一尊媽祖兩岸情

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1995 / 4月

文‧蔡文婷 圖‧薛繼光


當一群村婦試圖重建湄洲祖廟時,駐守在當地的軍隊卻以「搞封建迷信、干擾戰備工作」為由,打算拆廟,這時福建省省委書記卻在公文上批下了「暫緩拆除」四個大字,展開了湄洲媽祖的另一頁傳奇。

大陸民間信仰的熱潮方興未艾。在眾神之中,惟獨媽祖的聲勢最大,特別是湄洲島的媽祖祖廟。台灣眾多的媽祖信徒像潮水般前去謁祖進香,互比老大的寺廟則爭相捐款並和祖廟結為至親。在有利兩岸交流的現實利益下,媽祖成了海峽兩岸和平女神,特別「神」氣了起來。


在一片靜默漆黑中,擔任祖廟保衛組組長的蕭阿獅一路追趕媽祖出巡的隊伍。在地的他依著遠處的鑼鼓聲及明滅不斷的煙花,熟練地穿過沒有路燈的田埂小路。鑼鼓聲音越來越近,穿過一道窄巷,豁然出現在眼前的是:由火把照映出的大隊人馬,有的持香,有的挑大鑼,有的扛著村裡陪祀神明的小轎,緊緊地簇擁著媽祖的神轎往前行。

小路兩旁,燃燒稻草堆為媽祖照路的婦女們,一見媽祖到來紛紛下跪,急切地磕頭拜拜,像是要把所有的希望都放在這一番祈求中。被選中為媽祖休息「過晚」(過夜)的人家,屋子的四周全用紅布圍起,以除不潔。桌上擺出了由麵食所作的供品「水族朝聖」四十多種。

不怕,我們看多了呢

村廟前的廣場上圍了一大圈的人潮,廟埕中已經架起了柴火。在道士撒鹽撒米除煞開路下,兩個乩童坐著刀轎進場。先是交錯地跳過火堆,然後隔著火堆相對地打轉。圍觀的村民很主動地退了幾步,「他們要鬥法了!會越轉越快,要小心點」,十五、六歲的女孩提醒著說。

「要吃花了!」在一聲召喚下,眾人又擠向廣場邊搭好的高台。只看數十支大煙花同時點燃,兩個乩童赤膊上身,俯身向前,像是在享受煙花大餐。問圍觀小女生怕不怕,她們異口同聲地回答「不怕,我們看多了呢!」

在不過十四平方公里大的湄洲島上,除了聞名遐邇的媽祖祖廟,還有十二座媽祖廟。每年過了大年初一,祖廟媽祖就開始到每個村莊出巡,挨家挨戶去賜福,直到元宵的前一天,才由村民簇擁回到祖廟。

這一晚送媽祖回到祖廟已經過了子時,婦女們搶著媽祖頭上的頭花往自己髮髻上插,濃烈的煙香薰得人眼睛都睜不開。被迎回祖廟的媽祖神像身上結滿了五元、十元的人民幣,敬獻的香油錢雖沒台灣香客出手大,然而「祖廟的興盛,靠的就是當地這種朝拜的氣氛」,到過湄洲的中央研究院研究員李豐楙指出。

想我們當年「起義」時

看著今天香火鼎盛的湄洲祖廟,及陸續完成的寺廟建築群,很難想像這裡曾是荒煙蔓草一片。

「文化大革命」時,破除封建迷信思想,僧尼被迫還俗,神像遭搗毀。傳統戲曲改唱樣板戲,作紙紮的老師傅改糊批鬥遊街用的「高帽子」,寺廟改為學校或工廠。

參與大陸地區天妃史跡初步調查的學者李玉昆表示,幾年前,他們從山東到海南島進行調查時,大部分的寺廟都還被佔用著。即使頗富盛名的泉州天后宮,直到今天原梳妝樓舊址還被學校當作宿舍用。至於目標明顯、沒有什麼利用價值的湄洲祖廟,則是磚瓦不留。

因此文革後,對於宗教迷信的事,一般人還是相當緊張。然而在湄洲的山頭上,祖廟的重建工作已經悄悄展開,帶頭上山的,是一名沒有受過教育,名叫「阿八」的婦女。

在湄洲女人沾了媽祖的光,嫁入夫家後,妯娌間相互有排行,因此大家習慣叫這個在家族排行第八的林聰治「阿八」。她和另外兩名婦女阿二和阿六,都說是因為媽祖托夢而上山建廟。「當時要上山來,得折掉一根根的樹枝才上得了」,阿八回憶當時祖廟荒廢的程度。

幾個歐巴桑你扛石我挖地,先建起一座像土地公祠一般的小廟,並請來一尊媽祖像。慢慢的更多的婦女加入,她們按保甲制度,一人一天地建起了今天湄洲祖廟群的第一座宮殿。說起當年冒險建廟的舊事,阿八常會笑著說「我們當年起義的時候……」。

也是因為當年帶頭起義的功勞,阿八便擔任今天湄洲祖廟的常務董事長,帶起一百一十個員工,總理山頭上的一切事物。並且在媽祖誕辰時,都是由她和阿二、阿六三人一起為媽祖梳頭。

黑五類成紅五類?

今天在中國大陸,佛教、道教或天主教等宗教都是被允許的信仰,然而像媽祖這種既無教義,活動又不乏非科學儀式的民間信仰,處於宗教與迷信之間,大陸政策基本上是不禁止卻也不鼓勵。因此在福建、廣東等閩南省份之外的媽祖廟,大多仍是荒廢無香煙祭拜的。如中國最北的山東煙台天后宮,建築雕刻都是上乘,近年來已經修護完畢,卻是有廟無神。莆田市政協曾主動提議煙台天后宮迎尊媽祖回去,卻遭婉拒。「他們就是不希望又有人去拜」,莆田市媽祖研究會副秘書長朱合浦解釋。湄洲祖廟則大大相反。

湄洲祖廟的初步修建靠阿八,然而媽祖在大陸的聲威及地位卻和兩岸互動有直接關係。「湄洲祖廟絕對是一個特例,為什麼這麼多神明中祂所受到的重視最多?這是因為祂有吸引台胞的特殊性在」,研究福建民間信仰的福建師範大學副教授林國平指出。

對台工作的最前哨

事實上祖廟的重建若非「對台工作的考量」下,當初已遭軍隊拆除了。在海峽兩岸關係仍處緊張狀態時,湄洲還屬戰備前線。在祖廟山頭裡全是邊防軍駐守的戰壕,還有縱橫交錯的坑道。

眼看著山頭上開出了路,還蓋起了廟,邊防軍以「搞封建迷信,干擾戰備工作」為由,下令拆廟。兩方相互爭執,最後告到了福建省最高領導省委書記眼前。「在祖廟最靠近台灣,或許將成為對台工作前哨的考量下,省委書記批下了『暫緩拆廟』四個大字,保住了祖廟」,訪問過省委書記的朱合浦說起這一段媽祖保衛戰。

這其實也不足為奇,翻開媽祖信仰的歷史,媽祖能由一名鄉間的巫女,一直受封到天妃、天后,成為全國性的航海保護神,最重要原因就是官方的提倡和褒揚。而歷代官方之所以如此看中媽祖,也因為航海、外交等現實需要。

媽祖是雷峰

保住了祖廟之後,十年前擔任莆田市政協主席的林文豪兼任湄洲祖廟的董事長,更將媽祖信仰大喇喇地搬上檯面。當時有人指他是「迷信頭子」,林文豪的回答是「我沒認為自己搞封建迷信,因為媽祖是一個實實在在的勞動人民,她幫漁民看病,又曾解救海難,她是對歷史有貢獻的人。」從此由巫女升為天后的媽祖,又由天后落實為一個民族英雌,走出了封建迷信的陰影。

林文豪接著組織媽祖研究會,出版專書,召開國際性學術研討會來討論為何要拜媽祖。在一次對全國政協的媽祖專題會報中,就有學者站起來說「媽祖就是宋代雷峰」(雷峰是大陸一名被毛澤東立為榜樣的平凡解放軍,生前行善無數),贏得眾人掌聲。

除了為媽祖找到合理的身分,許多學者也提出湄洲媽祖對兩岸交流的重大助益。首先是媽祖對台灣信徒的強大吸引力,對「三通」(直接通商、通郵、通航)的壓力,而且透過媽祖的召喚,還可吸引港澳台投資。這下原本可能「干擾邊防」的媽祖,反成了對台工作的前哨;原本屬於「四舊」的封建迷信,反倒有助於經濟發展,達到「四化」的理想。

在這樣的模式下,新近重建的媽祖廟,總不會忘記在建廟碑文,帶上「弘揚媽祖文化、溝通民族情感,加快神州統一」幾句話。也就是在這樣信仰、政治、經濟的多方考量下,媽祖信仰在兩岸都形成了特殊的「媽祖現象」。

東方的麥加

台灣的移民大多來自彰、泉二地,祖先為了平安渡過台灣海峽,因此隨船奉有航海神媽祖,直到今天,據推算台灣有三分之二的民眾皆為媽祖信徒。

湄洲是媽祖信仰的發源地,因此在台灣信徒心中,湄洲就有如回教徒心中的麥加一般,是媽祖信徒的聖地。早於政府開放大陸探親之前,就已經有不少信徒不顧禁令偷偷去進香。之後還有宜蘭縣南方澳南天宮的二十多艘漁船,敢於挑戰「三不」(反三通政策)政策,由南方澳直航湄洲去進香。

一九八七年十一月開放大陸探親之後,根據湄洲輪渡碼頭售票的估計,第二年就有三萬七千多台灣信徒前去進香,請回了兩千六百多尊的神像;又因為民間習俗,進香要連著三年才算誠心,因此之後每年赴湄洲謁祖的平均人數都在十萬人左右,約佔赴湄洲進香總人數的十分之一。往往在當地的導遊小姐還沒開口之前,信徒就先笑著說「小姐,我們來過好幾回啦」。進香熱潮尤其以媽祖生日農曆三月廿三前後達到鼎沸程度。

三月廿三前後,湄洲灣內擠滿掛大旗來進香的船隊,渡船口加派的七、八艘渡船來回開個不停;祖廟裡,「媽祖麵線」也一大鍋一大鍋地煮不停。島上住宿賓館加了床也還不夠,有的就折回莆田市過夜。至於大陸的信徒們乾脆自備塑膠布,佔滿山頭、露天而眠。對媽祖的敬意,兩岸皆同。

看誰押的大

在阿八辦公室的牆上,掛了滿滿的照片,都是阿八和台灣各大媽祖廟董事長的合影。

由祖廟入口牌坊往上走,大半的建築都有這些大廟捐資的落款,穿過入口,登上三百廿三步石階,一抬頭,高高聳立的是大甲鎮瀾宮蓋的聖旨門;穿過廣場,左右兩邊站的鐘、鼓樓是陳姓台商兄妹的心意。由正殿前往左拐,梳妝樓則是新港奉天宮的信徒集資所合建。沿著小道再往上爬,正殿後的朝天閣出自鹿港天后宮的香油錢,而立於媽祖山最高點、高十四公尺純白大理石的媽祖雕像,是北港朝天宮的捐獻,與朝天宮另一座完全相同的石像,隔著海峽遙遙相望。

台灣的媽祖廟一向互爭自己是台灣最早的媽祖廟,以建立權威。如今更爭先與祖廟結為至親,繼續保持自己的老大地位。有的廟更提出要湄洲祖廟或泉州天后宮幫他們題上「開台媽祖」或「開基媽祖」的匾額。不過在不願得罪哪一方的顧慮下,廟方自然是婉拒「驗明正身」的要求。

媽祖生在哪裡?

當台灣的寺廟在湄洲競相捐資之下,不免叫大陸幾座也頗有身分的媽祖廟執事有些不平衡。

「湄洲是媽祖誕生的聖地,但是泉州卻是媽祖傳往台灣的發揚地。何況在湄洲還是一片廢墟時,就已經有台灣的寺廟來泉州尋根了」,泉州天后宮董事長黃炳元這麼說。比起泉州天后宮有宋風格、明結構的優美建築,對於湄洲那樣完全新蓋的廟容也可納入省級重點保護文物,黃炳元語氣中帶了點較勁的意味說:「那不過是為了給祖廟提昇地位,實在有些勉強。」

而根據林氏族譜記載,則認為位在湄洲對岸的賢良港才是媽祖誕生地,兩方爭執不斷。「雖然媽祖誕生地早有爭議,但在八○年代以前,兩座廟相安無事,各有各的信徒」,莆田市文史會副主任蔣維錟指出。

沒什麼,就是一份心意

媽祖原就一尊,然而在兩岸特殊的政治情勢、經濟利益下,有的爭名,有的要利,產生許多紛紛擾擾,祖廟的存在不只是拜拜那麼單純一件事而已。不過對於湄洲島上的居民而言,卻好像根本沒發生什麼事似的。

元宵一早,身上穿著紅黑兩截褲子媽祖裝,頭上梳著帆船髮髻媽祖頭的老太太到祖廟拜拜。供桌上大抵就是些麵線、白米、橘子等簡單供品。一位阿媽擺上了兩個紅蛋,原來是家裡添了小孫子來還願的,這在「一胎化」的大陸可是大事一樁呢。

一位三十出頭的婦女自謝籃中取出一壺酒和四碗裝了麵筋、紅棗、香菇的素料。貢品很簡單,燒香者的神情十分莊重虔誠,原來是丈夫和鄰居合買了艘新的漁船,她來求香袋給男人出海保平安。碰巧有台灣的進香團帶著乩童來進香,問她對台灣信徒闊氣的排場有什麼看法,她簡單地回答:「沒什麼,禮多禮少都是敬神,就是一份心意吧。」態度不卑不亢。

島上的村落裡,一座媽祖廟正在改建。主事者每一丁口收十塊人民幣,得了五萬元左右,離總預算還差得遠。村民們也不勉強,他們笑著說:「錢不夠,就一批一批買石材慢慢蓋,總不能硬要蓋大廟嘛!」這些世世代代信仰媽祖的湄洲人,就是如此從容地敬奉他們的媽祖。

〔圖片說明〕

P.86

千百年來,湄洲島上的居民一直虔誠地敬奉著他們的媽祖。不論媽祖有多少新的封號,媽祖永遠是最親近的「姑媽」。

P.88

在沒有路燈的小路上,婦女們虔心跪下,燃燒稻草給媽祖照路。

P.89

喧天的鑼鼓聲中,乩童對著數十支絢麗的煙花,做起「吃花」的動作,將節慶的氣氛帶到最高潮。

P.89

五元、十元,一朵朵人民幣折成的紙花披滿媽祖身上。錢雖不多,卻是信徒們的心意。

P.90

如此盛大的場面還只是湄洲島的島內進香,要是到了四海朝拜的媽祖生日時,整座祖廟都要籠罩在一片瀰漫香煙中。

P.91

泉州天后宮內,一座將是台灣「最大」的木雕媽祖像正在趕工中。也就是在這樣比大小的心態下,才衍生出諸多奇特的「媽祖現象」。

P.92

這裡曾是焦土一片,如今已是群廟羅列。而立於山頭上的媽祖雕像,則與北港朝天宮的媽祖雕像遙遙相望。(湄洲島旅遊公司提供)

P.95

一盞燈、一聲鑼,儘管時代不同、生活在變,對媽祖的需求世世相傳、代代相同。

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On Meizhou Island, a group of village women were drawing up plans to renovate the Mother Temple of Matsu, goddess of the sea. But at the very same time, the military garrison stationed in the area was making preparations to tear the temple down, on the grounds that it was a "superstition which blocks progress and hampers military preparedness." When the Fujian Provincial Party Committee's general secretary posted an official notice proclaiming "Demolition Temporarily Delayed," those simple words commenced a new era for Matsu of Meizhou Island.

Popular religion is on the ascent in mainland China. And among the many folk deities, Matsu, the goddess of sea navigation and patron saint of fishermen, has the single greatest reputation. Particularly prestigious are the Matsu temples of Meizhou Island. Great numbers of Matsu believers from Taiwan have traveled there to worship, competing with each other to contribute cash and bind themselves as bosom kin to the grand old temples. And in terms of her practical value in facilitating good relations between mainland China and Taiwan, Matsu has also become the "Goddess of Cross-Strait Peace," her position truly divine.


In the utter silence and pitch-black night, Xiao Ashi, chairman of the Temple Protection Committee, tracks the inspection troops of Matsu along the road. Relying on the distant sound of gongs and drums and the spray of sparks incessantly drifting in and out of vision, this Meizhou native skillfully picks out a course through the unlit fields. The sound of gongs and drums gets nearer and nearer. We pass through a narrow lane, and a vision suddenly appears before our eyes, reflected in the light of fire--a huge procession of people and horses. Some folks carry incense; others are striking large gongs. Some are bearing little palanquins in which are seated statues of the village gods; they excitedly crowd around Matsu's seat of honor as it moves its way forward.

On either side of the little road, the womenfolk setting rice husks aflame to light the way for Matsu catch a glimpse of the goddess approaching and frantically kneel down en masse, anxiously bowing their heads. It is as if they are placing all of their hopes in this one act of supplication. We come to the home which has been chosen as the quarters where Matsu will rest for the night; the entire house has been wrapped in red cloth, to wipe away all uncleanliness. On a table are laid out offerings, 40 kinds of "reverential beasts of the sea" made of flour.

We've seen it many times before

In the square in front of the village temple, a huge circle of people has formed. A bonfire has been set in the inner courtyard. As the Taoist priest scatters salt and rice to clear the road of evil forces, two psychic mediums ride in on sedan chairs with knife blades for seats. They stand opposite each other on either side of the fire and leap across, exchanging places. Then placing themselves at opposing edges of the fire, they begin to whirl like dervishes. The villagers who form a circle and look on take a few steps back of their own accord. "They're going to hold a competition of magical powers! They're going to start spinning faster and faster. Be careful," a girl of 15 or 16 warns us.

"They're going to eat the fire blossoms!" Upon this summoning cry, the crowd jostles back to the square, where a tall platform has been constructed. When they see the ten or so enormous sparklers set off simultaneously, the two mediums, their upper bodies bare, lean forward and devour the spouting rain of sparks, as if enjoying a feast. When we ask some of the onlooking girls if they are afraid, they all reply unanimously, "We're not afraid. We've seen it many times before."

On Meizhou, an island of only 14 square kilometers, there are 13 Matsu Temples, including the widely famous Mother Temple. Every Lunar New Year, Matsu (in the person of a statue) starts out from the Mother Temple on her inspection and goes door to door through all the villages and neighborhoods, bestowing good fortune. On the day before Lantern Festival, she returns to the Mother Temple, attended by a crowd of village folk.

When midnight passes on the night of Matsu's return, the women take the flowers from Matsu's head and put them in their own hair. The incense smoke stings so intensely that one cannot open one's eyes. The Matsu idol being carried back is completely covered in notes of RMB 5 and 10. These offerings are not as great as those that Taiwanese pilgrims make, but "the Mother Temple's glory comes from the atmosphere of worship that is stirred up there," notes Academia Sinica researcher Lee Fong-mao, who has visited Meizhou Island.

When we began our revolution

Seeing the Matsu Mother Temple, perpetually thronged with worshippers, and the group of temple buildings completed one after another, it is hard to imagine that this was once a deserted wasteland.

During the Cultural Revolution, in order to wipe out "reactionary superstition," monks and nuns were forcibly defrocked, and sacred statues were demolished. Traditional operas were changed into Model Operas. Masters who specialized in making paper possessions to accompany the dead into the afterworld were forced to make dunce caps for the victims of struggle sessions who roamed the streets. Temples were turned into schools or factories.

Scholar Li Yukun, who participated in a preliminary survey tracing the historical roots of Matsu in the PRC, notes that several years ago when they were undertaking their survey, which stretched from Shandong to Hainan Island, most of the temples were still in use. At the rather luxuriant and well-reputed Empress of Heaven Temple of Quanzhou, on the ruins of what was originally Matsu's Adornment Pavilion has been erected a school dormitory. But with no obvious purpose or useful value, the Meizhou Temple was utterly abandoned.

Because of this, after the Cultural Revolution, most people were still extremely nervous about matters pertaining to religious superstition. Nevertheless, in the mountain heights of Meizhou, renovation work on the Mother Temple was already surreptitiously underway. The pioneering spirit in this endeavor was none other than a lady named Ah Bei who had never been to school.

On Meizhou Island women benefit from the glory of Matsu. After they marry into their husband's family, wives of sons are counted as naturally born children in the family. So it was that everyone in her husband's clan got into the habit of referring to Lin Congzhi as "#8" (the eighth child, or in Fujianese, "Ah Bei"). She and two other women, Ah Li ("#2") and Ah La ("#6"), all claim that Matsu visited them in dreams, and this compelled them to go up into the mountains and rebuild the temple. "At the time, to go up the mountain, you had snap off branches from the trees to make your way," says Ah Bei, recalling the extent to which the Mother Temple had fallen into neglect.

A number of middle-aged ladies shared the task of carrying stones and digging. Together they put up a small shrine similar to those dedicated to earth gods. And they went through the preparatory rites for obtaining a sacred Matsu statue. Gradually, more women joined them. They established a society with clearly designated responsibilities and appointment schedules. Then with people taking turns on a daily basis, they put up the first hall of the Meizhou Mother Temple complex. When she relates the tale of the risks they took in constructing the temple, Ah Bei often says with a smile, "At the time when we began our revolution. . . ."

It is also because of Ah Bei's accomplishment in initiating the revolution that she took up the post of executive chairperson of the Meizhou Mother Temple board of directors. She leads 110 employees and manages everything on the mountaintop site. On Matsu's birthday it is she, Ah Li and Ah La who comb Matsu's hair.

The Goddess turns red?

Today in mainland China, Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism are all allowed. But for folk religions such as "Matsuism" which have no doctrines and whose activities are not lacking in unscientific popular beliefs which fall in between ritual and superstition, the mainland policy is basically not to forbid, but not to encourage. Therefore, Matsu temples beyond the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong are mostly obsolete and empty of worshippers. For example, at the Empress of Heaven Temple in Shandong's Yentai, China's northernmost Matsu temple, where the architecture and sculpture are all top notch, renovation has recently been finished. The temple exists, but the goddess is absent. The Putian City Civic Association once suggested that the Yentai Temple be given a Matsu statue, but their request was rejected. "They simply don't want people to return there to worship," explained Zhu Hepu, deputy secretary-general of Putian City's Matsu Research Association. The Meizhou Mother Temple, on the other hand, is quite the opposite.

The preliminary construction of Meizhou's Mother Temple came about thanks to Ah Bei. Nonetheless, Matsu's prestige and position on the mainland is directly related to the interaction between mainland China and Taiwan. "The Meizhou Mother Temple is an absolute exception. Why among so many deities has she obtained the most attention? It's because there is something about her which attracts Taiwanese tourists," enthuses Fujian Normal University Associate Professor Lin Guoping, who researches Fujian's folk religions.

At the fore of the Formosan front

As a matter of fact, if not for "considerations about Taiwan relations." the reconstructed Mother Temple would have been demolished by the military long ago. While the tensions between mainland China and Taiwan were still considerable, Meizhou was in the frontline of battle preparations. In the mountains where the Mother Temple was located, the frontier force had constructed trenches and criss-crossing underground passageways everywhere.

Seeing that local residents had opened up roads on the mountain and also put up the temple, the frontier force ordered them to raze the temple, on the grounds that it was a "superstition which blocks progress and hampers military preparedness." A dispute erupted between the two sides. Ultimately they resorted to the highest authority of Fujian Province, the general secretary of the Provincial Party Committee. "Under the consideration that the Mother Temple is closest to Taiwan and that it might become the frontline in addressing the Taiwan question, he posted an official notice which proclaimed 'Demolition Temporarily Delayed,' and the Mother Temple was saved," says Zhu Hepu, who had previously interviewed the general secretary, recalling this anecdote of guarding the goddess.

This is actually no great wonder. A glance through the annals of the Matsu religion shows that official advocacy and encouragement were the most important reasons for Matsu's transcendence from a country witch to the Empress of Heaven and her deification as the national guardian spirit of navigation. The governments of various dynasties put an emphasis on Matsu, because of practical necessity in terms of navigation and foreign diplomacy.

Proletarian heroine

After the Mother Temple was saved, Lin Wenhao, who was Putian City Civic Association chairman ten years ago, and is currently the executive director of the Meizhou Mother Temple, went a further step in bringing the Matsu religion aboveboard. At the time some people accused him of being a godfather of superstition. His answer was, "I don't think I am involved in reactionary superstition, because Matsu is a down-to-earth proletarian. She attends to the illnesses of fishermen, and she salvages shipwrecks. She is a person who has made contributions to history." Thereupon, Matsu, who has shifted from witch to Empress of Heaven, was also transformed from empress to national heroine. At last she marched out from under the shadow of backward superstition.

Then Lin Wenhao organized the Matsu Research Association, which publishes specialized books on Matsu and has organized an international academic seminar to discuss the motivating factors behind Matsu worship. During a National Civic Association seminar focusing on Matsu, one scholar stood up and said, "Matsu is the Lei Feng of the Song Dynasty." (Lei Feng was an ordinary Liberation Army soldier who was exalted as model by Mao Zedong. Before he died, he did countless good deeds.) The scholar won the applause of the conference attendees.

Besides finding a reasonable identity for Matsu, many scholars also mentioned the essential influence Meizhou's Matsu has had in terms of the interaction between the mainland and Taiwan. First of all, Matsu holds powerful magnetism for Taiwan's believers, which has resulted in increased pressure for greater exchanges in terms of commerce, postal services and transportation. In addition, Matsu can call for more investment from Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In this way, Matsu, once maligned as "interfering in frontier defense," has joined the vanguard in addressing the Taiwan question. This reactionary superstition, once categorized as one of the "four olds," turned out to be beneficial to economic development and is helping achieve the "four modernizations."

With such a model, whenever a new Matsu temple is constructed, the faithful will be sure to put up a commemorative plaque which says: "Promoting and glorifying Matsu culture, sharing the passions of the people and quickening the pace of the unification of China." Under the multifaceted perspectives of faith, politics and economy, the Matsu religion has created a special phenomenon on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Mecca of the Orient

For the most part, the Chinese of Taiwan originally migrated from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou. In order to safely cross the Taiwan Strait, their ancestors put statues of Matsu, goddess of sea navigation, in the boats they sailed. Up to the present day, it is calculated that two-thirds of Taiwanese are believers in Matsu.

Meizhou is the place where the Matsu religion originated; therefore, Meizhou is to Taiwanese believers what Mecca is to Muslims--the fountainhead of their faith. Early on before the ROC government opened up visits to mainland China, quite a few believers had already violated travel prohibitions and had made clandestine visits to worship Matsu. Later on, 20-odd fishing boats from Nantian Temple in Nanfangao, Ilan, audaciously challenging the longstanding policy forbidding commercial, postal and transport exchanges, sailed directly from Nanfangao to Meizhou to worship Matsu.

The law forbidding visits to the mainland was lifted in November 1987, and the following year, according to estimates by Meizhou's ferry dock ticket office, 37,000 Taiwanese believers arrived. They carried back more than 2600 statues of Matsu. Furthermore, due to the folk custom that sincerity is only demonstrated if pilgrimages are made three years in a row, the average number of people who have gone to Meizhou to pay tribute to the Mother Temple tops 100,000 a year, accounting for a tenth of the total amount of people who visit there. Usually before the tour guide opens her mouth, worshippers will laughingly tell her: "Miss, we've been here many times." The wave of worship tops its crest around Matsu's birthday, the 23rd day of the third month of the lunar calendar.

Around this date, Meizhou Bay is packed with fleets of boats, hoisted flags fluttering on their masts. The seven ferry boats especially assigned to fill the need sail to and fro non-stop. In the Mother Temple, "Matsu noodles" are put on the fire one pot after another. Even with more beds added in the island's hotels, some people still can't find a place to sleep and must return to Putian City for the night. As for worshippers from the mainland, they simply bring out the plastic sheets they prepare in advance and occupy the mountaintop, sleeping in the open. Taiwanese or Mainlander, the respect toward Matsu runs equally high.

Look who has the thickest slice

The walls of Ah Bei's office are jammed full of photos of Ah Bei posing together with the chairpersons of various major Matsu temples in Taiwan.

If you walk on beyond the Mother Temple's main entrance, you might notice that most of the edifices are inscribed with the donors' names. Stepping up 323 stone steps, and looking up, you'll see the towering gate constructed on behalf of Tachia's Chenlan Temple. After passing through the main square, you'll find that the bell and drum pavilions situated on the left and right are dedicated by two business people, a brother and sister from Taiwan surnamed Chen. Turning left from the front hall, you're bound to come across the Adornment Pavilion (used to give the goddess her makeover before processions), which was put up by the collective contributions of the believers of Hsinkang's Fengtian Temple. On the path proceeding upward is the Chaotian Pavilion, situated behind the front hall and provided for by the worshipful donations of Lukang's Empress of Heaven Temple. And the 14-meter-tall pure-white marble Matsu statue which stands at the pinnacle is a gift of the Chaotian Temple in Peikang, where a completely identical marble statue stands gazing toward its twin across the Taiwan Strait.

In order to earn more authority, Matsu temples have long made competing claims to be the first in Taiwan. Nowadays, they compete with each other to tie up kindred knots with the Mother Temple to perpetuate their leading positions. Some temples have even asked the Meizhou Mother Temple to inscribe plaques for them with such titles as "First Matsu in Taiwan" or "Original Matsu." Nevertheless, being concerned not to offend any given temple, the Mother Temple has naturally declined the demand to "clarify their identity."

Where was Matsu Born?

While Taiwan's temples are competing with one another to lavish cash on Meizhou, several managers of the prestigious Matsu temples can't help but feel somewhat out of kilter.

"Meizhou is the sacred place of Matsu's birth, but Quanzhou is the base from which the Matsu faith spread to Taiwan," says chairman of Quanzhou's Empress of Heaven Temple Huang Bingyan. "Not to mention that when Meizhou was in a state of ruin, Taiwan's temples had already been coming to Quanzhou to search for their roots." Comparing the graceful architecture of Quanzhou's Empress of Heaven Temple, with its mix of Song style and Ming structure, to the entirely new constructions of Meizhou's temple complex, Huang Bingyan calls attention to the fact that the Mother Temple was still able to be appointed as a major province-level protected historic site, and with a tone of competitive spite, he adds, "That's just for raising the status of the Mother Temple. It's not very persuasive."

According to the Lin family genealogy, Xianliang Harbor, located on the mainland directly across from Meizhou Island, is the birthplace of Matsu, and both parties have been constantly disputing their claims. "Although long ago there was conflict over which locale was Matsu's birthplace, before the 1980s both the temples were quite at peace, and each had their own followers," states Jiang Weitan of the Putian City Literary and Historical Society.

What's in your heart

In the beginning there was only one Matsu. But within the special milieu of cross-strait politics and economic opportunity, some folks have begun to contend for fame and others to fight for money. In the end, a great deal of disturbance and turmoil has been generated; the Mother Temple is no longer just a simple place of worship. But to the inhabitants of Meizhou Island, it's as if nothing has happened at all.

In the early morning of the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar, some old ladies, dressed in Matsu suits, their trousers half black and half red, and their hair done up in "Matsu dos" (modelled after sailboats), were going to the Mother Temple to worship. On the sacrificial table was laid a simple offering of noodles, rice and oranges. One old lady laid down two red eggs. It turns out that she came here to thank the goddess because her wish to have a grandson was fulfilled. This is a big event in mainland China, where the one-child policy prevails.

One woman in her early thirties pulled out a jug of wine and four bowls that held flour gluten, dates and mushrooms. The sacrificial offerings were simple, but the worshipper's manner was entirely solemn and sincere. It happened that her husband and neighbors had bought a new fishing boat. She came here to ask for a talisman for her man to ensure his safety on the sea. It so happened that a Taiwanese pilgrimage group arrived here with mediums. When asked what she thought of the ostentation and extravagance of Taiwanese believers, she gave a simple reply: "It's nothing much. Whether you offer a lot or just a little, it's all to show your respect. lt's just an expression of what's in your heart." Her demeanor was neither humble nor haughty.

One Matsu temple is undergoing renovation in the village on the island. The one in charge collected RMB 10 from each person in every household. He got 50,000 altogether, not even close to the full amount needed. But the villagers did not force themselves to make any unnecessary sacrifices. Laughing, they said if they didn't have enough money, they still could put it up slowly, buying the building materials one batch at a time with the money they had. If the money was not there, there was no way of forcing a big temple into existence! Generation after generation of Meizhou people have been worshipping their Matsu in such an easy manner.

[Picture Caption]

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Since ancient times, the residents of Meizhou Island have devoutly paid homage to their goddess Matsu. No matter how many new titles are given to her, Matsu will always be their most intimate "auntie."

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Along the little path that has no street lamps, the womenfolk reverently kneel down, setting rice husks aflame to light the way for Matsu.

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Amidst the voluminous din of gongs and drums, the mediums face ten enormous sparklers, acting out the ritual of "eating the fire blossoms" and bringing the celebrative atmosphere to its apex.

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RMB bills of 5 and 10 cover the statue of Matsu, clustered like paper flowers. Although the denominations are not large, the gifts serve to express what is in the hearts of the believers.

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Such a magnificent display is still only the effort of the local citizens of Meizhou Island. If this were Matsu's birthday, when people from all over come to worship, the entire Mother Temple would be enshrouded in a fog of incense smoke.

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At Quanzhou's Empress of Heaven Temple, workers rush to finish this wood carving of Matsu, destined for Taiwan, where it will become the island's "largest" statue of this kind. Such attitudes which place a premium on size have given rise to the many strange "Matsu phenomena."

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This was once a patch of scorched earth. Today it is the site of the sprawling Mother Temple complex. The Matsu statue which stands upon the mountain top is bound in a mutual gaze with its distant twin sister at the Chaotian Temple in Peikang. (Courtesy of Meizhou Island Travel Company)

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The lanterns are lit, the gongs are sounded. Even if the times are different and lifestyles are changing, the supplications made to Matsu are the same, generation after generation.

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