The Sea Goddess is widely regarded as the protector of Taiwan. Worshipped throughout southern China and Southeast Asia, she is the goddess of seafarers, sailors and fishermen. To the Taiwanese people, who inhabit an island and whose fates are thus intertwined with the goddess’s domain, she is also their patroness and oversees their daily life.
Her devotees know her by the reverent and endearing Mandarin title of Matsu (also rendered as Māzǔ or, in Taiwanese, Má-chó·), which means “the Mother” or “the Ancestress.”
The Taiwanese people pray to their patron goddess for all things: For protection, marriage, love, fortune and success. The islanders believe that, like a wise and loving parent, this compassionate deity watches over them. The people constructed thousands of temples, shrines and sanctuaries dedicated to this goddess of the sea and devotion to her is an integral part of life on the island.
According to legend, she was a real person. She lived over a thousand years ago in a humble fishing village in what is today the Fujian province of China. Hers is a tale about a brave young heroine who led a life so marked by her altruism that she came to be revered as a goddess.
In the year 960, on the small island of Meizhou, a baby girl was born to the household of the Lín family. Shortly after birth, the infant’s parents noticed that, unlike other newborns, their child did not cry. Noting this peculiarity, they gave her the name Mòniáng, which meant “the silent maiden.”
The girl grew to be strong and independent. She was brought up a tough fisherman’s daughter and by her fifteenth year, she was an excellent swimmer and an expert martial artist. The maiden was also kind, thoughtful and brave and she worried constantly for the well-being of the fisherfolk who risked their lives with each sortie out to sea. Her concern for the safety of those whose lives were intertwined with the sea would become legendary.
Always, when the fishing fleets were in open waters, the fishermen must brave the possibility of sailing into foul weather and storms. It is said that whenever the fates conspired to be treacherous and the ships were at risk of being buried by the waves or smashing against undetected rocks, the young maiden would stand alone atop a certain crag that pointed out toward the sea. On this rock, she, dress in bright red clothing that made her highly visible, would signal to the fishing vessels and guide them back to safety while putting herself in serious danger.
Her fearless and selfless actions became widely known and, already in her own lifetime, she became a guardian angel in the hearts and minds of the fisherfolk as she watched over them. This noble life that she led, however, was to be a brief one.
It is said that, in her sixteenth year, her father set out to sea and was never seen again. The teenage girl became deeply distressed and, in a last-ditch effort to search for her father, she decided, bravely and foolishly, to swim out to open sea on her own. She never was able to find her father and after hours of desperate searching and swimming, the exhausted teen drowned. Her lifeless body eventually washed up on the shores of a small island in the Formosa Strait. That island was called Nan’gan and it is a part of what eventually came to be known as the Matsu Islands
After her death, the silent maiden was deified by the fisherfolk as a protector goddess of the sea. This tragic heroine came to be known by the title of Matsu and various mythical tales became attached to her legend.
Worship of Matsu gradually spread throughout southern and coastal Chinese communities, such as those on the continent in Fujian and Guangdong, and was eventually brought to overseas communities in Taiwan and Southeast Asia by 17th-century immigrants.
Many temples, shrines, and sanctuaries dedicated to Matsu in different countries maintain friendships and associations with one another, creating a vast devotional network spanning great distances and crossing borders.
On the island of Taiwan, annual parades are held to honour this heroine and goddess. These are festive events where a figure of the deity travels in a carriage and, along with a large entourage of acrobats, musicians, priests and faithfuls, visits various sites across the island associated with the goddess. These parades and processions are always accompanied by music, prayers, fireworks and celebrations as they tour the island nation.