CULTURE: The little girl who grew up to be a goddess

A girl from a fishing village who became a goddess has travelled all over China and the world. Her devotees live in more than 20 countries and millions make pilgrimages to her temples. Who is she and why is she so revered?

By Ilina Tatiana (edited by Nic Doering)

Mazu rescuing the Song emissary to Goryeo in 1123. 18th century. Rijksmuseum. (Image public domain)

Mazu was born on Meizhou Island in Fujian province, in the year of the establishment of the Song dynasty, 960. She was called Mo (默 mò), meaning ‘Silent One’, because she didn’t make any sounds during the first month of her life. This wasn’t the only unusual thing about her: she also acquired magical powers when, as a child, a deity suddenly came out of a well and gave her a Taoist talisman.  

Legend tells that one day when Mo’s father and brother were out fishing, they got caught in a storm. Mo was at home weaving, but she fell into a trance and her spirit went out to try to save them. Suddenly she pulled a fearful face, her foot stepped on the pedal of the loom and with her hand, she grabbed the shuttle, which was her grabbing at the mast of her brother’s boat in her trance. But when roused by her mother, the shuttle slipped from her hand. In tears, she said ‘My father is safe, brother is not!’ Her father returned; her brother had perished. 

Mazu figurine. Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Quanzhou City Museum.

Mo tried to protect not only her family but all those who earned a living from the sea. Once, she saved sailors from Lord Yan, a water deity who commanded cowfish and monsters to raise a storm, causing boats to sink and people to drown. Mo vanquished him and put him in charge of protecting the seamen instead! When she was 29, she ascended into the heavens, but continued to help people and bring them blessings. Her devotees called her ‘mother’ (娘妈 niángmā) and later Mazu, ‘maternal ancestor’ (妈祖 māzǔ). Since 1683 she has also been referred to as Tianhou 天后 / Tin Hau in Cantonese (Queen/Empress of Heaven). 

Mazu temple in Yokohama’s Chinatown. The characters ‘天后宫‘ (Palace of the Queen of Heaven) can be seen over the door. (Image: public domain)

Meizhou fishers and seafarers carried their divine protector in their hearts to everywhere they travelled. First, during the Song (960–1279), Mazu’s cult spread among people living across the Fujian coastline, including merchants of thriving port cities, like Fuzhou and Quanzhou. In the upcoming centuries, summoned to keep safe the commodities of flourishing Chinese industries, Mazu accompanied them along river routes, advancing into the empire’s inland. Seafarers literally took the goddess with them, worshipping her in temple-cabins installed on ships.

One of the products under Mazu’s patronage was famous rock tea, grown on the Wuyi Mountains. Prayers for quiet waves and favorable wind are engraved on the lintel of the Mazu’s temple in  Xingcun village, a local tea market. The temple was constructed by boatmen of the Hakka ethnic group. During the early Qing (1644-1912), they moved here from Tingzhou (Changting county), bringing the goddess with them to protect the precious tea they carried along the Jiuqu and Min rivers.  

Mazu Temple in Minyue, Fujian.

By the Qing, Mazu’s powers had spread far beyond the empire’s water routes. Once, she saved a Fujian pottery merchant, caught by a tempest in the Indian ocean. To repay her, he built a temple to her in Jingdezhen (Jiangxi province), a center of pottery production hundreds of kilometers from the sea. He paid in Piastre, a foreign currency so common among locals that he didn’t even have to recast it. And it is no wonder, because Jingdezhen porcelain was mostly sold overseas. Before reaching Asia and Europe, it travelled along the Chang and Yangtze rivers through the East China Sea to one of the ports on the southern coast of China, from which it was shipped abroad. Although praised for their navigation skills, Fujian merchants, in the absence of steamships and weather forecasts, felt vulnerable in the face of the dangers of water routes, seeking protection from their native goddess, Mazu.  

A parade to honour Mazu ( “妈祖天香” 巡乡民俗活动 ) is held on the 29th day of the first lunar month every year in Quanzhou, Fujian.

The temple in Jingdezhen was not only a place of worship but also a community center of the Fujian diaspora – such fusion was common for Mazu’s temples, which were usually built by outlanders. It is still true today. Chinese emigrants from all over the world travel to Mazu’s temple in Meizhou, known as the origin of Mazu’s cult, in search of identity and sense of belonging.  

Have you ever been to a Mazu Temple? Let us know in the comments below. We would love to hear your thoughts and insights on traditional Chinese culture! 

Author Bio:

Ms. Ilina Tatiana is an art lover and culture hunter.

Photo Credits
– Image at top: Mazu statue in Matsu Village, Taiwan (public domain). All images courtesy of Ilina Tatiana unless otherwise indicated. 

References:

Yanchao Zhang, “Transnational Religious Tourism in Modern China and the Transformation of the Cult of Mazu,” Religions (2021, 12, 221), 2

Seb Morgan, “8 Things You Didn’t Know about the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage,” Taiwan Scene (2022-03-14)
https://taiwan-scene.com/8-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-dajia-mazu-pilgrimage/

Tianfei xiansheng lu 天妃顯聖錄 (Record of the Sagely Manifestation of the Celestial Consort), edited by Zhaocheng 照乗 (c. 1644)

http://www.daizhige.org/%E5%AD%90%E8%97%8F/%E7%AC%94%E8%AE%B0/%E5%A4%A9%E5%A6%83%E6%98%BE%E5%9C%A3%E5%BD%95-3.html

Ibid.

Ibid.

Ji Xiaomei 纪小美, “A Study of the Dissemination of Mazu Belief in Fujian” 福建妈祖信仰传播过程研究, Fujian-Taiwan Cultural Research闽台文化研究, No.4 (2014, General Serial No. 40), 65

Huang Mu-ping 黄睦平, “A Brief Study of Belief in Mazu in Northern Fujian” 略论闽北的妈祖信仰, Journal of Putian University 莆田学院学报, Vol.13 No.3 (Jun. 2006), 80

Ibid., 79

Wang Yongjian 王永健, “Mazu Belief Transplantation Accompanied with Ceramic Trade of Maritime Silk Road” 伴随“海丝”陶瓷贸易而来的妈祖信仰移植, Journal of Putian University 莆田学院学报, Vol. 24 No. 3 (Jun. 2017), 7

Ji Xiaomei, 68

Wang Yongjian, 10

Ibid., 11

Ibid., 7

Yanchao Zhang, 3


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