Happy Chinese New Year 2018

    The Monkey in Chinese Culture

    Written by: Su Xin
    Posted on: January 31, 2018 | Post your comment here Comments | 中文

    Fangcheng Stone Monkey (Source: ECNS) - The Monkey in Chinese Culture

    Fangcheng Stone Monkey (Source: ECNS)

    The monkey is regarded as an intelligent, smart, lively, and brave animal. In traditional Chinese culture, the monkey is much adored and admired. There has been a kind of culture in China surrounding the monkey, which is an indispensable component of Chinese culture and is seen in various aspects, including literature, arts, history, folk customs, and daily life.

    In the Chinese zodiac, which is a very ancient part of Chinese culture, the monkey is the ninth sign of the zodiac, called “shen hou.” “Shen” belongs to the metal element in the theory of Wuxing (meaning “five elements,” referring to wood, fire, earth, metal and water in traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine, hence the name “jin hou” as “jin” means “metal” in classical Chinese literature).

    Ink-wash painting of monkey

    Ink-wash painting of monkey (Source: ArtRon)

    There are many proverbs, common sayings, allegorical sayings, and fables about the monkey in Chinese language. For example, (“kill a chicken to warn the monkey,” meaning “punish someone as a warning to others”), (“a monkey with a hat on,” meaning “a worthless person in imposing attire”),  (“there are no tigers in the mountains and the monkey says he is the king,” meaning “there are no able persons, so a “nobody” has become “somebody”). Literary works concerning the monkey are also countless; the best one is the classical novel “The Journey to the West.” Besides, many folk customs, myths, legends, sacrifices, and rituals in almost every place of China are closely related to the culture of the monkey.

    Chinese artist showcasing paper-cut monkeys

    Chinese artist showcasing paper-cut monkeys (Source: ChinaDaily)

    Chinese people love the monkey and regard it as a lucky sign. Since ancient times, handicraft works depict the monkey. In the Han Dynasty, different kinds of pottery monkey dolls were made by common people. A small tri-color glazed pottery of a mother monkey and baby monkey was made in Luoyang in the Tang Dynasty. A bluish glazed porcelain monkey was produced in Yuzhou in the Song Dynasty. Various types of color-glazed porcelain monkeys were made during the Ming and Qing period, and were very popular.

    Sun Wukong Statue

    Sun Wukong Statue (Source: DHResource)

    In daily lives, monkey statues have been seen in decorations of houses and docks, such as small stone-carved monkey figures at the edge of a kangs (a kind of traditional Chinese bed) in rural areas of Shan’xi and Shangxi provinces, which are believed to be guardians that protect the children in the houses. The heads of the wooden poles to which boats are tied are also carved into smart-looking monkeys. This is because Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) of the novel “The Journey to the West” is able to freely go to the Dragon Palace and “suppress the Dragon King” at his will, with fishermen praying to the wooden monkey figures - images of the Monkey King - for safe voyages. In the past, there used to be many stones monkey figures on top of the hitching posts of Weinan area of Shan’xi Province. The people hoped that stone monkey figures could protect their horses and donkeys for safe trips.

    Fangcheng Stone Monkey, a national level intangible cultural heritage, originated in the Song Dynasty and became popular during the Ming and Qing periods. It has a history of more than 1,000 years. In June 2008, Fangcheng Stone Monkey was admitted as a “national-level intangible cultural heritage” by the State Council of China. The stone monkeys are an original stone-carved handicraft work. Among the common folk, about monkeys there has always been a saying, “Shihou (stone monkey) comes with blessings of safety,” since ancient times.  

    YouXi Monkey

    YouXi Monkey (Source: Amazon)

    Now, in the age of the Internet, the culture around the monkey has new forms and monkey is a popular icon in the internet of China. Youxi Monkeys, a hot comic figure on the Internet, are one good example of this “new culture of the monkey.” Their expressions, exaggerated and changing, have become popular for usage during chat, due to their vividness. These two “monkeys” have soon become the most beloved comic figures on the Internet, and have led to various peripheral products, including QQ chatting pictures, comics, animated short films, and computer games. They are now adored by numerous netizens and have become a fashion trend in both virtual and real world.

    With the development of screen art, the traditional Chinese monkey opera has been adapted to both big and small screens. Other than this adaptation, other art forms, such as animation, paper-cutting art, and ink-wash painting, have also emerged. Scientific and documentary films are also being about monkeys. Simply put, the monkey exists everywhere. It is visible in the New Year paintings and also in the folk handicraft works used for blessings. It decorates our daily lives with its various forms.


    Translated by Zhu Siyu

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