This Mid-Autumn, Walk Over Hot Coals for the Monkey King

This article was first published on September 27, 2017.
In 2023, the Monkey King Festival falls on September 30.

The normally sleepy neighbourhood of San Mau Ping is in a very different mood the day after the Mid-Autumn Festival. The streets near the Po Tat Estate are ablaze with a riot of colours as flags direct crowds to a place of celebration. A procession of god statues visiting from their respective temples are carried in sedan chairs towards the temporary bamboo shelter constructed for the occasion. This day is important to the local Chiu Chow community, as it celebrates the Handsome Monkey King, known respectfully as Tai Shing (Cai4 Tin1 Daai6 Sing3 齊天大聖): Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.

The Monkey King’s Birthday (Cai4 Tin1 Daai6 Sing3 Cin1 Cau1 齊天大聖千秋) is a major event for the local Chiu Chow community, but it often passes unnoticed by outsiders, overshadowed by the Mid-Autumn Festival the day before. And yet it is one of the most remarkable festivals in the Hong Kong calendar. Why Chiu Chow people have a particular affinity to Tai Shing is not clear, but since his rise to fame during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), he has been a popular figure in their operas and folk dance.  The festival has been celebrated at the Tai Shing Temple (Daai6 Sing3 Miu6 大聖廟) in Sau Mau Ping since it was built in 1968, when the area was a squatter settlement.

The Monkey King is a universally loved character in the Chinese diaspora and beyond. He has been popular since he appeared in the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en.  The protagonist Sun Wukong (Syun1 Ng5 Hung1 孫悟空), a monkey who was born from a stone egg on a mountaintop. After acquiring supernatural powers, he became the king of the monkeys and terrorised the other inhabitants of earth. To keep him in check, the Jade Emperor brought him up to heaven, but Sun Wukong also wreaked havoc there, eating all of the peaches of longevity and pills of immortality, and declaring himself the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.

In exasperation that this impetuous monkey couldn’t be controlled by the gods, the Jade Emperor pleaded to a higher authority. The monkey was then tricked and subdued by the Buddha and, after a period of imprisonment under a mountain, was released to help the monk Xuanzang go to India and bring Buddhist scriptures to China in order to redeem himself. The Monkey King was initially unwilling to follow orders, which made the Buddha place a magical band on his head to control him when he behaved badly. The journey he undertook with his companions was a true adventure, bringing them into conflict with demons and other perils. By the end, thanks to his service, braveness and courage, the Monkey King finally reached enlightenment and was granted Buddhahood.

The Monkey King is a loveable yet rebellious character that symbolises laughing in the face of the authorities who govern. He is a trickster that allows the little man to feel like he isn’t powerless in the face of oppression. Perhaps it is this insurrectionist streak that attracted the Chiu Chow to him since they were far from the Ming emperors in Beijing and enjoyed seeing a roguish figure poking fun at the distant authority.

As is common in Chiu Chow culture, the Monkey King communicates to his followers through spirit mediums. The festival in Sau Mau Ping is famous for spirit mediums that put themselves through ordeals that symbolise the trials faced by the Monkey King. The mediums fall into a trance and become possessed by the god, allowing them to walk through burning coals and climb a ladder of knives. While there is one chief medium, others also become possessed and cut their tongues with broken glass and perform other magical acts, such as handling boiling oil.

Spirit mediums seem to survive mainly with the Chiu Chow community, but their history is ancient.  The earliest religion in China is known as Wuism (Mou4 Gaau1 巫教), or Chinese Shamanism. It is at least 3,500 years old and originally, most Wu (shamans) were female.  The practice became absorbed into Taoism, with men taking over shamanic duties. It is very uncommon to find shamanic possession in modern China, but in 1964, a member of the local Chiu Chow community, Master Chan, was chosen by the Monkey King to be his principal medium. The god demanded a temple and Tai Shing Miu was finished within four years.

The temple stood in a shantytown that had been established in the 1950s when refugees from Guangdong and Fujian arrived in Hong Kong. As the area became increasingly developed, the shantytown was cleared for Po Tat Estate, a public housing complex. The original Tai Shing Miu stood until 2008, when it was demolished for yet another property development, but in 2013 it was replaced by a new temple for the Monkey King. It is one of the grandest temples in Hong Kong and it is still run by the now elderly Master Chan. he claims that when he was 70 years old, the Monkey King came to him in a dream and extended his life for another 19 years as a reward for his faithful service.

Master Chan is now 88 years old. He is too old to bite into porcelain cups and eat razor blades, but he still goes into a trance during the Monkey King Festival. Other mediums cut their tongues with the temple’s sword, climb the ladder of knives and walk through burning coals. The grand new temple has given the festival a kind of legitimacy, attracting ever greater numbers of people to the festivities. More offerings pile up on the altar as Taoist priests perform rituals that honour the Monkey King and purify the local community. The list of donors on the wall grows each year as the Monkey King’s influence continues to grow with an ever larger community of Chiu Chow immigrants in Hong Kong.

The ordeals of the Monkey King Festival are not for the faint of heart. Even as a witness, the sights and sounds of the celebration are entrancing, and Tai Shing’s mischievous presence is palpable in the happy faces of the gathered faithful. Lions and dragons dance to the sound of drums. Local mediums, carried by their bearers, arrive to cut their tongues and wipe their blood on the Monkey King as a sign of devotion.

The atmosphere changes as the day wear on and night begins to fall. Quiet descends upon Sau Mau Ping. A large vegetarian banquet is held, followed by traditional Cantonese opera performances that recreate the stories of the Monkey King. Prior to operatic performances, actors traditionally conducted rituals to channel the gods they were portraying when they were on stage, much like mediums do before possession, linking the sacred to the theatrical. As the celebration comes to a close, the god leaves the bodies of both mediums and actors, and he returns to his image in the temple where he will greet visitors for another year – until he is once again released to play havoc and spread mischief on his birthday.

Tai Shing Miu is on the edge of the Po Tat Estate at the corner of Sau Mau Ping Road and Po Lam Road. The nearest MTR station is Kwun Tong. The temple is open throughout the year but festivities are unlikely to take place in 2020 due to the pandemic.

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