Monday, April 25, 2011


Mazu, Protector Goddess of the Sea

The 23rd day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month is the Birthday of Mazu (媽祖聖誕). Mazu (媽祖), which means Maternal Ancestor, is the protector goddess of seafarers and fishermen. She is also popularly known as the Empress of Heaven (天后 Tianhou), or the Holy Mother Empress of Heaven (天后聖母 Tianhou Shengmu). Her other popular titles also include Holy Mother of the Heavens Above (天上聖母 Tianshang Shengmu) and Heavenly Imperial Concubine (天妃 Tianfei). She is also sometimes affectionately known by her informal names A-Ma (阿媽) and A-Po (阿婆), which mean Mother and Grandmother, respectively.

A statue of Mazu on Meizhou Island in Fujian, China

Mazu was born as Lin Moniang (林默娘) on this day in the year 960 on Meizhou Island in Fujian province. It is said that when she was born, a golden radiance appeared above her house and a strange pleasant fragrance filled her home and all the nearby houses in the neighborhood. The baby Mazu did not cry for even a month after her birth, so she was thereafter named Moniang which means silent young female. As she grew up, she had a very compassionate and spiritual disposition. She was extremely intelligent and was very filial to her parents. She had a mysterious ability to predict the weather, and she often warned others when not to make maritime journeys. She became a very good swimmer and possessed an affinity for the sea. She often rowed a boat during storms to save others who needed help. During one incident, she saved ten people from a merchant boat but she herself perished due to exhaustion. After her death, some people reported having visions of Lin Moniang in heavenly imperial garments. Soon afterwards, the people in her town established a temple in her honor. But her assistance to seafarers did not end with her death, because she continued to offer help by manifesting divine responses. Over many centuries, seafaring people continued to pray to her for safety, and they always called upon her when in distress. Stories abound that tell of her divine assistance. Many hundreds of temples have been established in her honor, and many emperors of several dynasties bestowed honorific titles upon her.

A statue of Mazu for religious veneration

The goddess Mazu is especially popular among followers of the Taoist and popular folk religious traditions in southeastern China like Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau, as well as neighboring countries like Taiwan and Vietnam. In the past, all of these areas had strong seafaring traditions and one finds many temples dedicated to Mazu along their former coastlines. She is also very popular amongst Chinese immigrant communities in Southeast Asia and abroad. The culture of Mazu veneration has become a great transnational phenomenon and from a socio-political perspective, the annual Mazu festivals and pilgrimages in China and Taiwan also function as a strong unifier amongst the different Chinese communities that take part in her worship.

It is interesting to note that the former Portuguese colony of Macau, today a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, derives its name from its famous temple dedicated to Mazu. The temple is called Temple of A-Ma, or Ma Gok Temple (媽閣廟; Mandarin Pinyin: Ma Ge Miao; Cantonese: Ma Gok Miu). When the Portuguese landed at Macau near the location of the temple, they asked the locals what the name of the place was. The local people replied Ma Gok in Cantonese, so the Portuguese named it Macau.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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