As with many Chinese gods and goddesses, Mazu was an everyday person that became deified after her death. Her legacy would be long-lasting, to a point that she even made it to the UNESCO list for unintelligible cultural heritage. Calling her a Chinese goddess, however, might be somewhat contested by some. That’s because her impact on Taiwan seems to be a lot more profound.
What Does Mazu Mean in Chinese?
The name Mazu can be split up into two parts: ma and zu. The first part ma is, amongst others, the Chinese word for ‘mother’. Zu, on the other hand, means ancestor. Together, Mazu would mean something like ‘Ancestor Mother’, or ‘Eternal Mother’.
Her name is also spelled as Matsu, which is believed to be the first Chinese version of her name. In Taiwan, she is even officially referred to as ‘Holy Heavenly Mother’ and the ‘Empress of Heaven’, emphasizing the importance that is still given to Mazu on the island.
This sign of importance has to do with the fact that Mazu is related to the sea. More specifically, with the fact that she was worshiped by people whose lives depended on the sea.
The Story of Mazu
Mazu was born in the tenth century and eventually got the name ‘Lin Moniang’, her original name. It is also often shortened to Lin Mo. She obtained the name Lin Moniang a couple of years after her birth. Her name wasn’t a coincidence, since Lin Moniang translates to ‘silent girl’ or ‘silent maiden’.
Being a silent observer was something she became known for. In theory, she was just another citizen from the Fujian province in China, although it was quite clear that she was unusual from an early age. Lin Mo and her family made a living through fishing. While her brothers and father went out fishing, Lin Mo was often at home weaving.
Her rise to the realm of gods began during one of her weaving sessions, around 960 AD. In this year, it is believed that she performed one particular miracle before dying at the age of 26. Or, rather, before ascending into heaven at the age of 26.
Why is Mazu a Goddess?
The miracle that made Mazu a goddess goes as follows. While still a teenager, Mazu’s father and four brothers went out on a fishing trip. During this trip, her family would encounter a great and terrifying storm at sea, one that was too big to conquer with normal equipment.
During one of her weaving sessions, Mazu slipped into a trance and saw exactly the danger her family was in. Quite frankly, she picked her family up and put them in a safe place. That is until her mother snapped her out of the trance.
Her mother mistook her trance for a seizure, which made Lin Mo drop her oldest brother into the sea. Sadly, he died because of the storm. Mazu told her mother what she did, something which her father and brothers verified when they returned home.
What is Mazu the Goddess of?
In line with the miracle that she performed, Mazu became worshiped as the sea and water goddess. She is easily one of the most important sea goddesses of Asia, or perhaps the world.
She is protective in her very nature and watches over sailors, fishermen, and travelers. While initially only the goddess of the sea, she became worshiped as something that is evidently more important than that. She is seen as a protective goddess of life.
Deification of Mazu
Mazu ascended to heaven not too long after she saved her family. The legend of Mazu only grew after that, and she became linked to other occurrences that saved seamen from terrible storms or other dangers at sea.
Official Status of Goddess
She actually obtained the official title of the goddess. Yes, official, since the government of China not only gave titles to its government officials, but they would also decide who was to be seen as a god and glorify them with the official title. This also means that the heavenly realm saw quite some changes from time to time, especially after changing the leadership.
During the Song dynasty, one of many Chinese dynasties, the decision was made that Mazu should be given such a title. This was after one particular event, in which it was believed that she saved an imperial envoy at sea somewhere in the twelfth century. Some sources state that the merchants prayed to Mazu before embarking on the trip.
Obtaining the title of god shows the support of the government for gods that represented the values they wanted to see in society. On the other hand, it also recognizes the importance of a certain figure for the community and inhabitants of the land.
After being officially recognized as a deity, the importance of Mazu spread well beyond mainland of China.
Initially, the promotion to goddess led to the fact that people erected shrines around Southern China in honor of Mazu. But, her worship really took off in the 17th century, when she properly arrived in Taiwan.
Was Mazu a Taiwanese or Chinese goddess?
Before diving into her actual worship, it might be good to talk about the question of whether Mazu was a Chinese goddess or a Taiwanese goddess.
As we saw, Mazu’s life had been quite extraordinary, to a point that she would be seen as a divine power after her death. However, while Mazu was born on the Chinese mainland, Chinese immigrants quickly dispersed Mazu’s story from Southern China to other parts of the Asian world. Through this, she became more important than originally seen at her initial place of birth.
Mazu Finds Land
Mostly, the regions that were reachable by boat became acquainted with Mazu. Taiwan was one of these regions, but Japan and Vietnam also were introduced to the goddess. She is still worshiped in both Japan and Vietnam as an important goddess, but nothing beats her popularity in Taiwan.
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In fact, the Taiwanese government even recognizes her as the deity that leads the Taiwanese people in everyday life. This, too, led to her being included in the UNESCO list for unintelligible cultural heritage.
How is Mazu Worshiped and Unintelligible Cultural Heritage
She got to the UNESCO list simply because she is at the center of a myriad of beliefs and customs which form the Taiwanese and Fujian identity. This includes things like oral traditions, but just as well the ceremonies surrounding her worship and folk practices.
Since it’s an unintelligible cultural heritage, it’s a bit hard to grasp what exactly is seen as cultural heritage. It mostly comes down to the festival that takes place twice a year, in a temple at Meizhou Island, the island where she was born. Here, inhabitants suspend their work and sacrifice marine animals to the deity.
Outside the two main festivals, a myriad of smaller festivals are also part of the unintelligible heritage. These smaller places of worship are decorated with incense, candles, and ‘Mazu lanterns’. The people worship Mazu at these smaller temples to implore the god for pregnancy, peace, life questions, or general well-being.
Any Mazu Temple that is erected is a true piece of art. Colorful and lively, yet thoroughly peaceful. Usually, Mazu is dressed in a red robe when depicted in paintings and murals. But, a Mazu statue normally shows her clothed in the jewel-festooned robes of an empress.
On these statues, she holds a ceremonial tablet and wears an imperial cap, with hanging beads at the front and back. Particularly her statues affirm the status of goddess Mazu as Empress of Heaven.
Most of the time, the temples show Mazu sitting on a throne between two demons. One demon is known as ‘Thousand Mile Eye’ while the other one is known as ‘With-the-Wind-Ear’.
She is depicted with these demons because Mazu simply conquered both of them. While this isn’t necessarily a lovely gesture by Mazu, the demons would still fall in love with her. Mazu promised to marry the one that could defeat her in combat.
However, the goddess is also notorious for her abjection of marriage. Of course, she knew the demons would never beat her. After realizing this, the demons became her friends and sat with her at her places of worship.
Outside her worship at the temples, a pilgrimage still takes place every year in honor of Mazu. These are held on the birthdate of the goddess, the twenty-third day of the third month of the lunar calendar. So that would be somewhere at the end of March.
The pilgrimage means that the statue of the goddess is taken out of the temple.
After this, it is carried on foot throughout the territory of the particular temple, stressing her relation to the land, other gods, and cultural identity.