Chinese folk religion is extraordinarily complicated. On almost every street corners or hidden in a back alley, specially in the southwest China and in Hong Kong and Macao, there is a temple or a shrine dedicated to one of the myriad of gods like Kuan Ti (关帝), Pak Tai (北帝), Tin Hau (天后), Wenchang (文昌), Mazu (媽祖), Na Cha (哪吒), Kum Lam (觀音), Tam Kung (譚公), Kui Xing (魁星), Dou Mou (斗母), Huang Di (黃帝), who populate the pantheon Chinese folk religion.
As foreign travelers in a China, we inevitably visit temples. However, because we do not know who the god or goddess the temple we visit is dedicated to, we miss a piece of Chinese culture.
Here I want to give the backstory of some of the most important deities travelers will encounters in Chinese temple across southwest China.
Today, we start on the southern tip of Macao peninsula, in the A-Ma temple which is not only the city’s most ancient temple, but also holds the key to understanding the name of Macau.
A-Ma Temple 媽閣廟
The story of Macao’s most ancient temple starts in Fujian (Fukien), a coastal province of southeastern China, squeezed between Guangdong and Zhejiang. One day, Fujian fishermen who were out at sea, were caught in a typhoon that pushed them southwest, far from their native land. They prayed to Mazu (媽祖), also called A Ma (阿媽) the ancestral grandmother and goddess of the seafarers.
The Fujian fishermen built a shrine to A-Ma where they reached land. Later, in 1448, the shrine was transformed into a temple called A Ma Ge, ‘阿媽閣’ (pronounced ‘A Ma Kau’ in the Fujian dialect) which soon became the focus of this Fujian fishermen community that the winds at pushed to the southern tip of the Macanese peninsula near the foot of the slopes of Barra hill.
Meanwhile, in 1453, the Turks had captured Constantinople (Istanbul) thus destroying the last defense of Christian Europe against Islam who were fighting the Crusades in the Middle-East. The Crusades and the advance of Turks in Eastern Europe and the Arabs in North Africa had stimulated the need for exotic goods like fine silks, embroideries, spices, or precious stones. These luxury products were transported from Asia to Venice by boats or caravans via Baghdad, Damascus and Alexandria.
Given the geopolitical circumstances of 15th century Europe, this trade between Christians merchants and Muslim traders was a shame. In order to decrease this dependency towards Muslim traders, cut the middlemen and profit directly, the Portuguese set off to explore seas and oceans with the obvious goal to establish direct routes and commercial links with the land from which luxury goods came.
The Portuguese successfully established trading posts in Goa and Malacca from which they pushed east towards China and Japan. In the first half of the 16th century, when the Portuguese reached these islands situated on the margins of the Chinese Empire, they came across a community of fishermen originally from Fujian who had settled there a couple of centuries earlier.
When the Portuguese set foot on the land west of the slopes of Barra hill, near the Mazu Temple, they learned they had reached ‘A Ma Kau’. Called ‘Amacau’, the ubiquitous Chinese affix ‘a’ (阿) was eventually dropped and Macau inescapably became the name of the city which grew into the most important Western colony in Far-East Asia under the impulse of the Portuguese.
The temple is located at the foot of the Barra Hill (媽閣山) at the southwestern tip of the Macanese peninsula where several hundred years ago Fujianese fishermen and later Portuguese traders arrived.
From Mazu to Tin Hau
From the tip of Macau peninsula, if you take the Sai Van Bridge to Taipa (氹仔) and keep driving south, you’ll eventually reach the sleepy village of Coloane (路環村), where one of the most important Tin Hau temple of the territory was built on slope overlooking the sea in 1763.
Mazu (媽祖), A Ma (阿媽) and Tin Hau (天后), the Queen of Heaven, are the different names of the same goddess. She is a very popular female deity of coastal southeast China, honored by fishermen of Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, in Hong Kong (I wrote briefly about Yau Ma Tei’s Tin Hau temple in Hong Kong where she has several dozens of temples dedicated to her) and off course Macao.
Before visiting her temple located in the sleepy village of Coloane, here is her legend.
According to the legend, Tin Hau, before becoming a goddess revered by fishermen, was born in an island off the coast of Fujian province. The story goes that, one day that her father and brothers, along with other fishermen, were out at sea, she went into a trance and saw a big storm destroying the entire fleet. She ran to the seashore, pointed at the horizon and the boat of her brothers and father was the only one to survive. Another version explains that while in her trance, she saw the storm and in spirit appeared in front of the fishermen at sea and led them to safety. But her mother seeing her in trance, woke her up and not all the fishermen were able to follow her to safety.