Mazu Culture – Taiwan’s Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend Mr. Ma Jikang’s lecture titled “Different World Heritage – Mazu Beliefs and Customs” at the Yuppie Bookstore. It provided me with a fresh perspective on Taiwan’s Mazu culture. Mazu is so deeply rooted in Taiwan that it is almost certain that everyone has either visited or passed through a Mazu temple. In fact, Lara’s grandparents are among the founders of a Matsu branch temple.
When Lara’s grandparents traveled from their hometown of Yunlin to the north, their devout beliefs led them to seek blessings from Mazu. Consequently, they sent a sacred pot from Beigang Chaotian Temple to invite Mazu to Taipei, where they established a “branch” temple known as Beigang Chaotian Temple Mazu Temple in Wanhua. During my childhood, I had the opportunity to participate in a “tour” and even briefly assumed the role of a leader during the annual grand celebration as a drummer, albeit for a short time (maybe only an hour XD).
Mazu, whose surname is Lin and given name is Mo Niang, hailed from Meizhou, Fujian during the Northern Song Dynasty. The name “Mo Niang” was bestowed upon her because she did not cry like a typical baby when she was born. Due to her extraordinary birth, she later acquired knowledge of witchcraft and frequently prayed for the safety of her father, brother, and the villagers who ventured out to sea. During her prime years, tragedy struck when her father and brother perished while fishing at sea, and Mazu herself drowned while attempting to save them. In honor of Mo Niang’s filial piety, subsequent generations named the place “Mazu,” which is the origin of its name. The place that originated from Penghu is called Ma Gong in Penghu due to the presence of the first Mazu Temple during the Yuan Dynasty.
Another unexpected place name is “Macau.” While Macau is commonly known by its English name, it is actually a transliteration of the local term. When the Portuguese arrived in 1523, they inquired about the location, but due to the language barrier, the locals believed they were asking about the temple (which was typically the busiest or located in the city center). In response, the locals replied “Mago” (referring to the Mazu Temple) in Cantonese. As a result, the Portuguese named it MACAO, which eventually became “Macau” in English.
Mazu, who boasts a following of 200 million worldwide, initially started as a local belief. However, due to the food scarcity in Fujian during that period, many people from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou migrated in search of livelihoods, spreading this belief to various parts of the world. In Taiwan, it eventually became the official “God-creation Movement” promoted by the Qing Dynasty emperor as a means to win over and unite the people.
Teacher Ma Jikang shared an intriguing insight, comparing Mazu’s title to that of Zhen Huan in the harem, both striving for higher status within their respective realms. Initially referred to as “Mrs.” in the Linghui period, Mazu’s title evolved during the Ming Dynasty. As Zheng He embarked on his voyages to the West and sought to stabilize the military’s morale, Mazu was bestowed the title of “Tianfei.” Later, during the Qing Dynasty, after Shi Lang successfully recaptured Taiwan, he attributed the victory to Mazu’s divine intervention, fearing reprisals for his achievements. In response, Emperor Kangxi, in a grand gesture, named Mazu the “Queen of Heaven” and funded the construction of the first officially supported “Tianhou Palace” (Palace of the Heavenly Empress) in Tainan.
While the name change may appear to express gratitude for Mazu’s intervention, it was driven by political considerations. By replacing the Ming Dynasty’s Xuantian God with Mazu, the Qing Dynasty sought to provide a legitimate reason to dispel anti-Qing sentiments and discourage aspirations to restore the Ming Dynasty. This serves as a reminder that throughout history, regardless of the era or dynasty, religions have been utilized to solidify political power.
It is said that Mo Niang was killed at the age of 28, remaining unmarried and childless. In Fujian, the idols all resemble young girls. However, upon arriving in Taiwan, they transformed threefold and became more mature… Their feminine features disappeared, replaced by plump cheeks, mature makeup, and a figure akin to that of an aunt… (covers face). How did this happen during the crossing of the strait, distorting everything? It turns out that it stemmed from its very origins! In the early years, immigrants to Taiwan had to traverse the perilous “Black Water Ditch” (Taiwan Strait). The fierce winds and treacherous waves gave rise to a saying: “Six perish, three remain, and one turns back.” In other words, out of ten individuals who embarked on the journey, six perished at sea, three successfully reached land, and one abandoned the endeavor midway… Thus, those who crossed the sea at that time, referred to as the “Arhat feet,” implored Mazu’s blessings. I can only lament like a mother to the “mazuma”… Therefore, the god statues in Taiwan (and the same holds true worldwide) do not truly depict the appearance of the gods, but rather represent the hopes held within people’s hearts.
The “black face” of the Mazu statue originated from the abundant burning of incense, which caused it to darken over time.
Mazu embarks on a journey and begins traveling by driving.
The third month of the lunar calendar marks the birthday of Mazu (so Mazu should be an Aries?), an annual event celebrated across Taiwan in Mazu temples. Among them, the Dajia Zhenlan Palace holds the largest and most elaborate detour ceremony. Originally a Qing Dynasty custom, it involved returning to Meizhou every 12 years to receive incense. It was a revered occasion due to Mazu’s esteemed lineage and potential promotion to immortality. However, due to competition between Beigang Chaotian Palace and Lukang Fengtian Palace to be recognized as the foremost temple in Taiwan, and influenced by mortal interests, Dajia Zhenlan Palace switched to Lukang Fengtian Palace instead of Chaotian Palace.
Traditionally, the detour lasts for 8 days and 7 nights. However, to accommodate the two-day weekend and adhere to publicity time limits (as the teacher explained, haha), Dajia Zhenlan Palace extended it to 9 days and 8 nights, starting on Friday evening and concluding on Sunday. Participating believers, many of whom are older individuals or lifelong devotees fulfilling vows, embark on a journey of 300-400 kilometers. During the event, convenience is prioritized, and everything, including eating, drinking, and sleeping, is arranged accordingly. Despite the fatigue from walking during the day and sleeping on the floor at night, no one complains.
When Lara participated at a young age, she remembers firecrackers, the tiring walk, and the sound of gongs and drums, but not much else… However, it seems to be an essential Taiwanese experience! So perhaps next year, a well-planned visit is in order. Here are some special photos to share:
(Maybe I can share my own photos next year~)
Most of the individuals participating in the detour ceremony are involved in laying floors in temples or schools.
Walking can be quite challenging, but there are kind-hearted individuals who generously offer free pain patches or massage services to provide relief.
The “Zanxiang” company sponsored a mobile bath service.
Every year, during the detour ceremony, there is a ranking list that every influential temple aspires to top. They compete to secure the coveted “top fragrance” position (image sourced from the internet).
“The human touch is the most beautiful scenery in Taiwan,”
A statement that has sometimes been used ironically on the internet in recent years. However, during this annual “Matsu” event, we can truly regain our faith in it. Throughout the journey, participants are greeted with free food and snacks, generously provided by fellow believers and kind-hearted individuals. This support is given without excessive commercial promotion but rather stems from a genuine respect and love for Mazu. It serves as encouragement and cheers for all those who share the same beliefs.
The little girl kindly served tea to the diligent sedan chair bearers and the team responsible for sewing flags.
Even TA-Q-BIN has introduced a complimentary clothing delivery service for customers.
Even TA-Q-BIN has rolled out a free service for delivering clothes for customers who need a change.
Living in the “Dragon Kingdom,” you may encounter dilemmas such as choosing between attending traditional temple fairs and enjoying firecrackers while considering the children at home who need to sleep. It can be a challenging decision, much like the example Mr. Ma provided in his lecture that made you want to cover your ears and avoid listening. For instance, the practice of eating dog meat might be deeply ingrained in certain societies as a result of historical and cultural factors. While you, as a dog lover, strongly oppose such a practice, it is important to recognize that it may be a part of life for those in those specific regions, driven by their circumstances and values.
In the same way, we must acknowledge that diverse cultures hold different values and practices. Christian believers, for example, may not partake in certain rituals, and it would be unfair for them to forbid others from worshiping. Similarly, Muslims have specific prayer obligations, even if they conflict with non-Islamic individuals’ working hours. Although it may be difficult for you to accept the consumption of dog meat, it could be an opportunity to attempt to view this cultural practice from a different perspective.
As you reflect on the importance of not discriminating, it is possible that there are areas where you still have room for growth and understanding. Embracing cultural diversity requires ongoing effort and an open mind.
When I lived in Russia, I often found myself introducing my own culture to friends from different countries. Through this experience, I realized how limited my understanding of my own culture was. After becoming a parent, my concerns expanded to encompass broader issues, transcending the boundaries of East and West, and encompassing both mainstream and niche topics. This process of exploration and understanding has made me increasingly anxious, fearing that I might miss out on important subjects, while also deepening my awareness of my cultural identity.
Traditions have enduring value because they hold intrinsic reasons for their continuation. It is our active participation that allows the beauty of these traditions to be passed down through generations.
I would like to share a website I found on the internet that offers protection-related articles about Taiwanese gods. I find these articles to be wonderfully “down-to-earth” and relatable.