This is the story of a girl who became a goddess.
In the year 960, on the island of Meizhou off the coast of Fujian Province, a girl was born to the Lin family. Because she did not cry at birth, they named her Mo (默) meaning “silent”.
One day, young Lin Mo was at home weaving when she fell into a trance. Her mother was frightened and did everything she could to wake the girl. When Lin Mo regained consciousness, she began to scream, saying that she had just been about to save her eldest brother. Soon after, the family’s ships returned. They had met a storm and the eldest son had drowned. The surviving sons said that the spirit of their sister had saved them but disappeared just before saving the eldest son. After this incident, word of the Lin Mo’s spiritual powers began to spread. Despite the immense social pressure that women in ancient China faced, Lin Mo was able to take a vow to remain unmarried and dedicate her life to spiritual practice and helping others.
Descendants of the Lin family have passed down other legends from Lin Mo’s childhood. One legend says that when she was very little, Lin Mo had been recognized by an old Daoist master named Xuanyong (玄通) who passed secret teachings to the girl. Another Lin family legend says that when she was fifteen, Lin Mo went with friends to look at the reflection of their new dresses in a small pool. Suddenly, a sea monster burst out of the water, holding out a bronze disk. Lin Mo’s friends ran in fear, but she bravely accepted the magic disk. Afterwards, she gained the ability to control nature.
At age 27, Lin Mo climbed a mountain and ascended to heaven. It is said that after her death, her powers increased even more, and she continued to protect those in danger. Villagers built a shrine to honor her memory and lovingly referred to her as Mazu (meaning “Ancestral Mother”).
Mazu is worshiped all along the south coast of China, where many people make their living on the sea. When Chinese people sailed to new lands, they would build temples to Mazu upon arrival, thanking her for safe passage. Mazu temples can be found in Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, and even in Brazil and the United States. The oldest Daoist temple in the United States, the Tin How Temple in San Francisco (built in 1852) is dedicated to Mazu, and there is a newer Mazu temple just a few blocks north of it. The many overseas Mazu temples became centers for religious and cultural activities and important parts of the Chinese diaspora. In 2009, Mazu belief and customs were designated as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
In temples to Mazu, she is depicted as a young lady in a red dress. She is usually shown together with two demon-generals named Thousand-Mile Eyes (千里眼) and Hears the Wind (順風耳). These demon brothers fell in love with Mazu. She agreed to marry, but only if one of them could defeat her. Needless to say, Mazu trounced them both, and now they must serve her forever.
The goddess Mazu teaches us important lessons. First, shows us that it is possible to transcend societal pressure and follow one’s true path. Next, she shows us that even the youngest among us are capable of greatness. Finally, she shows us the need for both compassion and fierceness, kindness and bravery.
Mazu image by Jim Polpiboon