Header image courtesy of Max Zhang (via Unsplash)
Have you ever come across a Tin Hau temple and wondered why it’s always by the sea? Aside from reigning over stormy waters, there is more to the stories about this omnipotent goddess known as both Mazu and Tin Hau, who scattered her benevolence across Hong Kong. We dig deep into the trove of myths for a look into the Chinese goddess, from her human origins to her elevation as a deity that protects seafarers and fishermen.
Unlike other deities born with immortality and superpowers, Mazu is not a fiction of human imagination—she actually existed. In 960 AD, more than a thousand years ago, a girl was born to the Lam family on Meizhou Island (湄洲島). Unusual for babies her age, she did not cry in her first month of life, and so was she named “Lam Muk” (林默; “silence”).
On a secluded island where people’s livelihood depending on fishing, Lam established her career as a shamaness, leveraging her prowess in divination to tell fortunes for seafarers. Faced with an unknown, boundless sea to conquer, many boatmen consulted with Lam to know whether their impending voyages will be favourable. Offering highly accurate readings, her business attracted many fishermen through word-of-mouth.
Although she died at 27, the villagers still sought her power as a benevolent blessing—and that’s how the worship of Mazu began. As for her name, the endearing nickname “Mazu” (媽祖) came into use to mean “maternal ancestor.” Her title “Tin Hau” (天后), representing “Heaven Empress,” was later granted during the Qing dynasty.
Although her physical body had already perished, the spirit of Mazu was kept alive by worshippers who conferred to the namesake goddess countless mythological accounts.
One legend has it that a severe storm tore the ships off Ninghai Bay (寧海) and auroral curtains pierced the sky. During that fateful night, it was said that all villagers had the same dream, in which Mazu introduced herself as the goddess of the sea and demanded to be worshipped. After her divine revelation to the villagers, they erected a temple to honour her watch over the sea, and the boatmen safely returned.
Back in the day, sailing used to be a dangerous activity, full of uncertainties. Dispensing her benevolence, Mazu became indispensable to fishing communities, where people sought divine refuge for resilience, support, and guidance. With isolated islands like Meizhou, where people had little access to medical supplies and other resources, there was greater reliance on Mazu for her power to alleviate and heal ailments and illnesses.
Out of hundreds of stories, Mazu is perhaps most famously remembered for her at-sea rescue while labouring on a loom. It was said that one day, a raging storm swept across the sea at noon, and ships were buffeted by massive waves. Struck with a vision that a sea monster was thrashing the trading ships, Mazu left her physical body while weaving and travelled to the scene, transforming the first box within her reach into a boat.
Encircled by gargantuan waves and cracking noises, shipmates watched aghast as Mazu pledged to defend the vessels against the bloodthirsty monster, who imposed a magical barrier to repel her magic spells. Deadlocked, Mazu prayed to Guanyin (觀音), the goddess of mercy and compassion, and expressed her sincere wish to protect the crew members. Granted with immense strength, she dealt a decisive blow to the beast.
With a wrathful storm bearing down on the boats, the goddess gave up chasing the monster and propped up the vessels with her astral body to save the seafarers. However, Mazu’s physical body was still on the loom during her astral travel, moving in tandem and dancing as though possessed. Her mother touched her and she was jolted out of her trance and detailed her fight against the ship-engulfing creature. Hoisting waterlogged vessels with her limbs, her astral body escorted four trading ships and their crew members safely onshore. However, one vessel, kept inside her mouth, slipped into the sea and capsized when she opened her mouth to speak in response to her mother’s call.
Suspicious of her account, some people directly ran to the scene of the incident and found the shore was indeed packed with shipmen scrambling ashore, picking up their spilled cargo from the sea. Furthermore, the returning shipmates reported having seen a god-like personification battling on their side—this was how people realised that Mazu was a deity.
Sociocultural conditions had a heavy hand in the rise of Mazu worship. Since inclement weather often left boatmen hanging on a thin thread, worshipping Mazu became a source of mystical comfort with which people alleviated their worries and prayed for good luck.
Before sailing out to the sea, the temple rituals were also used to predict the weather conditions. Lighting three candles, the fishermen in the Zhoushan Islands would keep their eyes peeled for the flames—if the wind put it out, it meant the day was too windy for a sail. Any voyage would be deemed unfavourable if the candle blew out three times.
During the transitory period of the Song dynasty, the central government kept moving southwards. Sea trading and transport gained traction, with pirates sabotaging the neighbouring maritime industries, and the combative spirit of Mazu empowered the shipmen to defend their assets and defeat those who destroyed the order of the sea.
As a coastal port, the goddess has long called our city home, brought into Hong Kong by the Fujianese. We have about 100 Tin Hau temples strewn across various districts, with plenty of streets, parks, and even a subway station and neighbourhood named after her. Located in Joss House Bay, the oldest Tin Hau temple was built in 1266 by two Fujianese brothers who were believed to be saved by Tin Hau’s blessings after their boat capsized.
Interestingly, the Tin Hau temple at Yung Shue Wan is distinctively flanked by two lions, evoking colonial design sensibilities. With their striated manes crowning their shoulders, the leonine gatekeepers sit with their teeth jutting out, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the HSBC lions that protect the prosperity of the banking and finance business.
Despite the decline of fishery and our entry into a modern, technological era, Hong Kong’s Tin Hau temples have lasted several centuries. Some remain stapled to the ocean’s edge, while others have moved inland with the shifting coastlines of the city. Connecting with Hong Kong’s roots as a former fishing village, these storied temples have successfully preserved our cultural mosaic, arrayed against the row of angular skyscrapers.
Although a thousand years have elapsed, the incense sticks at Tin Hau’s alter still burn bright. Her influence is sewn into the fabric of China’s coastal regions and conserved by overseas communities across Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, her birthday is celebrated on the twenty-third day of the third lunar month—usually April or May—and the island-wide local celebration, Cheung Chau Da Jiu Festival, proudly includes a statue of Tin Hau in its spectacular procession of deities, alongside the martial deity Pak Tai (北帝).
Aside from the elaborate worship rituals, the charming fable of Mazu tells the story of the city’s traditional rites, even well after after its transformation into a global financial hub.