The Monkey King’s Worship in Thailand

Last updated: 06-07-2022

I first learned of Great Sage worship in Thailand when Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project showed me a Monkey King statue on a Thai Facebook group. Since then, I’ve noticed an explosion in social media posts (mainly on Facebook and Instagram) highlighting his veneration in the “Land of Smiles”. Here, I’d like to record what I’ve learned so far.

Please revisit the page for future updates.

I. Names for the Monkey King

  1. เห้งเจีย (Hêng jiia, or just “Heng Jia/Chia” = Xingzhe, 行者, “Pilgrim”). [1] This appears to be the most popular of his Thai names. This should come as no surprise, though, as Xingzhe (行者) is used FAR more to refer to Monkey in Journey to the West (4,335 times) than Wukong (悟空) (512 times). [2]
  2. ซุนหงอคง (Sun ngŏr kong, or just “Sun Ngokong” = Sun Wukong, 孫悟空) (see here).
  3. ฉีเทียนต้าเชิ่ง (Chĕe tiian dtâa chêrng = Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖, “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”)
  4. ฉีเทียนต้าเซิน (Chĕe tiian dtâa sern = same as above)
  5. โต้วจั้นเชิ่งโฝ (Dtôh wá jân chêrng fŏh = Douzhan shengfo, 鬥戰勝佛, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”)
  6. ต้าเชิ่งโฝจู่ (Dtâa chêrng fŏh jòo = Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖, “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch”
  7. ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow” = same as above)

II. Statuary

Various Thai Facebook groups post pictures of the same kinds of monkey god statues found in East and Southeast Asia. These range from armored warriors wielding the magic staff to serene buddhas on lotus thrones (consult the third paragraph after video one here for a description of Monkey’s traditional iconography). But I’ve noticed that one flavor of Thai Great Sage statue is almost entirely gilded (or draped with gold cloth) except for a pink/red mask around the eyes, the latter being similar to his Chinese opera depictions. Said statues tend to feature a golden headband with very tall curlicues (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – An example of a golden Thai monkey statue with a pink mask and a high curlicue headband (larger version). Originally posted here.

I’ve also noticed an abundance of Dizang-like Monkey Buddha statues, similar to those found in Singapore (I haven’t seen many such depictions in Taiwan). This may be of Fujian influence (see here). He is sometimes portrayed wearing an ornate crown (with or without the golden headband) and monk’s robes and seated on a lotus throne. One hand is held in a mudra, while the other clasps a ruyi scepter (or more rarely a fly whisk). I recently purchased such a statue with an amulet pressed in the bottom (fig. 2 and video #1).

Fig. 2 – My 20cm colored resin Thai Monkey Buddha statue (larger version). Take note that the lotus throne sits on a pile of gold coins and ingots. Picture by the original seller.

Video #1 – Video by the original seller.

III. Amulets

Buddhist amulets (Th: prá krêuuang, พระเครื่อง) are immensely important to Thai devotees. Marcus (2018) explains that they are believed to “endow wearers with supernatural faculties”. He continues: “Some amulets are thought to bring success and happiness. Others are believed to protect the wearer against disease, witchcraft, and misfortune” (Marcus, 2018). It’s no different for worshipers of the Monkey King. I’ve seen countless examples on Facebook ranging from Monkey Buddhas to Monkey warriors. See four examples below (fig. 3-6).

Fig. 3 – An amulet listing him as the “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 4 – A multi-armed Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 5 – An armored, flying Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 6 – Another armored example (larger version). Originally posted here.

IV. Spirit-Mediumship

Like East and Southeast Asia, Thailand also has Great Sage spirit-mediums (Ch: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; lit: “Divining Child”) (consult the paragraph after figure six here for more information about these ritual specialists). One temple medium seen on the ไปดีมาดี Channel1928 YouTube channel employs white, black, and gold headbands with the aforementioned high curlicue design. The color used appears to depend on which monkey god takes over the medium. I can’t comment on any rituals particular to the Thai religious sphere. But I have seen the medium perform self-mortification in order to create paper talismans (video #2). This is a normal function of spirit-mediums even in East and Southeast Asia. See my twitter post for pictures of a similar Taiwanese ritual.

I’m hoping to gather more information on Thai Great Sage spirit-mediumship in the future.

Video #2 –  HEADPHONE WARNING!!! The Thai Great Sage medium cuts his tongue to create paper talismans.


Update: 04-20-22

I just learned from this webpage that there is a Thai language book about the history of the Monkey King. Here’s the citation:

จรัสศรี จิรภาส. เห้งเจีย (ฉีเทียนต้าเสิ้ง) ลิงในวรรณกรรมที่กลายเป็นเทพเจ้า. กรุงเทพฯ : มติชน, 2547.

Jaratsri Jirapas. Heng Jia (Chi Tian Da Sheng), a Literary Monkey who has become a God. Bangkok: Matichon, 2004.

This online book seller has pictures of the cover (fig. 7) and some of the internal pages.

Fig. 7 – The cover of the Heng Jia book (larger version).

Also, I’ve learned the name and location of a small monkey god temple in Bangkok, Thailand (fig. 8-10 and video #3). It is claimed to be at least 200 years old(!), suggesting that Heng Jia has been worshiped by Chinese-Thai for several centuries:

ศาลเจ้าพ่อเห้งเจีย (Săan-jâo-pôr Hêng-jiia) – “Shrine of Heng Jia”

66 Rama IV Rd, Talat Noi, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10500, Thailand

+66 2 221 9018

Fig. 8 – The main altar statue, behind which are two gold Monkey Buddha statues with pink masks (larger version). Fig. 9 – The left Monkey Buddha (larger version). Fig. 10 – The right Monkey Buddha (larger version). Pictures by KittyBinny’s Journey on Blockdit.

Video #3 – An episode about the temple on the MY CHANNEL – OFFICIAL YouTube Channel.


Update: 04-21-21

A fellow member of the Taoism Singapore and the Local Gods and their Legends Facebook groups was kind enough to let me post pictures of a Thai Monkey God amulet that he received in San Francisco around the year 2000. The top notes that it’s from the Tanglai Temple (Tanglai gong, 唐來宮), the first two characters being a term used in Journey to the West to indicate that the pilgrims have “come from China” in the east. The characters on the left and right sides combine to read “I submit to the Buddha Amitabha” (Namo Amituofo, 南無阿彌陀佛). The Thai at the bottom reads “Reverend Monk Heng Jia” (lŭuang bpòo hêng-jiia, หลวงปู่เห้งเจีย) (fig. 11). The reverse depicts the eight trigrams encircling a Taiju symbol (fig. 12), indicating that the amulet is Buddho-Daoist.

Fig. 11 – The front of the Monkey God amulet (larger version). Fig. 12 – The backside (larger version). 


Update: 04-22-22

Ellis (2017) mentions a “monument” to Heng Jia in Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (ศาลเจ้าพ่อเขาใหญ่) (p. 86). Mr. Ellis told me in a personal communication that the cave “is on Ko Si Chang island off the coast of Pattaya“. The address is:

5R94+7MM, Tha Thewawong, Ko Sichang District, Chon Buri 20120, Thailand

The small Monkey shrine is located in the interior, and it is surrounded by a forest of red prayer sheets (fig. 13). See here for a video touring the cave. The section featuring Heng Jia starts around minute 3:16.

Munier (1998) notes that this cave is the “only one” dedicated to Monkey in Thailand (p. 170). A big thank you to Mr. Ellis for providing this information. Please check out his blog.

Fig. 13 – The Heng Jia shrine at Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (larger version). Original photo posted here. See here for a wider shot of the shrine.


Update: 04-23-22

A fellow member of a Monkey King group that I belong to posted this article of seven Thai Heng Jia shrines, including the ones I’ve mentioned above.

https://travel.trueid.net/detail/m0gr288wBPQx

Also, here’s a Thai prayer to Hengjia (video #4). It’s called “Prayer to the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Bòt sùuat mon dtâi sìia húk-jôh, บทสวดมนต์ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว), and the video labels it in Chinese as “Scripture of the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu jing, 大聖佛祖經).

Video #4 – The prayer to Hengjia.

Here’s a transcription of the prayer:

ไต่เสี่ยฮุกโจวเก็ง
ไต่ เสี่ย จู เสี่ยง กิ๋ง
บ่อ เสียง กิก เซี้ยง จูง
ก่วย ขื่อ อี ซิว เจ่ง
หลี่ ไอ่ เถี่ยว สี่ กัง
ซุ้ย ชื้อ สี่ เกียง เอ๋า
เหลี่ยง เมี่ยง จู คุ่ง อู๋
ห่วย ซิง เทียง ตง จู้
ปัก เก๊ก ฉิก อ้วง จูง
หู่ เพียก กั่ง ข่วง อ๋วย
จู๋ ไจ้ อี บ่วง ลุ้ย
เสียง ไจ่ เส็ก เกีย ซือ
อุ่ย เจ่ง กู่ ซวง ส่วย
อั้ว เต้ง กิม อี บุ๋ง
ง่วง ก้วง อี ม้วก สี่
หยู่ สี เก็ง กง เต็ก
คิ่ว ฮุก จิ่ง ซวง เอี้ยง
ไต่ เสี่ย ฮุก โจ้ว เก็ง
ยื่อ ซี้ ฮุก เก่า ไต๋ เจ่ง
เยียก อู๋ เสียง น้ำ สิ่ง นึ่ง ยิ้ง
ม้วย ยิก จี่ ซิม เหนี่ยม เจ็ก กึ้ง
หยู่ จ้วง กิม กัง เก็ง ซา จับ บ่วง กิ้ง
อิ่ว ติก สิ่ง เม้ง เกีย หู
เจ่ง ซิ้ง ที หี
ตี่ หุย ไจ เทียง ตี๋
อู่ นั่ง อ่วย เสี้ย เจ็ก ปึ้ง
อื้อ นั้ง หลิ่ว ท้วง
กง เต็ก เกา หยู่ ซู หนี่ ซัว
ชิม หยู่ ไต่ ไห้
บ่อ เหลียง กง เต็ก
ย่ง สี่ ปุก ตะ ตี่ เง็ก มิ้ง
ฉู่ ฉู่ หลั่ง สั่ว
เทีย ตัก มอ อิ้ง ซา ผ่อ ฮอ


Update: 04-24-22

This page mentions the benefits of worshiping Heng Jia (based on Google Translate):

If anyone worships Lord Tai Sia Huk Zhou, it will make everything smooth, turning bad into good, making it possible to do anything without obstacles. This includes family and friends, doing business, selling progress, keeping anything bad from coming into our lives. The believer must behave well, think positively, and never think ill of others. All blessings will bear fruit. Life will be truly happy and business will progress more and more.

[…]

If worshipers are free from evil and have health, intelligence, tact, and courage, they will be able to always find a solution to their problems. Therefore, [Heng Jia’s faith] is very popular among business operators that need to find a solution to every obstacle and problem.


Update: 05-21-22

A Thai temple is raising funds by selling Monkey King statues in different postures, each with their own benefits (fig. 14-16). Here is a translation by a friend:

1. Clairvoyant posture = worship this for blessing of import/export trading.
2. Success posture = worship this for blessing of wealth.
3. Meditation posture = worship this for blessing of wisdom.

Fig. 14 – The “Clairvoyant posture” (larger version). Fig. 15 – The “Success posture” (larger version). Fig. 16 – The “Meditation posture” (larger version).


Update: 06-07-22

My friend posted a picture of a Thai Great Sage shrine to Facebook. It shows a stone monkey statue, behind which is a large silver and gold staff. Whereas the literary weapon is “如意金箍棒” (Ruyi jingu bang), the “As-you-will Gold-Banded Staff”, the shrine version is labeled “如意金剛榜” (Ruyi jingang bang), “As-you-will Vajra staff” (fig. 17 and 18). [3] The Vajra (jingang, 金剛) is a heavenly weapon closely associated with the Buddhist guardian deity Vajrapāni (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩, lit: “The Vajra-Bearing Bodhisattva”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955). Therefore, the name change strengthens Sun Wukong’s association with Buddhism.

Fig. 17 – The Great Sage shrine with a stone monkey statue and the silver and gold staff (larger version). Fig. 18 – Detail of the Chinese characters on the staff (larger version).

Note:

1) See section III of this article for more info on the name “Pilgrim”.

2) Thank you to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.

3) 榜 (bang) should be 棒 (bang).

Source:

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.

Ellis, M. (2017). The Caves of Eastern Thailand. (n.p.): Lulu.com.

Marcus, D. (2018, May 5). Featured Object: Thai Buddhist Amulet. Spurlock Museum of World Cultures Blog. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from https://www.spurlock.illinois.edu/blog/p/featured-object-thai/263.

Munier, C. (1998). Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand. Thailand: White Lotus.

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 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.