Devotees carry a statue of the goddess Mazu in a procession on Meizhou Island, China.

‘She’s in our hearts’: Devotees from China and Taiwan come together to celebrate the goddess Mazu

The Daoist goddess Mazu is revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. China supports Mazu worship as a way to strengthen cross-strait, political and economic relations. 

The World

Devotees carry a statue of the goddess Mazu in a procession on Meizhou Island, China.

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

Inside the Xinggong Temple on Meizhou Island near Putian, Fujian Province, pilgrims bow in front of a statue of the Daoist goddess, Mazu.

They light incense and present fruit and small plates with handcrafted offerings shaped like marine animals.

Li Ahxia, who grew up on Meizhou Island, brings her 8-year-old daughter with her to the temple, where they offer incense and prayers to the goddess Mazu.

“She’s in our hearts. We usually come twice a month to make offerings to Mazu. And she protects us.”

Li Ahxia, Meizhou Island, Mazu devotee

“She’s in our hearts,” Li said. “We usually come twice a month to make offerings to Mazu. And she protects us.”

The scene of quiet reverence stands in stark contrast to the rising political — and military — tensions between China and Taiwan.

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Mazu is revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese government, which has been putting military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, supports Mazu worship as a way to strengthen cross-strait political and economic relations.

Procession honoring Mazu at Meizhou Island, China.

Procession honoring Mazu at Meizhou Island, China.

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

Mazu followers come from all over the world on pilgrimage to visit her temple on Meizhou Island — believed to be her birthplace — just off of China’s eastern coast. Taiwan is less than 80 miles away, across the Taiwan Strait.

A complicated history 

Mazu is believed to have been a real person named Lin Mo, who lived in the 10th century and became revered for her divine powers, such as predicting the weather and saving drowning sailors.

According to folklore, she died at 28 while trying to rescue the victims of a shipwreck, and she was elevated to a sea goddess who was known for being compassionate and motherly.

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As China’s maritime economy and overseas trade expanded in the 13th century, devotion to Mazu was encouraged, some scholars say. In the 1800s, the emperor gave her the title, Queen of Heaven.

But during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Mazu worship was violently repressed, along with other religions.

Mei Yinggu, 65, has lived at Xinggong Temple on Meizhou Island since she was a toddler and is now the managing director.

During the Cultural Revolution, she said, the temple was almost completely destroyed. She said that for several years, she slept in a cowshed nearby to protect the holy site from further destruction.

Mei Yinggu makes offering at Xinggong Temple, Meizhou Island, China.

Mei Yinggu makes offering at Xinggong Temple, Meizhou Island, China.

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

In the 1980s and 1990s, folk religion was accepted again, and Mei said she collected donations to rebuild the temple bit by bit. Pilgrimages resumed, and the island began welcoming visitors from other Mazu temples across China and the world, including Taiwan.

An annual fall pilgrimage commemorates the anniversary of Mazu’s ascension to heaven, while another in the spring celebrates her birthday.

And, the Mazu statue from Meizhou Island has been carried throughout Asia to connect with her devotees.

Local officials used interest in Mazu to build up their tourist economy. The small island features a cultural relics park, a theme park, a musical theater performance and souvenir shops, all devoted to promoting the goddess Mazu.

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Despite the pandemic, throngs of people still showed up in October to march in the annual processions around the small island.

‘We always want to [reunite] with Taiwan’

Researcher Zhang Yanchao studies the Mazu faith in China and around the world.

“The government tries to use Mazu worship to connect mainland China people with Taiwanese people, more like a common cultural identity to unite mainland China with Taiwan,” she said. “Because we always want to [reunite] with Taiwan.”

Puppet costumes at Xinggong Temple on Meizhou Island, China.

Puppet costumes at Xinggong Temple on Meizhou Island, China.

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

The Chinese government sees the island as a renegade province and says “complete reunification” is a top priority.

In the past few months, China has been sending warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone on a regular basis.

For its part, Taiwan has asserted itself on the international stage as a self-governed democracy. The island has been separately ruled since 1949 as the result of civil war in China. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen has asked China’s government to “stop the spread of military adventurism.”

Zhang, the researcher, said that officials in China also see the goddess Mazu as a way to build economic ties.

“They try to attract financial support from Taiwanese and also from other overseas Chinese. So, they kind of promoted this goddess worship.”

Zhang Yanchao, Mazu researcher

“They try to attract financial support from Taiwanese and also from other overseas Chinese. So, they kind of promoted this goddess worship,” she said.

The Chinese government sees another opportunity here, too.

A performer at a procession commemorating the anniversary of the goddess Mazu’s ascension to heaven.

A performer at a procession commemorating the anniversary of the goddess Mazu’s ascension to heaven.

Credit:

Rebecca Kanthor/The World

At a Mazu Cultural Forum and Tourist Festival held in China just a few weeks ago, officials announced preferential policies for young Taiwanese entrepreneurs to set up shop in Fujian province.

Local news coverage mentioned new academic and youth exchanges between China and Taiwan.

It also reported that as attendees from both sides held meetings, a statue of the goddess Mazu was there watching over them.