Behold the Sea Goddess: Matsu Worship, Tourism and Cross-Strait Relations

Behold the Sea Goddess: Matsu Worship, Tourism and Cross-Strait Relations

What you need to know

Long banned, worship of Matsu is making a comeback in China under official auspices.

This summer, a statue of the goddess Matsu from Meizhou Island in China toured Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan in the name of religious exchange. As a once-repressed ‘feudal superstition’ – as it was officially labeled in Mao’s China – Matsu belief has been making a strong comeback.

In the late 1970s, although the official attitude towards popular religion remained rigid, some Matsu temples began to be reconstructed by both local worshipers and overseas pilgrims, originating particularly from Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries. The Matsu Ancestral Temple in Meizhou was one of the first of the reconstructed temples. Yet this revived Matsu belief is not simply a continuation of past traditions, a rehashing of the ideas that survived political repression. It is in some senses a new form of worship unique to its particular context. In reform-era China, the revival of Matsu belief has been influenced by the conflicting intentions and actions of various social actors.

The revival of Matsu belief began in the late 1970s. When religious community leaders sensed the changing political atmosphere, they endeavored to reconstruct the destroyed Matsu Ancestral Temple on Meizhou Island. The island was at that time still a People’s Liberation Army garrison. The reconstruction project, followed by the recommencement of ceremonies in 1983, evoked controversy due to the lack of cultural legitimacy of these folk beliefs and practices. Under China’s official definition of religion, only Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism were officially recognized as religions.

In order to gain support, the religious community leaders contacted sympathetic state actors in different official sectors. They also enhanced connections with overseas Matsu temples, especially those in Taiwan, who contributed financially to the temple construction. In the 1980s, as a result of changes in cross-strait relations, Meizhou Island was demilitarized and the Taiwanese connection began to play an even more powerful role in local politics.

To attract overseas pilgrims, a grand ceremony was held in 1987 to commemorate the thousand years since the ascension of Matsu. The Office of Taiwan Affairs assisted the trustee board of the Matsu Ancestral Temple to send out thousands of invitations to Matsu temples internationally, especially to those in Taiwan. During the week of that ceremony in 1987, there were over 100,000 visitors to Meizhou Island, of which 13.4 thousand were from Taiwan. Since then, two grand ceremonies (the Homecoming Ceremony for the Birth of Matsu in spring, and the Sacrifice Offering Ceremony on the Sea for the Ascension of Matsu in autumn) have been held annually on the island. In 1994, the Matsu ceremony at the Meizhou Ancestral Temple was officially selected as a major event in the inaugural Matsu Cultural Tourism Festival organized by the Putian City Government. In the following years, pilgrimages from Taiwan continued to grow in size and scale.

Pilgrimages for these Matsu ceremonies generated momentum for the economic development of Meizhou Island. A submarine power cable was constructed across the Meizhou Bay for the 1987 ceremony, after which the whole of Meizhou Island gained access to electricity. In 1988, Meizhou Island was officially designated a tourism economic zone with the purpose of attracting tourism-related investment to the island. While these developments continued apace, "Matsu culture" was used in official terminology to downplay the religious implication of the pilgrimage.

"Matsu culture" not only contributed to local economic development, it also served as a platform for cross-strait interaction as the China-Taiwan relationship continued to demilitarize. One of the major events of the inaugural Cross-Strait Forum in 2009 was the Matsu pilgrimage to Meizhou Island. Matsu belief had become not just a revived popular religion embodying local identity and solidarity across international believer communities, it was also a tool used for economic and/or political purposes by non-religious actors.

As the local government gradually reframed the meaning of the religious rituals and ceremonies, the religious community leadership on the island was simultaneously reshaped. In 1997 the chairman of the trustee board was officially made a town cadre. This newly appointed official was the eldest son of the charismatic female leader who had organized worshipers to rebuild the temple in the late 1970s. Under his decades-long leadership, the trustee board has managed a religious tourism business complex, with businesses including boats, buses, hotels, a tourism agency, a park, media agencies, etc.

To improve coordination with the local administration, the deputy of the trustee board was officially assigned as the deputy of the administration committee of Meizhou Island. In addition, the head of the local Taiwan Affairs Office was also given a seat on the trustee board. The trustee board is now a collective comprised of religious leadership, cultural entrepreneurship, and local administration. The Board also seized on the opportunity for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) listing, and successfully promoted Matsu belief and customs as a China’s ICH item inscribed on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. This once-illegitimate ‘feudal superstition’ had become a part of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Today, not only do pilgrims visit Matsu Ancestral Temple and other temples in China, but the goddess Matsu herself is also on tour. The religious tourism associated with Matsu belief presents a case of evolving state/religion relations in the process of popular religious revival. While the state has gradually reframed the Matsu-related rituals and ceremonies as a form of cultural heritage, the religious community’s leadership has been reshaped by their engagement with the state. The trustee board of the Matsu Ancestral Temple on Meizhou Island continues to further its role as the state’s facilitator, not only in cross-strait relationships but also as an agent in the belt and road project. The revival of Matsu belief is a case of local believers engaging with the state.

This article was originally published in CPI Analysis. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.