In many temples dedicated to Taiwan’s patroness, Matsu, the sea goddess is depicted sitting upon a throne flanked by a pair of demonic-looking retainers. These two servants of Matsu are a pair of demon brothers known as Qiānlǐyǎn (Thousand-Mile Eyes), and Shùnfēng’ěr (Wind-Following Ears).
These two servants of Matsu are, you might say, “all eyes and ears.” One is usually depicted as a green demon with large all-seeing eyes. He keeps a weather eye on the horizon, scouring the sea for sailors in need of the sea goddess’s assistance. The other is a red demon with large all-hearing ears. He constantly listens for sounds of distress on the open waters and will dutifully notify his mistress should he detect cries for help.
It is said that the two were not always demonic beings but were once humans whose souls became corrupted. According to legend, the two brothers were, in life, seasoned veterans of war who fought in numerous battles. In one particular campaign, however, the fighting became especially difficult and the two brothers were brutally slaughtered. Because of the horrible and gruesome manner of their demise, their souls were unable to find peace after death. They became wandering ghosts—demons—who haunted and terrorized the living.
It was under these circumstances, the legends say, that they encountered the goddess of the sea.
Charmed by the sea goddess’s beauty. The brothers threatened her and tried to force her to become their bride. The goddess refused but the demons were persistent. Finally, the goddess proposed a deal. If the brothers faced her in a duel, she would marry the victor. If she triumphs, however, they were to put an end to their mischief, become her servants, and aid her in her work to safeguard sailors and seafarers. The brothers agreed.
In the ensuing struggle, the brothers were dealt with decisively by the goddess. They consequently lent their unique talents to the goddess and became her most loyal followers.
In a slightly different telling of the story, it is said that the goddess once passed through a village when she heard the heart-wrenching wailing of a young maiden. Upon inquiring, the goddess learned that the maiden had been offered as a sacrifice to appease a pair of demon brothers who had been terrorizing the region.
On learning this, the goddess offered to go in the place of the unfortunate girl. When the goddess was brought to the demons, she issued an ultimatum: They must stop their mischief or she would deal with them harshly.
The demons ignored the goddess’s warning and attacked her. The sea goddess was, however, more than a match for the demons and easily overpowered them. She, however, spared them and offered them the opportunity to serve her and bring an end to their wrongdoings. The brothers accepted the goddess’s grace and became her loyal retainers.
Today, annual parades are held in honour of the sea goddess in Taiwan. Men would dress up in towering costumes in the forms of these demon-gods and march in the procession guarding and watching over the figure of the sea goddess Matsu.