The Historical Origins of Matsu in Taiwan

林美容教授/Lin Mei-rong
(Researcher, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, and head of the Taiwan Association for Religious Studies)

e02_20010402_0402 Lao Liu Ma Matsu from Changhua’s NanyaoTemple, on an altar in a private home
(photo provided by the author)


  Matsu is the most widely-worshipped deity inTaiwan. In towns large and small, mountainvillages and fishing harbors, country townsand city streets, out by the sea and farinland, Matsu temples are everywhere. Taiwan’sMatsu culture festival started in the earlyhours of March 25. The Matsu culture festivalactivities kicked off from Chenlan Temple inTachia, Taichung, and kicks off just aftermidnight on March 25, extending to FungtienTemple in Hsinkang, offering incense along thewhole route of the procession, through the fourcounties of Taichung, Changhua, Yunlin andChiayi, a total of around 372 km, arriving backin Tachia on April 1. It so happens that thisweek coincides with the festival, and so thisweek we have invited Lin Mei-rong, researcherat Academia Sinica’s Institute of Ethnology,and head of the Taiwan Association forReligious Studies, to write about thehistorical origins and cultural background ofMatsu in Taiwan.



The deity most widely worshipped by the Taiwanese

Matsu is the deity most commonly worshipped byTaiwanese people. In towns large and small,mountain villages and fishing harbors, countrytowns and city streets, out by the sea and farinland, Matsu temples are everywhere. These Matsutemples cross town, village and local boundariesas centers of faith. Some areas will have Matsuworship and sacrifice activities, even if theydon’t have a Matsu temple. Apart from “Matsu Sheng”which celebrates Matsu’s birthday, the most commonMatsu worship activities are offering incense attemples, and “welcoming Matsu.” We might as wellstart looking at the meaning of Matsu-worshippingsociety, culture and history from Matsu-relatedactivities.



Local Matsus and guest Matsus participate inthe trip together

  All gods have birthdays, and Matsu’s birthday fallson the 23rd day of the third month in the lunarcalendar. All the worship and sacrifice activitiesare held shortly before and after this date. Mostpeople choose to go to temples and burn incense inthe days preceding her birthday, so that Matsu canreturn to her home before her birthday, and have herbirthday celebrated by her local followers. On theday of the birthday, as with the birthdays of mostgods, there are “inspection tour” activities, andthe inspection tour is carried out within the areaunder Matsu’s jurisdiction, in order to bless andprotect the peace with the area. Sometimes, thelocal Matsu is not enough, and it’s necessary toinvite in Matsus from other areas as “guestgoddesses,” and so before the inspection tour,people often hold “inviting Matsu” or “welcomingMatsu” activities, in order to get the local Matsuand guest Matsus to participate in the inspectiontour together. In particular, villages which don’thave their own tradition of worshipping Matsu willoften invite a Matsu from elsewhere to come andhave a lively parade on Matsu’s birthday.



Inspection tour activities for “Welcoming Matsu”

  ”Welcoming Matsu” means going somewhere outsideyour local district to welcome a Matsu widelyworshipped by local residents, or with somehistorical connection with that area to come andparticipate in the inspection tour activities. Itdoesn’t matter whether the village or the areawhere the “welcoming Matsu” activities are carriedout has a “Matsu in the village” or a “local Matsu,”it’s possible to go to another place to welcome Matsu.In general, people go to somewhere higher up on thesocial scale to welcome Matsu. For instance, in theregion which includes Wufeng, Wuri and Tali inTaichung County, there is a “Tung Pao EighteenVillages” Matsu-welcoming activity, which has beenheld for over a century, in which a total of 18villages participate. None of these 18 villageshave a temple, but they do have a shared Matsu,who is known as “Matsu of the Eighteen Villages.”Every year, at the beginning of March, local Matsus,including the Han Hsi Matsu, the Nan Tun Matsu, theTaichung Matsu and the Changhua Matsu, are allinvited to participate, and the “Matsu of theEighteen Villages” leads the procession. Theprocession passes through the villages in anestablished order, and each day, Matsu is carriedaround to “welcome” her, and people feast.


Changhua County Chief Juan Kang-mengcarries the Matsu palanquin fromTaichung’s Chenlan Temple (CNA)



“Offering incense” shows respect to the god

   ”Offering incense” involves going to distant, famous,historical temples thick with temple smoke to burnincense, and it expresses respect to the god orgoddess in question. The difference between “offeringincense” and “welcoming Matsu” is that “offeringincense” doesn’t involve asking the statue of theMatsu from the opposite temple to return, you justhave to go and share her incense, and so you haveto get your own goddess out, and take her to theopposite Matsu temple, and you also have to take thestatue into the temple, and place it on the altar.Sometimes the “holding fire” method is used, andsometimes the “exchanging incense” method, sharing thebenefit of the incense from the other side. Another wayin which it is different from the “welcoming Matsu”ritual is that the place in which you “offer incense”doesn’t have to be connected with regional level.



 Hoping that the incense of your own god willburn as brightly

  Although offering incense to Matsu shows respect,and gives face to the other party, what you wantfor yourself is substantial advantage, that is,ceremonial function when sharing or dividingthe other party’s incense back to your ownplace, you hope that your own god’s incensewill burn equally well. Consequently, whenreturning from offering incense, you have holdprocessional ceremonies, and carry the goddessaround from house to house, and take the burningincense sticks from out of the goddess’s incenseburner, and exchange them with incense sticksfrom the burners in the houses of Matsu’sfollowers. The aim is to benefit the followersin your local area. Although “offering incense”requires spending a lot of money, but templeswhich are good at money-making frequently makea profit out of “offering incense” because mostpeople enjoy attending the incense offering,and it’s more fun for neighbors go to attendthe ceremonies in big groups. It turns into across between a pilgrimage, a tour, and a socialouting, killing several birds with one stone,it’s a very Taiwanese social behavior. The mostimportant thing is that the local communitiesjointly holds the “incense offering”, and bydoing it together, they promote a sense ofcommunity feeling between the two places, andthis is the clearest social content to be foundin the “incense offering.” Consequently, thisgoing backwards and forwards to offer incenseinvolves a reciprocal exchange between the twoplaces of fame and gain, and which gives both”face” and “substantial advantage.” Exchange ofMatsu visits between Taiwan and China shouldalso be carried out with the same ideals inmind, I show you respect, and you naturallymust treat me politely. The behavior ofexchanging god expresses the logic of socialintercourse.



Thoughts on the historical significance ofthe pioneer life

  If we observe the incense offeringitinerary,we find that it is the exactopposite ofimmigration in Taiwan. Ourancestors came to Taiwan from China, andonce in Taiwan, spread from the south tothe north of the island,and today people goto the mainland to offer incense, and thefamous historical temples line the route ofincense offering from north to south inTaiwan, causing us to reflect on thehistorical significance to be found in thehard life of the pioneers who came toTaiwan, and worked their fingers to thebone cultivating the land. That’s why thereare controversies over the legitimacy ofthe Matsu temple at Lu Er Men, the spotwhere Koxinga first set foot on Taiwan, andthe Matsu temples at harbors such as Lukangand Penkang where the central Taiwanimmigrants set out from, and the Matsutemples of Hsienkung and Tucheng are lockedin a deadlock over this. Peikang andHsinkang disagreed fiercely over which ofthem was the real Penkang.



Revealing the dual structure of Taiwan society’sdeep layers

  It’s not just Hsienkung and Tucheng, Peikang andHsinkang: many Matsu temples in Taiwan havecompeting pairs of Matsus, revealing the dualstructure of Taiwan society’s deep layers. Forexample, the city of Hsinchu makes a distinctionbetween the inside Matsu and the outside Matsu.The inner Matsu is at the Tienhou Temple,whereas the outside Matsu is at the ChanghoTemple. The city of Changhua also distinguishesbetween an inner and outer Matsu: within thecity is the Tienhou Temple, outside the city isthe Nanyao Temple. Sometimes, the distinctionbetween two Matsus is due to the existence ofone temple for officials and another for thecommon people, other times it’s because there’sone temple inside the town and another outsideit. There are cases where the distinction isthe descent from immigrants from Quanzhou. Matsutemples are places where people come together,and the divisions that people make betweenthemselves will naturally be manifested withtheir gods.

e02_20010402_0402_2 Worshippers move the Matsu statue fromthe Chenlan Temple at Tachia, Taichung,into a palanquin



The “Taiwanization” of Matsu – from Goddessof the Sea to Rain Goddess

  Taiwan’s Matsu goddess has a few specialcharacteristics, one of which is her black face,her elegant and poised bearing is another, ingreat contrast to the Chinese Matsu’s thin,powdered face. Matsu was originally Goddess ofthe Sea. She started out as a girl from afishing village on the island of Meizhou, inPutian (Fujian Province). Before and after herdeath, she kept the sea safe, and came to theaid of those in trouble on the sea. Ourancestors brought her over with them when theycrossed the sea to Taiwan, to protect themselves,and when they moved inwards, cultivating theland of Taiwan, they frequently appealed to herfor blessings and protection, and thus Matsubecame “Taiwanized,” and having started out asGoddess of the Sea became Goddess of Rain. TheTaiwanese saying, “Lord Tatao controls the wind,and the lady Matsu brings the rain” furtherencouraged the belief that the ritual of”welcoming Matsu” often brought rain. Tatu andLungching in Taichung County have anorganization called “Hsipao Twenty villageswelcoming Matsu,” and there is a local sayingwhich perfectly expresses the belief that Matsubrings the rains, and the unpredictable weatherof the month of March: “At Duonatao, the sky isblack, at Ngyahpo it’s raining. At Lima, theroads are muddy roads, at Lasay the rain hasstopped for a while. But the heat is stiflingat Ongtsan, so people are in shock over atSwahadien. At Shiaka, people are asking “is ittrue?” No, it’s not! At Dwado, different playsare being performed in competition.”



Derived from her personality as goddess of watermanagement and agriculture

  When an excess of rain causes floods, Matsu alsohas a supernatural power which can “sweep therivers,” that’s to say that when people conduct”inspection tours” or “welcome Matsu,” thepalanquin of the goddess makes a special touraround the place where incense is placed, andif there have been floods that year, the floodmust flow down to the direction of theprocession, and not encroach on the village.In short, no matter whether the wind stops andthe waves cease, rescue on the sea, or cause thewind and rain to blow, if she tells it to stop,it will stop, if she orders the waters to drainaway, they will drain away, equally it’s clearthat Matsu possesses the power to control water.Taiwan has many dangerous waters, and the naturalenvironment of typhoons and floods naturally ledto Matsu having the character of a watermanagement goddess, one who suited the needs ofTaiwanese society in the agricultural age.Farmers most fear insects ruining their riceharvests, and Matsu also has the power to repelinsects. This gives Matsu the character of anagricultural goddess too. Apart from these,the most exaggerated powers attributed to Matsuwere during the Second World War, when the U.S.airforce was bombing Taiwan, and Matsu appearedin the sky and lifted up her skirts to catch thebombs. This story was told all over Taiwan, inthe south and the north, you can imagine howterrified people were during the war, and howthey searched for a god or goddess who could betheir “savior.”



A function of drawing society together

  Matsu’s family name was Lin, and people with thefamily name of Lin see Matsu as an ancestor, andworship her particularly intensely. Chen and Linare two of the most common family names inTaiwan, and so you’ll always see incense burningfor Matsu in Taiwan. Moreover, apart thesacrifices that are made to Matsu in everyvillage, community, town and street, she alsohas the function of drawing society together.For example, the Tsu Lu Temple in Chung Kang,Miaoli (53 villages), Tai An Temple in thevillage of Hsi Chieh Tung in Houpi, Tainan (36villages), which both bring together thedescendents of immigrants from Quanzhou (FujianProvince) and the local Hakka population. TheNan Tun Matsu of Taichung’s Wan Ho Temple bringstogether 25 different family names. The Nan MeMatsu of Changhua’s Nanyao Temple bringstogether around 350 villages populated bydescendents of immigrants from Zhangzhou (FujianProvince) and Hokkien-speaking Hakkas. TheTienmen Temple at Fangchiaotou, in Shetou,Changhua (72 villages) and the Shunan Temple inTounan (53 villages) also bring togethercommunities of descendents of Zhangzhouimmigrants and Hokkien-speaking Hakkas. Tien’anTemple in Peitou (53 villages) brings togetherthe descendants of Quanzhou immigrants, andthere are many more examples.



Matsu’s ceremonies bring villages together

   Another result of this is that Matsu’sceremonies become organizations linking villagestogether, be it 13, 18, 24, 36, 53 or 72villages. In order to meet the needs of Matsu’sceremonies, each village must prepare all sortsof lively processions, so as to allow thevillages to represent themselves in the livelyactivities of other villages when the time comesto “welcome Matsu.” Matsu’s ceremoniesconsequently promote all kinds of folk music artand martial art exhibitions, and numerous localmusic schools and martial arts halls flourish incentral Taiwan for the very reason that centralTaiwan has many large-scale regionalorganizations for Matsu’s ceremonies, and can beregarded as the sacred land of Matsu. It couldbe said that if the ceremonies were onlyrequired for one village and one community, thegeneral public probably wouldn’t be soenthusiastic in spending money and effort toorganize local music schools and martial artshalls, and passing down folk customs and art tothe next generation. Thank you, Taiwan Matsu, forkindling our interest in Taiwan’s culture.

 Edited by Hsu, Shiou-Iuan/ translated by Elizabeth Hoile