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Antique Puppet Head of the Monkey King
Item No. 5665B

19th Century, N/A, China
Lacquer over Wood and Polychrome
9.5" x 3.5" x 3.25"
( 24.13 x 8.89 x 8.255 cm)
(H x W x D)

This is a carved wood puppet head of a monkey, an animal that plays a great role in Asian art and legend. It is one of the twelve animals of the zodiac, believed to be tricky and, therefore, able to drive away evil spirits and bestow success, protection and health.

There is a story that a monkey who accompanied a Chinese emissary to India to obtain Buddhist sutras performed many good deeds, so the emperor gave the monkey the title "Great Sage Equal to Heaven." His festival is celebrated on the 23rd day of the 2nd month of the Chinese calendar. This puppet head is the deified monkey himself, as he wears the crown of a king.

The Chinese word for monkey(Hou)is also a homonym for a high ranking noble equivalent to a count or marquis. If you see an image of a monkey on a horse, it means "may you be elevated to the rank of a marquis." Because of its ability to drive away evil spirits, the sick worship the monkey to enlist its aid in driving away the evil influences creating their sickness. Finally, the monkey is sometimes used as a symbol of longevity and often holds a peach which he stole from the garden of the Taoist Queen Mother of the West, Xiangmu.

This puppet head is Sun Wukong, known in the West as the Monkey King, who is the main character in the classical Chinese epic novel Journey to the West, which is the story about the monkey who accompanies the monk Xuanzang on the journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India, mentioned above.

Sun Wukong possesses incredible strength, has superb speed, can transform himself into various animals and objects, but is unable to transform into other people, since he is unable to complete the transformation of his tail. He is a skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against the best generals of heaven. Each of his hairs possesses magical properties, and is capable of transforming into a clone of the Monkey King himself, or various weapons, animals, and other objects. He also knows various spells in order to command wind, part water, and conjure protective circles against demons.


Terese Tse Bartholomew, “Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art,” Hong Kong, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2006.

Wolfram Eberhard, “Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hiddent Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought,” New York, Routledge, 1986.

Hugo Musterberg, “Dictionary of Chinese and Japanese Art,” New York, Hacker Art Books, 1981.


C.A. S. Williams, “Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs,” New York, Dover Publications Inc., 1976.

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