The Worship of Sun Wukong the Monkey King: An Overview

Last updated: 04-18-2022

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

Warning: Self-mortification and blood below!

Sun Wukong is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, and areas of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, and even Thailand and Vietnam, as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (fig. 1). Variations of this title often include “Lord” (ye, 爺) or “Buddha Patriarch” (fozu, 佛祖) (e.g. Dasheng ye, 大聖爺; Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖). He is very rarely addressed as the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛), which is taken from the end of Journey to the West (1592) when our hero is bestowed Buddhahood for protecting the monk Tripitaka. This is the name of a real world deity (and member of the 35 Confession Buddhas) that was only later associated with Monkey in literature. I’ve even seen one temple that mixed such titles to call him the “Fighting Sage Buddha” (Dou zhan sheng fo, 鬥戰聖佛).

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

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

My friend has visited several Great Sage temples in Fujian. I’ve visited 14 temples in Taiwan (so far). I even learned of 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. It was then shaded with two processional flags and an eight trigrams umbrella (video 1). I was told exposing the ashes/soldiers to sunlight was considered highly disrespectful.

Video 1 – A video of the incense ash-gathering ceremony. Shot by the author on November 7th, 2021.

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

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

Religious statues of the Great Sage are generally portrayed as a seated or standing protector deity wearing golden armor, a feather cap, and sometimes the golden headband. The seated and standing postures are taken to represent his defensive and offensive functions, respectively. The former sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed, holding a golden staff or fly-whisk in his right hand and a hu-gourd or immortal peach at chest or waist-level with his left (refer back to fig. 1). The latter stands on his left leg (sometimes supported by clouds) with the other bent high at the knee, while holding a staff in his right hand. The left holds a gourd (sometimes overhead and pointed at the viewer), or it shields his eyes like a sailor searching the horizon. This hand is positioned with the thumb near the left eye, or the arm wraps under the chin and the hand bends at the wrist to shield the eyes in a contorted manner. (Of course there will always be variations on these patterns.) The gaze of the monkey god is generally fierce, sometimes with golden pupils, and his likeness ranges from human-like to generally more primate-like. Baring white, black, and red examples based on the aforementioned Fujian trinity, the Great Sage’s face is generally flesh-toned with kisses of red but can sometimes be painted with a red, three leaf clover-like design similar to Wukong’s depictions in Chinese opera (fig. 3). But I’ve seen a few rare examples in Taiwan with harsh face patterns similar to plague gods (Stevens, 1997, p. 114). Many statues are carved with horn-like “ear-pressing tufts” on the sides of his head, giving him a wild appearance. This can be accentuated with carved and painted or applied hair on the head and sides of the face. Some statues acknowledge the link between Chinese religion and theater by depicting him as a martial monk (wuseng, 武僧) with long hair that hangs down to his chest (refer back to fig. 3). [2] While such examples generally portray him in the aforementioned armor, I’ve seen at least one figure from Singapore wearing a golden monk’s robe open at the chest. In contrast to the brightly-colored and gilded statues mentioned above, some Great Sage figures are dark and ashen. These tend to be decorated with ornate, metal headdresses and flashy imperial capes and sashes (fig. 4). The rarest statue I’ve ever seen depicts the Great Sage with six arms wielding a staff in each hand (fig. 5).

Fig. 3 – (Top left) Detail of a Great Sage statue with the red, three leaf clove-like face pattern and the long hair and golden fillet of a martial monk (larger version). See the full version here. Fig. 4 – (Top Right) Dark, wooden Great Sage statues with bright ornamentation (larger version). Photos by the author. Fig. 5 – (Bottom left) A three-headed, six-armed monkey god (larger version). Seen on Facebook. Fig. 6 – (Bottom right) A spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage. He smiles in defiance after flogging his head with a spiked ball (larger version). Original photo by Cai Zhizhong (蔡志忠) (used with permission).

Spirit-mediums (Taiwanese Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; literally: “Divining Child”) play a large part in the Great Sage’s religion. They are believed to channel his spirit to interact with believers, generally answering their questions, blessing them or their belongings with paper talismans, or prescribing medicine. On special occasions, they also perform a complex self-mortification ceremony; for instance, the mediums of one Taiwanese temple walk a pattern in between five ritual fires representing heavenly generals of the five directions, while flogging themselves with the “Five Treasures of the Spirit-Medium” (jitong wubao, 乩童五寶): a seven-star sword (qixing jian, 七星劍), a crescent moon ax (yue fu, 月斧), a spiked club (tong gun, 銅棍; a.k.a. lang ya bang, 狼牙棒, “wolf-tooth club”), a sawfish nose sword (shayu jian, 鯊魚劍), and a spiked ball (ci qiu, 刺球) (fig. 6). However, I’ve found that self-mortification tends to be more extreme in Southeast Asia, with mediums piercing their cheeks and bodies with lances, swords, hooks, and even bicycles! The ritual serves several purposes. First, hacking, skewering, and poking the body with various weapons is considered a form of self-sacrifice. Second, the weapons that pierce the flesh are believed to imbue the mediums with spiritual power needed in their battle with demonic forces that pervade every corner of daily life. Third, the resulting blood is believed to have demonifugic properties, hence the reason it is smeared on paper talismans and clothing. Overall, the ritual is performed to exorcize evil spirits that cause bad luck and mental and physical illnesses.

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

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

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

Video 2 – This video depicts the preparations and celebration of the Monkey King’s birthday (16th day of the 8th lunar month), complete with competitions of self-mortification by spirit-mediums. It was shot in the Sau Mau Ping area of Hong Kong during the 1980s. Subtitles added by Haiyan Wang.

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

Interestingly, Sun Wukong is even revered in Korea. While not officially worshiped as a deity (at least not by people of non-Chinese descent), he appears with a host of other mythological animals on the roof-hips of royal palaces to guard such important structures against fires and evil spirits (fig. 7). These clay effigies are known as japsang or chapsang (잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像; “miscellaneous figurines”). 

Fig. 7 – Drawings of the japsang effigies of Korea. The first four figures are commonly associated with Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing (larger version). However, contemporary sources sometimes named the first figure Wukong. This would make since as he’s wearing armor.


Update: 12-10-21

I’ve just posted an article about a Taiwanese folk Taoist deity whose iconography is shockingly similar to the Great Sage. The “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人) is depicted as a long-haired primate wearing a golden fillet and golden armor and bearing a fly whisk and (sometimes) and immortal peach.

This figure interests me as both he and the Monkey King have a centuries-long association with each other in popular literature. This likely led to the White Ape Perfected Man borrowing from the Great Sage’s religious imagery.

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double


Update: 12-26-21

I learned that the Teo Chew Vietnamese Buddhist Temple of the Houston, Texas, USA, Chinatown has an altar to the Monkey King. An image from Twitter (fig. 8) is labeled “Tề Thiên Đại Thánh” (“Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, 齊天大聖). I have contacted the temple to learn more information.

Image

Fig. 8 – The Monkey King altar of the Teo Chew Temple of Houston, Texas, USA (larger version). Take note of the Vietnamese words at the top. Image found on Twitter.

A Facebook friend shared information about Sun Wukong’s worship in Vietnam.

The Monkey God is worshipped by some of the Chinese community in Vietnam alongside other popular deities like MaZu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The Hoa-Viet immigrants probably brought his worship over during the war. Also interesting to note that in my mothers home province of Huế there are Vietnamese Lên Đồng medium shrines that channel the monkey god but it is not popular among Vietnamese since some of us see him as a fictional character, but his TangKi worship is more common within Chinese shrines in the southern regions.

They also shared this video of a 106-year-old monkey god temple in Bac Lieu City, eastern Ca Mau Peninsula, southern Vietnam (video #3).

Video #3 – The century old monkey god temple of Southern Vietnam.


Update: 01-09-22

I was looking through US newspaper archives and was surprised to find a brief report on a Great Sage spirit-medium from Hong Kong (fig. 9). The medium is said to be Chung Kam, a 42-year-old construction worker from Guangzhou who has served as the monkey god’s vessel for 20 years. Mr. Chung is said to take part in an Olympic-like event in the the Sau Mau Ping area of Hong Kong (Robbins, 1982). So, this might be the very same medium from video #2.

Fig. 9 – The article explaining Mr. Chung’s exploits as the monkey god (larger version).


Update: 03-09-22

I’ve archived the Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang Baojuan, 二郎寳卷, 1562), which mentions Sun Wukong in a religious context 30 years before the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) was even published.

Archive #32 – The Precious Scroll of Erlang (Erlang baojuan) (1562)

Also, my friend Edward White told me about another Monkey King-related religious work titled the Scripture of Patriarch Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian dasheng fozu jing, 齊天大聖佛祖經) (fig. 10 & 11). This brief work appears in the Heavenly Classic Precious Scroll (Tianjing baojuan, 天經寶卷) (source). This is likely the product of modern spirit writing.

Fig. 10 – Page one (larger version). Fig. 11 – Page two (larger version).


Update: 03-20-22

I’ve previously discussed the place of tangki self-mortification in the Great Sage’s religion. Here (fig. 12) is a photograph showing five skewers through a tangki’s arm. They are Monkey King versions of the five camps generals. From bottom to top, they are Sun Wukong (孫悟空, green – east), the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖; red – south), the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛; gold/yellow – center), the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖; white – west), and the Black-Faced Great Sage (Heilian dasheng, 黑臉大聖; black – north). I’ve only seen these monkey-headed skewers in Singapore, which is exactly where they are from.

Fig. 12 – The five Great Sage skewers (larger version). Courtesy of the photographer Fang Terrance on Facebook.


Update: 03-27-22

I’ve written an article about a Southeast Asia tradition that depicts the Monkey King as a supreme deity representing Buddhism. He sits between others representing Confucianism and Daoism. 

The Monkey King and the “Three-Teachings” (三教) Trinity of Southeast Asia


Update: 04-15-22

The “Equaling Heaven Palace” (Qitian Fu, 齊/齐天府), an ancestral monkey god temple in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China, recognizes five Great Sages:

  1. The Great Sage Sun, the Victorious Fighting Buddha (Douzhan shengfo Sun dasheng, 鬥戰勝佛孫大聖).
  2. The Black (Faced) Great Sage [Reaching Heaven], the Demon-Subduing Buddha (Fumo tuofo hei [Tong tian] dasheng, 伏魔陀佛黑[通天]大聖). [5]
  3. The White (Faced) Great Sage [Third Son Shuashua], the Luolisha Buddha (Luolisha fo bai [Shuashua sanlang] dasheng, 囉哩沙佛白[耍耍三郎]大聖). [6]
  4. The (Red-Faced) Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage, the Sands of the Ganges River Buddha (Henghesha fo Danxia dasheng, 恆河沙佛丹霞大聖). [7]
  5. The Red Cloud Great Sage, the River-Inspecting Sage Buddha (Jianhe shengfo chixia dasheng, 監河聖佛赤霞大聖) (fig. 13) [8]

Fig. 13 – The Equaling Heaven Palace pantheon painting (larger version). Originally posted here.

Khmer worshipers appear to recognize four of the five:

  1. The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the Fighting Buddha of Certain Victory (Qitian dasheng Zhandou bisheng fo, 齊天大聖戰鬥必勝佛) (ព្រះមហាទេពស្មើមេឃ)
  2. The Demon-Subduing Buddha (Great Sage Reaching Heaven) (Fumo tuofo, 伏魔陀佛; Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖) (ស្វាខ្)
  3. The Luolisha Buddha” (The Third Son Shuashua) (Luolisha fo, 曪理沙佛; Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎) (ស្វាស)
  4. Horizontal/Chaotic River Buddha” (Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage) (Henghe sha fo, 横河沙佛; Danxia dasheng, 丹霞大聖) (ស្វាក្រហម) (fig. 14)

Astute readers will notice that the main Great Sage’s name was slightly altered. The douzhan (鬥戰, “to fight or battle”) of Douzhan shengfo (鬥戰勝佛) was switched around to the more common zhandou (戰鬥), and the character bi (必, “certain”) was further added to embellish the name.

Two other Monkey Buddhas have changes to their names. Number three, Luolisha fo (曪理沙佛), uses a different luo (曪 instead of 囉) and li (理 instead of 哩). And number four, Henghe sha fo (横河沙佛), misspells the heng (横 instead of 恆), changing the original meaning of the name.

Fig. 14 – The four Great Sages recognized by the Khmer (larger version). Originally posted here.


Update: 04-18-22

I’ve written an article about Thai Great Sage worship.

The Monkey King’s Worship in Thailand

Notes:

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

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

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

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

5) The last two characters, tuofo (陀佛), appear in the Buddha Amitabha‘s Chinese name: Amituofo (阿彌陀佛).

6) I’m not sure how to translate this. It reads like a foreign term that I’m not familiar with.

7) “Sands of the Ganges River” (henghe sha, 恆河沙) is a popular phrase used in Buddhist literature to designate a very large number (examples from the Lotus Sutra). It’s also interesting to note that the Rhesus macaque is sometimes referred to as a “Ganges monkey” (henghe hou, 恆河猴). This might explain the origin of the primate deity’s name. Thanks to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.

8) Apart from the original Victorious Fighting Buddha (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛), the other four names do not appear among the 35 Confession Buddhas.

Source:

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

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

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

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

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

Robbins, N. (1982, October 3). The Monkey King runs through flames. Brownsville Herald, p. 14A.

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

 

The Great Sage Monkey King Scripture: A Brief Analysis

The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Edward White (his blog). The following is a reformatted and lightly edited version of his brief but insightful analysis of The Great Sage Equaling Heaven’s True Scripture of Awakening People and Enlightening the World (Qitian Dasheng xingren jueshi zhenjing, 齊天大聖醒人覺世眞/真經) posted on Twitter (see here). He was gracious enough to give me permission to post it here. – Jim

Analysis

This book alone is extremely interesting, because it shows the sheer amount of syncretism that is found in Chinese popular religion: It freely combines Buddhist and Daoist elements. The first text in this book is not actually the Great Sage scripture itself, but rather The Thousand-Handed and Thousand-Eyed Bodhisattva Guanshiyin’s Great Compassion Heart Mantra (Qianshou qianyan Guanshiyin pusa dabbixin tuoluoni, 千手千眼觀世音菩薩大悲心陀羅尼), better known as the Great Compassion Mantra (Dabei Zhou, 大悲咒), followed by the celebrated Heart Sutra (Xinjing, 心經), here called by its full name the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (Bore boluomi duo xinjing, 般若波羅蜜多心經) (pp. 9-13). Both are quintessentially Buddhist texts. These are, however, followed by a set of mantras for cleansing the body and the surroundings, which are associated with Daoist rites (starting from p. 13).

This is followed again with a “Precious Admonition of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng Baogao, 齊天大聖寶誥) (p. 25). This format—effectively a hymn—is a liturgical form that is associated exclusively with Daoist scriptures (Cf. the set phrase 志心皈命禮 on p. 26). [1] Then, you have a list of salutations of four Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and five Heavenly Worthies (Tianzun, 天尊) (Daoist deities), all of which are equally saluted by the Sanskrit “Namo” (南無) (pp. 28-30).

The scripture itself starts on page 30, and has five chapters in total. Chapter one is titled “Cultivating the Body and Rectifying Fate” (Xiushen liming di yi zhang, 修身立命第一章) (p. 30). Chapter two is titled “Entering Sagacity and Transcending Ordinariness” (Ru sheng chaofan di er zhang, 入聖超凡第二章) (p. 33). Chapter three is titled “Returning to the Origin of Brilliance and Kindness” (Mingshan fu chu di san zhang, 明善復初第三章) (p. 40). What is interesting in this text, however, is that between chapters two and three, there is a lengthy section titled “True Words of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng zhenyan, 齊天大聖眞言) (p. 36). [2] This is absent in the online edition. Chapter 4 is titled “Cause, Effect, and Retribution” (Yinguo baoying di si zhang, 因果報應第四章) (p. 44). The fifth and final chapter is titled “Cultivating Both Internally and Externally” (Neiwai shuangxiu di wu zhang, 內外雙修第五章) (p. 52). In this particular edition of the Great Sage Scripture, between chapters four and five are found a long list of evils that reciting this scripture can resolve (this is also not found on the online edition) (pp. 48-52). Our Daoist readers may find this similar to a list found in the very, very Daoist “Big Dipper Scripture” (Beidou jing, 北斗經), which I translate here.

Fig. 1 – Weituo standing guard at the end of the scripture (larger version). Fig. 2 – Examples of percussion marks (larger version).

The text ends with a hymn called “In Praise of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng zan, 齊天大聖讚) (p. 56), followed by a text called “The Essentials of Cultivating the Dao” (Xiudao shouyao pian, 修道首要篇) (p. 57). This is immediately followed by the “Mantra of the Seven Buddhas to Extinguish Offences” (Qi fo miezui zhenyan, 七佛滅罪眞言) (p. 59). Syncretism indeed. On the last page we have a picture of the Buddhist god Weituo (韋馱) (fig. 1), who stands guard on the last page of scriptures to protect them (p. 65). Thus we have an extremely Daoist text literally bookended by Buddhism.

We are hence immensely grateful to Jim for uploading scans of this scripture. As even from this preliminary reading shows, it preserves liturgical texts that are not found in online editions of the scripture. The online presence of non-Buddhist Chinese religious works is extremely poor and patchy; we have nothing like the Taisho Tripitaka to work on; every scripture uploaded advances our knowledge greatly. By observing not just the scripture itself, but also its front and back matter that is printed along with it, we can tell how the scripture was used by the religious communities that produced it—something again that gets lost in transmission.

Some words should be said about the format of the book. The book is clearly bound in what is called in the west the “Concertina format”. This format is unique to religious books, thereby increasing its authenticity as a holy work. But also more importantly, makes the book very easy to use in a liturgical context: it lays absolutely flat, and is easy to turn—valuable features if you are chanting off the scripture. In turn, on some pages, you see little dashes and dots besides the characters (fig. 2) (p. 13, for example). These are indications of the percussion—when the various gongs and bells are to be struck. These factors—along with the inclusion of several hymns inserted between chapters of the scripture—would lead me to conclude that this book represents not just a scripture to be contemplated, but a scripture prepared for public performance as a ritual (refer back to “True Words of the Great Sage Equalling Heaven” between ch. 2 and 3). The appended mantras, percussion, and inserted hymns, would only make sense in a context where people would chant the scripture in a grand ceremony: they would be irrelevant if the text was produced with quiet study and contemplation in mind. I could be wrong, though.

Notes:

1) For a Chinese example of another “Precious Admonition”, see here. My translation of another can be seen here.

2) “True Words” 真言 is one of the names by which mantras are known in Chinese. Thus, the term “True Words of the Great Sage” might just as well be read as “Mantra of the Great Sage”.

The Great Sage Detecting “Ping-Pong” Bottle

Last updated: 06/26/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 08/11/20

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


Update: 06/23/21

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06/26/21

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

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

Notes:

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun Wukong and the Qiang Ethnic Group of China

Last updated: 08-02-2019

The Qiang (Ch: 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.

Map of China showing location of Sichuan Province, home to Qiang ethnic group, some of whom worship Sun Wukong

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 (Ch: Duan gong, 端公 or Wu, 巫j; Qiangic: Shüpi; ) 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). [1] 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).

Qiang shaman hat and goldn monkey

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. [2] 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). [3] 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). [4] 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”; Ch: Aba muna, 阿爸木纳), 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, [5] 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.

Qiang abba mula bundle and shaman holding one

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, 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” (Ch: 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. [6]

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.

Tibetan origin myth painting - Monkey and Ogress - small

Fig. 7 – A modern painting showing the monkey and rock ogress of Tibetan myth (larger version). Original from Wikipedia.

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).

III. Conclusion

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.


Update: 04-19-2019

Sun Wukong also appears in the folklore of the neighboring (and related) Miao ethnic group. The Miao also believe man derives from monkeys.

Sun Wukong and Miao Folklore


Update: 08-02-2019

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. [7] 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. 

Archive link

Click to access the-land-of-the-lamas-notes-of-a-journey-through-china-mongolia-and-tibet-1891-by-william-woodville-rockhill-rock-ogress-and-a-monkey-info-pages-extracted.pdf

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).

Additionally, the Chinese of Sichuan also have stories regarding primates fathering human children. A body of Han and Tang dynasty tales that heavily influenced the creation of Sun Wukong describes magic white apes (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnapping and impregnating young woman. One example appears in both Zhang Hua’s Encyclopedic Records of Things (Bowuzhi, 博物志, c. 290) and the Records of Spirits (Soushenji, 搜神記, c. 340):

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.

Notes:

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).

6) A Chinese version of the tale can be read here. This forum has scans of an illustrated bilingual book presenting a different version of the tale.

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.

Sources:

Academia Sinica. (n.d.). A Brief Introduction to the Qiang People – Religion. Retrieved from http://ethno.ihp.sinica.edu.tw/en/southwest/main_QI-04.html

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.

Graham, D. C. (1958). The customs and religion of the Ch’iang. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/22946/SMC_135_Graham_1958_1_1-110.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Oppitz, M. (2004). Ritual objects of the Qiang shamans. Res: Anthropology and aesthetics, 45, 10-46. Retrieved from https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/RESv45n1ms20167620

Rockhill, W. W. (1891). The land of the lamas: Notes of a journey through China, Mongolia and Tibet with maps and illustrations. New York: Century Co.

Stein, R. A. (1972). Tibetan civilization. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Wang, M. (2002). Searching for Qiang culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Inner Asia, 4(1), 131-148. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23615428

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yu, S. (2004). Sacrifice to the Mountain: A Ritual Performance of the Qiang Minority People in China. TDR 48(4), 155-166. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4488600

What Does Sun Wukong Look Like? A Resource for Artists and Cosplayers

Last updated: 03-07-2022

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. [1] 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, [2] 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.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2, 11th-c. - Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim praying to Guanyin - small

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).

Yulin Cave 3 full with detail for article - small

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.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

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 the The 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 Subodhi, the immortal tells him, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].” [3] 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).

Male macaques during mating season (for What Does Sun Wukong Look Like article)

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.)

Baby baboon with goldedn fillet - small

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).

Macaque features and skinny body for article

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).

Armor pics

Fig. 10 – Ming chainmail from the Wubei zhi (1621) (larger version). Fig. 11 – A woodblock print of Sun wearing mountain pattern armor while fighting the heavenly army (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century, “Mr. Li’s Criticism” hereafter). Fig. 12 – A detail of halberd-bearing soldiers wearing mountain pattern armor and feather caps from The Emperor’s Return to the Capital (16th-century) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. Fig. 13 – Monkey as portrayed in Beijing Opera (larger version). Photo by TAO Images Limited via Alamy. Fig. 14 – A 16th-century brass statue of Skanda (larger version). This blog has photos from all sides. Fig. 15 – A modern example of a Purple Gold Cap (larger version). 

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 in chapter six: “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 in chapter seven, 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 late-Ming 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).

Monkey escaping from Laozi's 8 trigrams furnace - from Mr. Li Zhuowu's Literary Criticism of Xiyouji, later 16th-early 17th-c. - small

Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late-16th to early-17th-c.).

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).

 

Monkey King Kicking - small

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.

Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 and Yulin Cave no. 3 - Heads

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 [wutie, 烏鐵] 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). [4]

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. [5]
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.

sun_wukong_staff_inscription___enlarged_by_ghostexorcist-d7681eb - small

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.

d36fe879ff99332a460d41810be7c726

Fig. 21 – “Do you even lift?” Wukong (larger version).

2) Warriors Orochi video game – Mutton chops, frosted tips, and an outfit borrowed from Prince’s wardrobe (fig. 22). Words fail me.

050_Sun_Wukong

Fig. 22 – “Backup Dancer” Wukong (larger version).

3) The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) – Jet Li has a blond ponytail, mutton chops, and a soul patch (fig. 23). Need I say more?

Jet

Fig. 23 – “L’Oréal Paris” Wukong (larger version).

3.2. The most accurate

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).

116.19L - small

Fig. 24 – Wukong salutes Xuanzang (larger version).

2) Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) – This dark comedy depicts the Great Sage as a short, ugly primate wearing golden armor (fig. 25).

Conquer monkey - small

Fig. 25 – Wukong prior to becoming Xuanzang’s disciple (larger version).

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).

maxresdefault (1) - small

Fig. 26 – Wukong during his rebellion against heaven (larger version).

4. Conclusion

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.


Update: 08-31-2018

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.

Fig. 27 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Slightly modified by the author to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here.


Update: 02-02-2021

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.

Fig. 28 – Size chart (larger version).


Update: 01-23-22

I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes Sun Wukong’s golden headband to tighten. Similar to the above article, I had artists and fanfiction authors in mind when I wrote it.

The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband


Update: 03-07-22

I’ve written a response to a comment on one of my youtube videos. It discusses Sun Wukong’s height.

How Tall is the Monkey King? – A Debate

Notes:

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).

Sources:

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.

Dubue, C., Allen, W. L., Maestripieri, D., & Higham, J. P. (2014). Is Male Rhesus Macaque Red Color Ornamentation Attractive to Females? Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 68(7), 1-10. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262066733_Is_male_rhesus_macaque_red_color_ornamentation_attractive_to_females

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