Mazu: The Story of Lin Mo Niang

Today, the 23rd day of the 3rd lunar month, is Mazu’s birthday. I wrote about her on this blog’s first real post.

Laura Zinck wrote an essay, “Inquiry Report on the Chinese Goddesses Hsi Wang Mu and Ma-tsu,” which summarizes much of the Western academic research about both Xi Wang Mu and Mazu.

Regarding Mazu, Zinck tells us that “Her legend of origin tells of a young woman called Lin Mo Niang from a family involved in trade who lived on the island of Meizhou circa 980 C.E”

Zinck relates that Lin Mo Niang was a very unique young woman, and at least certain stories tie her to Buddhism:

She was particularly devoted to the Buddhist deity Guanyin and, following her example, refused to marry, which was a very unusual resolution for a young Chinese woman.”

The main story about her is as follows:

Lin Mo Niang went into a trance during a storm and used her spiritual powers to save three of her four brothers from being lost at sea; she was roused from her trance before she could save the fourth brother (Irwin, 1990). She died soon afterwards (Maspero, 1981).

Zinck summarizes a theory put forth by Lee Irwin that Lin Mo Niang was a “shamaness” of sorts:

Irwin (1990) believes that Lin Mo Niang may have been a shamaness whose fame outlived her; knowledge of distant events through trance and supernatural abilities were associated with shamanism in China.

There is also an interesting observation about what usually happened to an unmarried woman when she died, and how Lin Mo Niang avoided that fate:

Jordan Paper (1989) notes that as an unmarried female, the Lin Mo Niang would have been especially prone to becoming a ghost rather than an ancestral spirit, because she has no one to sacrifice to her. Because of her benevolent spiritual powers, however, she was worshiped as the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers under the name of “Ma Tsu,” or “Grandmother” (Paper, 1989).

Her unmarried status has some obvious potential social ramifications with regards to women’s status and roles:

It is also significant that Ma-tsu refused to marry but was still praised and revered as a goddess; like Hsi Wang Mu, Ma-tsu provided her female worshipers with an alternative model to the traditional roles of women as filial daughters, obedient wives, and self-sacrificing mothers.

Zinck also presents Lin Mei-Rong’s thesis, which deals with the question posed in my last post about Mazu about whether or not it mattered that her worship was being co-opted by political vultures:

Mei-Rong Lin (1996) argues that Ma-tsu will never become accepted as the “national” deity of either Taiwan or China because her worship is based at the local level; Ma-tsu cults in neighbouring areas frequently disagree on such issues as pilgrimage routes, historical precedence, and orthodoxy.

However, her intimate ties at the local level with her worshipers makes her more approachable than many other deities, and thus more popular (Paper, 1989).

So according to Lin, the co-optation doesn’t matter that much because of the exceedingly local nature of her worship–what Zinck describes as “intimate.”

In fact, early in the essay, Zinck lists all of the titles in the divine hierarchy that Mazu received by imperial decree, and says that these decrees partially “civilized and assimilated [her] into the patriarchal social and political culture.” Which is to say, it’s been attempted before.

However, writes Zinck, “In spite of this […] the true power of Ma-tsu lies in her popular worship, which continues to flourish to this day.”

Of course, at the same time that she is a deity with great local variation, she is also international in scope. My previous post about Mazu quoted an estimate of 160 million worshipers in China. According to the Confucius Institute Online, “The belief in Mazu has become a sort of transnational folk belief with more than 200 million worshippers.”

That’s at least 40 million overseas Chinese who worship her. Deng Ming Dao explains the connection: “When emigrants left China by sea, they prayed to Mother Ancestor for protection. Once in their new homes, they gave offerings and erected temples to her in gratitude for their safe passage” (98).

One more story about Mazu is quite interesting. This one comes from Wikipedia, which is…far from a reliable source. It cites Klaas Ruitenbeek’s article “Mazu, the Patroness of Sailors, in Chinese Pictorial Art,” but since I haven’t verified what Ruitenbeek actually wrote.

Mazu is usually depicted together with two guardian generals known as “Thousand Miles Eye” (千里眼, Qianli Yan) and “With-the-Wind Ear” (順風耳 Shunfeng Er). Though their iconography can vary, both are usually represented as demons; “Thousand Miles Eye” is often red with two horns, while “With-the-Wind Ear” is green with one horn.

They are said to have been two demons whom Mazu conquered. The both of them were in love with her, but she said she would marry the one who defeated her. Using her martial arts skills, Mazu defeated them both and they became her friends.

The two guardian generals are definitely often present accompanying Mazu, but I’ll have to do some research to corroborate the backstory at some point. So it’s a “maybe” for now. If it is true, however, this tale both reinforces the fact that she refused marriage, and also portrays her as something of warrior goddess. “They became her friends” sounds like Wikipedia writing, though.

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