Where can you find a monkey on Korean architecture? (2016 Year of the Monkey)

japsangThis year is the Year of the red monkey (Fire Monkey), the 9th animal in the zodiac. And people born in the year of the monkey (1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004) are said to be intelligent, witty, curious and playful.

So monkeys have pretty good personality traits. But not all the animal signs are considered equal – some are more popular than others, with the Dragon said to be the best of all (fertility rates in China tend to go up in the year of the dragon)


Monkeys are also associated with fighting demons and preventing disasters. In Korea you can find carvings and figurines of monkeys (and other animals) known as japsang on the roofs of shrines, temples, and palaces such as here (above) at Jongmyo Royal Shrine in Seoul. They are put up there to protect the palace from evil spirits.


The japsang figurines are based on characters from the novel Journey to the West (Monkey) about a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk who travels on a pilgrimage to India to get sacred sutras. This is a famous 16th century Chinese (Ming Dynasty) adventure story by Wu Cheng’en considered to be one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature. (And another book on my reading list!)

The story was made into a TV series in Japan and was dubbed into English and shown in Britain in the late 1970s / early 80s on a Friday evening as Monkey Magic. (I remember it was on Friday evenings because it was tradition in our house to have fish and chips from the chip shop on Fridays and watch Monkey Magic. I can still sing the theme tune…)


Anyway, so on this roof are three japsang characters from Journey to the West – Reverend Xanzang the Monk is at the front, Monkey King is behind him, and Half Water Demon is behind him. At the back is the head of a dragon (not from the novel). The use of these japsang became popular in the Joseon period in the 17th century with the popularity of the book. For close ups of the japsang see here

There are 10 japsang figures used in Korea (as well as the head of a dragon). They don’t all have to be used at once, but they are usually combined in odd numbers. So here we have three. japsang


Of course this is a good time of year to be selling monkey-related products. When I searched for items under the keywords ‘year of the monkey’ (원숭이띠) on Interpark the Korean online shopping mall, the top selling item was a plastic monkey-shaped money box (below – available in various colours).

Golf ball monkey stickers to help golfers improve their shot were the number 2 highest seller. And other items for sale included slippers with monkeys on them, a Hello Kitty dressed as a monkey ear dock cap accessory, as well as an assortment of mugs, stamps, and clothes. I like this black and white mug. Will you be buying any Monkey accessories this year?

year of the monkey


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