals fell off into the river and in one version Zhang picked up the sandal of his own volition whilst in another, told by devotees, the old man asked him to pick it up. Zhang feeling a great sense of indignity but moved by pity for the old man picked it up. Then, after several tests Zhang Liang was told by the old man that with the book he had just given to Zhang he would become an adviser to the king. In years to come it came about exactly as foretold, and the old man on the mule turned out to be Huang Lao xianshi.
In these temples Huang Lao xianshi’s annual festival is celebrated on the double sixth [i.e. 6th day of the 6th lunar month]. His image has not been noted in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau.
In most temples he is revered for his healing powers, with one sip of water blessed by him curing sickness; it also provides stamina and nerve, and wrestlers and boxers visit his altars to drink his tonic before their matches.
The Huang Lao school combines the teachings of Huang Di, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Buddhist[s], as well as Confucian[s], developed over the centuries into its own particular form (RefNo. W3015).
This philosophical connection is interesting as one scholar suggests that the Sanlue “was written around the end of the Former Han dynasty, probably by a reclusive adherent of the Huang-Lao school who had expert knowledge of military affairs” (Sawyer & Sawyer, 2007, p. 283). This would explain why the Yellow Elder’s story is associated with Huang Shigong (“Old Man Yellowstone”). Also, his name might imply that he’s considered an embodiment of this philosophy.
One thing not noted in the BOXS article is that some statues alternatively spell his name as 黃老先師 (Huang Lao xianshi), meaning the “First Teacher Yellow Elder” (see the third section on this page). The term 先師 is a reference to one of Confucius‘ titles (Chin, 2007, p. 13).
Ronni shared with me a source explaining the birth of Master Yellow Elder’s sect. One webpage claims it came about in 1937 at No. 38 Beer Village of Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, Peninsular Malaysia (马来西亚半岛森美兰州马口三十八啤农村). This might explain why the sect is more popular in Malaysia than Singapore:
At that time, Liao Jun [廖俊] was alone in the hall near the Daoist altar when he became curious about learning spirit-mediumship and spirit-writing. All of a sudden, a spirit entered his body, causing him to sit solemnly while stroking his whiskers and mumbling incomprehensively. He didn’t know what spirit had taken hold of his body or what was being said. Afterwards, Liao woke up but didn’t know anything. After that he requested the spirit to descend everyday but wasn’t able to speak. Later, Mr. Dai Zhao [Dai Zhao xiansheng, 戴招先生], the original owner of the Daoist temple, consecrated him as a new spirit-medium with a seal. He was then able to write messages and finally speak. Until that day when Liao Jun called the spirit, he opened his mouth and preached with strict principles and profound meaning. He said that the Immortal Master came to teach disciples in order to help the world. But he did not reveal his origin.
After a period of Liao calling down the spirit, the gathered crowd questioned the deity. He finally revealed that the Immortal Master Yellow Elder was actually Oldman Yellowstone [Huang shigong, 黃石公], known from legends passed down through the generations. According to the Jade Emperor’s decree, he was to open the dharma gate [famen, 法门] by preaching his teachings for the universal deliverance of the people.
Those who wish to enter the dharma gate first have to fast for 30 days and then complete the dharma hall ceremony to become a formal disciple. This dharma transforms according to one’s heart and can be used as one desires. Only when it is used in the right way (zhengdao, 正道) will it be effective. One cannot harbor any evil desires.
All of Immortal Master Yellow Elder’s disciples can worship at home by arranging their own shrine. A memorial tablet [paiwei, 牌位] must be set up in the center, and the following words must be written: mercy [ci, 慈], loyalty [zhong, 忠], faith [xin, 信], righteousness [yi, 义], rituals [li, 礼], relationships [lun, 伦], continence [jie,节], filial piety [xiao, 孝], honesty [lian, 廉], and right virtue [de德]. A sign on the left side must say, “Obey the Way of Heaven with Loyalty” [Shuntian xingdao zhong, 顺天行道忠], and on the right, “From the Earth Return to Ceremony” [Congdi fu liyi, 从地復礼仪].
Apart from the aforementioned ten precepts [shi xundao, 十训道], the disciples of the Immortal Master can also draw talismans [fu, 符] to exorcise evil spirits from residences. At the same time, they can practice a boxing method to protect oneself in case of emergency.
At that time, more than 40 people were attracted to join. They worshiped the Immortal Master Yellow Elder and were diligent in practicing the dharma and martial arts. Later, the number of disciples increased. After the Immortal Master made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. After the Immortal Master Yellow Elder made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. And after they went before him and asked for instructions, he ordered that the first temple be built in Malacca. Because Malacca is a holy place of Buddhist temples, the sect spread throughout Malaysia and into Singapore (source).
This passage is interesting because it mixes Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist terminology. Examples include “dharma gate” and “right way”; the list of the ten precepts, which are similar to the Four Cardinal Principles and Eight Virtues; and the evil-warding talismans.
It still amazes me, though, that the Great Sage is given such a prominent position in the center when he’s not even the main focus of the sect.
1) The BOXS catalog explains that there’s actually some confusion between two similarity named deities in different versions of the trinity. One is the aforementioned Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) and the other is the Immortal Master Kingly Elder (Wang Lao xianshi, 王老仙師). This is because Huang (黃) and Wang (王) “are almost homophones” (RefNo. W6675 & W3015).
Chin, A. (2007). Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. United Kingdom: Yale University Press.
Sawyer, R. D., & Sawyer, M. (2007). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Werner, E. T. C. (1922). Myths & Legends of China. New York: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.
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 and Vietnam, 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 Patriarch” (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 (and member of the 35 Confession Buddhas) 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.
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.
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. It was then shaded with two processional flags and an eight trigrams umbrella (video 1). I was told exposing the ashes/soldiers to sunlight was considered highly disrespectful.
Video 1 – A video of the incense ash-gathering ceremony. Shot by the author on November 7th, 2021.
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.  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.
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. 3). 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. 3).  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. 4). The rarest statue I’ve ever seen depicts the Great Sage with six arms wielding a staff in each hand (fig. 5).
Fig. 3 – (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. 4 – (Top Right) Dark, wooden Great Sage statues with bright ornamentation (larger version). Photos by the author. Fig. 5 – (Bottom left) A three-headed, six-armed monkey god (larger version). Seen on Facebook. Fig. 6 – (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. 6). 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 Shang–Zhou 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.  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 vessels use in Taiwan and Hong Kong but mostly Singapore.
The Great Sage’s religious birthday is celebrated on different dates according to location. It is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month in Hong Kong  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 2 – 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. 7). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”).
Fig. 7 – Drawings of the japsang effigies of Korea. The first four figures are commonly associated with Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing (larger version). However, contemporary sources sometimes named the first figure Wukong. This would make since as he’s wearing armor.
I’ve just posted an article about a Taiwanese folk Taoist deity whose iconography is shockingly similar to the Great Sage. The “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人) is depicted as a long-haired primate wearing a golden fillet and golden armor and bearing a fly whisk and (sometimes) and immortal peach.
This figure interests me as both he and the Monkey King have a centuries-long association with each other in popular literature. This likely led to the White Ape Perfected Man borrowing from the Great Sage’s religious imagery.
I learned that the Teo Chew Vietnamese Buddhist Temple of the Houston, Texas, USA, Chinatown has an altar to the Monkey King. An image from Twitter (fig. 8) is labeled “Tề Thiên Đại Thánh” (“Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, 齊天大聖). I have contacted the temple to learn more information.
Fig. 8 – The Monkey King altar of the Teo Chew Temple of Houston, Texas, USA (larger version). Take note of the Vietnamese words at the top. Image found on Twitter.
A Facebook friend shared information about Sun Wukong’s worship in Vietnam.
The Monkey God is worshipped by some of the Chinese community in Vietnam alongside other popular deities like MaZu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The Hoa-Viet immigrants probably brought his worship over during the war. Also interesting to note that in my mothers home province of Huế there are Vietnamese Lên Đồng medium shrines that channel the monkey god but it is not popular among Vietnamese since some of us see him as a fictional character, but his TangKi worship is more common within Chinese shrines in the southern regions.
Video #3 – The century old monkey god temple of Southern Vietnam.
I was looking through US newspaper archives and was surprised to find a brief report on a Great Sage spirit-medium from Hong Kong (fig. 9). The medium is said to be Chung Kam, a 42-year-old construction worker from Guangzhou who has served as the monkey god’s vessel for 20 years. Mr. Chung is said to take part in an Olympic-like event in the the Sau Mau Ping area of Hong Kong (Robbins, 1982). So, this might be the very same medium from video #2.
Fig. 9 – The article explaining Mr. Chung’s exploits as the monkey god (larger version).
I’ve archived the Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang Baojuan, 二郎寳卷, 1562), which mentions Sun Wukong in a religious context 30 years before the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) was even published.
Also, my friend Edward White told me about another Monkey King-related religious work titled the Scripture of Patriarch Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian dasheng fozu jing, 齊天大聖佛祖經) (fig. 10 & 11). This brief work appears in the Heavenly Classic Precious Scroll (Tianjing baojuan, 天經寶卷) (source). This is likely the product of modern spirit writing.
I’ve previously discussed the place of tangki self-mortification in the Great Sage’s religion. Here (fig. 12) is a photograph showing five skewers through a tangki’s arm. They are Monkey King versions of the five camps generals. From bottom to top, they are Sun Wukong (孫悟空, green – east), the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖; red – south), the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛; gold/yellow – center), the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖; white – west), and the Black-Faced Great Sage (Heilian dasheng, 黑臉大聖; black – north). I’ve only seen these monkey-headed skewers in Singapore, which is exactly where they are from.
Khmer worshipers appear to recognize four of the five:
The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the Fighting Buddha of Certain Victory (Qitian dasheng Zhandou bisheng fo, 齊天大聖戰鬥必勝佛) (ព្រះមហាទេពស្មើមេឃ)
The Demon-Subduing Buddha (Great Sage Reaching Heaven) (Fumo tuofo, 伏魔陀佛; Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖) (ស្វាខ្)
The Luolisha Buddha” (The Third Son Shuashua) (Luolisha fo, 曪理沙佛; Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎) (ស្វាស)
Horizontal/Chaotic River Buddha” (Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage) (Henghe sha fo, 横河沙佛; Danxia dasheng, 丹霞大聖) (ស្វាក្រហម) (fig. 14)
Astute readers will notice that the main Great Sage’s name was slightly altered. The douzhan (鬥戰, “to fight or battle”) of Douzhan shengfo (鬥戰勝佛) was switched around to the more common zhandou (戰鬥), and the character bi (必, “certain”) was further added to embellish the name.
Two other Monkey Buddhas have changes to their names. Number three, Luolisha fo (曪理沙佛), uses a different luo (曪 instead of 囉) and li (理 instead of 哩). And number four, Henghe sha fo (横河沙佛), misspells the heng (横 instead of 恆), changing the original meaning of the name.
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) The last two characters, tuofo (陀佛), appear in the Buddha Amitabha‘s Chinese name: Amituofo (阿彌陀佛).
6) I’m not sure how to translate this. It reads like a foreign term that I’m not familiar with.
7) “Sands of the Ganges River” (henghe sha, 恆河沙) is a popular phrase used in Buddhist literature to designate a very large number (examples from the Lotus Sutra). It’s also interesting to note that the Rhesus macaque is sometimes referred to as a “Ganges monkey” (henghe hou, 恆河猴). This might explain the origin of the primate deity’s name. Thanks to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.
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.
I am absolutely thrilled to share a PDF scan of The Great Sage Equaling Heaven’s True Scripture of Awakening People and Enlightening the World (Qitian Dasheng xingren jueshi zhenjing, 齊天大聖醒人覺世眞/真經). That’s right, the Monkey King has a holy book! I first learned of it when I visited the Great Sage Equaling Heaven Temple (Qitian Dasheng Miao, 齊天大聖廟) in the Zhongshan District of Keelung, Taiwan. I had spent a few minutes taking pictures, when I briefly looked back through the images to make sure they weren’t blurry (a common problem when photographing in dimly lit temples). This is when I saw a blue booklet tucked among the altar statues (fig. 1 and 2). I hadn’t notice it upon first inspecting the figures. But once I looked up and read the characters, I knew I had found something special.
After posting about it online and inquiring with my monkey temple contacts, a gentleman from Taichung wrote me on Facebook and offered to send me a copy free of charge (a BIG thank you to Mr. Chen). A few days later, I received a package in the mail and was delighted to find he had sent me an exact copy as that seen in Keelung.
The resulting scans are the product of an overhead scanner set to document mode. I found the book mode cropped off the page numbers and slightly widened the characters when the program attempted to flatten the curved pages. Still, the final product is not perfect as the accordion-style pages can’t be laid perfectly flat.
The document states that this is the fourth batch printed in September of 2006. I’m not sure when it was first written; though, I’ve been told by a few informants that it is likely the product of the “flying phoenix” (feiluan, 飛鸞), otherwise known as “planchette writing” or “spirit writing” (fuji, 扶乩 / 扶箕). Jordan and Overmyer (1986) note the Chapel of Compassion and Goodness (Cishan Tang, 慈善堂) of the Society of Wisdom and Enlightenment (Huiming She, 慧明社) in Tainan published a book via the planchette in 1965 with 724 “revelations” from assorted Buddhist and Daoist deities, including the Great Sage (pp. 107-108). Perhaps this scripture is part of that tradition. A tangki from Taipei said that last year a sister temple had gifted 20 copies of the Great Sage scripture to various temples. One informant said they saw it at a temple on “Five Fingers Mountain” (Wuzhi shan, 五指山) in Hsinchu, while another said they saw an exact copy in Singapore. The internet has a few videos of the scripture being performed aloud, one in Hokkien and the other in Cantonese (video 1). The latter suggests the scripture is present in Hong Kong as well.
Video 1 – The Cantonese version of the Great Sage scripture.
I am not a translator, so I don’t plan to make my own. My hope is that a more qualified individual will use the PDF to give the scripture the proper translation and analysis that it deserves. I would love to one day host it on my site.
I have posted a brief analysis of the Great Sage scripture by Edward White. A big thank you to him.
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.
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. 
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. 
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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718290