A Rare Complete Set of Five Southern Chinese 'Monkey King' Polychrome Decorated Wood & Gesso Folk Art Puppet Heads


Origin: Chinese
Period: Early Twentieth Century
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1900-20
Typical Size: Length: 12 inches, Width: 3.5 inches, Depth: 4 inches
Other measurements available on request

Likely hailing from Quanzhou of Fujian Province, China, the gesseod and polychrome decorated wooden puppets each depicting a head from the Legend of the Monkey King; Sun Wu Kong (Monkey King), Tang San Zang (Monk of Tang), Zhu Ba Jie (Pig Demon), Sha Wu Jing (Sandy) and Yu Long (White Dragon Prince), all terminating in ebony stained tapering knop handles.

The condition of the puppets is consummate with age, there are chips and paint loss, but they remain very decorative having clearly been well used. There is some suggestion that these puppet heads may date as early as the mid 1800s but we have been more cautious with our later date. Traditionally there are two types of puppets: string puppets and palm puppets. Like marionettes the puppeteers pull strings to make the puppets move and these puppets would have worn richly coloured bright clothes.

Sun Wu Kong, the "monkey king" is a beloved character of Chinese folklore. The folk tales of Sun Wu Kong were collected in the 16th-century novel "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en, and his adventures and antics have been the subject of many Chinese operas and puppet shows since, not to mention the dubbed Japanese Monkey (SaiyÅ«ki) television series, and Damon Albarn’s “Monkey; Journey to the West”. Sun Wukong is magically powerful, smart, strong, and mischievous. He is in search of immortality and travels to India with the Monk Xuanzang to retrieve the Buddha's sutras. Along the way, Suwukong causes so much havoc that he attracts the attention of Buddha, who is called upon to teach him respect.

These heads could now be displayed in a creative way, preserving and, delighting in, a wonderful folk art. Pieces of folk art themselves are ephemeral, simple, and often crude, though they are always enchanting. They were made by unskilled people, usually provincially, for everyday use and enjoyment, and are naively decorated, and made of basic materials. Folk art provides an excellent insight into the everyday life of ordinary people in times of old, and for that reason we love it. 

Full of character, these puppet heads cannot tell the story of the skill of the performer who first held them, who was part story teller, puppeteer and comedian, but they do represent both the entertainer’s art form and folk art itself, in its truest and purest form, making for a spectacular celebration of the eccentricity of classic Chinese visual culture.