A legend says that in the year 960 during the Song Dynasty, a girl born to a fishing family never cried as a baby, so her parents named her Lin Mo-niang (林默娘), which means “silent maiden.”
It turned out that she was no ordinary girl but one with superpowers to heal the sick, predict the weather, and dispel evil. When her father and brother were once trapped by a raging typhoon in the ocean where they went fishing, Lin used her superpowers to save them and other fishermen.
At the age of 28, she climbed her hometown’s highest mountain, ascended to the sky, and became the Empress of Heaven. Since then, fishermen reported that Lin’s image would appear to guide them when they got lost in the ocean.
This is one sketch among many of Matsu’s early life as a mortal. When Fujian settlers came to Taiwan for a better life, they brought Matsu, Goddess of the Sea, along with them to cross the Taiwan Strait, or the “black ditch”, a metaphor that symbolizes the hardships settlers had to go through.
She is the most prominent folk deity in Taiwan, worshipped by a large number of followers in around 200 temples, while several hundred more worship her along with other Taoist or Buddhist deities.
Local peoples’ devotion toward Matsu is world-renowned. A government–produced documentary titled “Matsu—Taiwan’s Guardian Goddess” won a Platinum Remi Award in the 35th WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival in 2002.
March is Matsu month
March is the month for Matsu devotees since her birthday falls on March 23rd of the lunar calendar. Celebrations in many forms are held in Matsu temples, or Tien Hau temples (天后宮), a general name that refers to temples where Matsu is worshipped, all over Taiwan. Tien Hau literally means Empress of Heaven.
Initially, Matsu just blessed the sea for fishermen. But as time went by, people prayed to her for health, career, farming, relationship, and all sorts of concerns. She has become a guardian angel for Taiwanese people. According to a research team studying Taiwanese Folk Religion at the Providence University in central Taiwan, Matsu has to go on a tour of inspection every year. She has to do this to check on her people, spread her blessings, and repel evil for them. Pilgrims organize processions to escort Matsu every year. The ritual serves as a social event for Matsu in different regions and her followers.
Baishatun Matsu in Mioali’s Tongsiao Township and Dajia Matsu in Taichung City present its annual procession in different styles and routes. Both events could attract several hundred thousands of participants to join along the way.
Baishatun Matsu pilgrimage（白沙屯媽祖繞境）: The long march
Baishatun is a small seashore town located to the north of Tongsiao Coast, Mioali County. Gongtian Gong (拱天宮) is a Matsu temple highly revered by local residents. Every year the Baishatun Matsu goes on her tour to pay respect to Matsu in Chaotien Gong (朝天宮), Beigang Township in Yunlin County. The route which stretches almost 400 kilometers usually takes a week or more on foot. The Baishatun pilgrimage tops others by distance.
One distinguishing mark of the Baishatun pilgrimage is that Matsu decides everything in her tour. The set off date, rest stops, and return route are all received from Matsu through the casting of divination blocks. Therefore the pilgrimage is full of surprises, such as sudden short stops at a residential building or a river crossing without advance notice.
This year, the leaders of Gongtian Gong have consulted Matsu to decide on the dates of the pilgrimage, including the head-flag initiation on March 23rd, the rite of launching Matsu’s palanquin on March 26th, setting out the next day, arriving at Beigang the day after, followed by the midnight ritual of dividing incense on the arrival day.
During the pilgrimage, Matsu could proceed as long as she feels like it---at two a.m. or six thirty in the evening. She may speed up, slow down, sprint across a bridge, or plunge into a river at any point. She is unpredictable and the flexibility is what keeps Baishatun pilgrimage fresh.
Dajia Matsu pilgrimage（大甲媽祖繞境）: largest Matsu worship activity
Built in the 1770s, Jhen-lan Temple（鎮瀾宮）in Dajia District, Taichung City is an integral part of Matsu worship in Taiwan. The temple houses a Matsu statuette from Meichou Island, the birth place of Lin Mo-niang. Up until the end of the 19th century, Taiwanese made pilgrimages to Meichou every twelve years (another data indicates the interval was 20 years).
Unlike Baishatun Matsu, Dajia pilgrimage has a fixed route and timetable. It lasts 8 days, and the stops along the way are predetermined. During the procession, food and beverage are prepared by local residents to greet her and the entourage. The route stretches more than 300 kilometers from Jhen-lan Temple to Fengtien Temple（奉天宮）in Chiayi’s Hsinkang Township.
The pilgrimage tradition goes back to ancient times, when it was a local religious activity. Since the mid 1980s, when Jhen-lan Temple leaders worked with people from political circles as well as the press, the annual pilgrimage grew to be the largest one in Taiwan. Each year, a few hundred thousand participants bring considerable revenue to the local economy.
A Dajia Matsu Culture Festival launched by Taichung City Government with the aim of introducing Matsu worship to the world has been held annually since 1997. This year, a cycling event preceded the festival on February 21st. The festival which features Taiwanese opera, puppet shows and Chinese orchestra performances serves as a warm up to kick off the pilgrimage on March 21st.
Matsu soothes one’s heart
Anita Chen, 35, former Daijia resident, started joining the Baishatun and Dajia pilgrimages in her twenties.
“The most touching part was to witness the elderly people’s willpower during the procession. They insisted on going on foot, even though most of them were physically weak. It’s Matsu’s blessing that was behind them.”
Chen currently lives in Hsinchu with her husband. Nonetheless, she would make the trip to Dajia and visit Jhen-lan Temple when she has questions for Matsu.
“I ask questions about my health, studies, career and marriage, then I cast the divination blocks. She answers me, and I would take her opinion seriously,” said Chen during a phone interview.
“When I am confused about something, I would go to a temple and pray to Matsu who calms me down. If she approves my decision, I feel more confident.”
A former Dajia resident, Chen witnessed the growth of the Daijia pilgrimage over the years.
“There’s something that is closely associated with the pilgrimage—Dajia Su-ping (crispy butter cake). The snack is a must-buy for worshippers, which indicates the temple and worshipping Matsu have become a tourist attraction. I think this has a lot to do with having the event televised every year.”
Crispy butter cake is a specialty of the town, and it has become the most popular souvenir besides the talisman or lots drawn from the temple.
There’s more than snacks. Dajia Matsu is seen in fashion, 3C products, and online games. Followers could live a life full of her images. No wonder she is reputed to be “a deity that is closer to the heart”.
This year’s Matsu pilgrimage is in progress now in both Baishatun and Dajia. Visit their websites to learn more and participate in one of the most interesting religious rituals in the world.
Baishatun Matsu in Gongtian Gong
Dahia Matsu in Jhen-lan Temple