T is for Tianhou

(You just imagined the “U” post that was here earlier. Because I totally know how the alphabet works.)

If I really wanted to bore you guys, I’d show you the paper I wrote in college about the Chinese concept of t’ien. It’s actually fascinating stuff, but I’m not sure I did it justice and also it was like ten pages long, which nobody has patience for.

#3681 Mazu (媽祖), Taoist sea goddess
#3681 Mazu (媽祖), Taoist sea goddess (Photo credit: Nemo’s great uncle)

So instead I’m gonna talk about Tianhou. Before I met Ran, Tianhou was the ocean goddess who spoke to me, and boy are there not two more different Ladies of the Waters you could think of. One’s known for rescuing the drowning, and the other’s known for being the one doing the drowning!

The woman who would become the goddess Tianhou was born into a pious, working-class family in southern China around the year 960 AD. It is rumored that her parents, desiring a daughter, prayed to Guan Yin, who rewarded their devotion with a magic pill to allow them to conceive her. As a child, she never cried, earning the name Li Moniang, “mute maiden.” Li was a kind and well-behaved child who did her chores, collected herbs for her mother, and studied religious texts. When she was a young teen, her piety sufficiently impressed a spirit in the woods that he stopped her and gave her a magic charm that allowed her to travel out of her body.

This charm is actually related to the best-known story of Tianhou. Once, her father and brothers went out to fish while she sat at home weaving with her mother. A violent storm blew up and her father and brothers were torn from their boat. Li left her body the moment she became aware of the danger to them, and her spirit quickly travelled over the waters to rescue them from the sea. She carried one brother under each arm and her father in her mouth, toward the shore. However, Li’s mother came in and, seeing her daughter apparently dead, rushed over to her and began to weep. Li, not wanting her mother to suffer, made a small sound to let her mother know she was alive – but had to open her mouth to do so, and unfortunately dropped her father into the sea.

Li died very young, between the ages of twenty and twenty eight, for reasons unknown. Some stories tell that she returned to the sea to search for her father’s body and subsequently drowned. It has also been suggested that she died from illness as a result of eating too strict of a Buddhist diet. At her death, she was reported to ascend to Heaven on a cloud.

After her death, there were many stories of her helping people. She is credited with subduing dragons, floods and droughts, as well as protecting people from disease and plague. In some cases she is said to protect soldiers and government officials from bandits, but there are also stories of her protecting the common man (and even pirates and smugglers) from corrupt officials and cruel soldiers. Because of the many stories showing her power over water, Tianhou is worshipped by sailors and pirates as well as those who depend on them.

Tianhou is one of the most popular deities in China, and her popularity is particularly notable in Taiwan. She is viewed as a motherly figure despite her virginity at death, and is often called “Ah-ma” or “Mazu” or “Mazupo,” names which mean mother or grandmother in the languages where she is worshipped. During World War II, Taiwan was occupied by Japan and thus came under heavy Allied fire. There are numerous stories of Tianhou protecting civilians during the war, using her heavenly robes to deflect bombs and save homes and temples.

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