Meet the Goddess

Meet the Goddess

In the male-dominated water world of the south China coast, a woman is the main object of worship. I don’t mean the sailors’ mothers.

According to legend, 林默娘 Lam Mak-neung (Lin Moniang) was a real person, born in the year 960 in a fishing village on 湄洲島Mei Chow (Meizhou) Island off the coast of Fukien Province. She was considered special from her first moments, neither crying during her birth nor for months afterward, earning her the given name 默娘Mak-neung: silent girl.

Mak-neung became interested in spiritual matters from a very young age. By age 8 she had mastered the principles of Confucius and went on to study Taoist and Buddhist texts. A Taoist monk recognized a deep mystical nature in the now 11-year-old girl and trained her to see into the future and to transport her spirit across great distances, able to pick flowers from gardens hundreds of li from her home.

But Mak-neung wasn’t interested in becoming a nun or spiritual master. Always remaining close to her humble family and community, she put her special skills to practical use. She often stood on the shore dressed in red garments, looking across the seas for dangerous weather and warning fishermen to quickly sail home.

One day when she was 16, her father and brothers were fishing in separate boats far out to sea. Mak-neung, at home spinning yarn at her loom, went into a deep trance where she saw a typhoon engulfing her family’s vessels. Using her spiritual powers, she traveled from ship to ship to guide them out of the storm. Her brothers saw her appear in front of them, pointing out the safest route home.

Just after she’d visited the last of her brothers’ vessels, her mother came into the house and, alarmed at seeing Mak-neung sprawled across her loom, thinking she was having a seizure, shook her out of her trance. Mak-neung berated her mother for bringing her back to earth too soon. She had left one ship left to visit, but it was too late. All her family’s fishing junks returned safely to shore except one: her father’s.

Distraught over her father’s death, Mak-neung took a vow of celibacy. She died unmarried at the age of 28. Some say she drowned while swimming out to sea in search of her lost father, while others claim her spirit permanently left her body during a deep meditation.

That was when the legend began.

Tin Hau

The author’s Tin Hau figure, with paper miniature

Years later Lin Mak-neung appeared in a dream to every resident of Mei Chow island. She told them that she was the goddess of the island and deserved a permanent home there. In 1012, relatives of hers were shipwrecked on Tung Lung island at the eastern end of present-day Hong Kong Harbor. In thanks for her helping to save their lives, they built the first temple to her.

Lin Mak-neung’s her official recognition as a deity came a hundred years later, when a Chinese diplomatic mission to Korea was caught in a typhoon. While the ambassador prayed fervently to heaven, he saw a goddess dressed in red appear on top of the mast. The seven other ships in the mission capsized in the seething waves, but the waters around the ambassador’s ship settled down and enabled him to pass. The Emperor, hearing about this miracle, decreed that the goddess of Mei Chow be formally canonized in a specially built Temple of the Fortunate Crossing.

Her worship spread rapidly north and south along the coast. By now she was known popularly as媽祖Ma Jou, Matsu, or Mazu, the Maternal Grandmother. In some places she was more familiarly called A-Ma, Honorable Grandma.

As her reputation grew, her promotion among the deities quickened, given a series of increasingly lofty names until, in 1287, Kublai Khan bestowed on her the title 天后 Empress of Heaven, the highest rank in the celestial pantheon after the Jade Emperor himself.

Since then she has been credited with helping many men and ships at sea, including the great Chinese explorer Zheng He and the Ming Dynasty hero, patriot, and ex-pirate Koxinga.

The author's painting of the Tin Hau temple in Tai O on Lantau Island. It's very likely pirates worshiped here.

For hundreds of years a Tin Hau or Matsu temple has been at the heart of every coastal community. Every island, even the most remote, speck-sized rock sticking from the water, is bound to contain a shrine to the protector of fishing folk and seafarers. And of course, every ship has at least one shrine devoted to her; often an effigy of her colorful figure presides over the captain’s quarters.

There are so many variations of the Tin Hau legend that it’s impossible to identify any one version as the original. I presented here a version compiled from the stories I’ve heard in the island communities of Hong Kong and Macau, the area roamed by Shek Yang and her pirate cohorts.

One thing everyone agrees on: Tin Hau was a real woman who deserved her heavenly throne.