Goddess worship reflected political, social needs

By By Liu Zhongyu / 12-31-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Mazu has been recognized as the “Guardian of the Sea” and a symbol of Chinese marine culture.


Worshipped and revered by ordinary people inside and outside of China, Mazu is one of the most popular Chinese deities. She is believed to be born in 960 in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to a Lin family in Meizhou Bay in modern-day Putian, Fujian Province. It is said that when she was born, she did not cry aloud like other infants, so she was given the name Mo, meaning silent.

Lin Mo had magical powers, well versed in medical science, predicting the weather and foretelling the future. According to legends, she saved seafarers in trouble and was highly respected and well liked by the community. Unfortunately, she passed away in 987 at the age of 28.

After her death, legends say that her spirit appeared to continue to protect sea, as recorded in various accounts in the Song, Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties. Thus many shrines and temples were constructed in her memory, where people would appeal to her for assistance on sea and other matters. Now Mazu temples can be found in many places in China and almost every overseas Chinese community.

Emerging in the Song Dynasty, Mazu culture was a result of thriving sea trade and bourgeoning development of ideology and culture during that period. 


Multiple perspectives
Carried forward by the subsequent Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, Mazu worship has become a “quasi-religious” culture that integrates Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

In terms of the development of marine culture, Mazu was officially recognized as the “Guardian of the Sea” and a symbol of Chinese sea culture. 

From the perspective of communications, Mazu worship was spread by emigrating Chinese across more than 20 countries and regions, making the sea goddess an “image spokesperson” for the globalization of Chinese culture. Her kind, peaceful image fits in with the “good-neighbor” marine strategy of contemporary China, so it can be regarded as a cultural icon for the development of the “Belt and Road.” 

From the historical angle, Mazu was honored with more than 40 imperial titles. The ordinary people referred to her as the “Magical Girl” and “Goddess,” while the government honored her with the titles “Lady,” “Consort” and “Heavenly Consort” as well as the paramount status of “Queen of Heaven.” The shaping of her image was related to multiple factors.


Government needs
The late Northern Song Dynasty was marked by internal chaos, external problems, and growing calls for reform. The tumult of the times brought new and old cliques into conflict. Although the two sides differed on the subjects of military, political and economic reforms, they shared an attitude about the management of public opinion.

In order to ensure the effectiveness of new measures, reformers targeted miscellaneous folk beliefs to eliminate illegitimate forms of worship. However, those deities that brought comfort to the largest number of commoners were honored and brought under government control. The worship of Mazu was legitimized and incorporated into the national deity system during this period.

Because she was philanthropic, treated all equally and helped those in distress, Mazu fulfilled the needs of the masses and provided a role model for the government’s campaign to promote public morality.


Intellectual contributions
Scholars and officials played a crucial role in shaping the image of Mazu. At first, only common people spoke of the magical power of Mazu. During the reign of Emperor Huizong (1011-25), Lu Yundi, an envoy to Korea, claimed that when he was caught in a dangerous storm during his voyage, it was the “Goddess of Meizhou” who descended and saved him. Mazu thus became famous in the court.

Thereafter, scholars and officials, the so-called cultural elites, constituted the major force in shaping the image of Mazu. Through colloquial stories, operas and paintings, they gradually downplayed the folk elements of witchcraft associated with Mazu and built her up as the “Guardian of the Sea” who could protect the country and people. 

Apart from political factors, cultural elites in the upper class turned their attention to the folk goddess because of the change in the status of intellectuals during that period. 

The imperial examinations, initiated in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), were one of the most effective ways to recruit government personnel. However, its high requirements and limited quota made it hardly possible for most humble intellectuals to enter service. 

At the time, the traditional privileges that enabled established officials to place one or more sons directly in official status were perpetuated, causing a rift between gentry and civilians. The political system was centralized and dominated by aristocrats and bureaucrats. 

After the Song Empire was founded, civil officials began to replace military officers in the halls of government. The imperial examinations were improved to accommodate the influx of scholars. Intellectuals from the countryside progressively became a major source of officials, transforming the Song political system into one dominated by scholars and bureaucrats. 

These scholars and bureaucrats served their country in the court. Once they resigned or were dismissed, they would return to their hometowns and act as country gentlemen. Responsible for clan affairs, they became the backbone of rural order.

Because they regarded the countryside as their base, they were conscious of their responsibility to defend the reputation of their clans and propagate loyalty, filial piety, chastity and righteousness. 
In the Song Dynasty, Putian of Fujian Province produced over 1,000 jinshi, which means “Presented Scholars,” more than any other region in the country. 

While traveling around, they also served as promoters of Mazu. The “Goddess of Meizhou” therefore enjoyed a good reputation elsewhere. Through systematic remolding by cultural elites, Mazu was transformed from a plain, simple fisher girl into a merciful, upright deity. 


Neo-Taoist influence
Neo-Taoism, which emerged from the convergence of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, also had a bearing on the incorporation of Mazu into the national deity system. Neo-Taoism is an umbrella name for Taoist schools. 

Originating from the grassroots, they were concerned with the real world and cared about the suffering of the people. Meanwhile, they embraced Confucian ethics and Buddhist doctrines, stressing self-reliance and frugality. They were not only influential in folk society, but garnered the support of intellectuals. 

Valuing self-cultivation in the present, Neo-Taoism maintained that the karma of this life would determine the fate in the underworld and the next life, so ordinary mortals should do as many good deeds as possible to accumulate merit. Only in this way would they be likely to become immortal. If they wanted to avoid the “six-path incarnation,” immortals could descend to the world to cultivate themselves and then return toheaven. 

This ideology had a solid ground among the people. In some colloquial stories and novels, Mazu was interpreted as the daughter of a celestial being. To relieve the suffering of the common people, she was reincarnated on earth and then went back to the immortal world after fulfilling her mission.
From the historical perspective, Neo-Taoism was a product of social conflict. It not only catered to the needs of the masses for comfort in the midst of turbulence but also integrated Confucianism into the imaginary cosmic order.


On the other side, Neo-Taoism also was vital to propping up ruling class, underscoring loyalty to the monarch, filial piety and passivity.

In such a context, the ruling class was delighted to see that Mazu was regarded as a model for folk morality and included among the Taoist system of gods. Therefore, by honoring Mazu with titles and holding her in high esteem, the government was not only responding positively to public sentiment but also effectively intensifying law and discipline rites and pacifying the populace.

In conclusion, the deification of Mazu was not simple superstition but an ideological campaign launched by the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing courts. During the building of the Mazu image, intellectuals played a decisive role in changing her religious function as well as rites involved. Interpreted by Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, Mazu was shaped into a carrier of the “Way of Heaven” and given the political function of supervising daily life and stabilizing folk order, which helped to guide the public toward virtue.

From the viewpoint of cultural history, Mazu culture has also been affected by culture shock when spreading across the world by Chinese immigrants. In the immigrant group, the Mazu culture became increasingly localized and adapted to diverse cultures. This has resulted in the building of a new value system for the image of Mazu and made the deity a case study for cross-cultural and cross-racial communication studies.

In this regard, it is important to explore the role of the new value system in regulating and rebuilding the cultural indoctrination ability of Mazu in the historical context. Only by recognizing this can scholars better understand the significance of the Mazu image as a means of enhancing cultural cohesion and building a harmonious, mutually beneficial cultural exchange mode.

Liu Zhongyu is from the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.