Inquiry Report on the Chinese Goddesses
Hsi Wang Mu and Ma-tsu

Laura Zinck

Despite China's patriarchal social system, the Chinese have traditionally considered male and female spirits as having equal importance and power (Paper, 1989). The equality of the female and the male principles in Chinese religion is best exemplified by the complementary relationship between yin, female energy, and yang, male energy (Milcinski, 1997). However, Western scholarly approaches to Chinese religion have imposed a patriarchal system onto Chinese religion; the power of female deities has been subordinated to that of their male counterparts (Cahill, 1986; Paper, 1989). Recent scholarship has attempted to recover accounts of the development, worship, power, and influence of Chinese goddesses, with an emphasis on women's relationships with their goddesses. As powerful and popular goddesses, the Taoist deity Hsi Wang Mu (the Queen Mother of the West) and the folk deity Ma-tsu were significant role models of religious and social behaviour for Chinese women (Cahill, 1986; Irwin, 1990; Mann, 1997; Paper, 1989).

Hsi Wang Mu (Xiwangmu)

Hsi Wang Mu, the "Queen Mother of the West," was the highest female goddess in the pantheon of the Taoist religion. As the ultimate embodiment of yin, Hsi Wang Mu was originally a creator figure. Linked with the embodiment of yang, Dongwanggong, Hsi Wang Mu engendered heaven and earth and all beings (Irwin, 1990). Hsi Wang Mu's early title of "Mother of the Golden Tortoise" also connects her with shaman traditions; turtle shell divination was a standard ancient practice (Irwin, 1990). Most scholars assert that the earliest description of Hsi Wang Mu was recorded somewhere between the third and second centuries B.C.E. in the Book of Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing). In the Shanhaijing, the Queen Mother is portrayed as a humanoid with tiger's teeth and the tail of a leopard; three bluebirds gather her food and carry her messages (Birrell, 1993; Cahill, 1986; Irwin, 1990; "King Mu and the Queen Mother of the West," 2001). Some Taoists, however, believe that this is a description of an emissary of the Queen Mother, rather than the Queen Mother herself (Yaoting, 2001). In later descriptions, Hsi Wang Mu is referred to as a beautiful and stately imperial ruler (Birrell, 1993; Cahill, 1986; Irwin, 1990; Yaoting, 2001). She became the Keeper of the Peaches of Immortality on Mt. K'un-lun in her palace by the Turquoise Pond (Birrell, 1993). Hsi Wang Mu was a very popular goddess, particularly in northeast China, where she was attributed with ending a great drought in 3 B.C.E (Irwin, 1990). She served as a model for female Taoist priestesses and adepts, appearing to them in dreams and visions, and protecting them at each stage of their spiritual life (Cahill, 1986). Many popular local shrines as well as several Taoist monastic temples were dedicated to the Queen Mother; the great Taoist temple of Mt. Tai has a turquoise pond in front of it, which in 1980 still went by the name of the Queen Mother's Pond (Irwin, 1990). Hsi Wang Mu's great popularity may have been regarded as a threat to the masculine, hierarchic authorities (Cahill, 1986; Irwin, 1990).

Suzanne Cahill is the main researcher of Hsi Wang Mu's relationship with women when she was at the height of her power in the T'ang dynasty. Cahill (1986) asserts that Hsi Wang Mu had special significance for women who existed outside the traditional Chinese family-based roles of "the dutiful daughter, obedient wife, and self-sacrificing mother" (p. 155). The Queen Mother provided two models for women outside traditional roles; women performers, musicians, and brothel singers could imitate the model of her celestial attendants, the musically talented and sensual Jade Maidens, and Taoist novices, nuns, and Refined Masters (i.e., Mistresses) could imitate Hsi Wang Mu herself. The Queen Mother was a viewed as a powerful, independent deity representing the ultimate yin controlling immortality and the afterlife (Cahill, 1986).

To back up her assertions, Cahill draws upon translations of Taoist scriptures and T'ang dynasty poetry which describe Hsi Wang Mu and the Jade Maidens and connect or compare them with mortal women ranging from brothel girls and musicians to Taoist novices, nuns, and Refined Masters. A translation of a passage from a medieval Chinese medical text expresses male anxiety over the subversive possibilities of Hsi Wang Mu's sexual freedom: "Also: the Queen of the Western Paradise had no husband but she liked to copulate with young boys. This secret, however, should not be divulged, lest other women should try to imitate the Queen Mother's methods" (p. 168). Cahill (1986) also includes several poems written by women which refer to the goddess or her maidens, and notes that taking religious vows, either as a Taoist or a Buddhist, represented a way for upper-class women to become literate and receive an education.

Ma-tsu (Mazu)

Ma-tsu is a major female deity in Taiwan and southeastern coastal China. Her legend of origin tells of a young woman called Lin Mo Niang from a family involved in trade who lived on the island of Meizhou circa 980 C.E ("The Goddess of the South China Sea -- Ma Tsu," 2001; Irwin, 1990). She was particularly devoted to the Buddhist deity Guanyin and, following her example, refused to marry, which was a very unusual resolution for a young Chinese woman (Maspero, 1981). Lin Mo Niang went into a trance during a storm and used her spiritual powers to save three of her four brothers from being lost at sea; she was roused from her trance before she could save the fourth brother (Irwin, 1990). She died soon afterwards (Maspero, 1981).

Irwin (1990) believes that Lin Mo Niang may have been a shamaness whose fame outlived her; knowledge of distant events through trance and supernatural abilities were associated with shamanism in China. Jordan Paper (1989) notes that as an unmarried female, the Lin Mo Niang would have been especially prone to becoming a ghost rather than an ancestral spirit, because she has no one to sacrifice to her. Because of her benevolent spiritual powers, however, she was worshiped as the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers under the name of "Ma Tsu," or "Grandmother" (Paper, 1989). The worship of Matsu came into being in the eleventh century and developed rapidly over the next hundred years (Maspero, 1981). According to Maspero (1981), in 1155 C.E. the goddess received her first of many official titles ("Princess of Supernatural Favour") for an unknown reason. Scholars who investigate the history of the areas bordering on the South China Sea suggest that the Chinese government gave Ma-tsu her titles to encourage the Chinese to explore the ocean and expand the trade routes and territory of their country ("The Goddess of the South China Sea -- Ma Tsu", 2001). The Ming emperor, Chengzu, gave her the most prestigious title of "Holy Mother of Heaven Above" (Tienshang Shengmu) in the early fifteenth century (Paper, 1989). Her image in the temple of Lugang is fashioned in black stone and wears a long robe like those worn by officials and an imperial cap with pendants ("The Goddess of the South China Sea -- Ma Tsu," 2001).

Ma-tsu was not just officially sanctioned; her popularity spread and she continues to be worshiped as an important goddess by the people in southeastern coastal China and Taiwan. Maspero (1981) notes that in the present day, her temples are found in almost every seacoast city in the area, as far away as Shantung and Hopei. In Taiwan and the Chinese province of Fukien, the worship of Ma-tsu is part of daily life for fishermen, sailors, and traders (Maspero, 1981). Ma-tsu is the most important folk religious deity in Taiwan, and she has become the central symbol for both the Taiwanese and the Chinese government in arguments over Taiwanese identity and sovereignty (Lin, 1996). The cult of Ma-tsu has been encouraged in Taiwan by local leaders who wish to promote pride in their region and attract tourists and pilgrims. As a deity who originated in China, however, Ma-tsu has also become a symbol for Chinese communist officials who advocate the reunification of China and Taiwan (Lin, 1996). Mei-Rong Lin (1996) argues that Ma-tsu will never become accepted as the "national" deity of either Taiwan or China because her worship is based at the local level; Ma-tsu cults in neighbouring areas frequently disagree on such issues as pilgrimage routes, historical precedence, and orthodoxy. However, her intimate ties at the local level with her worshipers makes her more approachable than many other deities, and thus more popular (Paper, 1989). It is also significant that Ma-tsu refused to marry but was still praised and revered as a goddess; like Hsi Wang Mu, Ma-tsu provided her female worshipers with an alternative model to the traditional roles of women as filial daughters, obedient wives, and self-sacrificing mothers.

As powerful and popular deities, Hsi Wang Mu and Ma-tsu were important role models of religious and social behaviour for Chinese (and in the case of Ma-tsu, Taiwanese) women (Cahill, 1986; Irwin, 1990; Mann, 1997; Paper, 1989). The power and long-lasting popularity of these goddesses expresses the Chinese people's interest in worshiping feminine as well as masculine elements, in accordance with the idea of the equality of yin and yang (Paper, 1989). In the stories of both goddesses, there are hints of female shamanism which may trace back to an ancient time of greater female religious power in China -- Hsi Wang Mu was originally a wild mountain goddess, and Ma-tsu saved her brothers by going into a mysterious trance (Irwin, 1990). Later on, Hsi Wang Mu and Ma-tsu were civilized and assimilated into the patriarchal social and political culture; Hsi Wang Mu's wild and subversive characteristics were erased, and Ma-tsu received governmental stamps of approval and ownership in the form of official titles. Western scholars, until recently, have further neglected the importance of these and other female Chinese deities. In spite of this, the Queen Mother of the West remains immortalized in T'ang dynasty verse and art, and the true power of Ma-tsu lies in her popular worship, which continues to flourish to this day.

This image comes from the ASIAPAC site, "100 Celebrated Chinese Women" (1997).  []. The illustrator is Lu Yanguang



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