Chinese Folktales

11. The Queen of Heaven

THE queen of heaven, also called the Holy Mother (Ma-tsu), in her earthly life was a maiden from Fukien by name of Lin. She was pure, reverent and pious of nature. When she Was seventeen she died without having been married. She shows her power at sea, and for that reason she is deeply revered by sailors. Whenever they are unexpectedly assailed by wind and waves they call upon her and she is always ready to answer their prayers.

There are many sailors in Fukien and each year some of them lose their lives. No doubt the queen of heaven, while still on earth, showed pity for the sufferings of her fellow countrymen. And because her mind was ceaselessly concerned with saving the drowning her vision now frequently appears over the sea.

All ships sailing the seas carry a picture of the queen of heaven below deck, as well as three paper talismans. One of these shows her painted with crown and sceptre, another shows her as a maiden in a simple garment, and the third shows her with flowing hair, barefoot, a raised sword in her hand. Whenever a ship is in danger the sailors will burn the first talisman and help will come. If this is not enough they will burn the second and finally the third. If no help has arrived by then the ship is doomed. Whenever sailors lose their direction in the darkness among the wind and waves they call on the queen of heaven in devout prayer. Thereupon a red light appears on the water. By fallowing that light a ship will safely escape all danger. Frequently also one may see the queen of heaven standing on the clouds, cleaving the Wind with her sword. The wind then departs to north and south and the waves are calmed.

The holy picture in a ship always has a stick before it. Sometimes the dragon-fishes of the sea will play with each other. These are two gigantic fishes which pile up the water between them by blowing at it, so that the sun in the sky is darkened and blackness envelops the ocean. From a distance one can often see a bright opening in that darkness. If a ship is then steered straight towards it, it will get through and suddenly find itself in calm waters. On looking back one will see the two fishes spewing water. The ship will have passed just beneath their mouths. But a storm is never far away when the dragon fishes are about; that is why some paper or sheep’s wool is burned so that the dragons should not drag the ship down into the deep; Or else the master of the sticks will burn incense in front of the stick which stands before the holy picture in the cabin. He will pick up the stick and wave it in a circle the water and the dragons will then draw in their tails and disappear.

Whenever ash flies up in the incense bowl without visible cause and scatters in the air then it is certain that serious danger is threatening.

About two hundred ago an army was being assembled to conquer Formosa. The general’s flag was consecrated with the blood of a white horse. Just then, suddenly, the queen of heaven appeared on top of the flag. An instant later she had disappeared again, but the campaign was successful.

Another time, in the reign of K’ien Lung, the minister Chou Ling was ordered to install a new king on the Ryu-kyu Islands. As the fleet was sailing past the southern tip of Korea a storm sprang up and the ships were driven far off course into the black vortex. The water looked like ink; sun and moon had lost their brilliance and there was talk among the crew that they were caught in the black vortex whence no man had ever emerged alive. The sailors and passengers lamenting awaited their end. Suddenly a vast number of lights like red lanterns appeared on the surface of the water. The sailors rejoiced and prayed below deck. ‘We shall live,’ they said, ‘the Holy Mother has come.’ And indeed a beautiful maiden with golden ear- rings appeared. She moved her hand through the air and the wind dropped and the waves grew calm. The ship seemed to be drawn by a mighty hand. With a gentle rush it moved through the waves and suddenly it was outside the black vortex. Chou Ling returned, reported what had happened and requested that a temple be built to the queen of heaven and that she be included in the list of gods. The emperor complied with his request. Ever since then, temples to the queen of heaven are found in ports everywhere. Her birthday is celebrated with plays and sacrifices on the eighth day of the fourth month.  

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