Mazu: the Legend of the Sea Goddess

The Mazu temple in Dadaocheng, Taipei

Three or four hundred years ago, war and famine drove many people to emigrate from south China to Taiwan. Piling their belongings into small wooden boats, they embarked on the dangerous 100-mile sea crossing. The area is regularly swept by typhoons. For protection, the immigrants would always bring a statue of Mazu, the goddess of the sea, from their local temple. They believed she would calm the seas and guide them safely to Taiwan.
 

To show their gratitude to the goddess, the immigrants who arrived safely founded the Mazu temple in northern Taipei's Dadaocheng district, and they placed many of those Mazu statues inside. Dadaocheng was Taiwan's most important trading harbour during the 19th century, so the people hoped the goddess would continue to look after them as they travelled and traded around China, Taiwan, and South East Asia. Around the world, there are other temples to Mazu, but thanks to the wealth earned by trading,
the temple at Dadaocheng became one of the most important in Taiwan.

 

Most Mazu temples are positioned so the main door faces the sea, so that the goddess can watch over the people there. At Dadaocheng, the door faces the wide Danshui river, which provides access to the sea, a few miles away.
 

Although we describe Mazu as a goddess today, we believe she was also a real person. Mazu was born about 1000 years ago, during the Song dynasty, in a fishing village in southern China's Fujian province. Her father was a local official.
 

According to the legend, she was always a very quiet girl, but very intelligent. At 8 years old, she could read ancient Chinese literature – a bit like a small child reading Shakespeare. People also say that she had the gift of predicting the weather, and telling fortunes.

When she was 28 years old, a huge storm wrecked many fishing boats and trading vessels off the coast of Fujian. According to legend, Mazu took a small boat, and rescued many, but eventually she herself succumbed to the waves. 

Then, a strange thing happened. People began to report that they had seen Mazu, guiding lost ships to safety, or even rescuing sailors from storms and shipwrecks. They began to believe that the young woman had been raised to heaven and become a goddess.
 

If you visit the Mazu temple in Dadaocheng, you will see the main statue of Mazu, in the centre, facing the door. On each side of her you will see her two guardian generals. They are "Thousand Miles Eye" (千里眼, Qianli Yan) and "With-the-Wind Ear" (順風耳 Shunfeng Er). In this temple, and in many others, "Thousand Miles Eye" is depicted as red-faced, with two horns, while "With-the-Wind Ear" is green with one horn. They are said to be two demons whom Mazu defeated.
 

Looking around the temple, you'll notice there are many different statues of Mazu everywhere, big and small. It's a tradition for Mazu to visit other temples, local families and other towns around Taiwan and overseas, to bring her blessings to them. So the statues are carried around, with a big ceremony, during Mazu's birthday, and other special festivals. Sometimes you'll see the followers marching through the streets, carrying the statue by hand in a special palanquin, or in the back of a vehicle. However, the main statue in the center never leaves the temple.

Photos by Joyce Tay

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