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A nautical deity with more than 200 million worshippers and 5,000 temples worldwide, Mazu, or Matsu (媽祖), was said to have been born in China’s FuJian Province during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). She was a spiritualist proficient in medicine and astronomy prior to apotheosis. Many believe that Mazu lost her life at the age of 27 rescuing seafarers.
With Mazu being a maritime guardian, Mazuism is especially prevalent in coastal regions and island nations like Taiwan. An idolatry religion, temples and shrines were erected as early as the 15th century to house Mazu effigies, statues, statuettes, xoanon, etc. In the mid-19th century, China’s tea professionals were invited to join the island’s flourishing tea industry. Before crossing the turbulent Taiwan Strait, they sought protection and blessings from Mazu. Upon arrival they offered gratitude, further fortifying Mazuism’s doctrines and teachings.
Besides seafaring and fishery, myriad land-based enterprises instill Mazuism in their daily endeavors. Early 1800s documents found in southern Taiwan’s Tainan County recorded commerce-related donations made in honor of a Tea Trade Mazu; unfortunately the physical effigy of which was misplaced. During the 1860s, the industry’s key players recognized a regulatory guild’s indispensability. This organization eventually evolved into today’s Taipei Tea Merchants Association – home of the island’s only tangible Tea Trade Mazu (茶郊媽祖).
Hailing from China’s MeiZhou Island, Tea Trade Mazu arrived in Taiwan during the onset of Japan colonization (1895 – 1952). For decades, annual festivities were partially sponsored by wealthy tea merchants – chosen via moon block divination. This lucky individual also got to keep Tea Trade Mazu at their home or office for the entire year. Unlike other March Mazu events, the rituals and pilgrimage took place during the lunar calendar’s month of September and lasted just long enough to coincide Tea Sage Lu Yu’s (733–804) birthday on September 22nd.
All has been drastically simplified: Today the two- to three-hour-long ceremony is held inside Tea Trade Mazu’s own cozy room. So why are there two Tea Trade Mazu(s)? The less-adorned one is the original’s body double responsible for tasks such as day outings, business trips, etc.
ChangHua County’s LuGang Mazu Temple, said to have originated in 1590, is the oldest Mazu temple I have visited. (Temples and shrines are so ubiquitous that I must have stepped inside others without knowing they are also centuries-long Mazu devotees. Prior to writing this post, Mazuism was new to me, too.) LuGang Mazu Temple has not one but three Mazu and numerous minor effigies, the most sacred of which — with face darkened by centuries of incense offering — is the only surviving statue from the original set of six, also from China’s MeiZhou Island.
Discovery Channel named another temple’s annual event – DaJia Mazu Pilgrimage – the world’s top-three religious festivals. Every year the core participants carry the temple’s Mazu, clothed in elaborate hand-embroidered gown, in a palanquin and travel 200+ miles entirely on foot. An energetic American YouTuber recorded his 2018 pre-COVID-19 experience and his 2020 post-outbreak journey, during which he not only gained the experience of walking alongside but also carrying the palanquin – thanks to the much smaller crowd. Not surprisingly, many tourists and pilgrims could not complete the tour, which lasts eight to nine days and requires power-napping on roadsides overnight in sleeping bags.
BaiShaTun Mazu Pilgrimage would be my choice if given the opportunity to attend only one Mazu festival. Unlike DaJia Mazu’s, this pilgrimage does not announce and traverse a predetermined route. Driven by serendipity and divine intervention, the action involved is more traipse than tread. BaiShaTun Mazu, seated inside her “Pink Sedan,” may enter a private residence with a front door not much wider than the palanquin and a living room not spacious enough to host the deity. In 2013 an auto dealership had to quickly move displays and re-arrange furniture to accommodate Mazu’s arrival. The entourage visited another auto shop eight years straight – the grateful owners and employees could not believe their good fortune! BaiShaTun Mazu may choose to bypass those prostrating, kneeling and ready to receive blessings. Any entity, be it a business establishment or an individual, has the right to reject Mazu and refuse entrance – altruistic Mazu will not be offended.
Too many people associate idolatry with superstitions, with overly monotonous or overly complex rites. After watching some YouTube videos showcasing Mazu Pilgrimage’s lighting of firecrackers, hundreds of viewers in India condemned the activity as the most severe form of air pollution, vilest molestation of Mother Earth. They might have forgotten these pilgrimages last a week? Driving an ICE vehicle every single day is a much greater sin. Then I was reminded of my own prejudice on Hinduism’s 33 types or 33 million gods and India’s archaic caste system. Perhaps all of us will be less self-righteous, less hypercritical if we deem all religions as cultures?
I would like to thank my cousin Andrea for taking all the photos at Taipei Tea Merchants Association.