Ariana Lindquist for NPR
Cheng Zhigui, 23, is dressed to perform in a traditional opera during celebrations for the 1050th birthday of folk goddess Mazu on the island of Meizhou, in southern China's Fujian province. "We perform for Mazu. We believe she's watching us sing opera. Even if nobody came, she'd still be watching us," he says.
In China, the vast following of a folk goddess of the sea illustrates the remarkable rebirth of local popular religion since the Cultural Revolution. Now, China's communist leaders are supporting worship of Mazu as "cultural heritage" and using it to advance their own political and economic goals.
Folk religion has undergone a remarkable rebirth since the days of the Cultural Revolution four decades ago, when all religious worship was banned.
One example of a folk goddess that has gained an enormous following is Mazu, a sea deity believed to protect sailors and fishermen. Though she started as a local folk goddess, she has entered the Daoist and Buddhist pantheon, and is also known as Tianhou or Tinhau in Hong Kong.
Scholars say she has an estimated 160 million followers and 4,000 temples devoted solely to her in China.
The explosion of interest in this folk god reflects the results of a 2006 survey in China, which found that two-thirds of those who described themselves as religious were Buddhists, Daoists or worshippers of folk gods.
China's communist leaders once dismissed worship of deities such as Mazu as nothing more than superstition and banned it.
But far from mistrusting Mazu's millions of worshippers, China's atheist Communist Party is now encouraging them and overseeing massive events, such as the birthday celebration in early May this year at Mazu's birthplace, Meizhou Island in the southern Chinese province of Fujian.
The Birth And Growth Of Mazu Worship
Temples across the island participate in the celebration. On the night before Mazu's 1,050th birthday, the island's Mazu statues are getting spiffed up before the big day. In the Mazu temple in Wenxing village, an elderly woman carefully lowers garlands of red banknotes around the neck of a statue of Mazu.
Crowds of women clad in lucky red clothes kowtow to the altar, burning incense and murmuring appeals to Mazu's mercy.
Mazu was a real person; temple guardian Wei Yazhen tells her story.
"When Mazu was a little girl, her father and brothers went out fishing and got into trouble at sea. She dreamed she was carrying them to safety," Wei explains. "But then her mother woke her up and she dropped her father into the sea. Her father died, but she saved her two brothers."
There are many different versions of this story; in some, her father is saved and a brother dies. In any case, Mazu became known for her ability to predict stormy weather and protect fishermen. Her fame grew, even after her death.
In the 12th century, a Chinese emperor ordered a Mazu temple to be built after she was believed to have protected an official ship on a mission to Korea, and Mazu worship spread nationwide.
Cheng Jinhu is a doctor who helps organize celebrations in the island village.
"Mazu protects fishermen at sea from shipwrecks and helps the poor. Most of our village depends on fishing, and Mazu worship is growing stronger than in the past," Cheng says.
On the eve of Mazu's birthday, opera singers in elaborate silk costumes strut as their voices slip and slide along the scale, cutting through the hum of the crowd. They're performing local opera known as Putian in front of hand-painted backdrops in the village square.
It's a scene that could have taken place at any point in the past 500 years, were it not for electronic screens, displaying the opera lyrics.
In the changing room, 23-year-old Cheng Zhigui paints his face into a dramatic pink-and-white mask. He has been singing for a decade.
The fact that the entire village is watching doesn't faze him. In fact, the troupe isn't singing for mere mortals.
"We perform for Mazu," Cheng says. "We believe that she's watching us singing opera. The audience can also watch. But if there are no people here, she'll still be watching us."
Part Religious, Part Cultural, Part Political
Dawn breaks over smooth, windless seas on Mazu's birthday. In Wenxing, at 7 a.m., the entire village is up.
Worshippers carry the Mazu statue out of the village temple as a band plays folk instruments. A few children have been chosen to accompany the statue on its pilgrimage back to its mother temple elsewhere on the island. They're dressed in silk pajamas, their faces painted into traditional opera masks.
To shouts and fireworks, Mazu is hauled down the steps in front of temple and hefted into a truck, which drives her to the square in front of the main Mazu ancestral temple, where 10,000 people are gathered.
At one end of the square, Wenxing's Mazu takes pride of place, side by side with more than a dozen sister statues from each village's Mazu temple.
This year, old rites are being resurrected for the biggest ceremony in more than half a century, says Lin Jinbang, chairman of the island's main Mazu temple.
"We even have an honor guard of horses for the first time in more than six decades," he says. "Old people who've seen the ceremony before passed on the rituals. Otherwise, the next generation wouldn't know what to do."
Facing off at the other end of the square from the Mazu statues is a podium, where government officials from the Communist Party are seated. The ceremony is part political rally, part religious ceremony and part cultural event.
Even the island's top Communist Party official, the Meizhou party secretary, Zhuang Yonghui, admits to worshipping.
"Of course I believe in Mazu," he says, denying any contradiction with the communist creed of atheism. "Mazu's not a religion. It's a popular belief, so there's no contradiction with the Communist Party's stance on not believing in religion."
Women in elegant green robes dance in the square in perfectly timed unison. Such cultural performances are significant, since they are one factor that four years ago allowed the government to reclassify Mazu worship not as superstition -- not even as religion -- but as cultural heritage.
Last year, UNESCO, the U.N. agency that promotes preserving cultures, designated Mazu as "intangible cultural heritage of humanity."
Wang Hongguang, head of the Mazu Research Institute at Shanghai Institute for International Studies, explains that unlike Daoism and other religions, Mazu temples are not administered by monks. There is no organized mass or ritual that requires the spiritual leadership of a religious institution.
"The people who manage the temple are chosen by ordinary people," Wang says. "It's not like Christianity, where you have to go through a certain ceremony to become a believer. For Mazu, if you believe and attend activities, then you are a believer." By activities, he means occasional visits to the temple to light incense and make offerings, or the practice of keeping a Mazu shrine at home.
Mazu Worship Strengthening Cross-Strait Ties
Locals believe politics and economics are behind the government decision to classify Mazu worship as cultural heritage. These factors are embodied in the presence of Cheng Minshou, a beaming Taiwanese VIP guest wearing a gold sash and clutching a small golden statue of Mazu.
He says he traveled 14 hours to reach Meizhou Island "to bring a golden statue of Mazu from my hometown to participate in this ceremony."
Religious tourists like Cheng also bring investment to the island, and engender political ties across the Taiwan Strait.
"Taiwanese coming here on pilgrimage have really helped communication between mainland China and Taiwan," he agrees. "We've bought a small island near Macau, and we're building a Mazu temple there this year. It'll be finished by next year."
Mazu worship spread overseas as Chinese from coastal provinces migrated by sea, and they subsequently attributed their safe journeys to Mazu's protection.
After China's economic reforms began in 1979, Mazu worship spread further along trade routes, notes Lin Qitang, an expert on Mazu at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"Businessmen from Fujian built Mazu temples wherever they went," Lin says. "Mazu temples were seen as offices where Fujian businessmen congregated. They also stored goods, traded and consulted each other there. So Mazu became a cohesive force."
Shared belief in Mazu was one of the forces bringing Taiwanese to the area, even when politics made that difficult. In 1987, when direct links were still forbidden, about 275 Taiwanese Mazu believers sailed across the Taiwan Strait to Meizhou on a pilgrimage, setting a trend in which religious believers have spearheaded contacts.
Mazu worship has served to build closer political and economic ties across the Taiwan Strait, strengthening China's eventual aim of reunification.
Lin, the Mazu expert, says that "Mazu fever in Taiwan brought business opportunities to the mainland. So the non-government interaction turned out to be government bilateral communication."
Recent figures show that in the past three months, 100,000 tourists have been to Meizhou, including 15 groups of Taiwanese every day.
Popular Religion A Tool For China's Leaders
After the government ceremony ends, a noisy daylong parade around the island begins. Mazu statues are carried in palanquins, accompanied by snapping firecrackers, pipe bands, whirling lion dancers and clashing cymbals.
As the parade passes, villagers clad in red hurry to tuck money into the statues. The children in the parade, like the Mazu statues, wear chains of banknotes round their necks.
As people get richer, money is one way in which Mazu worship is changing the social structure and the balance of power in the villages.
"Of course the temple chairman is more important than the village chief," says a villager surnamed Zheng. "Because the temple governs a larger area and makes decisions about temple fairs, which the village boss can't."
Women in costumes fashioned into multicolored boat costumes "row" past, swinging their oars and singing.
Religion is alive and well on Meizhou Island. What's more, it's reinvigorating both tradition and civil society.
And it is a sign of how far the Communist Party has moved. This atheist party is encouraging the worship of this ancient goddess toward its greater aims of building a harmonious society; and of moving closer to Taiwan -- the island it thinks of as a renegade province.
That party members can openly worship could serve as a test-case for local deities in other places in China.
The Communist Party once regarded worshiping folk goddesses like Mazu as rank superstition. But now, she is a money-maker, co-opted and harnessed by local officials. Far from being banned, Mazu is being used by China's communist leaders for their own political and economic ends. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.