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Specialist details the history of Taiwan's goddess of the sea

Specialist details the history of Taiwan's goddess of the sea

As the subject of one of the most popular religiouns in Taiwan, Ma Zu is honored and worshiped in thousands of Ma Zu temples around Taiwan. The enthusiasm and passion for the goddess is most clearly demonstrated by the Ma Zu frenzy during he Lunar March, when fans and believers of the deity feverishly join temple activities all over the nation to celebrate her birthday and pay her homage. But who is Ma Zu?
Colorful legends are associated with the life of Ma Zu. Legend has it that Ma Zu was born on the small fishing island of Meichou just off the coast of Putien County in the Fujian province of mainland China in 960 A.D. It is said that Ma Zu was named Mo-niang, which literally means "silent woman," because she didn't cry for an entire month after her birth. Since she was a small child, she was known to be intelligent and determined to do good deeds. It is also said that she saved her father at sea during a storm when she was just 16. Word of her filial piety spread.
Magic powers
Another legend\ says that Ma Zu acquired magic powers and ascended into the realm of the immortals when she was 28. She made the demon "Thousand-mile Eye," who was said to be able to see for a thousand miles, and the demon "Wind-following Ear," who could allegedly hear every sound carried on the winds, her guardians. Now temples all over Taiwan display statues of these two appointed guardians flanking Ma Zu's image.
Ma Zu is believed to have used her powers to save numerous Fujian sailors, and temples dedicated to her began to appear along the Fujian coast. People even spread the word that Ma Zu appeared in the sky to intercept bombs during World War II.
Most Taiwanese today are descendants of early Fujianese settlers, who arrived from across the perilous Taiwan Strait in small boats and took much of their livelihood from the sea. Wherever these pilgrim ancestors settled, they promptly built temples for Ma Zu, whose statues vary in apprearance from one region to another.
'Almond-shaped eyes'
In Meichou, Ma Zu is seen as an empress - thinner, with "goose-egg-shaped faces, almond-shaped eyes, and the appearance of a young, kind and brave woman rising to the heaven," said Hsieh Chung-jung, a director at the Chinese Folk-Arts Foundation. Ma Zu statues in Quanzhou appear to be "more plump both in stature and face, looking more like a middle-aged woman and more gentle, too," Hsieh said, adding that Ma Zu statues in Taiwan are closer in image to those in Quanzhou.
According to Hsieh, Ma Zu statues in Taiwan can be roughly classified into three types - golden-, colorful- or black-faced. Black-faced Ma Zu statues originated from a temple in Quanzhou where Ma Zu's face had been blackened by incense, Hsieh said. "The more blackened a Ma Zu's face, the more efficacious she is thought to be," explained Hsieh.
Since her arrival in Taiwan with the early settlers from Fujian, Ma Zu has transformed from a goddess of the sea into an almighty goddess, to whom the Taiwanese pray for everything - except for giving birth to a child. "Because Ma Zu is single, she cannot take care of the matter, and that is why there is usually a God of Birth-Registry in a Ma Zu temple," Hsieh said.