She is one of the most important goddesses that link Chinese migrants of different countries and continents together through an ancient ritual of paying respect by holding an annual visit to temples in other places where the same deity is worshipped. These religious rituals evolved into a definite part of Chinese culture. Today, the annual exchange creates a rare chance for communication between new Chinese generations in different areas. She is Mazu.
In Taiwan, Mazu is the deity most commonly worshipped by the islanders everywhere－in towns large and small, in mountain villages and fishing harbors, in the countryside and on city streets. Local people of different generations almost all know about a tale which says that Mazu appeared in the sky and lifted her skirts to catch bombs during the Second World War, when the U.S. Air Force was bombing Taiwan---a Japanese colony at the time. The story was told all over Taiwan in the south and the north, revealing a truth of human life that tells how terrified people are when they face war and how hard they have tried to search for a refuge or a savior in an uncertain life.
The days of Lin Mo-niang
Chinese people believe that Lin Mo-niang, a girl born in Fujian around 960 C.E., was the original figure of the sea goddess. She was the seventh daughter in a fisherman’s family. It is said that her first name “Mo-niang,” which literally means silent girl in Chinese, was given because she did not cry like other babies when she was born.
The legend about Lin Mo-niang and the sea varies in folk culture. But they share certain similarities including that Lin was good at swimming at very young age. She always wore red while waiting ashore for her father and brother to return from the sea.
The earliest written document found in China about Mazu is dated 1150 C.E. It noted that Lin was born with some supernatural capabilities that enabled her to predict coming disasters and events. She was seen as a witch by people of the time and saved people including some government officials from drowning in a sea disaster.
The legend over the death of the lady varies, too. But one of the most common sayings indicates that when she was 28, she tried to rescue her father and brother who were suffering from a storm on the sea. Strong winds and rains destroyed their boat before it disappeared on the waters. Lin Mo-niang dived into the sea in hope of saving her beloved family members, but she never returned to the land.
Her body was later found by a group of fishermen based on a nearby small island; nevertheless, people at her hometown did not know about her death until several months later. Her fellow villagers could not find her, so they deified Lin, building a temple to worship her. The temple was the first “Mazu Temple” out of thousands of its same kind in the world today.
The small island where the lady’s body was found, furthermore, has been given the name “Mazu,” the same as the divine name of Lin.
Largely an overseas presence
Starting from the one temple built by the villagers of her hometown in China, Mazu is now worshipped in more than 1,000 temples around the world as the main goddess, not to mention a huge number of other temples in which the goddess is worshipped as a minor deity.
A Chinese official in the Ming Dynasty made a critical contribution to the predominance of the belief in Mazu overseas. Cheng Ho, a eunuch appointed by Ming emperors to lead the empire’s fleet on seven overseas adventures, worshipped Mazu aboard his vessel.
Cheng Ho became a reverent follower of Mazu after he believed that the sea goddess helped him and his entourage survive several shipwrecks throughout his journeys to lands including present-day Thailand and Kenya.
Cheng paid respect to the original Mazu Temple in Fujian every time he set out on an adventure. He visited there again each time after returning from the sea. The explorer repaired and built many Mazu temples in China, including a glorious one in Nanjing equipped with a Ming emperor’s commemorative article to mark the temple’s construction. Because of Cheng Ho’s influence, Mazu was officially recognized by the royal government of the Ming Dynasty as the sea guardian angel of the empire.
In addition, some 27,000 sailors and soldiers of Cheng Ho’s fleet are said to have also played an important role in promoting belief in Mazu overseas, as many of them introduced the legend to foreign communities where they settled, instead of coming home with the general.
Their introduction led to the prevalence of Mazu Temples that can be seen in almost every corner of the globe, ranging from neighboring countries of China such as Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines to Australia, European and American countries, which were once the remotest corners of the ancient Chinese kingdom.
A thousand years after Lin Mo-niang’s death, the religious folklore centering on her life has developed into an oceanic feature of Chinese culture that is particularly popular among the populations of coastal cities in China as well as surrounding islands.
In the birthplace of Lin Mo-niang, there were once over 100 Mazu temples. The Great Cultural Revolution, however, destroyed most of the relevant heritage of the sea goddess. Only a few statues and temples survived, the former hidden by disciples in deep wells and the latter temporarily transformed into factories during the revolution.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the religious folklore became popular because of the predominant number of migrants from Fujian and because of religious tolerance. Taiwanese followers of Mazu began to search for the roots of their religion. The opening of cross-strait exchanges since the 1990s has allowed them to visit Mazu’s homeland and her Chinese adherents. The arrival and annual visit of Taiwanese Mazu followers to China has created a new wave of refurbishment activity at Mazu temples.
At home, Taiwanese followers of Mazu have deepened their faith over the past few centuries. In the beginning, their ancestors from the mainland prayed to the sea goddess for protection and a safe voyage to Taiwan, where they hoped to find new way to make their fortune. They took Mazu as more than a goddess for their fishing business, they treated her as a goddess for anyone sailing on the sea.
The image of Mazu underwent a process of “Taiwanization” following the change in the islanders’ view that she is more than just a goddess of the sea, observed historian Lin Mei-rong. She disclosed that Mazu is regarded by farming disciples in central and southern Taiwan as a goddess of rain, based on their longtime discovery that worship always accompanies rains.
The farmers, which represented the overwhelming majority of the Taiwanese population in early times, went a step further, feeling that Mazu would help them to stop rain or prevent insect pests from damaging their crops after they prayed. The goddess has therefore had even more titles added, including the goddess of water management and agriculture.
Taiwan’s Mazu goddess has developed her own characteristics, too, Lin notes, one of which is her black face. The goddess’ elegant and poised bearing also presents a great contrast to the Chinese Mazu’s thin, powdered face, she adds.
The Mazu influence in Taiwan
The two most obvious elements of Mazu culture in Taiwan are probably the annual incense offering activities and several inspection trips by the Goddess Mazu worshipped at major Mazu temples. The Mazu culture festival that kicks off from Jenn Lann Temple in Dajia, Taichung City in the third month of the lunar calendar to celebrate the goddess’ birth is one of the five major Mazu festivals held in Taiwan that are best-known by people in Taiwan and internationally nowadays.
During the festival, which normally lasts eight days and seven nights, one of the four Mazu goddesses worshipped at the temple leads followers to another Mazu temple in Chiayi to exchange greetings and blessings with each other. The tour passes through four counties for a total of 372 kilometers and serves as an inspection trip for the goddess to learn about and relieve the suffering of her adherents, explains folklorist Lin Mao-hsien.
Tens of thousands of Mazu followers jostle and even fight sometimes to reach Mazu’s palanquin throughout the journey. Among them are patients of chronic diseases praying for better health, helpless parents crying for Mazu’s blessings for their dying children, and sons and daughters who kneel on the ground crying for mercy so their ill parents may recover. As a matter of fact, people not only seek Mazu’s help concerning their health, they sometimes hope the goddess will bring them luck in finding a Mister or Miss Right.
"The varied requests reveal people’s anxieties and inner weaknesses,” Lin surmises, adding “It’s just that they choose to air their sufferings with Mazu instead of a psychologist or a social worker.” Numerous followers collapse and wail the moment they see the Mazu palanquin approaching. It seems that all their sufferings vanish afterward, thanks to their belief in her divinity.
"From the annual inspection trip of Mazu worshipped in different areas of Taiwan as well as one in Penghu, it is clear to note that Mazu is no longer a goddess of the sea for fishermen only,” Lin comments. She has practically become a guardian angel for almost all Taiwan people regardless of their different generations and different walks of life, praying for her blessing at crucial moments in life.
"The image of Mazu is no longer too high to approach in the minds of Taiwanese people. Mazu is actually seen by the islanders as an intimate deity who takes care of our daily lives like a mother would and who accompanies us whenever we are in need,” Lin interprets.