This is the first article in a series on the culture and history of Quanzhou.
When the southeastern Chinese port city of Quanzhou was granted UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status earlier this year, much of the coverage focused on the city’s past as a center of trade and religious pluralism. A thousand years ago, when Quanzhou was a key node on the Maritime Silk Road, it was home to a diverse mix of people from across Eurasia, including not just Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Christians, but also Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Hindus — all of whom left behind monuments to their presence that still stand today.
Yet, at least among locals, few of these faiths hold a candle to a humble cult dedicated to a native woman who lived and died over a millennium ago.
According to tradition, Lin Mo — better known as Mazu — was born on Meizhou Island, not far from Quanzhou in Fujian province, in the second half of the 10th century. She possessed divine powers, which she used to grant villagers’ prayers for rain and rescue those in trouble at sea. It was one such rescue attempt that took her life, leading locals to erect a temple in her honor.
Coastal Fujian was and is highly dependent on fishing and maritime trade, and locals’ frequent seafaring activities naturally created demand for a sea goddess. Yet that alone doesn’t explain her cult’s meteoric rise, not just within Fujian, but around the world. It has been said that, “Wherever there are Chinese people, Mazu can be found.” She is worshipped by the wealthy and the poor, and Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists alike. The influence of Taoist folk beliefs is obvious, but Confucians can point to her efforts to save her father from drowning as an example of filial piety, while Buddhists praise her care for all living things and associate her with Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
A general view of the Tianhou Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, July 27, 2021. Chen Xiaorong/People Visual
Widespread faith in Mazu reflects an oft-overlooked aspect of East Asian society: its diversity. Outside observers frequently imagine China as a fundamentally homogeneous Confucian cultural zone, but the reality is much more complex, and few places embody this fact quite like Fujian.
Prior to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906), Meizhou and the surrounding lands were economic and cultural backwaters. It was not until a series of wars in northern China drove large numbers of migrants — everyone from wealthy merchants and aristocrats to humble peasants — south that Fujian developed a thriving economy and Confucian practices became widespread in the region.
By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Fujian was producing numerous top scholars, officials, and other literati. Yet large-scale immigration was causing local shortages of land and resources, exacerbated by the region’s tropical economy and its reliance on sugar and lychee exports at the expense of staple crops. These challenges sparked a new wave of outmigration, and it was in this period of arrivals and departures that the Confucian culture of China’s Central Plains met and mixed with local folk religions and foreign cultures like Brahmanism and Manicheanism, providing fertile soil for the development of the Mazu faith.
This co-mingling can be seen in the stories that cropped up about Mazu’s life. According to legend, Lin Mo entered a private school at eight years old where she received a Confucian education, began chanting Buddhist sutras at the age of 10, and came under the influence of a Taoist priest at 13 — a not unthinkable trajectory at that time. The details of Lin’s family vary, with some saying she was born into a large aristocratic family, while others claim she came from humble stock in an ordinary fishing village, with believers opting for whichever version best matched their own circumstances.
The emperors, too, saw something to be gained from supporting the spread of Mazuism. Although officially Confucian, the imperial court recognized the need to respond to and even sponsor folk religions, and as Fujian grew more prosperous and influential, the honors accorded to Mazu rose accordingly.
Locals carry a sedan chair with a statue of Mazu in Putian, Fujian province, Feb. 5, 2017. Liu Tao/People Visual
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), for instance, the dynasty’s imperial capital in North China became increasingly dependent on food shipped from the south via inland canals or coastal roots. Key to the continued viability of this system was a fleet of more than 2,000 vessels manned by some 200,000 boatmen, many of them from Fujian. The capital depended on these boatmen, and the boatmen depended on Mazu for their protection, so the emperors raised her to the level of tianfei, or “Consort of Heaven.”
Mazu’s status rose further during a brief period of overseas maritime exploration in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). After that dynasty’s collapse in the 17th century, Ming loyalists decamped to Taiwan, not far from the Fujian coast, driving out the Dutch and bringing the island back under Chinese control. When the Qing Dynasty finally conquered the island in the late 17th century, it was with the aid of Fujianese sailors and ships. The successful conquest brought even greater attention and honors to Mazu, as the Qing court named her the “Queen of Heaven” and required top officials to visit local temples dedicated to the sea goddess in their jurisdictions and offer sacrifices.
Yet, for most Chinese, Mazu is honored not for political reasons, but because of her humanity and motherly compassion. In contrast with other religions popular in China, whose teachings were spread through officially sanctioned classics, Mazu’s popularity has always been due to her connections to the rhythms of everyday life.
In this, Mazu’s female identity gave her a unique advantage. Chinese belief in deities is frequently characterized by a mixture of respect and fear. People see them not simply as personifications of justice and protectors, but also potentially dangerous and temperamental beings, quick to anger and capable of wreaking havoc. By comparison, Mazu only ever unconditionally protects those who ask for help. Although she has been granted a long list of official titles, most believers still prefer to address her on more intimate terms as Mazu (“maternal ancestor”) or Niangma (“mother”).
Mazu worship remains popular in Fujian, Hainan, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese-speaking populations up to the present day. In 1988, the Chinese government listed the Heavenly Empress Palace in Quanzhou as a key cultural heritage site. Now it’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In Mazu’s gradual progression from mortal woman to sea goddess, we can see the story of Fujian’s rise from provincial backwater to economic and cultural powerhouse. At the same time, her grassroots popularity reminds us of the continued importance of the simplest emotions — humanity, maternal care, and love for all — across Chinese history.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A statue of Mazu in a temple in Fuzhou, Fujian province, 2009. Liu Shuxian/People Visual)