(left) Image of Monkey on lot 395, (middle) Image of Monkey from the reprinted Qing dynasty hand painted volume of Journey to the West, (right) Image of Monkey from the comic book series Adventures of the Monkey God.

Lot 395 is one of my favorite vases in the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale held on 11th and 12th September 2012 in New York. It wasn’t the most valuable vase in the sale, nor the finest, but it is my favorite because it reminded me of my childhood.

The vase is decorated in famille-rose enamels with a scene from Journey to the West. It depicts the Monkey King Sun Wukong doing battle with the goldfish demon. The goldfish demon used to be just a regular goldfish living in Guanyin’s lotus pond. After years of listening to scriptures and sutras, the goldfish gained powers, but instead of using his powers to attain enlightenment, he came down to earth to create havoc. In the end, the goldfish demon was subdued by Guanyin.

A Famille-rose Monkey King Vase, Qing dynasty, sold for $37,500 against an estimate of $6,000-8,000 on 12 September 2012.

The Journey to the West was written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century, although it is likely that many of the episodes in the novel already existed as folktales before that. Many of the tales are actually imaginative attempts at explaining the iconography of various deities. For instance, the goldfish demon tale ‘explains’ the iconography of the Fishbasket Guanyin, which is a popular subject found in porcelain figures made in Dehua in Fujian province and which are referred to as blanc de chine in the west. Such figures portray Guanyin as an elegant lady holding a basket that contains a fish. According to the story in the Journey to the West, Guanyin drops her basket into the river where the goldfish demon is causing problems and he is drawn into the basket where he reverts to his original form.

The Journey to the West was my first brush with Chinese literature, and it came in the form of comic books and a contest by Coca-Cola in Singapore.

In 1974 or 1975, Tropical Lithographic Consultants in Singapore published a series of comics based on Journey to the West. Each issue was based on one episode from the novel. Every week the kids in the neighborhood and I would rush to the Indian newsstand near our homes to get the latest issue. In all, forty comics were issued and these were later complied into an eight-volume set called The Adventures of Monkey God.

Number 22 in the series of ‘The Adventures of the Monkey God’.  Forty comics were issued.

Around the same time, Coca-Cola in Singapore held a contest to cash in on the popularity of the comics. The contest entry form was printed with images of characters from The Journey to the West, with empty circles where the characters’ heads should be. Pictures of the characters’ heads were printed on the liners in the bottle caps. The idea was to match up the heads with their bodies. Once you had pasted all of the heads onto the correct bodies, you could mail in your entry form. My parents bought me four cases of Coca-Cola and all the neighborhood kids came over, and we drank Coke for days just to get the bottle cap liners. I did eventually send in my entry form, but Coca-Cola received so many correct entries that the winners had to be chosen by another contest. A gigantic jar was placed in a shopping center and filled with bottle caps.  The entrant who came closest to guessing the number of bottle caps would be the winner. Sadly my guess was way off, but better than whatever the prize was, I became a life long fan of Monkey.

Not only is the Monkey King a pop culture hero, who appears in operas, movies, and as children’s toys, but as the title of the comics suggests, he is also worshipped as a god. Some people believe that he is just a figment of Wu Cheng’en’s imagination, but others believe that he is actually based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.

Image of Monkey used in a public service campaign by Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway. Monkey is advising riders to hold the handrail when riding the escalators.

A Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva once stood in Quanzhou in Fujian province in the 13th century, and today it is still possible to see a 13th century image of the Hindu deity Kali worshipped in a neighborhood shrine in Jinjiang near Quanzhou, where the image is worshipped as Guanyin. It is therefore not inconceivable that other Hindu deities made their way to Fujian province and in fact, the worship of the Monkey god was most prevalent in Fujian province. In 2006 a large stone stele dating to the Song/Yuan period was discovered in Shunchang county, Fujian province, inscribed with the words Qitian Dasheng, Great Sage Equal to Heaven, which is the title that Monkey gives himself in Wu Cheng-en’s novel. This finding points to the existence of a deity known as the Great Sage Equal to Heaven at least 200 years before Wu Cheng’en wrote his novel. Today the worship of the Monkey god can still be found in places with large numbers of immigrants from Fujian province such as Taiwan and Singapore.

Monkey enshrined on the altar of the Monkey God Temple in Hong Kong.

During festival days and religious ceremonies, the spirit of the Monkey god is thought to enter the bodies of spirit mediums, and speak thorough them. The medium is then able to dispense advice, prescribe cures for illnesses, give blessings and consecrate religious images venerated in household shrines.

A temple medium possessed by the spirit of the Monkey god in Singapore.

Apart from the comics, I also have a 2007 edition of The Journey to the West reprinted from a Qing dynasty hand painted edition that had been kept in the Pingxiang City Library in Jiangxi province for over 100 years. Jiangxi province being the home of the porcelain center Jingdezhen, it is quite possible that the artist who painted lot 395, may have viewed similar editions. Looking at the image of Monkey painted on the vase and comparing it to the images of Monkey in my comics, we can see how little Monkey has changed.  What has also not changed, is how much Monkey is still a part of popular culture today.