Published on 2023.09.07

Past and Present:
The Dissemination and Interaction of Mazu Culture between Mainland China and Southeast Asia

Ms. Lin Mo (林默) was born in a peasant family in the Dongluo (East Snail Village) on the Meizhou Island in the Putian County of Fujian Province (福建莆田縣湄洲島東螺村) in the first year of Jianlong reign of the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋建隆元年,960年). The folk admiration for Lin Mo, due to her legendary story and magic power, had gradually deified her into a goddess, the so-called Mazu. Then, the court also began to worship Mazu by deification of her. Emperor Gaozong of the Song Dynasty (宋高祖趙匡胤,927-976) granted Mazu the appellation of “Linghui furen (Lady of Spirit and Kindness, 靈惠夫人)”; Kublai Khan of the Yuan Dynasty (元代大汗忽必烈,1215-1294) titled her “Tianfei (Heavenly Princess, 天妃)”; and Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (康熙帝愛新覺羅玄燁,1654-1722) conferred her the title of “Tianhou” (Heavenly Empress, 天后).” As a result, Mazu became one of the three deities of ancient China and enjoyed a national fiesta for her as the same as Emperor Huang and Confucius. Even in the modern era, Mazu is still firmly believed by many peoples in Mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and East Asia. In 2009, Mazu belief and culture have been listed by the UNESCO as one of the Representatives of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Statue of Mazu in Meizhou Island, Putian, Fujian (福建莆田湄洲岛)

The history of the interaction and exchange of Mazu culture between Mainland China and Southeast Asia is very long, which has been evidenced by historical materials. There are two existent slates respectively carved with the titles of Record of the Voyages to Foreign Countries (《通番事蹟記》) and Record of Heavenly Princess Marvelous Response to Praying (《天妃靈應之記》). They were set up by Zheng He (鄭和,1371-1433), who led several large-scale voyages, in the Xuande Year of the Ming Dynasty (明宣德年間). One of them stood at the Liujiagang (劉家港,Port of Liu Family, today’s Liuhezhen [Liu River Town]) in East Lou (婁東,today’s Taicang City) in the Jiangzu Province, from where Zheng He started his voyages. The other was established nearby the Shengshou baota (聖壽寶塔,Sacred Longevity Pagoda) on the top of a mountain in the Changle (長樂,Long happiness) district of the Fujian Province, which served as a navigation mark for Zheng He’s voyages. These slates recorded a story of the splendid voyages as well as the gratitude for Mazu who saved the lives of the navigators from China to Southeast Asia. 

The inscription on the slate Record of the Voyages to Foreign Countries (《婁東劉家港天妃宮石刻通番事迹記》) describes the dangerous voyages first: “From the Yongle year when Zheng He and others were assigned as envoys to foreign countries for the first time to now, the voyages have already totaled seven times. Every time, Zheng He led several tens of thousands of officers and soldiers on more than one hundred of ships, sailing from Taicang to ocean, passing by Champa, Siam, Java, Kochi, Calicut, and reaching more than thirty countries such as Hormuz in the Western regions, by crossing the dark blue ocean for more than ten of thousands li. Sometimes, boundless huge waves flied onto sky, sometimes mist smog made sight blurred, and sometimes severe storms emerged as mountains. (和等自永樂初奉使諸番,今經七次,每統領官兵數萬人,海船百餘艘。自太倉開洋,由占城國、暹羅國、爪哇國、柯枝國、古裏國、抵于西域忽魯謨斯等三十餘國,涉滄溟十萬餘裏。觀夫鯨波接天,浩浩無涯,或烟霧之溟濛,或風浪之崔嵬。)” Then, the inscription expresses the gratitude to Mazu, holding that “The goddess of Heavenly Princess spreaded her effective power over the huge ocean and achieved merits through handling great affairs, how noble! … The ocean changes endlessly. If not relying on the divine power, indeed, how could the navigators be safe and keep the sail running with a full speed day and night … When reaching foreign lands, those stubborn and disrespectful barbarian kings are arrested, and those violent and bandit-kind soldiers and plunders are eliminated. Then, the ocean paths are clear and safe and become what the foreigners reply upon for business. All these resulted from the help from the goddess. (天妃之神,威靈布于巨海,功德著于太常,尚矣。… 海洋之狀,變態無時,而我之雲帆高張,晝夜星馳,非仗神功,曷能康濟。… 及臨外邦,其蠻王之梗化不恭者生擒之,其寇兵之肆暴掠者殄滅之,海道由是而清寧,番人賴之以安業,皆神之助也。)” The content of the inscription carved on the second slate Record of Heavenly Princess’ Marvelous Response to Praying (《天妃之神靈應記》) (which was moved to the official building of Changle County before the War of Resistance against Japan was broken out.) is almost identical to that of the first slate. It also describes the scale and the enormous difficulties of the voyages and expresses the gratitude that they “particularly relied upon the divine protection and virtue of the Heavenly Princess. (尤賴天妃之神護佑之德也。)” Obviously, Zheng He’s voyages did not only bring commercial goods and navigation technology to Southeast Asia, but also the belief in China’s Mazu culture over there.

In the wake of Zheng He’s voyages, the waves of Chinese emigrants to “Nanyang (南洋)” took place. The term of “Nanyang,” designated as Southeast Asia, appeared during the Ming-Qing period when a great increase of population happened to China’s southeastern regions, which led to the shortage of arable land. In addition, people suffered from the societal disorder caused by the invasion and harassment by the pirates as well as the following evacuation order imposed by the court on them. As a result, many grassroot people were forced to emigrate to Malaysia, Indonesia and so forth, which is called “Xia Nanyang (下南洋,Go to Southeast Asia).” On their way of navigation to the destiny, the biggest challenge the emigrants would encounter came from the bad weather and severe storms. Therefore, the Chinese emigrants brought the icon of Mazu and incense with them and prayed to Mazu for a safe trip. Once they safely arrived the shore of Southeast Asia, they would immediately enshrine and worship the icon of Mazu brought with them on the site. It was in this way that Mazu culture was spread from Mainland China to various places of Southeast Asia. 

Heavenly Empress Temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Since religious beliefs migrated along with emigrants and their culture, the Mazu temples in Southeast Asia are mostly affiliated with the hometowns of the emigrants and the guild halls/associations (會館) of their regions and dialects of China, such as Hainan guild halls (Qiong dialect or Hainan Min dialect), Fujian guild halls (Southern Min dialect), Guangdong guild halls (Cantonese dialect), Fuzhou guild halls (Fuzhou dialect), etc. These guild halls spread over Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, etc. They are the sacred platforms to satisfy the need of local Chinese people for their faith and worship, as well as the centers for the social activities of local Chinese people.  Thus, many Mazu temples in Southeast Asia are characterized by the feature of regionality and consanguinity. For example, most places in Malaysia to offer sacrifices to Mazu were built up by immigrants from the Hainan Province, the Fujian Province and the Guangdong Province, used as both temple and gymnasium, including the Hainan Association/Heavenly Empress Temple of Melaka, the Muar Hainan Association/Heavenly Empress Temple of Johor, Malaysia, the Heng Ann Association/Heavenly Empress Temple, Melaka, etc. There are also the Hainan Association/Heavenly Empress Temple, the Hokkien Huay Kuan/Heavenly Blessed Temple, the Fuzhou Association/ Heavenly Empress Temple, the Putian Association/Heavenly Empress Temple of Southeast Asia in Singapore.  Vietnamese call Mazu “Heavenly Grandmother”, and there are the Chinese All-Community Assembly Hall, the Cantonese Assembly Hall, the Fukian Assembly Hall, Trieu Chau Assembly Hall, etc. in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Heavenly Empress Temple in Quanzhou (泉州)

In recent years, the exchanges and interactions of Mazu culture between Mainland China and Southeast Asia have become increasingly active, which mainly took three forms: soul share (分靈), safety patrol (巡安) and pilgrimage (謁祖進香). The former two are often combined. The Meizhou Mazu Temple of the Xiuyu (秀嶼,Beautiful Realm) District in Putian City of the Fujian Province made many times of safety patrol to Southeast Asia. For instance, with the slogan of “Mazu goes to Southeast Asia and retrace the ocean silk route, (媽祖下南洋 重走海絲路)” the statue of Meizhou Mazu went to Malaysia and Singapore for safety patrol in July 2017. On July 1, 2017, Meizhou Mazu accompanied by about 130 people of security guards and folk culture troupes flied from Xiamen airport to Kuala Lumpur of Malaysia. Next day, a similar activity took place in the Heavenly Empress Temple of Kual Lumpur (Thean Hou Temple Malaysia). On July 3, the statue of Meizhou Mazu was transferred from the capital Kuala Lumpur to the Heng Ann Association/Heavenly Empress Temple, Melaka in the middle of Malaysia. Liow Tiong Lai (廖中萊), Communication Minister of Malaysia, Wu Jinhua (吳金華), President of the Heng Ann Association (興安會館) and other guests accompanied and guarded the statue of Meizhou Mazu for the safety patrol on foot covering 6 kilometers in Melaka. On July 5, the Meizhou Mazu cohort for safety patrol arrived in Singapore and started its journey to the Jin Fu Gong Temple (金福宮), Bak Sua Siah Boo Temple (木山聖母宮), Kampong Tengah Thian Hou Keng (半港天后宮), Yun Feng Tian Hou Miao (雲峰天后廟), Singapore Kampong San Tent Tien How Association (金榜山亭天后宮), Heng Ann Heavenly Empress Temple (興安天后宮), Boon San Lian Ngee Association (文山聯誼社), Yueh Hai Ching Temple (粵海清廟) and Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (福建會館天福宮). This journey totals 100 kilometers. The local temples organized teams to perform dragon and lion dance and beat drums and gongs to warmly welcome and pay tribute to the statue of Meizhou Mazu. “The human-sized wooden statue, dressed in an embroidered robe and a crown decorated with jewels,” China Daily reported, “was paraded for a number of cultural exchange activities involving local communities.” Many believers of Mazu waited at temples or lined up on both sides of the street, warmly welcoming the statue of Mazu from Meizhou, Fujian.

In November 2019, the Week for China-Thailand Cultural Activities, namely the safety patrol of Meizhou Mazu over Thailand was co-organized and co-sponsored by the Board of Meizhou Mazu Temple, the Southern Thailand Matsu Temple Yao, the Quanzhou Jinjiang Union of Thailand and the Lim Clansmen Association of Thailand. The event was enthusiastically welcome by many local Chinese believers in Thailand. The warm response from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to the Meizhou Mazu safety patrol over there demonstrates that even in the twentieth-first century the belief in Mazu remains deep and strong among many Chinese people in Southeast Asia and that Mazu culture is still very attractive in Southeast Asia.

Heavenly Empress Temple in Macau

The activity of pilgrimage from overseas countries and regions to Meizhou Island of Fujian has been a significant form of the exchange of Mazu culture between Mainland China and overseas areas. It is believed that the Heavenly Empress Ancestral Temple at the Xianlianggang (賢良港,Port of Virtue and Goodness) of Meizhou, which was called the Huangluogang (黃螺港,Port of Yellow Snail) in the ancient time, is the birthplace of Mazu. Therefore, it has been the key location for pilgrimage. For instance, a cohort of 93 people from the Dama Tian Hou Gong Temple, Persatuan Lim Johor Bahru (Lim Clansmen Association of Johor) and Persatuan Lim Pontian of Johor (Pontian Clansmen Association of Johor), Malaysia raised command flags, carried the images of Mazu, clairvoyance god and clairaudience god with great respect and care, and paid a pilgrimage to the hometown of Mazu—the Meizhou Mazu Ancestral Temple, which warmly welcame the members of Persatuan Keturunan Lim Malaysia (The Federation of Lim Clansmen in Malaysia) and the followers of Mazu from far with the Putian folk music “Shiyin bayue” (Ten sounds from ten music instruments and the music played by eight musicians), which was just the first of the welcoming activities.

Pilgrimage ritual in Meizhou Mazu Temple (湄州媽祖祖廟)

Belief in Mazu is a kind of spiritual sustenance and comfort to the believers. Along with the spirit share and safety patrol of Mazu and pilgrimage to the Mazu Ancestral Temple are cultural exchanges and tourist activities, which indicate the dissemination of traditional Chinese culture. Thus, to a certain extent, Mazu culture has promoted the preservation of traditional Chinese culture among the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and, in an imperceptible way, has strengthened the attachment of the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia to their ancestral land China. This emotional attachment could be turned to various forms of tourist sightseeing, investment, study as well as the friendliness and kindness toward the world of the Chinese people. Therefore, the exchange of Mazu culture between Southeast Asia and Mainland China has cast many positive impacts in many aspects, which is worthy of encouragement and promotion. 

C.X. George WEI

C.X. George WEI is Distinguished Research Fellow of Center for Urban Cultural Studies of Shanghai Normal University, Chair Professor of Guangqi Center of International Scholars, Distinguished Professor of the Department of History at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, Chair Professor of Henan University and Editor-in-Chief for the book series “East and West” at Brill. He earned his Ph.D. in History from Washington University and MA in Modern World History from Henan University. He worked at Susquehanna University, Whitman College, and University of Toledo for 12 years and served as Head of the History Department at Hong Kong Shue Yan University for 2020-2022, Associate Vice President at Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College for 2019, Head of the History Department at the University of Macau for 2008-2010 and 2012-2015, and Chair of the History Department at Susquehanna University for 2004-2006, as well as President of the Association for the Chinese Historians in the United States for 2004-2006. He is author of Sino-American Economic Relations, 1944–1949 (1997), author/co-author of more than 70 journal articles and book chapters in both English and Chinese, editor of Asian Culture, Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (2022); Macao—The Formation of A Global City (2014), and China-Taiwan Relation in a Global Context: Taiwan’s Foreign Policy and Relations (2011), as well as co-editor of 15 collections in either English or Chinese.

Dr. Hsiao Hung-te

Associate Professor of Putian College, Fujian

All articles/videos are prohibited from reproducing without the permission of the copyright holder.

Welcome to leave a message:
Please Sign In/Sign Up as a member and leave a message