赤湾天后宫:vexed tradition

tianhou brigade

In 2004, the Tianhou Museum and the Nanshan Mazu Culture Research Association edited a volume of couplets and poetry that had been written in honor of the Tianhou. There were two first place couplets:

(In the beginning, Chiwan opened its gates, sent out Zheng He’s ships to the four oceans, establishing the maritime Silk Road;
In the end, Tianhou lead Minister Zheng, greeted Lord Deng, a southern port of 1,000 miles, earning a brilliant spring. by: Zhong Xianze)

(Chiwan dawns, looks toward humanity,
Tianhou’s benevolent clouds cover the seas. by: Wu Rubei)

These two poems illustrate the contradiction between official culture and local belief that enables the Chiwan Tianhou Temple to operate. Legally, the Temple grounds constitute the Tianhou Museum, where the Nanshan Mazu Culture Research Association is based. Specifically, in Shenzhen, the largest and most public temples are officially museums and research centers. However, the contributions and activities of believers sustain the spaces as temples, especially on important holidays. Thus, in the first poem (and it was actually the gold first prize, the second poem was the silver first prize) emphasizes the Temple’s political importance, linking the voyages of the Ming eunich Zheng He to the open policies of Deng Xiaoping. In contrast, the second poem celebrates Tianhou’s divine benevolence.

Helen Hsu and others have written about the post-Mao resurgence of tradition throughout Guangdong. In Shenzhen, this resurgence has taken an interesting twist precisely because even though there are locals working to promote Tianhou, the museum and research association have been headed by immigrants from northern cities. Consequently, the two poems don’t only manifest a contradiction between “official” and “unofficial” culture—although many westerners like to paint Chinese public life in terms of an opposition between the Party and everybody else—but also between urban and rural belief systems, as well as northern and southern traditions. For most of the museum and research staff (and there are fewer then there were when I first went to the museum in 1997), allowing people to burn incense is a concession to local superstition. And yes, northern urban attitudes about Guangdong traditions can be as condescending as it sounds. Publicly, however, they take the route of the first poem, understanding Cantonese history and traditions within the scope of imperial China. At the same time, the few believers I’ve talked to, follow the route of the second poem, focusing on belief, and remaining quiet on the issue of national politics.

That said, there’s enough history at Chiwan’s Tianhou Temple to satisfy everyone, unless of course you don’t care about either imperial history or Tianhou’s benevolence. The temple was built at the end of the Song Dynasty, but achieved national prominence during the Ming Dynasty, when the Minister Zheng He led his famous maritime voyages to establish a maritime trade routes. During the second expedition, he and his crew ran into inclement weather of the coast of the Nantou Peninsula. Zheng He promised to restore the temple in return for Tianhou’s help in surviving the storm. She did help him and in the 8th year of the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1410), the Chiwan Tianhou Temple was restored.

The fame of the Chiwan Tianhou’s benevolence spread throughout the country and throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties, believers—both official and unofficial, northern and southern, but all predominantly sailors or fishermen—continued to restore and add to the temple. At the beginning of the Nationalist era, Chiwan was the largest Tianhou temple in Guangdong with over one hundred and twenty buildings in the complex. Once the communists liberated Bao’an County (Shenzhen’s territorial precursor), the PLA moved into the facilities. In 1959-1960, many of the wood, tiles, and bricks from the temple were used to construct the Shenzhen Reservoir. It was only in 1992, that the recently established Nanshan District government began to restore the temple. The museum was officially opened in 1997 as part of efforts to prepare for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. It was, as many said at the time, recognition of the common cultural origins of Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

This weekend was the first time I had been back in a while. Not a believer, I chafe at paying the 15 rmb museum entrance fee, when the museum isn’t all that great. However, the changes suggest that elegant political poetry notwithstanding, the believers have slowly taken over and there may be times when visiting Tianhou is worth the price of admission. There are now monks on duty, telling fortunes and instructing people how to pray. There are rooms filled with multiple castings of the same god, where believers light incense. And one of the museum exhibition rooms has been turned over to photographs of important religious events at the temple, the largest being Tianhou’s birth on the 23 day of the third lunar month (this year, may 9). Indeed, the photography seems much in the spirit of the poetry competition: the museum staff’s attempt to get control of the space back, this time through public cultural events.

According to the Xin’an County Gazetteer, the Chiwan Tianhou Temple once held pride of place in the eight scenic areas of Xin’an (Bao’an County’s name during the Ming and Qing Dynasties). The other seven were: 梧岭天池,杯渡禅宗,参山乔木,卢山桃李,龙穴楼台,螯洋甘瀑,玉律汤湖. I don’t know what or where most of those sites are (although wuling must mean the wutong mountains in the east) and look forward to mapping them. However, what’s interesting here is the way historic records follow names rather than places. History as documentation and re-inscription with a vengence. In 1983, when the SEZ was established as administratively separate from New Bao’an County, all of the history from Bao’an county moved into Bao’an, even though most of that history had taken place in (what is now) Nanshan District. Chiwan, Shekou, and the County Seat at Nantou were the important historical sites. However, to find out pre-reform information on them, one must cross the second line into (what is now) Bao’an District and head to the Bao’an District Library. I remember talking with the editor of the last ever Bao’an Gazetteer. He did his research and oral history throughout the SEZ, but his office was in Bao’an County. At the time, I needed to carry my passport with me so that I could cross back into the SEZ after a visit. Of course, this is simply another variation on history in the Pearl River Delta, where scholars of Hong Kong history continue to refer to the SAR’s territorial precursor as Xin’an, without noting that the name changed in 1913. (Sometimes I suspect that Shenzheners’ attempts to annex Hong Kong by way of historical documentation is only matched by Hong Kong people’s efforts to write themselves as historically distinct from Shenzhen. Everyone sidesteps the issue by writing these historic trajectories from the Opium War on, where Hong Kong grows out of Xin’an, and then Shenzhen emerges out of Bao’an.)

This time, I kept noticing industrial parallels between the containers stacked up just outside the Temple Gate or loaded just beyond the Temple Walls and the brigades of god images. Little statues of Tianhou, Guanyin, and the God of Wealth were everywhere and never just one, instead in any room, there were shelves of the same statue, almost like a religious market, except they were all receiving incense. Brigades on view here. Questions about the vexed relationship between political-economy and faith, merely posed.

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