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The Belief of Matsu ─Deity and Functions

Song Dynasty
Starting in the Song Dynasty, the belief of Matsu has gone through different stages before it began to spread. At the first stage, it was a local belief in Putian area. Locals worshipped her as a goddess. However, the belief did not spread far.

The second stage began in the regime of Emperor Huizong. When official boat was stuck by a typhoon on the sea on a diplomatic mission to Korea, a goddess was watching the voyage and protecting ship. When the boat was returned , this was reported to Emperor Huizong who granted a horizontal temple tablet written “Shunji”. From then on, the belief of Matsu entered the royal court. At the same time, the belief of Matsu began to spread. With the titles conferred upon her by the royal court, the reputation and legend of Matsu were further disseminated. These titles included Lady Linghui from Emperor Gaozhong.

The third stage refers to the popularization of the belief of Matsu. Besides the titles conferred upon her by the court, the aggressive dissemination of Putian native Chen Junqing also played an important role in the popularization of the belief of Matsu. As the premier at that time, Chen donated land and built Temple in Baihu to worship Matsu. This has established the status of the belief of Matsu.

Additionally, from the above titles, we can see the importance of marine activities in the Song Dynasty the people’s worries about marine perils and pirates. To increase the income of the treasury, overseas trade was aggressively promoted in the Song Dynasty. As the risk of marine activities was unpredictable, the status of Matsu considered as the guardian goddess of the sea also rose as the marine transportation industry thrived.

During the regime of Emperor Guangzhong in the Southern Song Dynasty, there was a severe summer drought. It is said that Matsu sent rain to end the drought. Therefore, she was promoted to Dame Linghui. It was the first time for Matsu to be ranked among the kings and nobles. When the Khitan Empire wanted to cross the Hui River to invade the Central Plain during the regime of Emperor Ningzhong, the court immediately dispatched the navy troops in Fujian to defend the country. It is said that Matsu helped the troops in the Battle of Hefai, and the Song troops successfully defeated the Khitan troops. This time, two characters “Xianwei” were conferred upon her title. When the pirates came again later on, Matsu also helped to the Song troops to suppress the pirates. Then, another two characters “Yinglie” were conferred upon her title.

Yuan Dynasty
The belief of Matsu spread quickly in the Yuan Dynasty. Apart from continuing the importance of sea transportation, this is associated with the change from canal transportation to sea transportation by the Yuan Court.

The Yuan Dynasty made Dadu (Beijing today) as its capital.Dadu. However, as food supply was inadequate, a large quantity of food must be transported to Dadu from Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze). As there were not enough canals to handle the transportation of such a huge quantity of food, people changed to sea transportation. This has thus increased the risk and uncertainty of food transportation. As a result, the role of Matsu as the guardian goddess of the sea became increasing important. This can be seen from the titles conferred upon her by the Yuan Count: from Lady and Dame in the Song Dynasty to Heavenly Dame in the Yuan Dynasty. In doing so, the Yuan Court hoped to relieve people’s anxiety.

The presence of Matsu was mostly associated with protecting canal transportation. For example, when the maritime route was blocked by typhoons during the regime of Emperor Wenzhong, it is said that the ships survived from the typhoons with the assistance of Matsu. For this reason, the Yuan Court raised the position of Matsu by promoting the Matsu ritual to an important national ritual. From then on, the belief of Matsu spread to a wider area, from coastal areas in southeast China to Beijing and Tianjin in northern China (Li, 199:128).
Ming Dynasty.

Maritime trade was restricted after the Ming Dynasty was established. After making Jingling (Nanjing today) the capital, Emperor Hongwu ceased canal transportation and demoted Matsu to “Saint Dame”. Her “Heavenly Dame” title was not recovered until the regime of Emperor Yongle to show respect for Matsu’s devotion to protect sea transportation. In fact, it was associated with the voyages of Zheng He (Hajji Mahmud Shamsuddin).

With the order of Emperor Yongle, Zheng commanded seven voyages of more than hundred thousand miles to more than 30 countries in Asia and Africa for a term of twenty-eight years to publicize the prestige of the Ming Dynasty (Huang, 2005:91). The scale of these voyages was far bigger than any canal transportation. In these voyages, Matsu became an important spiritual support for Zhen’s voyages. On the one hand, Matsu could relieve the anxiety of soldiers. According to the literature, during the voyages, Zhen and his fleet must worship Matsu on the ships every morning and every night.

With the seven voyages of Zhen, the belief of Matsu was spread to other Asian countries, including Japan, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Java. As the belief of Matsu spread, it became a global belief.

Qing Dynasty
At the turn of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, people living in the coastal area in southern Fujian often crossed the Taiwan Strait to make a living. Most voyagers usually prayed to Matsu for her escort or brought her statue with them before their departure to ensure a save voyage. When they arrived in Taiwan, some worshipped Matsu in their new homes or built new temples to worship her. This is how the belief of Matsu began and burgeoned in Taiwan.

On the other hand, the Qing Court wanted to earn support from the public with the belief of Matsu by consolidating her divinity, such as honoring her with more titles and horizontal tablets and building more temples to worship her. For example, after General Shi Lang attacked Taiwan, took Penghu, captured the Zhengs during the regime of Emperor Kangxi, he immediately reported to the Qing Court that it was with Matsu’s assistance that he could accomplish the mission. Therefore, the Qing Court conferred the title of “Heavenly Queen” upon Matsu and gave an order to renovate the Residence of Kong of Ningjing of the Ming Dynasty into the temple for local government officials to worship Matsu. This temple became what is today’s Great Tianhou Temple in Tainan. This temple was the first government-built Matsu temple in Taiwan.

The belief of Matsu was a common folk religion in Taiwan during the Qing Dynasty. Matsu temples were built one after another in different parts of the island. Statistics show that near one hundred temples were build during that time, more than twenty Matsu temples were built by the Qing Court and more than seventy Matsu temples were built by civilians (Wang & Li, 2000:32). Most of them were located in Tainan. Following the migration of Han people and the opening of trade ports, Matsu temples were built everywhere on the island.


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