A Chinese festival that’s quite unlike most others is the Monkey King Festival (齊天大聖千秋, cai tin daai sing cin cau in Cantonese). The sometimes treacherous festivities celebrate the birthday of the mischievous monkey named Syun Ng Hung (孫悟空, syun ng hung in Cantonese and sun wukong in Mandarin), a figure in Chinese mythology who’s known for his trickster character and less serious way of going about life. See why a being like the monkey king has risen in the ranks and become a revered figure.

Who is the monkey king?

statues of the gods featured in the journey to the west
Statues of the five protagonists of Chinese classical novel ‘Journey to the West’: from left to right, White Dragon Horse, Sha Wujing, Sun Wukong, Xuanzang or “Tripitaka”, and Zhu Bajie or “Pigsy” (© จ่างหมิ via WikiCommons)
monkey god and jade rabbit
The Jade Rabbit and monkey god in an 1889 print by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (© AndresRojas2022 via WikiCommons)

Born from a stone egg, the immortal monkey king or monkey god is a special individual. He possesses supernatural powers and wields a magical staff (named Ruyi Jingu Bang [如意金箍棒]) which entitles him to be called the monkey king; however, Sun Wukong’s powers didn’t exactly lead him to act with good and selfless intentions. He stirred havoc with his abilities, creating trouble for those around him and eating the fruits of life that could have saved those in need.

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Chinese New Year: History, Dates, Zodiac And Traditions

Thus, to calm the monkey king’s behaviour, the Jade Emperor turned to Buddha for help. Buddha ordered the monkey to escort the monk Xuanzang (陳禕) to India to bring Buddhist scriptures back to China. Thanks to his brave service that involved battling demons and other potentially fatal escapades along the journey, Sun Wukong reached enlightenment and earned the trust and divination of Buddha when he returned from his journey.

What is Monkey King Festival?

The Monkey King Festival is a holiday that honours the lighthearted monkey deity; it is celebrated on the 16th day of the eighth lunar month, which falls on September 11, 2022 on the Gregorian calendar. (This happens to be a day after the Mid-Autumn Festival.) While the origins of the Monkey King Festival is not defined in a clear-cut way, we do know that his story rose in popularity during the Ming Dynasty and ever since, it has been featured in Chinese folklore, Chinese opera performances, television adaptations, and novels, one being the renowned 16th c. Chinese classic Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en.

martial artist in monkey king costume at chinese new year parade
The monkey king is a common figure at Chinese festival parades (© Shiny Things via WikiCommons)
longevity monk and su wukong meet in depiction of journey to the west scene
Xuanzang and the monkey king meeting in the Journey to the West (© AndresRojas22 via WikiCommons)
male rhesus macaque staring down the camera
Depictions of Sun Wukong are similar to the rhesus macaque found in Asia (© cattan2011 via WikiCommons)

The Monkey King Festival is particularly special to the Chiu Chow community in Hong Kong. This is because Chiu Chow people form a minority group in Hong Kong. Thus, they have relatively little power and influence when it comes to governance. The monkey king is reverently known to them as Tai Shing (大聖, daai sing in Cantonese and tai shing in Mandarin). Chiu Chow people view Tai Shing as a relatable figure who defied authority and had a grandioseness to him despite being a small figure. The monkey king was able to ridicule authoritarian figures in a lighthearted way. This kind of attitude is what earned the monkey god respect from the Chiu Chow community.

See also
The Cultural Guide To Mid-Autumn Festival, When We Worship The Largest Full Moon Of The Year

Monkey King Festival traditions

mural showing journey to the west gods fighting white bone spirit
The monkey king battles the White Bone Spirit in a mural scene from Journey to the West (© Shizhao via WikiCommons)

The Monkey King Festival is possibly one of the standout Asian celebrations that comes with screeching traditions. Much of the festivities happen at Tai Shing Temple (大聖寶廟, daai sing bou miu in Cantonese) in Sau Mau Ping, located in Hong Kong’s Kwun Tong district. Prepare to hold your breath.

The main tradition is for mediums (a.k.a. worshippers of Syun Ng Hung) to be possessed by the monkey king spirit after falling into a stupor. Spirit mediums are used to foster communication between the monkey king and the people. This state of trance leads into other traditions, in which the medium performs circus-like, yet sometimes heinous, acts.

tai shing temple in kwun tong hong kong
Tai Shing Temple in Sau Mau Ping Temple Complex (© Underwaterbuffalo via WikiCommons)
puppets of journey to the west characters
Puppets of the monkey king and Zhu Bajie used in performances of the Journey to the West story (© Chia Ying Yang via Flickr)

Cutting one’s tongue with a glass shard to spill blood to prove loyalty to the monkey king is one. Walking on burning coal and touching boiling oil are other traditions to commemorate the playful, trickster spirit of the monkey king. Though rare nowadays, consider yourself warned if you happen to witness an out-of-character ordeal. Besides these, incense and paper offerings are also burnt, similar to other major Chinese festivals like Hungry Ghost Festival.

FAQ about Monkey King Festival

What is the myth of the monkey king?

The monkey king is a powerful Chinese mythical figure known to have reckless, mischievous behaviour. In order to discipline him in some way, Buddha ordered the monkey king to accompany a monk to retrieve Chinese scriptures from India and bring them back safely to China. After exhibiting bravery and honour in protecting the monk, the monkey king garnered respect from Buddha.

See also
The Cultural Guide To Chung Yeung Festival: Ascending Heights To Rebalance Yang Energy

What does the monkey king represent?

The monkey king represents how someone with little influence in governance, yet who has bold character, can playfully mock and ridicule those in a position of authority. His attitude is one in which many can sympathise with.

Who celebrates Monkey King Festival? 

The Hong Kong minority group of Chiu Chow people notably celebrate Monkey King Festival, as they look up to the monkey king’s playful and free-spirited side when in the face of authority.

Other traditional Chinese festivalsLunar New Year — Lunar New Year Fair — Birthday of Che Kung — Chinese Lantern Festival — Kwun Yum Treasury Opening Festival — Ching Ming Festival — Tin Hau Festival — Cheung Chau Bun Festival — Buddha’s Birthday — Birthday of Tam Kung — Dragon Boat Festival — Birthday of Kwan Tai — Qixi Festival — Hung Shing Festival — Hungry Ghost Festival — Mid-Autumn Festival — Monkey King Festival — Birthday of Confucius — Chung Yeung Festival — Winter Solstice Festival.

Header image credits: Toadboat via WikiCommons

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A hermit at heart, Agnes likes to connect with the world across various platforms that share a wealth of content on beauty, culture, lifestyle, and travel. She loves using the art of language to portray her voice and poor sense of humour whenever possible. When she’s not nerding around or head deep into a piece, you’re sure to find her spending time outdoors with friends and family or going down the Pinterest rabbit hole to find all sorts of inspiration she can!

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