Mazu in black and white



In old black and white footage we can see the tracks of Mazu belief ’s development in Taiwan.

The sea has always been a “good sea”, providing food and used for transport, but it can also be a sea of misery, full of fear and uncertainty. This dual personality made the people who lived beside it and sailed on it respect and fear the sea. In Asia, Mazu is the most important sea god/goddess in southeast China and Taiwan, Okinawa, Korea and Japan in northeast Asia, and Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Mazu belief originated in southeast China. It became a deeply held belief hundreds of years ago in Taiwan. Even the early 19th century Christian missionaries who came to Taiwan were curious about this sea goddess religion and mentioned it in their teaching books or collected Mazu statues, the meeting between alien cultures in Taiwan becoming a much-told story. For the settlers who made the arduous journey across the “black ditch” to come to Taiwan, facing the threat of being forced from the boat into the sea or onto a sandbank by unscrupulous captains and having to make their own way to shore, Mazu indeed was a source of spiritual comfort. Today, Taiwan has many temples in which Mazu is enshrined and the “March Mazu Craze” parades” are a major event on the calendar for believers, the media and anthropologists. 

With traditional “feudal” beliefs discouraged in the period after the liberation in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mazu belief was not able to develop normally in China in the 1950s and 70s.During the same period in Taiwan Mazu belief was developing into the mass folk religion of today. Observing how the people regarded and worshipped Mazu in this period is not just useful for historians and religious anthropologists, it also reopens a page in mass memory long closed. TELDAP has a large amount of information about various religions. Let us now look back at Mazu belief in Taiwan in the early years after WW2 by watching some items from the Chinese Taipei Film Archive.

In this news film “The people of Beigang Township Celebrate Mazu’s Birthday” we can see a grand occasion. Something that really catches the attention is the Western woman who appears in the crowd at the beginning. Is she the relative of a Western government official based in Taiwan? Or an anthropologist doing field work? This tantalizing question remains unanswered.

The cameraman man is unknown (April 16, 1957)
TELDAP Union Catalogs (2010/04/22)
In this silent film ”Mazu goes on an inspection tour” we can see the grandiose occasion as worshipers follow her as she goes, accompanied by dragon and lion dancers and martial arts formations, on the inspection tour and a really bustling atmosphere is created.
The cameraman is unknown (April 23 & 24, 1962) “Mazu goes on an inspection tour.”
TELDAP Union Catalogs  (2010/04/22)
Beigang’s  Chaotian Temple attracts a large number of worshippers and has a large amount of resources. It could thus afford to build a Mazu House of Wax in which Mazu’s feats were recounted to the public using wax figures. At a time when TV and radio were still not universal the Mazu House of Wax, with its vivid waxworks, provided a new channel for propagating Mazu belief.
Filmed in May, 1969. “Beigang’s  Chaotian Temple Mazu House of Wax.”
TELDAP Union Catalogs  (2010/04/22)
The question of whether gods exists and how much time and effort should be spent worshipping them are questions that will perhaps never be answered. In postwar Taiwan some kind of contradiction between national culture—“big tradition” —and “small tradition,” in the shape of local folk customs, can be detected. To “civilize’ the people and save resources the state always wanted worship to avoid extravagance and waste. In 1969 Taichung County held the “Taichung County Demonstration Worship for the Improvement of Folk Customs.” On the offerings table flowers, fruit and vegetables replaced big fish and large pieces of meat. The event also had an “Eight dancers in eight lines” dance usually seen during the ceremony to celebrate the birth of Confucius, an example of the kind of “small tradition” approved by the elite. Most interesting is the appearance by movie star Chang Mei-yao and the new look that Mazu was given. This was a religious activity very different from previous folk religion activities.
Time filmed(May,1969). ”Taichung County Demonstration Worship for the Improvement of Folk Customs.”“TELDAP Union Catalogs”

Humans aren’t all knowing and it is difficult you judge the right or wrong, superiority and inferiority of religions. It is comforting, however, that various religions that promote humane values are free to develop in Taiwan at present. The majority of people in Taiwan Mazu feel a strong affinity with the goddess Mazu.It is hoped that these films from Chinese Taipei Film Archive and others will allow us to piece together a jigsaw that will show the development of Mazu belief in Taiwan.

TELDAP e-newsletter/ Chen Tai-ying
Text and films are provided by TELDAP e-Newsletter (June, 2010)