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Mazu and Her Temples


Effigy of Mazu in the Grand Matsu Temple

Have you ever heard of Mazu (also spelled Matsu)? If you visit Taiwan, you can't miss her. She is everywhere: in customs, festivals, some parks, and of course in the many temples erected in her honour. From Taoism, Mazu is a goddess from the Fujian region and worshipped all along the southern and eastern coasts of China. As Mazu protects sailors from the perils of the sea, and as the Taiwan Strait is particularly dangerous, she is especially worshipped in Taiwan, where she watches over the whole island more generally. Powerful and benevolent, she holds a prominent place in the Taiwanese religious universe.

Crowd of pilgrims walking on the Siluo bridge
Pilgrims walk with Mazu for 400 kilometers on the west coast of Taiwan

Pilgrimages gathering tens of thousands of people are organized every year in April for her birthday. Her importance is such that some political figures even promote their political ideas on her behalf.

Mazu's story varies between the legends, but all of them say that before becoming a goddess, Mazu was Lin Moniang, a shaman from a fishing village born in the late 10th century. She is said to have mastered religious practices at a very early age, as well as to have supernatural powers such as the ability to see the future or to travel by thought. Thus, she would have miraculously rescued one or more members of her family caught in a typhoon. In Taiwan, it is said that Lin Moniang, not seeing his father's boat come back from fishing, held a lantern by the sea every night, hoping that the light would guide her father back home. Touched by this act of filial piety, the gods made Lin Moniang a goddess after her death.

Statues of Shunfeng'er and Qianliyan in the Mazulou temple
Shunfeng'er (front) and Qianliyan (back) mightly guarding Mazu

Once she became a goddess, the demons Qianliyan and Shunfeng'er both fell in love with Mazu. The former has the power to see everything (or very far) and the latter to hear everything (or almost). Mazu accepted to marry the one who would defeat her in battle. However, she beat them both and made them her servants and guardians. They help her patrol the seas for sailors in distress.

Mazu's temples in Tainan

The city of Tainan has hundreds of temples scattered throughout the city. More than tourist spots, temples are above all an integral part of the life of Taiwanese people, who go there to convey their wishes to the gods or ask them questions. In addition to their great beauty, temples are interesting because they contain elements from the legends.

Effigy of Guanyin in the Hainan temple
Guanyin typically occupy the back room of Mazu's temples

Mazu, for example, is always accompanied by large statues of her guardians. Shunfeng'er is typically painted red, while Qianliyan is green, often with his hand as a visor. Similarly, Mazu often shares her temples with the goddess Guanyin, who is associated with her legends. Guanyin would have been a devotee of Mazu, or she would have allowed her birth, depending on the version. Note that while Mazu is Taoist, Qianliyan, Shunfeng and Guayin are all Buddhist. In the Chinese folk religion, it is natural to worship different gods at the same time. People gladly mix Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism... Next, I will be presenting a selection of five Mazu temples, all located in the same area and accessible by foot from Fuqi Hostel. Continue reading…

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