In real life, the monkey is an animal that people either love or hate.
And if you’ve ever encountered one in real life, maybe during tour on travels, you’d know exactly how eccentric they can be. Some demand food from you, some taunt you in a whole group, and some even scratches you when you don’t give them the attention they want.
But in terms of Chinese symbolism, the monkey is generally thought of in a positive way.
For starters, people are quick to think about the monkey zodiac when discussing the playful creature. However the monkey itself and the associated zodiac sign should be looked at from different angles and perspectives.
One of the most revered gods in Chinese folklore is the Monkey God. Most famous for his role in helping a monk retrieve religious scriptures in the classic novel Journey to the West (西遊記). This is an epic story that would leave every reader with little doubt that the Monkey God is a hero… albeit a reckless one. It is almost impossible to meet a Chinese who have not heard about this story.
There are also temples erected specifically to worship the Monkey God. This shows how cherished he is in Chinese culture.
The mandarin word for monkey is hou (猴). Which sounds like the word hou (侯), a term that can be used to describe a nobleman or someone in high office. It also pronounces the same as the word hou (后) which can be used as a term to refer to descendants.
As such, monkeys are often depicted in paintings in a variety of configurations to convey specific meanings.
When painted with a peach in hand, it is a reference to the Monkey God consuming the peach of immortality. It symbolizes longevity.
When pictured holding an unidentifiable object, it almost always means a wish for a high ranking official position and longevity in status.
When perched on the back of a horse, it represents a wish to attain a high position right now.
When there is a monkey offspring on the back of an adult monkey on a horse’s back, it means wishing for descendants to attain high office for generations to come. The same can be said when monkeys are depicted with pine trees.
A monkey pointing at the sun also mean an immediate elevation to high office.
When illustrated with bees, it symbolizes and official title being bestowed or conferred to the receiver of the gift. This can sometimes include a maple tree. When there is a cage in the image, then it means the very highest of positions. When there are a couple of butterflies instead, it means that the rise to upper echelons of society will encounter little barriers and pitfalls.
When paired with cabbage, it represents wealth and money.