Sun Wukong’s Connection to the Boxer Rebellion

Did you know Sun Wukong was among the various martial spirits that the fighters (fig. 1) of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) channeled to gain what they believed to be superhuman fighting ability? Such a ritual is described by the German catholic missionary Georg Maria Stenz in his 1907 book Contributions to the Folklore of Southern Shandong (Beiträge zur Volkskunde Süd-Schantungs):

On any day of the first month, [the possessing spirit of] the monkey is invited [to earth] […] In order to invite the monkey, money is collected to buy incense in the village. On that particular day, four young men, who are not allowed to be … born in the year of the dragon or tiger, are led to any temple or cemetery … There the incense candles are lit and the following prayer is spoken:

一匹馬兩匹馬
請孫大老爺來玩耍
一條龍兩條龍
請孫大老爺下天攻

One horse, two horses.
Great Grandfather Sun, please come and play.
One dragon, two dragons.
Great Grandfather Sun, please descend from Heaven and fight.

Then the four fall on their faces and remain in this position for a while. Suddenly someone flops to one side: the [spirit of the] monkey has taken hold and the young man can no longer move himself. After being carried home, lighted incense candles are held under his nose until he jumps up by himself. Once a long saber is put in his hand, he makes a scandalous display accompanied by much fanfare and cymbals. The “possessed” is constantly brandishing the saber in the air and jumping over tables and benches. If one believes the display is too scary, then one lets the incense candles extinguish and the possessed falls immediately as if lifeless to the ground. After some time you call him by his name and he wakes up slowly as if from a deep sleep (Stenz, 1907, pp. 47-49).[1]

BoxerSoldiers

Fig. 1 – Boxer rebels circa 1900 (larger version).

Esherick (1987) notes the term “horse” from the poem was often used by boxers to refer to the possessee (p. 56 and 62), or the human vessel that spirits command like a rider on a horse. I imagine both the horses and dragons refer to all four men who volunteer for the ritual. This practice shows Monkey became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his rightful place among the heavenly hierarchy.

Notes:

1) Adapted from the original German.

Sources:

Esherick, J. (1987). The origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stenz, G. M. (1907). Beiträge zur Volkskunde Süd-Schantungs. Leipzig: R. Voigtländer.

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