China: Mazu, the Sea Goddess
Mazu (or Matsu) is a Chinese Taoist and Buddhist sea goddess, renowned for protecting fishermen and sailors. According to legend, Mazu was originally human and was named Lin Mo Naing. Born in 960CE, she had a natural affinity with the sea even as a child. She was a wonderful swimmer and was able to predict the weather. These skills combined allowed her to save many lives that otherwise would have been lost to the tempestuous sea.
There are many versions of Mazu’s life and death. Some say Mazu was born with her gifts and that, even as an infant she did not cry. Others say she was given her gifts by a sea-serpent. In some versions, Mazu falls into a trance and saves her family from the sea during a storm; all but her brother (or father depending on the tale) whom she accidentally drops when her mother disturbs her trance. In other versions, she drowns trying to physically rescue her family during a storm at sea. And, in yet another version, she reaches enlightenment and ascends to heaven to become a goddess by jumping from a mountain top and being carried heavenward by mist, cloud and a rainbow. As a result of her ascent, Mazu is known as and depicted as the ‘Empress of Heaven’.
Mazu also has a warrior aspect; she is often depicted accompanied by two demons. Both wanted her hand in marriage. She said she would marry whoever could defeat her in battle. Mazu defeated them both. Interestingly, as a result of their defeat, the two demons became friends with both one another and Mazu and were often depicted together as comrades. (Although some versions state that Mazu killed them both and they were bound to her in service, as per their agreement to her terms).
Mazu is honoured and worshipped as a compassionate goddess who protects those in need at sea. She is a ‘living goddess’, who is stilled actively worshipped. In fact, her worshippers may amount to more than 200 million people in China and Taiwan. To this day, Mazu’s birthday (April) and death day (October) are celebrated as great religious festivals in areas in which she is worshipped.
Throughout high school and university, I felt very connected to Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion and mercy. It is no wonder that I decided to study psychology to help others. Mazu herself is sometimes called the ‘Kuan Yin of the Southern Seas’ for the compassion she bears for humankind. My interest in her is therefore dual – I am fascinated by her link with the sea, as well as the nature of her compassion.
I have always been interested in China. As a 6-year-old, I would watch my favourite cartoon. The tale was that of a Chinese boy and an English girl who were gifted with supernatural powers by their mother, the goddess moon. Rescued by a sea captain, they grew up in France and then travelled through Europe to China to fulfil their destiny. I was determined that like my heroes, I too would travel the world and that, in so doing, I would fulfil my destiny. China was the top of my travel destination list.
In high school, my fascination with China grew. I studied Asian Social Studies and ended up minoring in history (including ancient China) at University.
Despite my interest in visiting China, the trip was more impromptu than planned. Flights were on sale, and so I booked.
China was a whirlwind. I started my journey in Beijing, visiting the Great Wall of China before seeing the Terra Cotta Army in Xian. From there, I was moved by the beauty of the gardens in Suzhou (sometimes known as the Venice of the East), before finishing my trip in the tech metropolis that is Shanghai.
People often ask me what China was like. I’ve found it hard to give short, succinct answers because China is such a diverse, multifaceted country!
As an English speaker, I am quite spoiled. Everywhere I go, someone speaks English.
That was not the case in China. Outside of the main tourist sites, I had to make do with my ability to say hello, thank you and I love you in Mandarin. Gestures, body language and facial expressions made up the majority of interactions. Until you have had that experience, it is nearly impossible to appreciate the true value of connection you can have with another human being, despite a language barrier. The kindness of so many strangers in China meant so much to me.
In Tiananmen square, when locals first started blatantly photographing me and my partner, I was annoyed. I immediately jumped to a conclusion that they were being rude. When locals would be served before us in shops, despite us having waited longer, I again made an assumption about rudeness. It was only when I showed two key skills that I have been trying to hone my entire adult life – compassion and curiosity, that I truly began to see these experiences from an alternate perspective.
I discovered that local tourism in China was very new; many poor people from rural China were travelling for the first time. They had never seen non-Chinese people up close and in the flesh before. That was why they were photographing me. I learned that in shops, if I didn’t approach and essentially ‘demand’ to be served, they would politely wait and ignore me, allowing me, as the customer, the prerogative to request service when I was ready. None of these people were setting out to be rude. It was just a different way of doing things.
Compassion and curiosity beget compassion and curiosity. The more compassionate people were to me, the more compassionate I was to them. They were as curious about me as I was about them. And through this compassion and curiosity, we were able to connect.
In one instance, I walked into a public restroom to discover a line of women waiting to use the squat toilets. I naturally joined the end of the queue. Several women turned around to stare at me. I pushed down my annoyance at being ‘rudely stared at’ and ignored them. They then broke into smiles. They started touching me – my arms and hands. I felt a little overwhelmed. Didn’t they know it was rude to touch someone without their permission? Then, I realised that they were trying to tell me something. They ushered me towards an open door (of what I assumed was an ‘out-of-service’ toilet). It turned out to be a fully functioning, pristine porcelain toilet. The women were all lined up to use the squat toilets; no one wanted to (or knew how to?) use the shiny porcelain ‘5-star’ loo. For a girl who was terrified about using the public squat toilets, this was a small mercy. (Mind you, I wasn’t able to avoid the dreaded squat toilet forever. As they say, when in Rome…) Behaviours I had initially interpreted as rude (based on the etiquette of my culture) were actually friendly and even kind when understood from another perspective and viewed in a bigger context.
In another situation, I was seated grumpily on a sleeper train. I was tired and cranky and did not want to be there for the next 16-hours. Despite the scowl on my face and the language barrier, a woman, seeing my hostile countenance, took it upon herself to offer me half of her meagre, homemade meal with a gentle kindness and a warm smile that made me instantly ashamed of my own surly behaviour. It turned out I was the one who was being rude! And, rather than ignore or judge me, she responded with warmth – a far more effective strategy.
Western countries in general (and Australia in particular) can hold less-than-flattering, stereotypical views of non-Westerners. We make assumptions and don’t always show compassion. I was very young when I travelled to China. It was my first time to a non-Western country and was admittedly, a bit of a culture shock. But I was in a country where millions of everyday people literally worshipped goddesses of compassion like Kuan Yin and Mazu. Worshipping didn’t just mean honouring or admiring; it meant living compassion. Compassion in practice is giving the benefit of the doubt. It means not taking things personally. It also means responding with loving kindness rather than judging. I wasn’t perfect. I had also carried my own judgements and stereotypes. I was easily offended by others behaviours and things I viewed as “breaches of etiquette” (e.g. queue jumping). I made assumptions.
So many people in China were compassionate in the tiniest of ways with their actions. It’s true when they say compassion is contagious. They showed compassion even when I was behaving badly, such as sulking about a situation I was in. Their compassion challenged me and made me do better. Compassion is a ‘pay-it-forward’ kind of thing.
Mazu shows compassion to sailors and fishermen. In life, she saved many from drowning. After death and deification, she continues to protect all those who dare the sea.
You don’t need a life or death situation to show compassion. Nowadays in Australia, when I see racism, I call it out. When I see someone struggling with English, I step in to simply smile, show patience and kindness and help however I can. And when I see someone being ‘rude’ I channel my inner Buddhist and respond with compassion.