Mazu of the Orient: Legends, origins, connections
Author: Yixuan Wu
Mazu, or 妈祖 (Ma Zu) in Chinese, is an indigenous spirit of the seas worshipped by many East Asian seafarers (Definitions). She was believed to be responsible for the safety and success of many Chinese merchants in ancient times when the seas were still seen as uncharted territories. The origins of Mazu can be traced back to the Southern Fujian cities of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. They were perhaps two of the most important cities of Southern Fujian throughout China’s history. During the Song and Yuan dynasties, Quanzhou was a world-famous port, and the Southern Fujianese were major trading partners with civilizations in Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, Persia, Arabia, and East Africa. In the Ming Dynasty, however, the center of trade shifted to Yuegang in Haicheng, Zhangzhou (Li).
Figure 1: The cities of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou
The uncharted and boundless seas were undoubtedly being feared for their associations with unpredictable dangers. The Southern Fujianese later discovered that they needed a belief, one that addressed their uncertainties regarding sea travel and made them feel safe while sailing through turbulent waves (Li). They turned to worship Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess referred to as the tutelary overseer of the oceans.
Mazu, formerly named Lin Mo, was born in 960s AD at Meizhou Island, Putian, Quanzhou in the Song Dynasty. For more than 1,000 years after her death, her name was never forgotten. She became a goddess whose spirits lived on in the hearts of the Southern Fujianese. Legend has it that in the evening of Lin Mo’s birth, people witnessed a meteor shower streak across the sky, spilling red hues all across Meizhou Island. She was indeed not an ordinary seaside girl.
At the age of 7, Lin Mo was sent to a private school by her parents. She had outstanding intelligence and talent for almost everything that she did. Other than being able to recite poetry collections when she was less than 6 years old, she came to master skills in the fields of medicine and sea rescue. It eventually became her job to treat sickness for her fellow villagers and to rescue merchants and fishermen from shipwrecks. Having vast knowledge in the fields of astronomy and weather, she could also predict weather changes and warn the people going out to sea when the weather was not favorable for seafarers. Since then, everyone respectfully called her "Little Goddess" or "Dragon Girl" (“Does Mazu, the goddess of the seas, exist?”). After Lin Mo's death, seafarers often said that they frequently witnessed her, in a dark red skirt, drifting around the South China Sea to help people who were in trouble. Her spirit lived on among the Southern Fujianese, and the god of Mazu was gradually enshrined on ships for safe and smooth sailing.
Figure 2: Statue of Mazu in the city of Tainan, Taiwan
At first, the belief in Mazu was only limited to Meizhou Island. After numerous dynasties, however, the belief gradually expanded to other places.
In 1122 AD, Court Official Lu Yundi was appointed ambassador of the Song Dynasty to Goryeo (the present day Korean Peninsula). During the voyage, they encountered stormy seas, and other than his own ship, the rest of the ships in his fleet sank. This was because during the storm, he, along with the other sailors on his ship, fell on their knees and prayed to Mazu to guide them to safety. Legend has it that Mazu eventually showed herself and guided Lu’s ship away from the storm.
During the reign of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, Fujian Navy Admiral Shi Lang led troops to attack Taiwan. Shi Lang was originally from southern Fujian and was a devout believer in Mazu. With Mazu’s help and protection, Shi Lang’s army pacified Taiwan. Emperor Kangxi later gave Mazu the title of 天妃（Tianfei), or “sky goddess” (Lin, Zheng).
Beginning in the Song Dynasty, the people of southern Fujian carried the belief in Mazu to various ports in China, from the northern ports of Dandong to the southern ports of Leizhou. In other words, there are Tianfei Temples all over the coastal docks of the country. In the mainland, the belief in Mazu extends from the seaside, along the rivers, to the mountainous regions of the country. There are tons of Tianfei Palaces especially in the provinces of Jiangxi, Guizhou, and Anhui.
Figure 3: Mazu Temple in the port city of Guangzhou
Mazu’s greatest contributions in saving people’s lives occurred during World War 2 in Taiwan. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the United States constantly dropped bombs all over the island. However, people later found out that most of the 3,000 Mazu temples and shrines peppered throughout Taiwan all seemed untouched by the bombs, despite areas around them having been significantly destroyed. People say that Mazu swept through Taiwan and deflected each bomb away from the temples (OFTAIWAN).
Figure 4: An unexploded bomb outside of a Mazu temple in Taiwan
When the Hokkiens dispersed from the Fujian Province, many of them believed that Mazu accompanied them to wherever they had headed: North Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, South America, and even Europe (“Mazu and Hokkiens”). No matter when and where, the Hokkiens were the original inheritors of the Mazu belief.
About the author
Yixuan Wu is currently a student at International School Manila in Taguig City who wishes to pursue his goal of going to the US for college. Although a full Chinese in blood, he has lived in the Philippines for most of his life and has interacted and befriended many people of the Lannang heritage. He has been entrenched with creative writing exploring topics such as culture, identity and heritage. He would like to help increase the awareness and interest in the preservation of the Lannang heritage by helping with the online publications, and also through creating content for videos that helps to inspire other people. When he is neither writing nor rushing school work, he would either explore different genres of music or just chat with friends.
论闽南文化与妈祖信仰的关系 - 百度文库, wenku.baidu.com/view/9ce928aa720abb68a98271fe910ef12d2bf9a913.html.
论闽南地区的重商倾向与海外贸易--一个区域历史文化的考察 - 百度学术, xueshu.baidu.com/usercenter/paper/show?paperid=7a0dd110bd7cfe39d54ff40021cd6fc8&site=xueshu_se.
“Definitions for Mazumazu.” What Does Mazu Mean?, www.definitions.net/definition/mazu.
“Mazu.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Oct. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazu.
“Mazu: Goddess of the Sea Rooted in Chinese Maritime Culture.” CGTN, news.cgtn.com/news/3d3d514f796b444f79457a6333566d54/share_p.html.says:, boonkheng89. “Mazu.” OFTaiwan, 2 May 2020, oftaiwan.org/culture/mazu/.
“历史上说的海上女神，也就是妈祖，真实存在的吗？_传说.” _传说, 12 Sept. 2019, www.sohu.com/a/340658163_717027.
“妈祖与闽南人.” 上一篇, www.ptwhw.com/?post=294.