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.  And since heaven is the embodiment of yang,  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.
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.
An informant from Singapore, who is the head of a monkey god temple, shared with me some wonderful folk knowledge about the ping-pong bottle. The words below are gently edited for readability:
He fl[ies] at a high speed which generates high heat [and] causes the ping pong to sound. The water inside the bottle where you place the ping pong [is] changed on 五月初五 (端午節) [i.e. the Dragon Boat Festival]. Every year, the replacement water is collected from your rain water. The former water will [be] use[d] to bath[e] to purify our well-being. I have pour[ed] it into a large [pail]. And bottle it and give [it] to devotees to bath[e]. Talisman[s are] issued [when we change the water at noon] (fig. 3), [we] will paste [them] on the bottle on 端午節. [W]hen urgent or danger[rous] matters [happen], we will use the [ping pong holy] water to ward off bad omen[s].
My informant said some of this knowledge was revealed to him by the monkey god.
I was also told by a collector-seller that there are different-sized glass stems (fig. 4), though he believes their hand-made nature means no two are exactly the same. My informant states the stems with the “larger diameter will sound louder” when the Great Sage arrives.
Fig. 3 – Talismans on a ping-pong bottle (larger version). Photo taken at the Wallich Street “Tai Seng Yah” (Dasheng ye) temple in Singapore during the 1970s. Courtesy of Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project. Fig. 4 – The different sizes of ping-pong stems (larger version). Photo from a private collector.
My informant tells me that a beer bottle can be used to hold the pingpong stem. It must be washed and all labels removed. The preparation for the stem is a little more involved. The stem must be washed along with five kinds of flowers. The types of flowers do not matter, but no white flowers are permitted. Also, slices of green lemon can be included, but no yellow lemons are permitted. This washing must be done on the first or the 15th of the lunar month. The holy water is gathered in a pail between 11am and noon from rain the day before the Dragon Boat Festival, for it is believed that it always rains on this day. This water is poured one index finger length from the rim. This ensures it will not overflow once the pingpong stem is inserted. Then triangle-folded joss paper (jin zhi, 金紙) (fig. 5-8) is waved three times around the pingpong (nuo pingpong, 挪乒乓) while prayers are said. Finally, the paper is left atop the pingpong bulb for a given time. The pingpong bottle must be placed next to a statue of the Great Sage.
Fig. 5-8 – The process of folding the joss paper into triangles (larger version). Photos by my informant.
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.
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.
The Qiang (Chinese: 羌; Qiangic: Rrmea) ethnic group have been mentioned in Chinese records as far back as the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th-century BCE). Originally inhabiting the northern reaches of China, these sheepherders and warriors were driven southwest over many centuries of conflict with neighboring ethnic groups, as well as the Chinese. Many Chinese dynasties attempted to assimilate them, but the Qiang have resisted up to the present. Today, they live in western Sichuan near the Tibetan border and are listed among the 56 recognized ethnic groups of China (Yu, 2004, pp. 155-156; Wang, 2002, pp. 133-136).
What’s interesting about the Qiang for the purposes of this blog is that both magic monkeys and heavenly stones, and even Sun Wukong himself, play a part in the people’s religious mythology.
Fig. 1 – A map of China showing the location of Sichuan province in red. Larger version available on wikicommons.
I. Monkeys and Qiang shamanism
Shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi; Chinese: Duan gong, 端公 or Wu, 巫) are the heart of Qiang religious life. During special ceremonies, they wear three-peaked hats (fig. 2 and 3) made from the fur of golden monkeys(fig. 4), each peak respectively representing the deities of heaven, earth, and shamanism (more on the latter below).  These hats are especially worn during exorcisms because the monkeys are considered “the purest of animals, [which stand] in extreme contrast to the vilest of beings—the demons” (Oppitz, 2004, p. 13). There are several legends, with many variants, explaining the origins of the headdress. One version states:
[T]he Qiangs used to have a written language, and their patriarch recorded the scriptures he obtained from the gods and other important writings on human affairs on the bark of birch trees. One day when he took out the pieces of bark to be aired, a mountain sheep came and ate them all. With the help of a golden monkey the patriarch captured the guilty sheep and made its skin into a drum. When he beat on the drum he was able to recall the words written on the birch bark. To prevent future mishaps to these precious documents, he memorized them by heart (Yu, 2004, p. 160).
So in essence the hats are worn to commemorate the assistance of the golden monkey. Interestingly, another version replaces the patriarch and golden monkey with Tripitaka and Sun Wukong:
A long time ago, in the Tang period, there was a monk by the name of Tang Seng [唐僧, “Tang Monk”], who undertook a journey to the western skies in the company of a monkey named Sun Wukong, in order to collect sacred scriptures. On their way back, they encountered a sheep ghost who ate all the newly acquired scriptures. The monkey got very angry, killed the sheep ghost, and used its skin to fabricate a drum. Thereupon Tang Seng and the monkey met with the Eighteen Arhats … Listening to their teachings, Tang Seng picked up the sheep-skin drum and repeated all that he heard through their mouths. Since then all shamans use a drum when reciting their knowledge from memory (Oppitz, 2004, p. 23).
Fig. 2 – The three-peaked golden monkey skin shaman hat. From the Sichuan University Museum. Larger version on wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A shaman wearing the headdress and playing the ritual sheep skin drum (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. From Oppitz, 2004, p. 14. Fig. 4 – A golden monkey with child. Larger version on wikipedia.
The golden monkey is closely associated with the Qiang’s pantheistic worship of sacred white stones, each one representing the gods of heaven, sun, fire, mountains, rivers, and trees.  Yu (2004) provides another legend for the origins of the Shaman’s hat, describing how the monkey is the offspring of the sacred stone and noting parallels with the birth of Sun Wukong:
Another legend depicts the golden monkey as a Prometheus-like figure who stole fire from heaven. The first two attempts failed because the god of wind and the god of rain extinguished the fire, but the monkey succeeded the third time by concealing the fire in a white stone. It is worth noting that in this legend the golden monkey is closely related to the white stone. In the Qiang language, the first syllables in the names of the monkey’s mother and father mean respectively “stone” and “fire.” “This implies that fire is produced by stone and hidden inside the stone, and that the half-human, half-simian golden monkey was an offspring of the union between stone and fire”. The white stone and the golden monkey, as the source of fire and the messenger who brought it to the human world, became the totems of the Qiang people. To commemorate the recovery of the lost scriptures, wearing the monkey hat and playing the sheepskin drum also became an indispensable part of Sacrifice to the Mountain[, a Qiang ceremony]. However, the monkey legend is not particular to the Qiang people. The Yi minority people of northwestern Guizhou province have a nuo drama known as bianren xi (changing-into-people drama) based on a legend that people derived from monkeys. Actors wear monkey masks for this performance. There is also the famous monkey, Sun Wukong, who was born from a stone in the Han Chinese novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West, 1592) by Wu Chengen (ca. 1506-1582).  The novel was first published in 1592, but the monkey lore included in it was of much earlier time (p. 160).
A celestial, stone-born monkey who steals from heaven certainly sounds like the Monkey King. As noted here, stories about Sun Wukong have been circulating in Asia for a millennia. So it seems only natural that the Qiang’s reverence for heavenly stones and monkeys would lead to some of them worshiping the beloved cultural figure.
Graham (1958) notes Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing figure among the Chinese patron deities of the “red” shamans (p. 53).  What’s interesting is that the red shamans are said to speak a special demon language and use their skills to exorcise demons (p. 54). Therefore, their worship of the Monkey King should come as no surprise considering Sun Wukong is the exorcist par excellence.
As noted above, one of the peaks of the ritual headdress represents the patron deity of shamanism. Known among other names as the Abba mula (“father god”), this is the title given to the shaman’s main focus of worship. For instance, Sun Wukong is the Abba mula of those who revere him. Most importantly, the chosen deity is further represented by a small bundle that the shaman carries with him and guards jealousy, as it is the source of his knowledge and power. Graham (1958) describes the sacred bundle’s importance, construction, and use:
He is the patron or guardian deity and instructor of the Ch’iang priest, and without him the priest could do nothing. It consists of a skull of a golden-haired monkey wrapped in a round bundle of white paper. Its eyes are old cowry shells or large seeds. Inside are also dried pieces of a golden-haired monkey’s lungs, intestines, lips, and fingernails. It is so wrapped that the face of the skull is visible at one end, and the other end is closed [fig. 5 and 6]. After each ceremony in the sacred grove,  the priest wraps another sheet of white paper around it, so that it gradually increases in diameter. Some priests will not allow another person to touch his Abba Mula and only the priest worships this god (pp. 51-52).
I mention this because there are no doubt sacred bundles representing Sun Wukong, which are used under his supernatural guidance.
Fig. 5 – The Abba mula bundle. Note the visible monkey skull with cowry shell eyes (larger version). Original photograph by Wolfgang Wenning. Fig. 6 – A Qiang shaman carry a bundle and sacred cane (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. Both images are from Oppitz, 2004, p. 41.
Oppitz (2004) explains stories alluding to Sun Wukong appear in Qiang pictorial divination books. Furthermore, he suggests the ritual of wrapping the Abba mula bundle with additional paper represents the lost written knowledge saved by the Monkey King / golden monkey, which is now passed on orally.
In Qiang divination books the monkey features in various passages. In one book the picture of a monkey alludes to a story in which he destroys a heavenly palace; another book addresses a monkey’s trip to a western land, where he acquires written texts. In both cases the monkey Sun Wukong of popular literature and protagonist of the novel Xi yu ji [sic], who escorts the Tang pilgrim Xuanzang, stands as the model. This character’s association with the acquisition of books and the role a golden-haired monkey plays in a Qiang myth as the inventor of the drum replacing the lost scriptures, suggests that the paper which is wrapped around the venerated monkey skull may also be interpreted as a hint to the conflict between scriptural versus oral tradition at the intersection of which the monkey stands as a mediator (p. 42).
II. Monkeys and the Qiang origin myth
Called “Mutsitsu and Tugantsu” (Mujiezhu yu Douanzhu, 木姐珠與斗安珠), the Qiang origin myth centers around the romance of Mutsitsu, the daughter of the supreme god Abamubi (or Mubita), and the earthbound monkey Tugantsu. The latter saves the goddess from a ferocious tiger when she visits the mortal world and both instantly fall in love. She brings him to the celestial realm, where Abamubi only agrees to their marriage if Tugantsu can successfully complete a series of impossible herculean tasks. These include falling the trees of ninety-nine mountains, burning the trees, and using the arable land to plant a crop of corn (other sources say grain); but each time Mutsitsu secretly enlists the aid of fellow gods to insure the tasks are completed on time. During the burning of the forest, Tugantsu’s fur is singed, revealing him to be a handsome man. In the end, the supreme god agrees to their marriage and Mutsitsu and Tugantsu become the progenitors of mankind. 
Academia Sinica (n.d.) comments that some Qiang communities who revere Chinese gods often equate Abamubi with the Jade Emperor of Daoism and Tugantsu with Sun Wukong. I find this especially fascinating as the Monkey King then becomes a sacred protoplast.
In addition, Academia Sinica (n.d.) explains this “monkey transforming into human” motif (i.e. Tugantsu becoming a man) has similarities with Tibetan mythology, for the Qiang live in close proximity to the people of Tibet. This refers to the Tibetan origin myth in which the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (the Indo-Tibetan variant of Guanyin) and Tara are respectively reborn on earth as a monkey and his wife, a rock ogress (fig. 7). (Again, the association between the monkey and rock reminds one of Sun Wukong.) The union produces six half-human half-monkey children, from which originate the six original tribes of Tibet. These children and their offspring eventually evolve human features (Stein, 1972, pp. 37 and 46).
The religious mythology of the Qiang ethnic group of China pays reverence to both heavenly monkeys and sacred stones. Examples include stories about a golden monkey born from a stone who both bestows fire on man and creates the sheepskin drum needed to recover lost scriptural knowledge. Qiang communities that revere Chinese deities often replace the golden monkey with Sun Wukong, no doubt due to his birth mirroring the former’s origins. The same holds true for the Qiang origin myth in which a goddess and monkey-turned-man become the progenitors of mankind. The Monkey King is sometimes equated with the father, transforming him from a literary character and cultural figure into a sacred protoplast. Interestingly, the monkey-rock and monkey-to-man motifs have connections to a wider myth cycle present in Tibet.
Some shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi) specializing in exorcism worship our hero as their patron deity, or Abba mula (“father god”). Such deities are given form as a bundled monkey skull successively wrapped in white paper. This sacred object is considered the source of the shaman’s power. It’s possible the wrapping paper references the lost scriptural knowledge that Sun Wukong/the golden monkey helped recover.
To my knowledge, most of what has been written about the Qiang, and by extension their connection with Sun Wukong, was collected by ethnographers during the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the Qiang have no written language (hence the importance of oral knowledge), it’s impossible to say how far back this connection goes. But as noted in this article, the Monkey King has been worshiped by the Chinese since at least the 17th-century. So the Qiang reverence for Sun Wukong could also be centuries old.
Sun Wukong also appears in the folklore of the neighboring (and related) Miao ethnic group. The Miao also believe man derives from monkeys.
Rockhill (1891) provides a complete translation of the Tibetan monkey-ogress origin myth taken from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century), a collection of Tibetan Buddhist texts centered around Avalokitesvara. The translation is too long to transcribe here, so I have made a PDF of the relevant pages. It’s interesting to note that the Bodhisattva Hilumandju, the protagonist, is a monkey king with magic powers.
Hilumandju and Hanumanji are quite similar, as noted by other writers (Chattopadhyaya & Chimpa, 2011, p. 152). The Tibetologist Per K. Sørensen notes “the idea of an ape-gestalt in this myth is directly associated with or inspired by the ape-king … and champion … Ha-lu ma-da = Hanümän, the resourceful figure and protagonist known from Välmlki’s Rämäyana, a tale of considerable popularity already in the dynastic period in Tibet” (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 127, n. 329).
In the high mountains of southwestern Shu [Sichuan and Tibet] there is an animal resembling the monkey. It is seven feet in height, it can imitate the ways of human beings and is able to run fast in pursuit of them. It is named Jia-guo 猳國 or Ma-hua 馬化; some call it Jue 貜. It watches out for young women travelling on the road and seizes and bears them away without anyone being aware of it. If travelers are due to pass in its vicinity they lead one another by a long robe, but even this fails to avert disaster. The beast is able to distinguish between the smell of men and women and can thus pick out the women and leave the men. Having abducted a man’s wife or daughter it makes her its own wife. Women that fail to bear its children can never return for the rest of their lives, and after ten years they come to resemble the beast in appearance, their minds become confused, and they no longer think of return. Those that bear sons return to their homes with the infants in their arms. The sons are all like men in appearance. If any refuse to rear them, the mothers die. So the women go in fear of the beast, and none dares refuse to bring up her son. Grown up, the sons are no different from men, and they all take the surname Yang 楊, which is why there are so many people by that name now in the south west of Shu: they are mostly descended from the Jia-guo or Ma-hua (Wu, 1987, pp. 91-92).
I find the last part fascinating because it states the inhabitants of the Sichuan-Tibet region were fathered by the ape. This recalls the Tibetan, Qiang, and Miao tales of humans descending from monkeys. It also suggests the aforementioned ethnic stories about a primate progenitor stretch back to the early part of the first millennium.
1) Graham (1958) notes the headdress is one of eleven sacred implements of the Qiang shaman. He provides a detailed description of the hat’s significance.
This is made of a golden-haired monkey skin and is believed to be very efficacious, greatly adding to the dignity and potency of the priest and his ceremonies. The eyes and ears of the monkey are left on, and the tail is sewed on at the back. The eyes enable the hat to see and the ears to hear, and add to the efficiency of the hat. The tail also adds to its efficiency. The front of the hat is ornamented with old cowry shells arranged in ornamental designs, one or two polished white bones that are said to be the kneecaps of tigers, and sometimes with carved sea shells. These ornaments improve the looks of the hat and also add to its efficiency. Other ornaments believed to add efficiency when used are two cloth pennants, one or two small circular brass mirrors, and one or two small brass horse bells much like sleigh bells, on which the Chinese character wang 王 meaning king is carved. Near Wen-ch’uan the priests sometimes assist the magistrate in praying for rain and in turn are presented with a small, thin silver plaque to be worn on the hat, on which is stamped the Chinese word shang 賞, or “reward.” This plaque also adds dignity and efficiency (pp. 55-56).
2) The Qiang reverence for these stones is tied to the aforementioned conflict with neighboring tribes. For example, legend states the great heavenly ancestor of the Qiang sent them three white stones to aid in their battle with a neighboring tribe, transforming them into mountains from which weapons were made. Another legend claims these stones help the Qiang make fire (Yu, 2004, pp. 156-157). These white stones often appear on buildings (both temples and houses), walls, altars, and graves in Qiang society (Graham, 1958, p. 103).
3) The original paper reads, “…in the Han Chinese novel Xiyu ji (Journey to the West, 1982)…” I have corrected the typos.
4) The colors red, white, and black signify the class of magic (good vs. dark), though shamans often inhabit all three roles (Graham, 1958, p. 54).
5) Sacred groves are home to a village’s temple and white stone altar, where many rituals are performed at night and in the early morning (Graham, 1958, p. 64).
7) Another version of the tale appears in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, 14th-century). An annotated translation can be read in Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, pp. 125-133.
Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, & Sørensen, P. K. (1994). The mirror illuminating the royal genealogies: Tibetan buddhist historiography : an annotated translation of the XIVth century Tibetan chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Chattopadhyaya, A., & Chimpa. (2011). Atīśa and Tibet: Life and works of Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (alias Atīśa) in relation to the history and religion of Tibet, with Tibetan sources. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Type “Sun Wukong” into google images and you will be presented with an endless array of pictures that range from the familiar to the alien. A fanciful 1960s cartoon depiction of our hero sits to the left of a SMITE video game character with hulking muscles and a weapon more akin to a club than a staff. A toy version of Liu Xiao Ling Tong‘s much beloved 1986 TV portrayal sits above an anime character with blond hair and a shaved chest. It seems there are as many depictions of Wukong as he has transformations. But how do these myriad personas compare to his depiction in the novel, and who has produced the most authentic look? In this article I present the Monkey King’s literary description, along with ancient depictions that predate the novel. My hope is that the information will be both interesting and useful, especially for artists and cosplayers looking to make a more authentic design.
1. Ancient Depictions
Some readers may be surprised to learn that stories about a “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This predates the actual name Sun Wukong by centuries. The literary episodes we all know and love began life as oral tales that evolved over time and grew into an accepted storytelling cycle which started to solidify by the 15th-century.  But the further we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes (I will return to this shortly), and due to the memory-based nature of oral storytelling,  records for the earliest repertoires do not exist. Luckily, visual media from the Song survives, allowing us to see how artists of that time depicted the Monkey King.
Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains an 11th-century (Xixia dynasty) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The latter is portrayed with a plain circlet on his head, a homely face with an overbite, waist length hair (or possibly even wearing a fur on his back), and light blue-green robes with a red apron and brown pants and sandals (fig. 1 and 2). The depiction is less simian in appearance, yet not wholly human.
Fig. 1 – An almost complete version of the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 painting (larger version). Photo by National Geographic. Fig. 2 – A detail of Monkey and Xuanzang (larger version). See figure 14 for an enhanced detail of Monkey’s head.
Yulin Cave (Yulin ku, 榆林窟) number three in Gansu contains an 11th to 12th-century wall painting with similar imagery. Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra. We see Monkey lacks the fillet but wears a monk’s robe with wrapped socks and sandals. This time he is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms (fig. 3 and 4).
Fig. 3 – An almost complete version of the 11th to 12th-century Yulin Cave no. 3 painting (larger version). Monkey and Xuanzang can be seen standing on the river bank on the upper left side. Fig. 4 – A detail of the two figures (larger version).
Despite the lack of written evidence from this time, the fact that the Monkey Pilgrim appears in picture form in two noted Buddhist cave grottoes shows the story was well known as early as the 11th-century. It’s not impossible to imagine that the oral tales go back further to the previous century or even before the Song itself.
A circa 1237 stone relief carving of what many scholars believe to be an early version of Monkey resides on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province. This muscular warrior wears the headband, earrings, bracelets, a rosary necklace, and possibly even arm bangles (all prescribed Esoteric Buddhist ritual accouterments), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a scroll of the Mahamayurividyarajni Sutra (Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經) (fig. 5) (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935). He has the large ears and protruding mouth of a monkey.
Fig. 5 – The monkey-headed warrior from Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).
Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) references our hero twice in his work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:
A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河],
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)
Ugliness is a subject I will return to several more times.
I mentioned earlier that the farther we go back in time the less familiar the recorded material becomes. Case in point is theThe Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures(c. late 13th-century), the earliest published edition of Journey to the West. Despite referring to himself as “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182), the Monkey Pilgrim is depicted as a white-clad scholar. Another difference is the fact that he fights with two different staves, one a ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron rod (these two would later be combined to create his signature weapon).
The majority of Song sources depict the Monkey Pilgrim as the size of an adult man but with the head of an ugly monkey. Reasons for why he is depicted this size could be because the respective artists lived in areas devoid of such animal examples, or that they simply imagined a monk like themselves (for the artists were likely ordained) with monkey features. Another reason could be that they were influenced by early stage portrayals, which would obviously entail an adult actor taking on the role.
2. What the novel says
2.1. Physical appearance
The earliest descriptions of what Monkey looks like appear in chapter one. When he is first taken in by his teacher Subhuti, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].”  After he returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, a demon king refers to Monkey’s height: “You’re not four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).
In chapter 7, Monkey is subjected to Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace as punishment for his crimes against heaven. He survives the celestial fire but the smoke inside “…reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils [Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). The anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) explains his fiery eyes are “a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [the Rhesus macaque]” (fig. 6) (p. 148).
Fig. 6 – A comparison of Rhesus macaque males with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (left) and other times (right) (larger version). Original image from Dubue, Allen, Maestripieri, & Higham, 2014, p. 5.
In chapter 20, the reader learns that Monkey’s head is bald (fig. 7). An old man asks him: “…why did you shave your hair to become a monk?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).
In chapter 21, a demon king steps out of his cave to fight Sun but is surprised by his small stature:
The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four feet, in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). (Thank you to Jose Loayza for bringing this passage to my attention.)
His bald head is referred to again in chapter 27: “But ever since Nirvana delivered me from my sins, when with my hair shorn I took the vow of complete poverty and followed you as your disciple, I had this gold fillet clamped on my head” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 24). (Thank you to Stanley Setiawan for bringing this passage to my attention.)
Fig. 7 – Reggie the baboon from Paignton Zoo (circa 2005). His slick head was the result of his mom’s “over-zealous” grooming. Look at those ears! He’s the wrong genus and species, but you get the general idea what Sun Wukong would look like wearing the golden fillet (larger version).
Wukong’s bald pate is once again referenced in chapter 34: “The fiend then gave the rope a tug and pulled Pilgrim down before he gave that bald head seven or eight blows with the sword. The skin on Pilgrim’s head did not even redden at all” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 128).
In chapter 44, the Monkey King’s appearance is revealed in a dream to a group of monks by the personification of the planet Venus:
A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing;
A round head and a hairy face jowl-less;
Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly;
He looks more strange than [the] thunder god (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).
In chapter 49, a monster who barely survived a battle with Sun Wukong describes his appearance to a friend: [H]e has a hairy face and a thunder god beak … forked ears and broken nose. A monk with fiery eyes and diamond pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 353).
In chapter 58, Sun Wukong’s doppelganger is described as having matching features:
A hairy face, a thunder god beak,
An empty jowl unlike Saturn’s;
Two forked ears on a big, broad head,
And fangs that have outward grown (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
In chapter 75, he once again tests the hardness of his bald head:
“‘If your bald head can withstand three blows of my scimitar, I’ll let you and your Tang monk go past’ … Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).
In chapter 77, an old man chastises Monkey for offending him:
You! Look at your skeleton face, flattened brow, collapsed nose, jutting jowl, and hairy eyes. A consumptive ghost, no doubt, and yet without any manners at all, you dare use your pointed mouth to offend an elderly person like me!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 242).
We can see from these quotes several features that appear again and again. These include a furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears. The author-compiler of the novel uses these features over and over again to remind the reader just how ugly the Great Sage is. These same features are also shared by the Rhesus monkey and other macaque species (fig. 8). The multiple mentions of the Thunder God‘s beak refers to the monkey’s prognathic (protruding) mouth, which houses large canine teeth. The quotes also let us know that Sun Wukong is less than four feet tall and very skinny (e.g. having “sallow cheeks” and being like “a consumptive ghost”) just like a monkey (fig. 9). It’s important to note that Sun is described as being bald numerous times throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise since he was required to take the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. Modern depictions often deviate from the features mentioned here (more on this below).
Fig. 8 – A Bonnet macaque bearing its teeth. Photo by Hank Christensen. The furry, joweless face, broken (flat) nose, beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears are easily discernible. Fig. 9 – The short, skinny body of a Rhesus monkey. Photo by mario_ruckh via flickr.
2.2 Clothing and accessories
The novel mentions Sun Wukong wearing different attire throughout his roughly 1,100 years of life. Here I will focus on that which is closely associated with his traditional iconography.
The clothing most often associated with Monkey is his suit of armor. He receives it from the dragon kings of the world’s oceans in chapter 3:
“I have here a pair of cloud-treading shoes [bu yun lu, 步雲履] the color of lotus root[, said Aoshun, the Dragon King of the Northern Ocean]. Aorun, the Dragon King of the Western Ocean said, “I brought along a cuirass of chainmail made of yellow gold [Suozi huangjin jia, 鎖子黃金甲].” “And I have a cap with erect phoenix plumes, made of red gold [ding fengchi zijin guan, 頂鳳翅紫金冠],” said Aoqin, the Dragon King of the Southern Ocean (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 137).
Those wanting to make a novel accurate suit should consult Ming-era chainmail (fig. 10). However, the oldest drawing of Wukong wearing armor that I’m aware of depicts him with “mountain pattern” armor (fig. 11). Combinations of mountain pattern armor and feather caps can be seen in the 16th-century scroll The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (Rubitu, 入蹕圖) (fig. 12), showing it was part of historical military regalia and not just the purview of Chinese opera (fig. 13). Modern depictions of Monkey tend to portray him wearing mountain pattern armor with ornate beast elements on the shoulders and waist. Those wishing to replicate this kind of armor should consult Ming-era statues of Buddhist protector deities, such as Skanda or the Four Heavenly Kings (this blog is especially good) (fig. 14, for example). Modern “Purple Gold Caps” (zijin guan, 紫金冠) with lingzi (翎子) feathers should be used for Sun’s phoenix feather cap (fig. 15).
Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:
Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)
Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One sixteenth-century woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).
The lack of clothing leads to his second most identifiable and longest-worn piece of attire, a tiger skin kilt (hu pi qun, 虎皮裙) (fig. 17). After killing the beast in chapter 14, Monkey:
[Slit] the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece … He cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).
Fig. 17 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong with a tiger skin kilt (larger version). By the author.
Monkey’s most recognizable accessory is the self-control-inducing golden fillet (jingu quan, 金箍圈), which he is tricked into wearing as a punishment shortly after murdering six bandits in chapter 14. As noted above, the band predates the novel, appearing in the 11th-century Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two painting. This piece depicts the headgear as a simple circlet devoid of any decoration (fig. 18). This matches the novel’s description of “a thin metal band” (jinxian, 金線) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310). But as can be seen from the Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief, there also exists a version with a double curlicue pattern in the center of the forehead (fig. 19). This has come to be the most popular version used in modern media.
Fig. 18 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 19 – Detail from the Kaiyuan Temple pagoda relief (1237) (larger version).
As for other attire, there exists one passage in chapter 58 that describes how Monkey’s doppelganger copied even his clothing:
His looks were exactly the same as those of the Great Sage: he, too, had a gold fillet clamped to his brownish hair, a pair of fiery eyes with diamond pupils, a silk shirt on his body, a tiger kilt tied around his waist, a golden-hooped iron rod in one of his hands, and a pair of deerskin boots [jipi xue, 麂皮靴] on his feet (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105).
This appears to be the most detailed description of Monkey’s everyday clothing. It is similar to later Japanese depictions.
There is a distinct order in which Sun Wukong wears the aforementioned clothing and accessories: the armor, then the tiger skin, and then the golden fillet. However, many modern depictions portray Monkey wearing both the armor and headband. This is obviously anachronistic within the novel’s fictional story line. (Admittedly, though, this is not unique to the modern era. See figure 11 for a 16th-century example.) Furthermore, many depictions dismiss the tiger skin kilt altogether.
2.3. The staff
Monkey’s staff is first introduced in chapter three when he travels to the undersea palace of the dragon king to procure a divine weapon. There, he is directed towards a massive iron pillar:
Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron [hei tie, 黑鐵] in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: 17,560 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). 
A poem in chapter 75 describes how the staff is decorated with magic symbols:
The rod of steel [bintie, 鑌鐵] nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself. 
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,” [Shen zhen, 神珍]
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang [Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒],
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375)
So we see the staff is depicted as a rod of black iron or steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight. The literary description greatly differs from modern media which often portrays it as entirely gold or red in color.
Those wishing to replicate the inscription on the staff can use figure 20 as a template. The characters are presented in “Small Seal Script” (小篆), which hails from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) when written Chinese was standardized by Qin Shihuang. Using this will give the staff a more ancient look. I used the template years ago to create a replica staff for an archaeology course in college.
Fig. 20 – The small script template for Monkey’s staff (larger version).
As for “the tracks of stars and planets”, I recommend using the Dunhuang or Suchow star charts.
3. Popular depictions
The following two sections include a small sampling of what I consider to be the least and most accurate portrayals in past and modern media. These are presented in no particular order.
3.1. The least accurate
1) SMITE video game – He’s basically a bodybuilder with mutton chops (fig. 21). The design includes the aforementioned headband plus armor anachronism. Why is he wearing a gladiator-style pauldron? The original illustration is by Brolo on deviantart.
1) Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) – This Japanese artist produced many woodblock prints of our hero. Take for example his Modern Journey to the West series completed between 1864 and 1865. He portrays Sun Wukong as a red-faced snow macaque, which aligns more with the literary description (fig. 20).
3) Journey to the West (2011) – This television series is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Although the actor who plays Sun Wukong is normal height, he wears a full silicone mask and clawed gloves to give the character a more primate look. His golden chainmail armor and staff are more accurate too. The latter even includes decorations on the shaft (fig. 26).
Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).
The novel portrays Sun Wukong as an ugly, bald Rhesus monkey less than four feet tall. His traditional literary attire includes a phoenix feather cap, golden chainmail armor, and lotus root-colored boots. Later, he wears a golden fillet, a silk shirt, a tiger skin kilt, and leather boots. He wields a rod of black iron/steel adorned on both ends with a single golden ring and decorated along the body with astronomical charts and an inscription towards one tip listing the weapon’s name and weight.
I have written this article in the hopes that it will serve as a resource for artists and cosplayers looking to make more authentic designs. Someone may remark: “Why bother? Monkey is a fictional character, so he can take any shape the artist desires.” My reply would be that all such characters have a prescribed iconography, otherwise they are not recognizable. It would be like drawing Harry Potter without the glasses and the scar, and then continuing to change lots of other stuff. At some point it’s no longer Mr. Potter but a completely different character altogether.
My friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart) has drawn a novel accurate depiction of Sun Wukong based on the above information (fig. 27). As can be seen, it differs greatly from that usually portrayed in modern media. Take note of the small stature, the bald head, and especially the primate features. Recent movies and TV shows have portrayed Monkey as a young, handsome human in order to make him a love interest. History is not on the side of such depictions. As mentioned above, stories of Sun Wukong’s ugliness have spanned the centuries.
As mentioned above, the novel describes Wukong being “less than four feet, in fact”. I have made a chart comparing his height with that of a 6 ft (1.82 m) human man (fig. 28). This should serve as a good illustration for just how short our hero is.
1) The 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the final novel.
2) See the introduction of Dudbridge (1970), for example.
3) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).
4) Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) original translation says “thirteen thousand five hundred pounds” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,560 lbs.
5) The substance bin tie (鑌鐵), also known as Bin iron, was a high quality steel imported to China from Persia. The Yuan Dynasty government set up an office named after the material and possibly catered to elite blacksmiths (Sen, 2017, pp. 104-105).
Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Elvin, M. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.
Sen, T. (2017). India, China, and the World: A connected history. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of how the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. 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. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Worshipers of the Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan believe their high god and oldest altar statue, the “Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage” (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 1), was transported to the island from the southern Chinese province of Fujian by a certain Lady Ruan (Ruan Furen, 阮夫人) during the Southern Ming/early Qing Dynasty (c. 1660). Fujian is home to a large number of temples dedicated to Sun Wukong. Monkey’s cult on the mainland may have some bearing on the history of his worship on the island. This is especially true since Taiwan was made a prefecture of Fujian in 1684 by the Qing. It was later granted provincehood in 1887 (Gordon, 2007). The cult was no doubt part of the cultural exchange that took place between these two areas during this time. In this paper I use modern demographics and historical records and stories to explore the history of Sun Wukong’s worship in Fujian. I suggest the existence of a historical 12th-century monkey cult explains why the Great Sage’s cult was so readily adopted in the province.
Fig. 1 – The Wanfu Temple’s Laying the Foundation Great Great Sage altar statue, indicated by the letter A (larger version). B and C are lesser Great Sages within the temple’s pantheon.
I. Modern demographics and possible tie to historical trends
The plains of Putian (莆田) on the central Fujian coast hosts a cluster of Great Sage temples. Dean and Zheng (2009) show the Great Sage is the sixth of the forty most popular deities, his statue appearing in 332 temples, even beating out Guanyin (322 statues) in seventh place (p. 177). Additionally, they describe an interesting geographical correlation in their distribution:
Using GIS mapping, one can unearth many suggestive correlations in distributions of different cultural features across the plain. For example, certain gods such as Qitian dasheng 齊天大聖 (Sun Wukong 孫悟空) and Puji shenghou 普濟聖侯 (Zhu Bajie 豬八戒), the Monkey and the Pig of the classic Xiyouji 西游記 (Journey to the West), appear more often in poorer villages in the northern plain [fig. 2], often in higher elevations than in the low-lying, densely irrigated, wealthier villages of the southern plains. This suggests that the unruly natures of these gods appealed to poorer communities rather than to villages with established scholar-literati lineages (Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 38-39)
Fig. 2 – Left: Distribution of Sun Wukong temples (red) in the Putian plains of Fujian Province, China (larger version); Right: An overlay of Zhu Bajie Temples (light blue) with those of Monkey (red) (larger version). There is quite a bit of overlap. Adapted from Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 192-193.
Sun Wukong is one of several gods who never enjoyed state patronage in dynastic China due to their eccentric or rebellious nature (Shahar, 1996, p. 185). Regarding the latter, emperors had to deal with real world challenges to their own primacy, so paying homage to, say, a dissident monkey spirit probably didn’t seem too appealing. It’s interesting to note that Monkey is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan under his defiant title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, a name he chose during his rebellion with the celestial realm, instead of his Buddhist name Wukong (悟空, “Awakened to Emptiness”) (Shahar, 1996, p. 201). Therefore, Monkey may have historically appealed to poorer folks because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored rich literati over impoverished farmers. This could explain the demographics mentioned above. If true, such people could be responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.
II. The connection between religion, myth, and popular literature
Emperors who officially recognized gods helped make them more popular or at least better known.  But, as Shahar (1996) explains, the state’s involvement rarely went beyond building temples and making offerings. Oral tales and popular novels were largely responsible for spreading the myth of a particular deity (p. 185). He continues:
In some cases the novel’s transformation of its divine protagonist was so profound, and its impact on the shape of its cult so great, that the novelist could be considered the deity’s creator. A notable example is Sun Wukong. The cult of this divine monkey in late imperial times cannot be separated from his image as shaped by the successive Journey to the West novels. In this respect he is indeed their author’s creation, and Pu Songling‘s complaint, voiced through his protagonist Xu Sheng [許盛], is justified: “Sun Wukong is nothing but a parable invented by [the novelist] Old Qiu [老丘].  How can people sincerely believe in him?” (Shahar, 1996, pp. 193-194).
The tale referred to by Shahar, titled the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi, 聊齋誌異), a collection of popular tales recorded as early as 1679 by Pu Songling and later posthumously published in 1740 (Barr, 1984). The story follows the aforementioned Xu Sheng and his older brother, both merchants from Shandong, who travel to Fujian to sell their wares but are told to pray to the Great Sage when they fail to make any money. They visit the monkey god temple and witness people burning incense and kowtowing to an image of Sun Wukong. The older brother takes part in the rituals, but Sheng simply laughs and leaves, resulting in a subsequent argument between the two during which Sheng ridicules adherents for worshiping a fictional character from a novel. Sheng later falls bedridden with agonizing leg sores that prevent him from walking, yet he refuses to accept the Great sage is punishing him. His brother begs him to repent, but he still refuses. The brother shortly thereafter falls ill and dies, prompting Sheng to go to the temple to beg for his brother’s life. That night, he dreams he is brought before Sun Wukong, who rebukes Sheng for his rude behavior and reveals the leg sores (the result of being stabbed by Monkey’s heavenly sword)  and his brother’s subsequent death to be heaven-sent punishments. The deity finally agrees to revive the brother and sends an order to King Yama in hell to release his soul. Sheng shows his thanks by kneeling. He then awakes to find his brother has revived but remains too weak to work. Days later, Sheng meets an old man who claims he can use “a little magic” to transport them to a beautiful place that will sap away the merchant’s depression wrought by the past events. The two travel by cloud to a celestial paradise where Sheng and the old man drink tea with an aged deity. The god rewards Sheng with twelve magic stones for taking the time to visit him. Upon returning to earth, the merchant realizes the old man is the Great Sage, for both use the “Somersault Cloud” (Jindou yun, 筋斗雲) as a means of conveyance. In the end, the magic stones are found to have melted, but this corresponds to a drastic increase in the brothers’ selling profits. The two return home but are sure to pay their respects to the Great Sage anytime they visit Fujian for business (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, pp. 2078-2085).
I’d like to point out the story includes an afterward that critiques the idea of Sun Wukong being a real god:
The collector of these strange tales remarks, “Once upon a time, a scholar who was passing a temple went in and painted a pipa on one wall, then left; when he checked on it later, its spiritual power was considered so outstanding that people had joined together there to burn incense to it. A god certainly doesn’t have to exist in order to be considered powerful in this world; if people believe it to be divine, it will be so for them. What’s the reason for this? When people who share the same beliefs gather together, they’ll choose some creature figure to represent those beliefs. It’s right that an outspoken man like Sheng should be blessed by the god; who else could believe for real that he’s protected by someone who keeps an embroidery needle inside his ear, who he can transform one of his hairs into a writing brush, or who ascends via cloud-somersault into the cerulean sky! In the end, Sheng’s mind must have deluded him, for what he saw simply couldn’t be true” (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2085)
This shows that, while the common folk believed in Monkey, the literati class scoffed at such an idea. This again may explain why, as mentioned above, more well-educated communities in modern Fujian do not widely worship Monkey.
III. Historical monkey cults in Fujian
Apart from Pu Songling’s story, there are two other 17th-century references to the worship of a monkey god in Fujian. Dudbridge (1970) explains:
According to You Dong [尤侗] (1618-1704) the citizens of Fuzhou worshiped Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] as a household god and built temples to the monkey-god Qitian Dasheng. Tong Shisi [佟世思] (1651-92) describes the monkey-headed god of Fujian as bearing a metal circlet about his forehead, brandishing an iron cudgel, wearing a tiger-skin and known as Sun Dasheng [孫大聖, Great Sage Sun]. Traditionally he had appeared in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates (p. 158). 
I find the last reference particularly interesting because it refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by Japanese pirates. It depicts the Great Sage as a benevolent god who intervenes to protect his chosen people, the Chinese.
In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 1237 stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian, that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70).  Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a fillet, a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and a pair of bangles (Fig. 3). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet and the figure wearing it recall South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Walker, 1998, p. 70). I have suggested in a previous article that the accouterments worn by the warrior are instead based on Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century.
Fig. 3 – The 1237 stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).
The oldest known evidence for a cult based around a monkey is described in Hong Mai’s (洪邁, 1123-1202) the Record of the Listener (Yijian zhi, 夷堅志, c. 1160), a collection of supernatural tales from the Song Dynasty. The following story is said to take place in the Yongfu County of Fujian. Again, we turn to Dudbridge (2005):
The image [effigy], dubbed Monkey King 猴王, was shaped around a captured living monkey and worshipped as a ‘spirit protecting hills and woods’ (保山林神).  It afflicted the surrounding population with fevers and frenzy. Blood sacrifice won no relief. Shamans and monks assaulted the spirit by night with noisy ritual music, but to no effect. Only the Buddhist elder Zongyan 宗演 successfully admonished the resentful monkey spirit and wrought its deliverance by reciting in Sanskrit the dhāraṇī of the All-Compassionate (大悲咒). The grateful monkey appeared to him the same night, explaining that she was now able to rise to heaven. Later the image and its thirty-two attendants (all made from birds) were smashed, and the hauntings came to an end (p. 264; see also Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159).
Dudbridge (1970) is reluctant, however, to accept this as a precursor to Sun Wukong’s cult, especially since both this 12th-century monkey spirit and the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou Xingzhe, 猴行者) from the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, a 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West, bear little resemblance to the simian god mentioned in 17th-century records. He instead suggests the Great Sage’s cult could have grown up around stories connected to the publishing of the novel (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159). While Journey to the West certainly played a sizable role in the spread of Monkey’s cult, I think the above tale shows that the Fujian area was already primed for monkey worship by at least the 12th-century. Most importantly, the noted Song dynasty poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269), whose family hailed from the Fujian city of Putian (mentioned in section one) (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), referenced the Monkey pilgrim twice in his 13th-century work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old poet’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:
A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”, A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe, Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)
This shows the character’s story cycle was so well-known in Fujian at this time that no other specifics from the oral tradition had to be mentioned. Therefore, stories of the early monkey cult and those of Sun Wukong could have existed in Fujian around the same time. It’s not entirely impossible then that the historical monkey worship in the province gave the cult of the Great Sage, whenever it first appeared, a boost. This might explain why a so-called literary character would come to be so readily worshiped in the province.
Taiwan has close ties to the southern Chinese province of Fujian because the former was made a prefecture of the latter during the 17th-century. The province is home to a large number of temples dedicated to the Monkey King, so this is no doubt connected to the spread of his cult to the island nation. Modern GIS mapping in Fujian suggests Sun Wukong’s temples mainly inhabit the northern highlands of the Putian plains where poorer villages reside. Monkey’s cult never received royal patronage in dynastic China due to his rebellious nature. The fact that he is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan by his rebellious title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven suggests Monkey may have historically appealed to the poorer class because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored the rich over the destitute. If true, these could be the people responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.
The mythos of Monkey’s cult was spread thanks to oral tales and popular literature. His mythos became so inseparable from the novel that the scholar class looked upon him as a literary character that jumped from the pages of fiction to be worshiped as a god. An example of this viewpoint appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (written c. 17th-cent.) in which a skeptical merchant only becomes an adherent of the Great Sage after he and his brother are punished with painful sores and death, respectively. The author of the tale comments the merchant was probably delusional to fall for such a belief. This scholarly disdain for such literary gods may then explain why the more well-educated villages in Putian don’t widely worship Sun Wukong today.
Other 17th-century sources referring to Monkey’s Fujian cult portray him as a headband-wearing, cudgel-wielding benevolent god who comes to the aid of the Chinese people. A 13th-century stone relief located on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou depicts a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior wearing a fillet. While past scholarship has posited a South and Southeast Asian origin for the figure’s iconography, my research suggests it to be based on esoteric ritual accouterments known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century. The oldest evidence for such a cult appears in Hong Mai’s Record of the Listener, a 12th-century collection of supernatural tales. It refers to a malevolent simian god worshiped as the “Spirit protecting hills and woods” that spread fever and was eventually pacified by a Buddhist monk. This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship by the 12th-century, and the fact that the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Sun Wukong’s original name) is mentioned in the secular works of the Putian poet Liu Kezhuang in the 13th-century shows stories of this god and Monkey existed in Fujian around the same time. The historical existence of a Fujian monkey cult may have given Sun Wukong’s cult a boost, explaining how a literary character came to be so readily worshiped.
The American missionary Justus Doolittle (1865) recorded information about the worship of the Great Sage in Fuzhou city, Fujian province, China during the 19th-century:
The Monkey. — It is represented as a man sitting, the face only being like a monkey. The image is usually made of wood or clay. Sometimes a picture of it is made on paper, or simply the title under which the monkey is worshiped is written on a slip of paper, and used instead of an image. There are several large temples at this place, erected for the worship of “His Excellency the Holy King,” one of the titles much used in speaking of the monkey as an object of worship. Oftentimes the niche holding the image or the written name is placed in a hollow tree, or in the wall at the corners of streets, or at the heads of alleys or lanes. Such places, in this city and vicinity, where the monkey is worshiped, reckoned together with the small temples or buildings dedicated to it, amount to several scores. The worship consists principally in the burning of incense and candles, sometimes attended with the presentation of meats, vegetables, and fruits. The monkey was first worshiped in return for some supposed services rendered the individual who went to India, by special command of an emperor of the Tang dynasty, to obtain the Sacred Books of the Buddhist religion — so some affirm. This emperor deified the monkey, or, at least, he conferred the august title of “the great Sage equal to Heaven” upon that quadruped. The birthday of “His Excellency the Holy King” is believed to occur on the twenty-third of the second Chinese month, when his monkey majesty is specially worshiped by men from all classes of society. The monkey is believed to have the general control of hobgoblins, witches, elves, etc. It is also supposed to be able to bestow health, protection, and success on mankind, if not directly, indirectly, by keeping away malicious spirits or goblins. People often imagine that sickness, or want of success in study and trade, is caused by witches and hobgoblins. Hence the sick or the unsuccessful worship the monkey, in order to obtain its kind offices in driving away or preventing the evil influences of various imaginary spirits or powers (vol. 1, pp. 287-288).
He continues, “Sometimes the image carried in procession while praying for rain represents a deified monkey, an object which is much worshiped by some classes of the people at this place” (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 2, p. 119).
It appears that Doolittle wasn’t aware of Journey to the West since he combines folklore with history, claiming a Tang emperor deified and/or bestowed Wukong with his Great Sage title. Sun’s image as an exorcist and healer, as well as his remuneration with incense and delicious foodstuffs, matches what I’ve previously written about in Taiwan. But his association with rainmaking is new, although not entirely a surprise. Also, his birthday is celebrated on a different day, the twenty-third day of the second lunar month, instead of the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month in Taiwan and the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore. Interestingly, unlike Fuzhou, his birthday is celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of the second lunar month in Putian (Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example). Such differences highlight that Monkey’s cult never received state patronage and therefore lacks standardization in beliefs and practices even in Fujian.
The Japanese researcher Isobe Akira shows that, despite appearing in Song-era sources, the aforementioned story about the female monkey king can be traced to the late Tang period (Mair, 1989, pp. 694-695). This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship centuries prior to the development of Sun Wukong’s story cycle.
Additionally, Isobe points to one of the earliest known references to Sun Wukong. A tale appearing in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, 12th-13th century) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen, 遊宦紀聞) tells of Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains literacy and clairvoyance after eating a magic peach. In the story, Zhang is asked to write a eulogy in honor of a newly built revolving sutra case. The resulting poem references the Monkey Pilgrim:
Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts, In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them; Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure, Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (punyaksetra). In the waves of the sea of misery (duhkha-sagara), the Monkey-disciple presses on 猴行復, Through the waters of the river that soak its hair, the horse rushes forward; No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands, Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know the reasons (pratyaya) for being on this shore. The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might get their heart’s desire, But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on; Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures, Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection hard to encompass (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).
This eulogy is fascinating because it references additional elements that would appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, including the Buddhist master’s quest to India over many lifetimes, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance. Isobe dates Zhang the Sage’s tale to the late Northern Song to the early Southern Song (circa 1127) (Mair, 1989, p. 694). But what’s interesting for our purposes is that the original recorder, Zhang Shinan was known to have historically held a government post in Fujian (Zheng, Kirk, Buell, & Unschuld, 2018, pp. 644-645), meaning he could have picked up the tale in the southern province. This adds an additional connection between Fujian and Sun Wukong.
1) One example of this connected to Journey to the West is Erlang. He was originally worshiped as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. But his cult became even more popular upon gaining state recognition. Wu (1987) writes: “The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country” (pp. 107-108).
2) This refers to Qiu Chuji (丘處機, 1148-1227), the founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism during the Song Dynasty. Qiu is known to have written a travel journal named Journey to the West, which Pu Songling confused with the novel of the same name (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2080 n. 1).
3) Literally “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).
4) Source altered slightly. The Wade Giles was converted to pinyin and the Chinese characters from the footnotes were moved into the paragraph.
5) In act 10 of the early 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West, Guanyin gives Sun Wukong an iron headband, a cassock, and, most importantly, a sword. His depiction in the play and this relief then may have some connection.
6) The fact that the effigy was formed around a living monkey suggests it was killed in the process. This would explain its rage.
Barr, A. (1984). The Textural Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44 (2), pp. 515-562.
Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2009). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume One: Historical introduction to the return of the gods. Leiden: Brill.
Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A survey of village temples and ritual activities. Leiden: Brill.
Doolittle, J. (1865). Social life of the Chinese: With some account of their religious, governmental, educational, and business customs and opinions. With special but not exclusive reference to Fuhchau. Volume 1 and 2. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Dudbridge, G. (2005). Books, tales and vernacular culture: Selected papers on China. Leiden: Brill.
Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the family in Chinese history. London: Routledge.
Gordon, L. H. D. (2007). Confrontation over Taiwan: Nineteenth-century China and the powers. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.
Pu, S., & Sondergard, S. L. (2014). Strange tales from Liaozhai. Volume 6. Fremont, Calif: Jain Pub.
Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (1996). Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, pp. 1-117.
Zheng, J., Kirk, N., Buell, P. D., & Unschuld, P. U. (2018). Dictionary of the Ben cao gang mu, Vol. 3: Authors and book titles. Berkeley: University of California Press.