According to tradition, Mazu (Matsu) was a girl who lived in the late tenth century who was renowned for her assistance to seafarers. She was posthumously deified and attracted a wide cult throughout the southern China coastal area in the Ming dynasty. Over the past few centuries she has become one of the most popular local deities in China.
Following my visit to the popular Mazu temple in Guandu, Taipei, I’d like to propose that Mazu be thought of as a bioregional deity, specifically one corresponding to the Southern China Marine Ecoregion as identified by the WWF, that is, the sea area between Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Traditional scholarship on Chinese religions divides gods into local and national categories. Local gods have their specific domains and are worshipped only by people living in those particular geographic areas. National gods, such as Guan Di, the Jade Emperor, or th God of Wealth, can be found throughout the country. Local gods, conversely, are worshipped only in specific regions.
Devotion to Mazu is widespread throughout South East China’s coastal areas because of her association with seafarers and fishermen, and because of this she should be thought of in bioregional terms. Her worship emerges from the engagement of peoples in this marine ecoregion with fish, coastlines, tides, and the sea. Out of this complex of social, economic and ecological interaction developed a religious tradition that is quite specific to this bioregion. Of course most people who live in this area are no longer connected directly with the sea, but Mazu remains as popular as ever, as a sponsor of peace and prosperity.
Typically Mazu temples are located in strategic coastal sites, and her statues watch over the marine activities of local seafarers. Indeed, residents of Macau attributed the fact that they escaped the SARS crisis that gripped Hong Kong to the prophylactic powers of the enormous Mazu statue that had been erected in Macau shortly beforehand.
Now Mazu is beginning to take on new political responsibilities as a symbol of harmonious relations between Taiwan and the mainland. A huge emeral statue of Mazu recently arrived in Taiwan from the mainland. According to today’s Taipei Times report, the reception ceremony for the Mazu statue had both religious and political significance, and was attended by both religious and political dignitaries:
Greater Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) yesterday received the valuable statue, along with Jenn Lann Temple president Yen Ching-piao (顏清標). Hu said the religious event, which he described as an exchange of beliefs and feelings between people from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, would pull the two sides closer together.
Mazu’s bioregionalism thus opens her up to the possibility of being exploited for political ambitions, as a symbol of the unity of people on both sides of the Taiwan straits. As Taiwan approaches its presidential elections, such events take on even greater significance. Popular support is fairly evenly split between the KMT who favours closer integration with the mainland, and the DPP who take a more independent line. Intriguingly, Mazu, as a powerful symbol of the south China marine ecoregion is taking on national political functions, as a contested cultural icon caught between those who favour local Taiwanese identity and those who favour a pan-Chinese national identity. In the same way that the KMT advocated national Chinese gods to support a single Chinese nation in the 1930s, so also Beijing seems to be supporting the worship of Mazu as a symbol that can unite the cross-straits divide.
Whatever happens to Mazu from a political perspective, it seems that nothing at the moment will diminish her status as the chief goddess of the south China marine ecoregion.