Like all Chinese deities, the goddess Mazu was originally a human, born in 960, the first year of the Northern Song dynasty, in Xianlianggang, a fishing town in Putian county, Fujian. She led an exemplary life helping drowning sailors, died unmarried in 987, and ascended to heaven on nearby Meizhou Island. In the following centuries, as her reputation grew, several imperial courts bestowed official titles on the goddess, and expanded her temple and built other official Mazu temples. Mazu started out as a minor local deity worshipped by poor fisherman, and was transformed into one of the two most important female deities in the imperial religious pantheon overseen by the Board of Rites. Thousands of Mazu temples were built along coastal China, from Manchuria in the north to Guangdong province in the south, and waves of emigration brought Mazu to Taiwan, southeast Asia and Japan. While for commoners she stood for the safety of seafarers, female fertility and divine intervention in times of personal and familial adversity, her cult was also standardized and appropriated by the imperial state as a civilizing force and as a symbol of the coastal pacification of pirates, smugglers and rebels.
While the Mazu cult declined in socialist China due to anti-religious political sentiment and state action, today in Taiwan Mazu is the largest deity cult, her temples are the most numerous of all deities, and popular estimates are that 70 per cent of Taiwanese worship her in some form. Many Mazu temples sponsor annual festivals to celebrate her birthday on the twenty-sixth of the third lunar month (see temple fairs) and make pilgrimages to senior Mazu temples (see processions (religious)). The most prominent temples, such as the Chaotiangong temple in Beigang, Zhenlangong temple in Dajia and Tianhougong temple in Tainan, compete for historical precedence, fame, political influence, worshippers and lucrative donations.
Since 1987, Mazu temples on Taiwan have increasingly led pilgrimages across the politically fraught Taiwan Straits to their ancestral temple on Meizhou Island, and have donated large sums to help build or rebuild Mazu temples in Fujian province and other places in China.
See also: Guanyin
Huang, Mei-yin (1993). ‘Mazu’s Incense and the Construction of the Authority of the Spirits’. Journal of History 4.63:43–6.
Sangren, Steven (1993). ‘Power and Transcendence in the Ma Tsu Pilgrimages of Taiwan’. American Ethnologist 20.3:564–82.
Watson, James L. (1985). ‘Standardizing the Gods: The Promotion of T’ien Hou (“Empress of Heaven”) along the South China Coast, 960–1960’. In David Johnson, Andrew J.Nathan and Evelyn S.Rawski (eds), Popular Culture in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 292–324.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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