Episode 99: Mazu the sea goddess

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In Chinese mythology, unlike in Greek mythology, Poseidon is the god of the sea and other waters, there are different gods in charge of different waters since China has a huge territory. Today we will talk about Mazu 妈祖, the most well-known sea goddess.

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The story of Mazu started from the province FuJian 福建 on the southeastern coast of China. In the book TongSuBian 通俗编 from the Qing dynasty 清朝, it says the goddess Mazu was the sixth daughter of the military general LinYuan 林愿 in FuJian from the Five Dynasties period 五代时 期around the 10th century. She could sail in the sea and travel led around the islands. People called her the dragon girl. During the Song dynasty 宋朝,the emperor worshiped her as Madame LinHui 灵惠夫人. So she is a deified goddess based on a historical person.

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In the folklore, it says, her name was LinMo 林默. Lin was her last name. Mo means silence because she didn’t cry during birth. It is believed that she saved her families when they were caught offshore during a typhoon. She died at the age of 27. Some people say she died in meditation though some believed she climbed a mountain and ascended into Heaven as a goddess.

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In the book YuanShi 元史 from the Ming dynasty 明朝, it says Madame LinHui is the goddess of the South Sea. She protects people on the sea including fishermen and sailors. The emperor from the Yuan dynasty 元朝 gave her the title TianFei 天妃, which means Empress of the Heaven. The emperor from the Qing dynasty 清朝 gave her the title TianHou 天后, which means Queen of the Heaven.

The Mazu literally means mother ancestor, which is the title of the local FuJian people calling female ancestors. Mazu is remembered as a young lady wearing a red dress as she roamed over the seas. In statuary, she is clothed in the attire of an empress and wearing a flat-topped imperial cap with rows of beads hanging from the front and back like an empress.

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Mazu is believed in Taoism as well and she has two guardian generals QianLianYan 千里眼, which means Thousand-Mile Eye and ShunFengEr 顺风耳, meaning Wind-Following Ear. In statuary, they appear as demons next to Mazu.

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Most people know about Silk Road that connected the East and West. There is actually a Maritime silk road as well since the Yuan dynasty 元朝. During Ming dynasty 明朝 and Qing dynasty 清朝, sailors often carried statues of Mazu to ensure safe crossings. The government of the Ming dynasty 明朝 sponsored seven naval expeditions. The most important one is when ZhengHe 郑和, a legendary mariner and explorer who made the voyage “the largest scale manhunt on water in the history of China” from the year 1405 to the year 1433. On ZhengHe’s boats they worshiped Mazu every day and they believed they were protected by Mazu.

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The belief Mazuism has spread to other part of Asia especially those coastal regions where fishery and businesses through the sea are frequent and crucial, including some parts of China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and so on. There are around 1500 temples of Mazu in 26 countries around the world today. Most of them are considered as Taoist but some are considered as Buddhist. The name Macau of the region in China was thought to be deprived from the name of the A-Ma Temple 妈阁庙 when the Portuguese colonists landed at the coast just outside of the temple and asked the name of the place.

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Some people believe this theory that people’s personality is related to the geography and climate of the place they live. I feel the people from coastal province FuJian where Mazu is from are more adventurous than most part especially the inland places of China . The earliest immigrants to all over the world from China are from FuJian. They traveled overseas doing businesses and finding opportunities and even settled down. Maybe they are so brave because they believe they are protected by Mazu.

 

 

Mentioned:

通俗编 TongSuBian

元史 YuanShi

Episode 84 : Mid-Autumn Festival – Goddess Of The Moon

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It is almost the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节and for me it is one of the most romantic Chinese festivals because all the interesting myths about it. We will use two episodes to share them with you.

Mid-Autumn Festival is on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar with a full moon at night and this year it will be on the September 24th . Some researchers think the festival was originally for celebration of the harvest in the fall. Some historians think the festival was originally for the worship of the moon which was recorded in the book LiJi 礼记 since the Spring and Autumn period. The festival started from the early Tang dynasty 唐朝 when the Emperor XuanZong of Tang 唐玄宗 held formal celebrations in the palace. The festival was as important as the Spring Festival 春节, the Chinese new year since the Ming dynasty 明朝.

Today the festival is mainly about moon worship, moon gazing and family get together. I think moon gazing is the most romantic thing to do in the world and the second is star gazing. Anyways, moon gazing started from the palace among the scholars and then became popular with normal people. There are countless poems in the Chinese history about the moon and it used to be part of the Mid-Autumn Festivals traditions to write poems about the moon in the ancient time. While moon gazing, of course we need something to snack on. YueBing 月饼, moon cakes , a round desert with stuffings like salted egg yolk , bean paste is the traditional food on the festival and it goes so well with a cup of tea. Of course there are more flavors nowadays including ice cream. Fruits and nuts are always great for worship the moon and to eat ourselves. And then we are ready for the moon gazing. This is when people start to talk about stories and myths about the moon.

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We will start with story of the goddess of the moon today. Her name was originally HengE 姮娥 due to the name of the Emperor Liu Heng 刘恒 in the Han dynasty 汉朝, she was known as ChangE 嫦娥 after than. Just try to explain here, on the contrary of the western culture that people like to give the names of their kids with their own names or their ancestors’ names, in China, people actually try to avoid use the same characters in the names of their ancestors or the emperor out of respect. In the book Classics of the Mountains and Seas 山海经, it says ChangXi 常羲 and Di Jun 帝俊, of of the ancient supreme deities had 12 moons as children.

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In the book ShiJing 诗经, it says, ChangE is the daughter of ChangXi and DiJun. DiJun had a minister called HouYi 后羿 that we mentioned in our episode 3, who shot down nine suns leaving one left. HouYi is also regarded as a god of archery. DiJun’s daughter ChangE married to HouYi.

In the book HuaiNaiZi 淮南子 from the Han dynasty 汉朝, it says, HouYi got the elixir of life from Queen Mother of the West 西王母. You can check out episode 74 about Queen Mother of the West if you want to know more about her. HouYi didn’t consume the elixir right away and ChangE stole the elixir of life and consumed it when her husband wasn’t at home and flew to the moon. So she wanted to be immortal however she didn’t know she would have to fly to the moon afterwards and was forced to be separated from her husband and be alone forever.

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In the book ChuXueJi 初学记from the Tang dynasty, it says, after ChangE flew to the moon, she became a toad and the spirit of the moon. This also is mentioned in other books. Why did she become a toad. Some people say because the surface of the moon looks like the skin of a toad. Some people say it is a punishment for ChangE of stealing the elixir of life.

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But probably most people didn’t want to accept the end of the story that a beautiful woman became a toad and that’s the god of the moon. There were more stories coming up and are more widely known today. We will talk about them in our next episode.

Mentioned:

山海经 Classics of the Mountains and Seas

诗经 ShiJing

淮南子 HuaiNaiZi

礼记 LiJi

初学记 ChuXueJi

唐玄宗 Emperor XuanZong of Tang

常羲 ChangXi

帝俊 DiJun

后羿 HouYi

西王母 Queen Mother of the West

Episode 74 : Queen Mother of the West

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Today we will talk about one of the earliest goddess in Chinese mythology and Taoism – XiWangMu 西王母, Queen Mother of the West. We have mentioned her a few times in our podcast before. In episode 21, Queen Mother of the West separated the loving couple ZhiNv 织女, the Weaver girl and NiuLang 牛郎, the Cowherd with her head pin which became the Milky Way. She sounds like a cruel, cold-heart goddess, which is partly true if we consider the origin of the character.

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The name XiMu 西母, Mother of the West can be traced back to oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty 商朝 around 15th century BC. The earliest text about Queen Mother of the West can be found in the book Classics of Mountains and Seas 山海经 from 4th century BC. It says Mountain Yu 玉山 is where the Queen Mother of the West lives. She has a human shape however with a leopard’s tail, tiger’s teeth and roars. She represents diseases and punishment. In the book, it also says, Queen Mother of the West has a three-leg bird that gets food for her. As one of the earliest goddess in Chinese mythology, the image of Queen Mother of the West sounds like a ferocious ancient priest in the tribe.

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As time goes by, between Warring States period to the Han Dynasty, the image of Queen Mother of the West gradually become more soft and feminine. In the book MuTainZiZhuan 穆天子传, Tale of King Mu from the Warring States period between 5th century BC to the year 221 BC, a fantasy version of the travel of King Mu of Zhou, the sovereign of the Zhou dynasty 周朝 around 900 BCE, it mentions a love story or a fling which I think is more accurate between the Queen Mother of the West and the King Mu when he traveled to the west of China. In the book Queen Mother of the West is a beautiful exotic woman who is also is excellent dancer and singer. During the short time they hang out together, they drank wine, danced and sang until the day King Mu left and they never met again.

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Since the Hang Dynasty 汉朝, Queen Mother of the West became a goddess in Taoism and started becoming a real holy goddess we see today. She is depicted dressing like a queen holding court in the palace on the Mount Kunlun 昆仑 山. The palace is described as a paradise where she meets with deities. In Taoism, she has the highest status in all the goddess.

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In our episode 73 we mentioned she has a garden where the peaches of immortality grow there. This is also mentioned in the book Journey to the West 西游记. Queen Mother of the West serves the peaches to her guests when the peaches are ripe, which is every 3000, 6000 and 9000 years. She also has the pills of immortality, which we will mention her in another story in the future episode.

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In the folklore, it is said Queen Mother of the West is the wife of the Jade Emperor 玉皇大帝 although it is not the case in Taoism. So the couple’s position is like the Chinese folklore version of Zeus and Hera in Greek mythology.

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Mentioned:

西王母 XiWangMu/ Queen Mother of the West

山海经 Classics of Mountains and Seas

穆天子传 MuTainZiZhuan

西游记 Journey to the West

玉皇大帝 Jade Emporer

Zeus and Hera

Episode 48: Killer Or Protector Of Children?

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In the nature, protecting and feeding the younger generation is the natural instinct of most animals and human beings. It seems normal if you see a lion mom feeding her cub with a baby antelope. What about if you see a lion mom feeding her cub with another lion cub from another lion mom? I guess it is called cannibalism in that case.

Today we are talking about a goddess and demon called GuiZiMuShen 鬼子母神in Chinese or Kishimojin in Japanese. Originally from Buddhism in India, the goddess Hariti had hundreds of children whom she loved. In order to feed all of them, she killed the children of others. Those bereaved moms who lost their children pleaded to the Buddha for help. The Buddha stole the youngest kid of Hariti and hid under his bowl. Searching everywhere for her youngest kid desperately, Hariti herself approached to the Buddha for help. The Buddha explained to her that now she understood the pain of loosing her child and asked her if she could imagine the suffering of other parents whose children were killed and devoured. Hariti finally realized her sins and vowed to protect all children and became the protector of children and women in childbirth from a children killer.

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There are many temples of GuiZiMuShen in Asia especially in Japan. People go there for blessings for their children and women with children as well.

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Mentioned:

鬼子母神 GuiZiMuShen

Kishimojin

Hariti

Episode 15: The Silk Mother

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When we talk about Chinese traditional materials for clothing, we have to mention silk. Everybody likes silk. I am not sure if everybody knows where the silk from? Yes, from silkworms. I don’t know if you know what silkworms look like. They might seem gross for some people because they are basically a kind of white caterpillar. In Chinese, we call them can. In Chinese mythology, of course, there are stories about the goddess of silkworms 蚕女. Since ancient times, rulers in China have been respectful for the worship of the goddess of silkworms and there are temples and palaces for her too. Who is this goddess that gives us the softest silk? There are two main versions.

The first one is more close to the reality. Her name is Leizu 嫘祖, also known as XilingShi 西陵氏, who was the wife of the Yellow Emperor 黄帝. Yellow Emperor is one of the earliest legendary Chinese ruler among the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors 三皇五帝. Leizu invented the silk loom in the 27th century BC, almost 5000 years ago. We call her Canmu 蚕母, Silkworm Mother.

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The other version can be found in the book SouShenJi搜神记, it says, during the ruling by Emperor Gaoxin高辛, in the place Shu, this lady’s father left home to fight. After years, he still didn’t return. The daughter missed his father so much and started a conversation with her father’s horse left at home. She said, “if you can find my father and bring him back, I will marry you.” After she finished the sentence, the horse ran out of the barn and guess what– the horse found the place her father stayed. The father saw the horse and was worried maybe something went wrong at home. So he rushed onto the horse and returned home. The daughter saw her father and told her father how much she missed him. But she never mentioned the marriage until the father found the horse refused to eat and screamed every time the daughter passed by. The father’s face grew hot with fury and shame and would not allow the marriage. How can I let my daughter marry a horse! He shot the horse with an arrow and peeled the hide to end this whole ridiculous deal. What a poor horse! Maybe he just wanted to help and really fell in love with the girl. The father hung the horse hide in the yard. After he left home again, one day, the daughter was playing with girls from the neighborhood in the yard, the horse hide began to fly towards the girl and wrapped around her so tight and flew away. After days, the girl was found in the horse hide on a tree. She turned into a silkworm and wove a cocoon. People call the tree Sang in Chinese桑树, cause sangsounds like sang, which means lost or death. Sangshu桑树are mulberry trees where silkworms live. The goddess of silkworms in temples nowadays is usually a lady with horse hide on her body or rides a white horse and is also known as MaTouNiang马头娘, the girl with the Horse’s head. It is interesting people think silkworms have similarities with horses. Maybe they are both white and the heads look alike.

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Actually in the book Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, earlier than the book SouShenJi,it already mentioned a creature looking like a girl producing silk on a tree. This horse hide wrapping story is a little bit horror to hear. Some people say the idea of hide wrapping a girl probably was from the marriage tradition among different tribes that the bride would wear a hide in the ancient time.

To make myself better about the poor horse, I guess he can be with the girl finally in the end forever. That turns a horror story into a love story.

Mentioned:

山海经Classic of Mountains and Seas

嫘祖Leizu 西陵氏 XilingShi

黄帝Yellow Emperor

三皇五帝 Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

搜神记 SouShenJi

马头娘 MaTouNiang /the girl with the Horse’s head