The Worship of Sun Wukong the Monkey King: An Overview

I’ve written several articles on the worship of the Monkey King. I’ve decided to post a succinct overview for those not familiar with the subject.

Warning: Self-mortification and blood below!

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

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

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

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

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

The 3 monkey gods

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

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

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

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

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 a sword, an ax, a spiked club, a sawfish nose sword, and a spiked ball, respectively. 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.

Fig. 5 – 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).

Mediums wear ritual bibs normally associated with babies in Asian culture. As noted above, the Hokkien/Chinese word for spirit-medium means “Divining Child”. This refers to the centuries-old belief that children were the mouthpieces of gods. In fact, the mediums are known to speak in a shrill voice known as “shen (神, god) language”. The fact that their back is bare refers to ancient ShangZhou period rituals in which a sacrificial victim was exposed to the elements. However, it should be noted that, since the 1980s, more and more mediums in Singapore have taken to wearing flashy, Chinese opera-inspired costumes, including the golden fillet. [2] 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 (sometimes a soda bottle or something more elegant) filled with “noon water” (wushi shui, 午時水) and topped with a special bulbous glass stem. The bottle is believed to make a characteristic “ping-pong” (乒乓) chime upon the deity’s arrival in a temple or home, usually around 12 noon but also other times. I’ve heard of the vessel’s use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The Great Sage’s religious birthday is celebrated on different dates according to the location. It is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore, the 23rd (Fuzhou) or 25th day (Putian) of the 2nd lunar month in Fujian (sources vary), and the 12th day of the 10th lunar month in Taiwan. 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.

Fig. 6 – 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 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. 6). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). [3]

Note:

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

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

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

Source:

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

The Great Sage Detecting “Ping-Pong” Bottle

Updated: 08/11/20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 08/11/20

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

Notes:

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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