Surprisingly, one of the biggest deities in Taiwan does not fall within the Buddhist or Taoist religion. Instead, Matsu (or Mazu) is a lady turned legend turned folklore. In Taiwan, there are over 3000 temples dedicated to Matsu for how special she was to the land and people.
Starting in a fishing town in southern China’s Fujian Province, the Matsu faith traveled to Taiwan by way of merchants and fishermen. Taiwan’s take on Matsu has evolved from a young maiden to a benevolent maternal figure that watches over the health of all people in Taiwan. Matsu became the local folklore religion of Taiwan and continues to this day.
The biggest story of Matsu may have happened during World War II. When the United States bombed Taiwan (at the time, part of the Japanese Empire) many people claimed that Matsu appeared at each of her 3,000 temples. If the temple was by the coast, she would sweep her cloak and whisk the bomb out to sea. If the temple was inland, she would cradle the bomb and slowly place it on the ground, preventing it from exploding.
Today, the Matsu faith can be seen on display during the grand Dajia Matsu march. Taking place in central Taiwan, the Dajia Matsu march starts from Dajia Jenn Lann Temple (大甲鎮瀾宮) and travels to over 100 Matsu temples. For 9 days, this tour takes the Matsu statue to bless anyone who comes to visit.
Before Matsu there was the Silent Maiden
As mentioned, Matsu was a lady turned legend turn folklore. That lady was a young maiden born in Meizhou Island in the Fujian Province under the name of Lin Mo (林默), during the Song Dynasty (900’s.) It was said as a baby she never cried so they nicknamed her the Silent Maiden (默娘.) While there are many stories about Matsu’s upbringing, from being the reincarnation of Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) to her learning magic from shamans, the fact that she helped the poor and weak to predict the weather is agreed by everyone. Before embarking on a fishing trip, Matsu would tell the fishermen if the weather was adverse. While some did not heed her cautioning, upon hitting bad weather, they became believers. And like that, Matsu became revered amongst the people. Sadly, at the age of 28, she passed away, but the faith and belief in her continued on.
Matsu Comes to Taiwan
In the 1200s, a Song dynasty diplomat faced a storm at sea. Since he was a believer of Matsu, he attributed his safety to the blessing of Matsu and petitioned the Emperor to grant Matsu a position as a main goddess. This led Matsu to go from local deity to protector of all seafarers. With Taiwan becoming a major trading outpost, the merchants and fishermen from the Fujian region brought along their faith and the island saw its first connection to lady Matsu.
Matsu as a Political Device
As seen many times in history, religion can also be used as a way for conquerors to get closer to the land they have conquered or are attempting to conquer.
Between 1660 and 1680, Koxinga established the Kingdom of Tungning as an extension of the Ming dynasty, and continued the reverence of Xuan Wu (玄武) – the deity of choice of the Ming dynasty. In 1683, fighting against Koxinga, General Shi Lang of the Qing Dynasty took advantage of Taiwanese faith in Matsu to take over Taiwan. He did so by convincing Taiwanese soldiers and people that Matsu appeared in his dreams and supported his cause. This led him to gain local support and overtake the Koxinga and his kingdom.
The Qing Dynasty held control over the island and with the sponsorship of Matsu, the government allowed Matsu to be restored to her status as an official deity (Ming dynasty had demoted her to a minor deity.) However, in 1895, as control of Taiwan was given over to the Japanese Empire, the Matsu faith became, once again at odds with another religion: Japanese Buddhism.
Matsu Under Japanese Empire
Temples in Taiwan were able to continue their religious activities by forming contracts with the Japanese Buddhist monasteries. However in 1915, the Xilai Temple Incident (西來庵事件) broke out. This was a self-proclaimed religious activist movement that ended up with the assault of Japanese police stations. This led to a full-scale investigation by the Japanese government to see if the local Taiwanese folk religions were harmful. After gathering a list of activities and members from each temple and community, the government finally deemed that there were large benefits to the these folk religious teachings.
In 1937, the start of the Sino-Japanese war led to the Japanization movement. The people of Taiwan were forced to speak Japanese, adopt a Japanese name, and convert their belief to the Japanese Shinto religion. During this time over 30% of Taiwanese temples were taken down.
Matsu Faith Lives On
While many temples were destroyed, many still stand like the Dajia Temple. Another temple, said to have its powers split directly from the main statue in Matsu’s original temple in Meizhou, is Chaotian Temple (朝天宮) located in Beigang, Yunlin. While the festivities of this Matsu statue isn’t as large as Dajia Temple’s it’s filled with floats and festivities of many other dieties.