Photo Credit: Common Wealth Magazine
In this post we cover the history of Matsu, the patron goddess of Taiwan and the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage that is held yearly in her honor. Join us as we explore one of the most important deities and cultural religious events in Taiwan. To read more about religion in Taiwan see our previous blog here.
Living or spending time in Taiwan, foreigners are often given the privilege of seeing or taking part in certain aspects of the local community that is at once unfamiliar and so incredibly inclusive that one can’t help but be caught up in the magic of it all. This can be anything from practicing tai chi with grandparents in a local park to sorting the trash with the entire apartment block every time the garbage truck playing Beethoven rolls by or even watching an entire neighborhood come out with incense for a religious procession with deities being carried from house to house on litters.
More recently, this last one happened in our neighborhood and it got us thinking that it would be worth writing about one of the Island’s most important deities and what can only be understood as Taiwan’s biggest religious pilgrimage: Matsu and the Dajia Matsu.
Matsu or Mazu, (媽祖), is a 10th century Chinese sea goddess who began her life as a young woman from the coast of Fujian Province, China. Originally named Lin Moniang, or silent maiden, she was born into a family of fishermen sometime near the beginnings of the Song Dynasty (although a few scholars speculate that the myth of Matsu originates from a few centuries earlier). In some legends she is understood as a nameless citizen of Fujian, while in other versions she stands out through her gifts from a young age.
Where the legends converge is that at some point in her teens or early twenties, she saved her father and brothers from a storm off the coast of Fujian. In most tales this happens by her going into a trance while at her loom. She sees the calamity that is befalling her family and begins saving them by picking them up or moving them to safety. Her mother, mistaking her trance for a seizure, however, rushes to intervene and wakes her. In doing so, she causes Matsu to drop one of her brothers into the sea. Deeply saddened Matsu tells her mother what happened. Her father and other brothers eventually return home and confirm the miracle and the events that took place. The causes of Matsu’s death are unclear, however, most accounts agree that she dies unmarried at a young age (normally cited at around 27 or 28). She is also often understood as having been able to predict or avert bad weather during her lifetime.
After her death, sailors began or continued to report being saved at sea by a beautiful woman in later legends described as clad in a red dress or in a beam of pure light and carrying a lantern to guide distressed vessels. Matsu worship quickly expanded along the coast of Fujian and by 1123 C.E. the Song Dynasty Emperor canonized Matsu as an official deity after an imperial envoy was miraculously saved in a storm.
Beyond Fujian, Matsu worship spread to Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and other parts of South East Asia where she was worshiped as a patron goddess of sailors and fishermen. Overtime the myth came to incorporate other local legends or folk beliefs about saviors at sea as well as parts of the Daoist and Buddhist cannons. Nowadays Matsu is frequently shown with two demons, one who can see for a thousand miles and the other who can hear calls for help, who assist her in rescuing those in times of need.
Matsu’s name in Chinese directly translates to “ancestor” or “mother ancestor / grandmother” and she has been recognized in 2009 by UNESCO as a central figure within Fujian and Taiwanese culture worshiped in fairs, festivals, and temples around the world.
In Taiwan, Matsu has taken on the status of a patron deity and her role as a sailor’s protector has expanded to include everything from helping with test scores to health to finances to romance. There are well over 1000 Matsu temples in the country today and one Duke University study estimates that as perhaps as much as 70 percent of Taiwan may believe in or worship the goddess in some form.
As a sea goddess, Matsu was frequently carried on ships and worshiped by sailors and passengers alike for granting them a safe voyage. Both Ming and Qing Dynasties credit her with helping to capture the Island and in the course of successive waves of immigrant groups from different parts of China she overtime became seen as a neutral and unifying entity. She survived the Japanese colonial period and local lore has it that she even played a role in helping protect the Island during an American bombing in WWII where she appeared in the sky and swept the bombs into the sea.
Each year, Matsu is celebrated in temples across Taiwan in the form of festivals and processions that can draw thousands to tens of thousands of people.
It is interesting to note that both the Ming and the Qing dynasties used Matsu as a means of securing their right to rule in Taiwan. Under Japan’s control, after the Xilai Temple incident, the Japanese would investigate the role of folk religion and determine that Matsu worship along with other elements of folk religion was beneficial to their aims of governing Taiwan. All of these elements have helped establish Matsu as a national goddess of the Island.
In more recent years Matsu and Matsu worship has found itself at the center of the question of Taiwanese identity and autonomy. Beijing and the PRC has made an effort to promote the Matsu worship and temple pilgrimages within mainland China as a means of increasing the number of visits from Taiwanese tourists. Many advocates for Taiwanese autonomy see this as a blatant exercise in soft power as a means of relocating the sphere of Matsu religious worship and advancing China’s goal of reunification. In 2011 Xi Jingping is quoted as having told party leaders to make “full use” of Matsu as a means of bringing Taiwan closer to China.
India, Saudi Arabia, Peru, and Iraq are often countries that come to mind when thinking about large religious pilgrimages or yearly events, but Taiwan’s Dajia Mazu pilgrimage is not one to be counted out.
Every year in the third lunar month (generally around March or April) a nine-day procession takes place where a statue of the goddess is walked over 340 kilometers through cities on the western coast of Taiwan. It is a festival and tradition that dates back almost 300 years and nowadays sees as many as 4 million people in attendance. The procession is marked by a great deal of fanfare, flags, and festivities and the route is often lined with people handing out food and waiting to receive blessings from the goddess.